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Weekly Wrap: Rejected But Not Defeated

by Susan Henderson on February 29, 2008

Here’s a rejection I got once: “Not for us, but cool stamp.”

I used the Animal stamp from The Muppets collection, which, I agree, is pretty cool. The story was picked up elsewhere, nominated for a Pushcart, and later reprinted in a second magazine. Submitting stories is like that. It’s all about one person’s (or one small group of persons’) opinions. That is not to say that there weren’t plenty of rejections I received that had some hard truths in them – stories that weren’t ready, stories that were never going to be ready, and stories I should feel grateful are not out there, representing my body of work.

Rejection letters are part of the life and character of any writer brave enough to put her work out there in search of a larger audience. These letters also prepare a writer for what’s to come when her book is published: single-star Amazon reviews, Kirkus, and other body blows.

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Like this week’s guest, Jessica Keener, I’ve been on both sides of the rejection slip. I know some of you who read my blog have rejection slips signed by me, and I know that even when an editor tries to be gentle and even when a writer tries to have a thick skin, these little notes can hurt. They can chip away at your confidence. They can make those around you question why you stick with it.

When I was reading 25, 50, 100 stories a week, the main thing that struck me was how few stories got me where it counted – wowed me with every sentence; took me somewhere I didn’t expect to go; made me forget I was working; made me forget my phone, my email, the other stories waiting in the stack; left me utterly buzzed, emotional or changed. I never wanted to settle for an excellently-crafted story; I needed to be brought to my knees. (Think William Maxwell, Toni Morrison, Tim O’Brien, Nicole Krauss, Cornelius Eady, Virgil.) To be a great editor, you have to toughen up and say no to anything that falls short of that standard, knowing all the while that your standard is completely subjective.

What I hope I never did, however, was crush the spirit of a writer. Even a bad writer. This doesn’t mean I’m in favor of giving false encouragement, but it does mean that I’m in favor of remembering the impact of words, particularly to people who are feeling vulnerable. I talked about this extensively with Wayne Yang over here.

With experience, we all get better at judging when our stories are ready to send out, knowing what markets to target, and building those relationships with editors. But mostly, I think writing and becoming published is a game of endurance. If you think you have “it,” then you have to be bold. You have to write and write and write, revise and revise and revise, send and send and send. Some of us can only make our skin so thick, but you have to get your work out there because, unless you’re writing purely for therapeutic reasons, it’s not really a story until it has a reader.

I like this NPR piece about some of the famous writers who were rejected by Knopf. It puts these little slips you hate to get in perspective. And I think I’ll end on that note.

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I am behind on mail and on comments here. I’ll catch up, but be patient with me. I’m staying focused on my book edits these days and have to make them my priority.

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Thank you to my guest this week, Jessica Keener, and to all of you who left comments.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

jessicaK February 29, 2008 at 8:14 am

This wraps a magnificent week for me and reintroduces the impossible task of thanking Susan for what she does every day, every week, every month at LitPark. Susan, you’re a goddess. That’s all there is to it. Thank you for inviting me to share your stage.

Also, thank you to those who left comments in response to my interview, and to those who emailed me privately to share stories of white light, illness, loss, recovery, and appreciation of my writing excerpts, my newest novel that I’m finishing—and the novel that’s finished! You made my week.

If you’re thinking of submitting to Agni, please note in your cover letter that you met me at Litpark and hopefully your submission will get routed my way. (As I mentioned in the comments section, we are soon switching to electronic submissions. I can’t imagine that we’ll be turning away paper submissions, however, should you prefer that method.)

Write well everyone, and write something everyday.

Jessica Keener

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Carolyn_Burns_Bass February 29, 2008 at 10:38 am

SUSAN SAID: Rejection letters are part of the life and character of any writer brave enough to put his or her work out there in search of a larger audience. These letters also prepare you for what’s to come when you get your book published: Kirkus reviews and other body blows

Wisely said. It’s the search of a larger audience that propels us toward traditional publishing, rather than using the means we have today to publish on our own.

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Carolyn_Burns_Bass February 29, 2008 at 10:41 am

I love your logout line: Write well everyone, and write something everyday. Thanks again, Jessica. You’re a star.

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Brian_McEntee February 29, 2008 at 10:57 am

“What I hope I never did, however, was crush the spirit of a writer. Even a bad writer.”

This reminds me of a friend of mine from CalARTS. When I first saw her work, I didn’t get it. She couldn’t draw worth a damn, and I wondered how in the world she got into the program. (It was highly competitive. It took me two years to get into the animation school, and my year they only admitted 25 students. In earlier years they admitted as little as 10.) There were people in our school who could draw circles around the old masters. Scary competitive stuff, but no one and nothing could crush this woman’s dream.

She took every critique to heart, worked like a dog, improved exponentially, got hired by a major studio, and is now, 25 years later, one of the top lead animation artists in the industry.

It taught me to never count out anyone with a dream.

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Gail Siegel February 29, 2008 at 11:29 am

Such an important topic. I read everything with interest this week, but just couldn’t bear to open the old envelopes I’ve kept, or old emails — and I only keep the ones with encouraging comments, even if I never look at them again.

The only thing that I can add is: I’ve been rejected by people who were more than acquaintances, if not friends, and those are the rejections that really sting. It’s not only hard to muster up the spirit to keep writing, but hard to continue to enjoy those relationships. That’s probably for people on both side of the equation.

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jessicaK February 29, 2008 at 1:08 pm

Gail, excellent point. I’ve been in a position of having to say no to writers whose work I truly admire, writers whose novels I love. It’s the hardest ‘no’ to send (from an editor’s side). Plus, I’m convinced that I could have said ‘no’ better. It’s never fun. I can only hope those writers aren’t holding grudges. But you can’t let those rejections stop you from writing. The best way to deal is: move on. Forgive. Also, you have to believe that, most of the time, those rejections from people you know were not intended to harm you. If harm was intended, however, then it’s best you let those people go. (Sounds biblical doesn’t it?) They weren’t meant to be your friends anyway. Keep on. That’s the best you can do for yourself. Really and truly.

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aimeepalooza February 29, 2008 at 1:42 pm

I loved this week as always. This week really seems like the last day of a, “So you want to be a published author,” sort of class. The advice from the editor side seems to really mesh well with the 6 word week and the 75 word week. The story must be compelling and written beautifully. It is a challenge to say a lot in few words. But I think it helps us get to the point that an editor will want to continue reading after the first few sentences.
Being a weekend writer without the time or money to get an MFA, I take all the advice I can get. I appreciate Susan for doing this and Jessica for sharing insights as a writer and an editor. Who knows, with all this great advice, maybe I can make an honest effort and get some work published! Thanks for all the help.

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Sbain February 29, 2008 at 2:51 pm

A great week indeed. Having more rejections than publications, as I get older, I was worried that I’d get more anxious but now there is a calm that everything happens in its own time. It’s not about the ‘fame’ but about reaching the right people at the right time in the right moment. Who hasn’t picked up a book, started reading it, put it down, and five years later picked it up again and found it the most compelling read. I love when that happens.

The thing that makes me most overwhelmed sometimes is standing in the bookstore and looking at all the crap that’s out there. Crap that I suppose some else admires.

Blessings to all.

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lance_reynald February 29, 2008 at 3:58 pm

dreams are awesome things.

I’m a big fan of creative visualization; seeing your way through to what you want…

I kinda learned that one at the Rocky Horror Picture Show…

*ducking the pillow the Wondertwin just swung.

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maria February 29, 2008 at 5:19 pm

Jessica, I really want to thank you–and of course the amazing Susan–for this terrifically inspiring week at Litpark. I look forward to every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning because of this brilliant site and the fantastic community of writers who gather here, but this week was special times two.

(Now that I think about it, it’s kind of funny to be so inspired by rejection week, but so it is!)

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SusanHenderson February 29, 2008 at 9:17 pm

That is the nicest note. Really, truly. xo

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SusanHenderson February 29, 2008 at 9:18 pm

Yeah, isn’t that funny? I thought talking about rejection was going to get depressing but somehow I feel lifted. Stronger.

Glad you’re here, Maria.

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SusanHenderson February 29, 2008 at 9:19 pm

Ooh, good point, Carolyn.

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SusanHenderson February 29, 2008 at 9:21 pm

He ducks but doesn’t see the second pillow in her left hand. Bullseye!

(My favorite method is to have my friends creatively visualize what I want so I can be whiny and moody!)

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SusanHenderson February 29, 2008 at 9:22 pm

Hey, lovely you, that is a great and important story you told.

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SusanHenderson February 29, 2008 at 9:23 pm

I have been on both sides of that equation and they suck equally!

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SusanHenderson February 29, 2008 at 9:25 pm

Yeah, to hell with MFA programs and seminars. I think, collectively, we know it all!

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SusanHenderson February 29, 2008 at 9:27 pm

Sarah, EVERYONE (except you know who – the one I flattened with the pillow) has more rejections than publications.

And that is a really wonderful point about picking up the same book in different moods or different years…

Have a great weekend, everyone!

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SusanHenderson February 29, 2008 at 11:10 pm

If you all are wondering why the site was temporarily suspended (I was wondering, for sure) the reason was “excessive use.” LitPark has “definitely out grown the shared hosting environment.” These are all from the technical support dude at the host site. Anyway, he is moving everything to some kind of private server that can handle the traffic, and here’s to everything moving easily and quickly!

I better post this before the lights flicker again.

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terrybain March 1, 2008 at 11:46 am

Ugh. We’re still down, apparently. I’m trying to work on the VistaPages folks to get us back up, but unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of control over it right now.

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