Dealing with rejection

I don’t know if I experience rejection more than most writers: my records show that I have made 80 submissions since the start of 2013 and had nothing accepted; I am waiting to hear about almost a quarter of these.  I have had work published in previous years, but it doesn’t seem like a particularly good strike rate.  So what do I do when I receive the thanks-but-no-thanks email?

I sometimes tell myself that it’s a good piece of work (perhaps in need of some revision) but it wasn’t the right market.  After appropriate revision, I’ll send it off to another market.  This is the reasonable approach: it suits my disposition and allows me to keep on submitting my work, while maintaining my sanity.  It also seems consistent with an objective appraisal of my writing.

Recently, I have tried a new attitude: my work is writing of the highest quality, tantamount to genius, and it is only the lack of judgement by various editors and other literary figures prevents it being published.  This might seem vain and egotistical – not ways I like to think of myself – but you note that I say the work is ‘tantamount to genius’; I wouldn’t say this about myself.  

I think my new attitude is healthier.  It encourages ambition:  don’t want to be a competent writer, or even a good one.  I also have no way of knowing that it isn’t true.  I use the phrase ‘an objective appraisal of my writing’ above, but is there really such a thing?  If there is, I’m clearly not capable of producing it.  If my writing is a work of genius I wouldn’t know one way or the other; while the odds are astronomical, I’d still prefer to think of it that way.

Two anecdotes about rejection:

  1. I submitted a short-story I really rated to a magazine.  A few months later I received a rejection email from the editor.  She was quite complimentary about the story and said it had made her own short-list, but that the final decision was made by an editorial team.  I immediately submitted it to another magazine and received an acceptance within days: I have blogged about this story before.
  2. I entered a competition.  The results were announced: I received neither a prize, nor a commendation.  I consoled myself, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that I had probably missed out by the narrowest of margins.  Some months later I was Googling myself (I know that I appear more egotistical the longer this blog goes on) and found that I had indeed made the final shortlist of the competition.

Tribute to A Mole

Sorry, that should be A. Mole.  I read The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole and its follow-up, The Growing Pains when I was roughly the early Mole’s 13 3/4.  The books had only recently been published, which I guess makes me Adrian’s more-or-less contemporary.  They didn’t really influence me that much: I was already sex-obsessed and quite political – I’d like to think I was more sophisticated than Adrian – and I quite fancied myself as an intellectual.  I’d love to say it inspired me to keep a diary, but it didn’t.  I would occasionally scribble some unoriginal observations in an old school exercise book, but I never had the perseverance to do it regularly.  

Since then I have regularly made notes about my life in notebooks and, more recently, Word documents; I’ve never got into the habit of keeping anything resembling a diary, however.  Just what kind of a writer am I?  A rather embittered one at the moment.  I’ve had a couple of rejections over the last week.  When this happens, I tell myself that I’m an undiscovered genius (like Adrian Mole) and that’s their loss.  The only reasonable alternative is giving up, which I’m not prepared to do.  It’s this that makes me embittered: not rejection, as such, but forcing myself to believe something uncharacteristic (I don’t usually have a high opinion of myself) just to carry on.

To cheer myself up I’ll watch this:


But then I would say that …

I have recently committed one of the writer’s cardinal sins: I submitted to a magazine that had previously rejected it a couple of years ago.  There are several things I could offer in my defence:

  • I can’t really find anything that says it’s a cardinal sin: most advice is about showing-not-telling (which is something else I might be guilty of);
  • I rewrote the story, partly as a result of feedback I received from the first submission, and also gave it a new title;
  • I do keep a record of submissions, but it’s a bit unwieldy (and changing the story’s title clearly doesn’t help).

So, there we have it: I’m guilty as charged.  I received a reply today.  The editor hasn’t noticed he’s read the story before: or if he has, he doesn’t mention it.  The story has been rejected again; as with the previous rejection there is brief feedback.  As I’ve mentioned I did rewrite the story a little following the earlier feedback; but this was largely a matter of drawing the reader’s attention to a moment I felt the editor had missed.  Here is an extract from the feedback I received the first time:

[M]y main problem was the pace of the story. It consists of a series of incidents, each of them given a brief description, but not really building up to anything or moving the story forward. It seems to simply jog along … There isn’t very much development, either of character or of plot.

This time I got:

This is an accomplished piece of writing, reminiscent in its style of Irvine Wesh (but without the Scottish accent), but apart from presenting a vignette of the unpleasant lifestyle lived by a young underclass it didn’t seem to me to have a great deal to say. … I think this was because the perspective you adopted in telling the tale was relatively external …  In my opinion what you’ve done here is set the scene for a story very vividly, but the story itself remains to be told.
I won’t be recommending this particular one for acceptance but would be interested to see more of your work in the future.
I don’t know whether to be upset that the end result is the same or encouraged by the more positive tone.  But is the tone more positive?  Perhaps I’m just imagining it.  In any case, I have vowed to be more careful about my submissions.  The story has gone out again to an editor who hasn’t seen it before.  I haven’t changed it though, because I do think it’s rather wonderful as it is.