Why Rejection is a Gift
My 15-year-old daughter wants to be a professional musician. Because I wanted to
be a writer since I was five and got the constant feedback from my parents that this
was an unacceptable career choice, I may go overboard a little in my attempts to
give her support in her aspirations. She's been at local "City's Got Talent"
competitions, the State Fair, and pretty much any competition anywhere that is
open. Of course, that includes auditions for school plays, for solos in the school
orchestra, and for school competitions on cello, piano, and voice.
And yes, I've taken her to auditions for America's Got Talent and now for The
X-Factor (we are fans of Simon's brutal honesty). One of the things I have
realized is that I hate watching her being rejected even more than I hate being
rejected myself. As a parent, there is a temptation to protect children and maybe
this is what I was actually feeling, at least in part, from my own parents. I didn't
face much rejection as a kid, but my daughter faces it on a regular basis. So do I as
a writer. It's painful, but it is also a gift.
You're saying it doesn't feel like a gift. Yeah, I know that. When I am trying to
comfort my daughter after the results of yet another competition, it doesn't feel like
a gift to either of us. It feels like having a rock dropped on your head and being run
over by a truck, both at the same time. It feels like your life is just a big long string
of rejections and there is no point in going on. But with a little perspective, I think
rejection can sting a little less.
At our latest adventure in Los Angeles for The X-Factor, we spent one entire day
waiting in line so that we could get a wristband and a seat number in a giant sports
arena. Then we spent six hours the next day waiting to get into our seat in the
sports arena. That was when we got to wait for the actual audition. You have about
two minutes in front of a very bored-looking judge who has been waiting in an
uncomfortable chair almost as long as you have. Then there is a simple "yes" or
"no" answer. It's a lot like getting a form rejection letter after spending a long time
waiting for a response on your novel.
But as I watched contestants stand, sing, and then leave, I thought about the gift
that was the moment in front of a judge, someone who knows about the business
and has the authority to say "yes." We saw a couple dozen people come out with a
yellow ticket to move on, so it was happening. It's the same way in the writing
world. The odds of getting picked up out of the slush pile are extraordinarily small.
Ridiculously small, really. There are reasons to try to get a personal connection
with an editor or agent so you don't have to be in the slush pile. But there are
people who are still being published out of the slush pile. I was one of them. The
slush pile is one of the great gifts that the American publishing world gives to
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Why is it a gift? Because there are lots of other ways to find publishable
manuscripts. Many publishers have, in fact, closed their slush pile. It's expensive
to hire readers to deal with it, even more expensive to have actual editors look
through it. It can be a little dangerous because crackpots out there will send in
anything and you don't know what's in those packages besides manuscripts. So
why does anyone bother with a slush pile? Yes, they're doing it because they want
to find the new Stephen King and make a lot of money. But they also do it because
editors are often genuinely nice people who want to give you a chance.
An editor opens your manuscript, reads the first page, and then sets it down in a
pile to send form rejections to. You've taken maybe a minute, maybe two minutes
to reject. You can easily get angry because you feel like the editor didn't get to the
"best part" of the book, that the editor is just looking for a particular genre which
your novel doesn't fit into, or because the editor is making a completely subjective
judgment about the quality of your writing. These are all true, but they don't
matter. What matters is that you have just had an audition. The editor, a real
authority who could say "yes" and buy your novel, has taken a minute or two to
really read your manuscript and give it a chance. This is an amazing thing.
Now, sometimes form letters don't actually mean an editor has read your
manuscript. They might mean a random student who is an intern at a publisher has
read it. My daughter didn't get to audition in front of Simon Cowell, either. She
auditioned in front of an employee of a record company. But someone who could
have said yes, even so. I'm not saying a rejection means that your book is either
good or bad. It only means that the person who read it didn't love it enough to take
it on to the next step. You as the writer have to decide if that means you should
rewrite or submit again elsewhere. But these are busy, busy people. Even one
minute of their time is extremely valuable. And they've given it to you for free. Do
you see why that is a gift?
Recently, an editor I met at a conference I was speaking at ended up talking to me
about an odd little project I had been working on over the last year. I don't know
whether it will ever be published. It's not anything like what I've had success with
before. But the editor wanted to see the manuscript, so I sent it to her. A few
months later, she sent me a regretful rejection letter. She wrote a couple of
paragraphs telling me what she'd liked about the book, and another paragraph
about why she didn't think it would work for her. This wasn't a form rejection. It
was a personal rejection. She had spent quite some time thinking about my book
and thinking about how to explain to me what she thought of it. Hours of her time
that she would not be paid for. Why did she do this? She didn't have to. And
maybe you think she did it because she thinks that keeping on my good side will
mean a sale down the road. I don't think so, because this project is a one-off. She
offered me her opinion as a gift.
The problem with the gift of rejection is that we want a different gift, right? It's
like being at your birthday party and opening a present that ends up being new
underwear. Or a book on "How to Win Friends and Influence People." These are
gifts that feel like pointed comments about yourself and they can be embarrassing,
even if they are opened privately rather than publicly. But it's the expectation that
gets in the way of realizing the gift. Your expectation is a gift that you want,
maybe something specific that you tried to put on your husband's radar so he
would remember the next time he was in the mall with that nice jewelry shop in it.
What you need to do is expect nothing. Expect no response at all, not even a form
letter. Because there are plenty of agents and editors these days who have decided
that no response is all a writer deserves. Why? Because it's cheaper and easier that
way. They don't have to deal with writers who send them nasty responses to their
When you get a response, then, whether it is a form rejection or a scrawled
handwritten note or possibly even a longer personal letter, this is beyond your
expectation. You can begin to see the gift here, the time that an editor has spent,
even if only a minute or two, to look at your book. With the editor who sent me a
rejection, I felt a moment's sting, then sighed and accepted that the chances had
been very small. Then I wrote her an email thanking her for her time and for her
helpful comments. I told her I would think about them and that I hoped to meet her
again sometime. I wouldn't do this for a form rejection because getting a response
to all the form rejections sent out would take up the rest of an editor's life to read.
And maybe sending that email isn't as much for the editor as it is for me, an
exercise to make me remember that I have been given a gift, and to feel happier
with the gift, even if it was mouthwash because I have bad breath and no one else
was willing to tell me.
I know that a rejection for someone who has already been published doesn't feel
the same as a rejection for someone who is still at the stage where it feels like
being published is an impossible dream. I know that I have certain advantages, and
that I will get personalized responses more often. I know that it feels like no one is
listening when you get form rejection after form rejection starting out. It feels like
you are throwing yourself off a cliff every time you send out a manuscript, and you
are falling for months until you get the rejection that breaks every bone in your
metaphorical body. But I maintain that rejections are gifts that are undeserved. You
just have to realize that you don't deserve anything else. You didn't earn the right
to be published. You didn't earn an editor's time. You're not what makes an agent
money. Most agents make their money from clients they already have, not from
finding someone in the slush pile.
So what do you do with this unexpected gift of rejection? You keep trying. That is
all. You either write a new manuscript or you keep sending out the old one to new
people who might like it. One of the things I find most interesting in American Idol
or other talent show auditions is the reactions of those who don't get "the golden
ticket" on to the next round. They get taped weeping copiously and saying that this
was their "one chance" to make it big. But that's just silly. There's always another
chance. Another audition, another manuscript next year, another editor waiting to
find a new author.
In one of my favorite books, The King of Attolia, Ornon says of Eugenides that he
has never given up in his whole life. He has been beaten and rejected in horrible
ways, but because he refuses to give up, he is never defeated. The battle simply
isn't over with him yet because he won't let it be. As a writer, each time you get a
rejection, you must realize that this is just one chance. It is never the "only
chance," never the "last chance," until you accept that it is. I am not saying there is
never a point at which it makes sense to give up. There may be in individual
circumstances, at least for a certain period of time. But the way to be successful as
a writer is simply to accept the rejection as the gift that it is, and then to go on to
your next audition.
You may need a day job to keep eating in the meantime. You may need to take a
break and reassess whether you are working in the wrong genre or if it is time to let
a manuscript go into the drawer. You may decide that you don't want to be a
writer, after all. That is a perfectly acceptable, rational choice in my opinion.
People who have tried writing (or auditioning in the music world) and realize that
they don't want a life filled with rejection have my good wishes. There is nothing
about writing or being a professional musician that makes the people who succeed
in those endeavors any better than anyone else. It's simply a choice made to keep
going in that direction because you love the work. If you don't love the work, it's
not for you. But the rejection can't be avoided. You might as well celebrate it. The
rejection you receive today is just one more step on the road to success. You have
to get this one in order to move on and find the next opportunity.
Whatever you do, please remember not to send nasty emails or letters to editors
and agents who have rejected you. I have heard from too many of them who have
given up responding at all and I would like to preserve the process of submitting
that we have now for another generation of writers in the future. I want them to be
able to be rejected just like I was, and I mean that generously. Take your rejections
and paper your wall with them, make a file of them to show off when you are
published. Your rejection letters are your proof that you did the work, and someday
you will be the one explaining why they are a gift.
Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison