This morning I got a rejection email for a short story I submitted to a competition. This lunchtime I went for Nando’s with my good friend Fiona, a fellow writer. I told her about the rejection, and the realisation that I was fine with it. In fact, it felt good. I enjoyed my spicy hot chicken thighs, peas and spicy rice. It’s been a lovely afternoon.
I’ve not always had this healthy response to rejection (that clanging sound you hear in the distance is the “under statement of the year” bell), and I suspect that in future, for the things that I really, really want, the sting of rejection will still be sharp. But, I’ve discovered, on the whole, I’m now OK with it. I used to torture myself following every knock back. Each “no thank you” would trigger the fraud police to come battering down my defences, until there was nothing left but a splintered wreck. My diabolic inner critic would dance gleefully between verbal abuse, and cackling laughter, at the thought that I’d dared believe, for even one moment, that I could amount to anything. As someone who has decided to open myself up to regular rejection by pursuing my passion for writing, these reactions were not going to help my already fragile mental health. So something had to give. I had to find a way to react better to rejection.
My first breakthrough came when a fellow writing friend shared a link to this article about aiming for 100 rejections a year by Kim Liao. It triggered a eureka moment. I realised I’d been thinking about it all wrong. My mindset was stupid. I’d felt that every opportunity was potentially make or break. Which is bollocks. What WOULD make or break my writing career would be my ability to develop the resilience and the discipline to keep turning up to write, and to keep putting my work out for rejection.
Because that is what I do now, even on days like today when I’d rather be watching a repeat of Buffy (I blame the rain) I write. I’m nowhere near 100 rejections for this year, in my defence I’m writing a novel, so my short story output has been light. Add to that a growing obsession with theatre, and the fact that I’m now looking to learn the craft of writing for the stage (in addition to the novel, and the short stories, and the work I do that actually pays my mortgage) and I think I should be happy to settle for 25 rejections this year. That feels like a nice number (it is the square of a prime after all, I have a thing for prime numbers). I’m only sitting on 6 rejections for 2017 so far (although I am due another before the end of this month, so fingers crossed), so I need to pull my socks up if I’m going to hit 25. My dream of writing for the stage has opened up a whole new world of rejection opportunities, so I should hopefully hit my quota (there is one theatre opportunity that I really, really want, so I’m mentally preparing for that one to sting like a bastard, as unfortunately I’m still the owner of a fragile human ego).
I thought it might be useful to others to share the things I do to help me embrace rejection. So here goes:
- I have a rejection spreadsheet. I put all the things I’ve submitted my writing to on it, including the dates I should hear back (where available) and the status (rejected/pending/successful) etc. I colour code the responses as my inner geek might as well enjoy herself.
- I submit and I move on to the next thing(s). Any single submission is part of a bigger portfolio of writing that I’m working on. I don’t write, wait to hear and look for the next opportunity. I’m constantly identifying new opportunities, and updating my spreadsheet with the things I want to go for. I’m building my body of work and tracking what I’m doing with it. Forward momentum puts you in a healthier space for when the rejection email lands.
- I don’t obsess. Which for someone who has a gift for obsession, takes practice. The spreadsheet means I don’t have to keep information in my brain. I can almost trick myself into forgetting I entered something. If I want to know when my next rejection is due, I can check the spreadsheet. Our brains are overloaded enough, it’s nice to minimise the clutter.
- I don’t put too much pressure on any one thing. Yes, it is possible that you’ll get an acceptance that may change your life. Every positive response is a door opening. But there are an infinite number of doors, and unless you have psychic powers, you don’t know which doors are your doors. So while you may really wish for a certain door to be your way forward, if the damn thing won’t budge there’s no point sobbing in front of it wailing “WHY” to an uncaring universe. If anything that’s likely to make the opportunities lurking on the other side double lock the door in fright.
- If the rejection stings and it’s making you doubt yourself, take a moment to ask yourself why. You’re not teflon coated, being OK with rejection doesn’t mean you’ve a total absence of feelings. Just that you accept them, in all their discomfort. Sit with that discomfort, look at it, really look at it. Don’t let it hide in the shadows calling you names. Shine a light, call it out and debate it to bits. If you’re feeling too fragile you may need a trusted friend to provide the voice of reason in this debate.
- Only submit work you’re proud of. Don’t cheat the system and try to get your rejection tally up by sending out crap work. That doesn’t count. Only send out work that you believe is good quality, that you’ve invested your creativity and skill in. Why would you make it easy for someone to reject you? Fail with your best work, it’s the only satisfactory way to do it. Anyone can send out a pile of rubbish and have it turned down. Be better than that.
- Be true to yourself but know your audience. While I may seem to be recommending a scatter bomb approach to applications, don’t just scatter your work out to the breeze and hope it lands in the right place. Find out what you can about the magazine, competition, agent, theatre etc.. you are submitting to and pick the piece that fits them. Or, even better, write something with them in mind. In your own voice, don’t go mimicking the things they already publish/produce, but have a clear idea of the sort of content, style etc they go for. A publication that only publishes high end literary short stories might not be the best fit for your sci-fi comedy about a motley gang of mutant root vegetables rampaging through space.
- Tell your friends. It doesn’t have to be over Nando’s, but don’t squirrel away your rejections. Celebrate them. Possibly less enthusiastically than the acceptances, but still, your work deserves to be acknowledged and applauded.
Right I’d better get back to editing a piece that I’m submitting for a thing that I deep deep down think will change my life forever. What can I say, I’m a work in progress too and the above can only help so much. This rejection may need more than spicy chicken to sooth my battered soul, but better to suffer the sting than to avoid it by not submitting at all. After all, it’s in that time before rejection that hope lives.