Saturday, August 13, 2011

Rejection Lessons

My writing teacher warned me this would happen. One rejection letter after another piled on shelves and shoved into filing cabinets. There’s enough paper to cover my office walls—and ceiling and floor and some of the hallway. Well, that’s one solution. There has to be more to the rejection letter than dust collector and object of scorn. 

Most writers will say that the best way to handle rejection letters is to read them, file them and send the rejected piece off to someone else as soon as possible. It’s not bad advice, but it’s not good enough. Take a long, hard look at that letter. Has the editor tossed you a crumb of hope? Given you even the slightest chance to hang on to your confidence and self-respect? 

Yes, it’s a form letter—the same terse, soulless letter they send to every writer who doesn’t make the grade—but what else? Amongst all those stiffly typed words, is anything other than the signature handwritten? Quite likely. Editors like to add quick notes to writers who show some promise. If you can decipher the scrawl—editors are as inscrutable as doctors when it comes to penmanship—pay attention to the words. If you’re lucky, the editor will compliment one or more aspects of your story—then tell you exactly where he or she thinks you went wrong. 

Take the comments seriously but don’t take them to heart—unless they all start saying the same things. If nine out of ten editors say your ending falls flat, it probably does. Don’t sulk. Don’t get angry. Fire up your computer (or uncap your pen) and get back to the business of writing. Tuck your original version away—just in case—and start making changes. Use the suggestions you like. Dream up a few of your own. Throw away the rest. After all, it’s still your story. You can only make so many changes based on outside commentary before it becomes someone else’s story. 

Thicken your skin by joining a writers’ workshop (either online or in person). Everyone submits their work for critique. It won’t take long for you to realize that a single story can generate critiques that run the gamut from “this is absolutely wonderful” to “better luck next time.” Whether you’re hearing from fellow writers or detached editors, don’t take the comments personally. Except in rare cases, critiques are aimed at the story, not at the writer. 

Finally, accept the fact that—for most of us—the rejections will far outweigh any successes. Writing is a subjective art form. Standards of quality shift from person to person and from moment to moment. Remain as true as possible to your original vision. Somewhere amidst all those publications is an editor who sees life as you do—or at least appreciates the way you present your case.

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