How do we do it? Is it a case of fortitude or is there some technique? When I was a kid I was told to “develop a thick skin” if things bothered me, an adult buzz term which was all very well but nobody ever said how.
We write our stories and offer them up to public scrutiny, knowing perfectly well we may suffer a hundred rejections for every acceptance. That’s 99 turn-downs, 99 instances of being passed over, the door closed, the cold shoulder: we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t feel at times that, just maybe, we’re not as good as we thought we were.
Coping with rejection is of course a professional skill. The cartoon above was published 43 years ago, in David Gerrold’s The Story of One of Star Trek’s Most Popular Episodes, The Trouble With Tribbles (Bantam, 1973). I have always thought it so pertinent, the supplicant receiving his brainchild back on a toasting fork, burnt black – the critical opinion of the powers that be who stand in judgement over the creative output of the individual writer. You have to have humour to survive, some of the time!
Electronic submission has truncated a process of weeks or months into days or weeks – and who hasn’t had an overnight rejection? Or a rejection in hours? Trying not to be cynical about it, or indeed angry, is a mark of professionalism – I say try, nobody is perfect. But professionalism must also be a process of placing a rejection in perspective – there are entirely legitimate reasons for turning down a submission, and they can grade to very fine levels of choice on the part of a first-reader or editor. Often rejections have nothing to do with the literary merit of a work and everything to do with business – it may be the marketplace is virtually out of acquisition budget this week and can afford to buy something 4000 words long – not the 6000 yours was. Or they bought something on a similar theme last week and simply can’t buy another and stockpile it until long enough has elapsed they can reasonably revisit the theme. To do so may also not be fair to the writer, who might (just perhaps) see their work in print much sooner elsewhere. And if the rejection is on literary grounds, the opinion remains subjective and the next marketplace may feel differently. Probably very few stories are bought on their first submission (while, oddly enough, at least some seem to be shortlisted on them…).
Whatever the reason, one is left to beard the rejection dragon in its cave on an ongoing basis. In the age of online submission and immediate communication, every time we log into emails we face the prospect of a rejection. I check messages two or three times a day, often I have my email program open in the background, so the 99% probability of being turned away is always in play. It preys on the mind to some extent, the anxiety of looking to see what has been turned down by whom today. I don’t get rejections everyday but my worst day was four – hard, for sure, and it’s happened more than once. The opposite also holds true, though – when an acceptance comes in, the charge lasts all day and an enthusiasm to see what happens tomorrow is very much in play.
But there is always another story on the go, another inspiration, another chance to refine the craft of writing, and hopefully turn out a gem which this time might please first-readers and editor too. So out it goes, fingers are crossed, and one waits for the cycle to play out. Is the piece matched properly to marketplace requirements? Check the boxes… Length, correct; subject matter, yes; age-group orientation, fine; now is your style quite what this marketplace prefers? Does your take or twist “work” for the first-reader, or does it do exactly the opposite? Did the first-readers like it but the editor not? A tapestry of variables comes into play and the writer must be aware that when every marketplace is snowed under with submissions from writers all aspiring to be professionals, any reason is good enough to pass on anything.
Fatalism is perhaps the key, not a morbid negativity but an understanding of the vagaries of the industry and enough humility to allow that one’s style may indeed rub others the wrong way, while both your style and the first reader’s expectations each remain perfectly defensible. Some markets may simply be impenetrable and will stay that way because your output is ill-suited to the formula they have found works for them artistically and at a commercial level. It doesn’t mean you write bad stories but it does mean they’ll be published somewhere else.
Allowing that one has reached a certain level of proficiency, it comes down to business: marketplaces are in the business of selling magazines, writers are in the business of selling stories, neither can succeed without the other but the negotiation between them is an often-lethal mating dance in which the writer’s aspirations are rewarded a minute fraction of the time. We may not like it, but it is the way the world works and the regimen we are obliged to learn.