What They Don’t Teach In Writing Retreats: Surviving Constant Rejection
If we’re honest about it, our deepest fears as writers—that our work is just not good enough to be published—dogs us no matter where are in the business. That fear only gets magnified when you pick up a book or read a published article that is so…so ordinary and predictable, so mediocre, it leaves you gobsmacked. Why did they get published and not you?
If you’re on Writers and Authors, you’re likely a committed writer and you’ve worked hard on your craft. And yet, even after all this time, that question—am I a hack and just don’t know it?—comes up with every rejection.
I’ve been writing for decades. I’ve had successes, but also, I’ve had failures so epic, I thought I’d never bounce back. And yet, here I am, plugging away, making a decent living while friends with arguably more talent no longer write.
The difference is that I committed to learning how to master the crippling doubts that come with the business. Researching grit and resilience with an eye toward adapting solutions for writers, I funneled what I learned into The Bulletproof Writer: How to Overcome Constant Rejection to Become an Unstoppable Author.
Cultivating resiliency for writers is a must because the rejections never end. It’s an occupational hazard. Perhaps your manuscript just received its thirtieth rejection from agents. Or your first book just got a bunch of 1-star reviews. Or perhaps you’re a midlister and only two people showed up for your book signing. Even bestsellers face rejection. Perhaps this time, they didn’t get a starred review. Or because of less-than-expected sales, their next advance is insultingly low.
From newbie, to bestseller, there’s no way around it. Here are some tips I’ve had to accept and/or master to overcome constant rejection:
1. Recalibrate your concept of the F-word: Fairness. Publishing is one of the only industries that systematically rejects its most talented people. We’ve all seen the lists outlining how many rejections famous authors experienced before they hit it big. And yeah, it helps to know that Stephen King had so many rejections, he posted them as wallpaper in his office—but you typically only feel better for about 1.2 seconds after that. Then it’s back to wondering why him and not you. In Bulletproof, I break down the many false assumptions writers make about the publishing industry to lay the foundation for a realistic approach to rejection.
2. Stop Trying to Learn from your failures. Wait, what? Aren’t we taught from early childhood on to learn from our mistakes? Cognitive psychologists call that “sense making,” and often that’s a viable strategy. But when it comes to writers, trying to make sense of rejection actually creates more anxiety and frustration. Why? Because so much of why we’re rejected is completely out of our control. It could be everything from “we just released a book like yours” to “we love the writing but this genre isn’t selling,” to “the marketing department nixed it,” to “it’s just not my cup of tea.” In other words, there are dozens of reasons why an editor might reject your work. Because the reason for a rejection is so often either unknowable or out of our control, trying to make sense of it only leads to frustration. Instead, experts recommend moving from learning from mistakes, to learning to go forward.
3. Tame your inner critic. It’s no accident that writers are often more self-critical that the average person. Writers tend to be more sensitive and introspective, which are necessary attributes for capturing the world in words. But when that inner critic turns on you, it can be brutal. This is where you can put a Nobel Prize winner’s work on loss aversion into action. You can turn self-persecution into self-empowerment by realizing that your inner critic motivates itself through a fear of loss rather than the gain of winning. By consciously motivating yourself through the desire for victory your self-talk automatically becomes kinder and gentler.
After an up and down career, I’ve learned to cultivate and maintain what I like to call a “bulletproof consciousness.” But as with most worthwhile endeavors, it’s not easy and it only works when you work it. That’s because of publishing’s dirty little secret: You will face rejection for the entire length of your career—even if you hit it big. Think about supernova books like Midnight At The Garden Of Good And Evil and Catch-22. Both John Behrendt and Joseph Heller reached the top of the charts and then experienced rejection every step of the way down. It behooves every writer—from the pre-published to best sellers—to develop a coping strategy for the endless rejections that are pretty much guaranteed to come your way.
This should not depress you any more than cops should be depressed because they have to wear bulletproof vests. It’s part and parcel of keeping yourself safe and achieving success.
Michael Alvear is the author of The Bulletproof Writer: How To Overcome Constant Rejection To Become An Unstoppable Author (Woodpecker Media January 2017).
He’s been a frequent contributor to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and his work has appeared in Newsweek, The Washington Post, Reader’s Digest, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Huffington Post.