Some thoughts on rejection…

Rejection is our constant travelling companion during this journey as writers. Sometimes it can provide useful learning opportunities rather than being a mere dismissal of our work and who we are.

In this business we have to put our work (and thus ourselves) out there. As many writers are somewhat quiet by nature, this can seem to go against the grain – millions of us introverts with something to say, having to step forward to put our work under the scrutiny of rushed, overworked editors who must deal with mountains of submissions. It’s not easy to get in the door.

We’ve all heard of the many rejections J.K. Rowling received before her first Harry Potter novel was accepted; we’ve also heard that Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) received something like 26 rejections before his breakthrough book And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street came out in 1937. We hear jokes of writers papering their office walls with rejection slips. Once in a while during a school visit, a child will ask me how many rejections I’ve received over the decades – and frankly, I have no idea.

My first acquaintance with rejection came as a 10-year-old aspiring writer. My mother took me to the library one day to check out Writer’s Market and, with her encouragement, I began sending my stories to children’s magazines (with self-addressed stamped return envelopes) – because that’s what writers do. And so I submitted, putting “Alison Lohans, Age 10” in the upper left corner of the first page, where we place our contact information. Before long I was receiving more mail than I’d ever received before! This was my gentle introduction to the revolving door of submissions. Quite a few editors noticed the “Age 10” part and took the time to write an encouraging note on their standard form rejections, which made me feel good. Once in a while an editor even made a suggestion or two…which admittedly made me feel a little odd – (What? Isn’t my story fine already?!) Because this is what writers do, and because I was determined to be one, I kept “doing”. One day when I was 12, I opened a thin envelope and found…a letter! Not my story with a rejection slip! My first publication was in the August 1962 issue of Wee Wisdom magazine.

My first acquaintance with book markets came in the 1970s, when I began submitting what eventually became Don’t Think Twice to publishers in New York. Perhaps there was less competition back then; perhaps editors may have been less rushed? Or perhaps there really was that special “something” in the manuscript I was submitting titled “Sunflower in My Trumpet.” The rejections came, of course, but often with a letter detailing the strengths and weaknesses of my novel, sometimes including the first readers’ comments. In a few instances, there were offers to look at my book a second time after I’d done some revisions. Thrilled, I promptly did the revisions – and each time managed to make the book worse! (This, borne up by the anonymous first readers.) So I decided to work on other books for a while. When I sent my first-to-be-published book, Who Cares About Karen? to those same publishers, the quick response was always a form rejection. So I moved the setting of that YA novel from northern Idaho to British Columbia’s West Kootenay country, where I’d lived for a year, and sent it off to Scholastic Canada. After a very long wait, the familiar bulky padded envelope arrived in the mail – but this time with a highly detailed 5-page letter of suggested changes, and an invitation to resubmit. “And the rest is history,” as they say…

The submission process has changed drastically over the decades. Publishers began shredding paper submissions but would reply – with a form rejection most often but occasionally a letter – as long as writers provided the standard SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope). I once received a friendly “rejection phone call” from an editor with whom I’d worked previously – and counted myself fortunate. And then the process became even less personalized as many publishers adopted the stance of not replying at all, unless they were interested in a submission. Murky waters, indeed!

Technology has been a good friend for the most part. It saves huge amounts of paper as well as postage costs, not to mention time. It’s great to have that built-in filing system, as opposed to charting everything on paper. Submission management software (such as Submittable) provides an easy-to-follow format for getting our work where it needs to be, with an immediate email confirming receipt, a means of tracking where any given manuscript might be (more or less) in the submissions process, and also allows ways writers can further communicate regarding a submission – or even withdraw it.

One way or other, rejections will inevitably occur with so-called “traditional” publishing. Whether it’s a non-response; a form email response; an email with feedback; or an invitation to revise and resubmit, a rejection can be indicative of (a) a manuscript not fitting a publisher’s needs; or (b) timing that’s off … or (c) serious flaws in a submission, which we may not have noticed. One of my online writing groups has been comparing and discussing rejections – definitely an enlightening process!

Sometimes we wait indefinitely. But not always. My fastest-ever rejection came last year, a mere three hours after I’d emailed an editor with whom I’d worked in the past. Kindly, she took my submission right off the top of her slush pile and replied in a chatty email reminiscing over the book we’d done together, and regretting that my present submission lacked the “literary” tone they were seeking just then (but saying she loved its humour).

Now I’ve had two rejections within the past couple of weeks: one on a picture book manuscript that’s been making the rounds for a while; and the second on a first-chapter-and-synopsis package for one of the Harlequin lines. Both of these rejections included some positive feedback, and one provided several tangible suggestions, so I count myself fortunate – inspired, in fact – in this ongoing learning curve of “being a writer”.

A learning curve that changes with every new piece we write.



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