Monday, April 12, 2010

Rejection Makes It All Better

By Steve Weddle

First -- and briefly -- thanks for all the support for NEEDLE. As you might know, Needle is a grand experiment at an ink-on-paper crime fiction journal. You can find out more here and buy the first issue here.

Second -- and less briefly -- what in the world is wrong with Joelle? Geez, lady. I'm guessing she musta skipped breakfast or dropped a small continent on her toe. Thanks for the buzzkill, pal.

Sure, she wants to tell you about rejections. Rejection? I don't need to hear about that.

OK, maybe she's right. About everything. Rejection stinks. Then again, acceptance rocks. And being rejected is just an early step to acceptance.

Let's look at being accepted.

1) The Grating Agent Search.

I know writers who won't let anything deter them from the agent search -- not even their lack of finished manuscripts. They've had stories published in good mags and smokin hot zines. They write good stuff. And they're finishing their manuscripts. They don't want to rush that, because they want the book to "friggin rawk." OK. Makes sense. But they have agent queries out there. "Dear Agent, I'm writing to inquire as to whether you would like to represent my 90,000 literary thriller." At least, that's the length now. When it's completed, maybe it'll be longer. Or shorter. But they want the next step done before they finish this one. But let's not worry about these writers right now. (Agents don't.) Let's look at those who have finished books and are looking for an agent.

The more I sent my queries out, the better my book became. Writing a query or synopsis is tough work. And you really can't do a good job if you don't understand your story. What's it about? Uh, there's this guy who wants this stuff and some people get in his way. Well, why does he want the stuff? Why do the other people? On and on. This isn't the place to talk about queries, but let's just acknowledge that searching for an agent makes your writing better. Which is what this is all about, right? So Huzzah, etc for the agent search. You have to understand your book. You have to have a smoking hot first fifty pages.

Searching for an agent might seem tough and, at times, futile, but you're making a better book. And then you find agents who are interested in what you've written and want to talk to you about it. Before my agent and I sent our signed sheets of paper back and forth to each other, I'd sent in queries and first fives and first fifties and full manuscripts to agents. I'd worked on what each agent said. This doesn't appeal as much as I thought it did. Someone didn't like this character. This plot element seemed wonky. So I kept working, making the book better.

Then I completed the agent search. Sure, I had plenty of rejection. But it's kinda like that Thomas Edison line. I never failed. I just found 20 ways that didn't work.

2) The Even Greater Editor Search

Same thing here. Each time an editor says, "I like Weddle's writing; I just don't like this writing," then I have to look at the book. And, as with the agent search, I have to decide whether I want to change whatever it is that THEY don't like. Sometimes, yeah, it could be clearer if I explain this a little more. Sometimes, though, if someone suggests taking out this element, that tells me I haven't made that element powerful enough. "I don't see the point of this character" means get rid of the character or add more to him.

And if 837 editors say "no thanks" to the book, it just means that when #838 gets a look, the book is going to be better.

3) The Reviews

Have you ever read a bad review of a book and then bought the book anyway? I have. Sometimes I think that the reviewer sounds like an asshat. You know, the kind of jerk who confuses being snarky with being mean?

Ever read a good review of a book and skipped the book? I have. Something in the review tells me that the book isn't for me. You know, if the description of the book doesn't warn you that a cat solves the crimes? Yeah, if the reviewer says how cool this is, I'm moving on to something else, even if the reviewer likes it.

And sometimes the points the reviewer thinks are negatives are, to me, positives. Maybe the reviewer didn't think the setting worked. Or thought the plot was too much. Or thought a sub-plot should have been tweaked more. Or thought that the violence was too graphic.

I'm not saying good reviews aren't important. What I am saying is that I don't rely solely on reviews. And, more to the point, sometimes I read a review and still manage to think for myself.

So a bad review? Feh.

So, Joelle, what else you got? Oh, yeah.

4) "This isn't your best work"

Yeah, that one's gotta hurt. Your current editor changes the locks, usually because your numbers for your first two books weren't good. Kiss of death, right? Better to have no agent than a bad agent. Better to have no books out than books with poor sales. Well, OK. But what about those imprints that aren't such a good fit? Maybe you're not getting the attention you need from your current house. Heck, maybe you're really not doing your best work.

So you get dropped. I have no idea what this is like, but I imagine it sucks. Maybe it's like a divorce. I don't know.

But maybe you do need to be elsewhere. Maybe your numbers weren't good because it wasn't a good fit. Or maybe the editor was no good. Maybe your book wasn't your editor's best work. You make changes. You compromise. Then you rack up credit card bills driving to 20 bookstores in a month to promote yourself. Yeah, maybe this wasn't your best work. Maybe you should move on. Sounds like a good idea. Chances are, thousands of readers have already accepted you. Now's a chance to find a better platform for your books.

So let's run through this.

When you're getting rejected by agents, you keep working on your query, your synopsis, your first fifty. Good for you.

Rejected by editors? You and your agent are now a team. Now you're working on your book, making it better.

Reviews? Yeah, nice if they're good. Sometimes it doesn't matter if they're good. And many times it doesn't matter if they're not so good.

Dropped by your editor because things aren't working out? Uh, things aren't working out. Look elsewhere. Sell directly to readers. Go Kindle or iPad or a dozen other ways. You've sold books. You need a reboot. Now's a good time for that.

Sure, you can get depressed. Hell, we're writers. It's what we do. But rejections are just part of acceptance. You build, improve. Your work gets better. And that's what it's all about.

Right? Rejection makes it all better?


Chuck said...

Rejection = Opportunity.


Me likey.

-- c.

Julie said...

Small potatoes: got rejected for a piece and got a LOVELY letter telling me it was strong but not a fit for their current issue. They urged me to come back again. I danced around in joy. Sent same piece to someone else and got a half-assed reply about it that let me know they didn't like it at all. I didn't get depressed, because I knew SOMEONE else thought it was good, and I know everyone's tastes are different.

I will probably get more discouraged the more often this happens, but I don't know. I'd like to think that I can just use these as platforms to dive right back in.

So, short version: You make great points.

Steve Weddle said...

Chuck, I aim to please.

Julie, Seems a silly thing for me to say, but the more I read and write, the more I think we have to just keep writing what we want. Unless you're writing for money. Then write what the person with the checkbook wants.

Chuck said...


Excellent. I'll take my pants off and be right over.


Uhhh. Never mind.

On the subject of your last comment:

Yeah? I guess. I think "write what you want!" and "writing for money!" is a false dichotomy.

I write what I want, but I also write for money.

Meaning, I live in the badlands between the two, happily subscribing to some mutant concept, some grotesque amalgam of the two.

I don't write wantonly what I want without disregard for my audience or for the money-holders, though. If one does, I ask: why write at all? If you're one of those bizarre-o, "I write for myself!" people, hey, fine, but keep it to poems you tape to your fridge and don't put it up publicly, Emily Dickinson. Enjoy your attic.

If you want to put it up publicly, then you don't write only for yourself, you write for other people, and thus you should (unless you're blinded by ego) consider the needs (slash wants) of the audience.

If you further would like to make a career out of writing, then you must consider the needs of your publisher (or agent, or producer, or editor, or whoever it is that keeps the gate).

(Er, "you" does not = "Steve Weddle," but rather, "The General You.")

But you can still have it both ways, to some degree. You can still write what They want, but you can do it Your way.

Otherwise, you run the risk of falling back on the false dichotomy of "Craft (or Art) Vs. Commerce."

-- c.

Steve Weddle said...

Chuck, If I'm going fall back on a dichotomy, it had damn well better be a real one. And one with cushions.

That said, I was a technical writer for a bit. I worked at an environmental laboratory and interviewed scientists about the procedures they used. Then I wrote up the SOPs and whatever else they called it. And wrote their PR and advertising copy. If they wanted something done differently, I did that. I wrote for money. I didn't write because I had "a story to tell." No, I had an apartment to pay for.

I am not trying to pay my rent now with my writing. I write because I like these characters I'm working with. I like these stories. This is fun for me.

If you're writing to pay your bills, rejection is a real problem.

John McFetridge said...

The thing about getting dropped by a publisher is that it's only one and there are lots more publishers.

Oh, I can still remember sitting in that nice office in New York and how polite we were and how the word, "dropped" was never used and how there was lots of talk about "future opportunities," and I knew those opportunities were elewhere and at that moment I didn't believe they really existed, but with writing there is always an "elsewhere."

It's not like being, say, an athlete and you get too old to look for an elsewhere in your thirties.

Chuck said...

I write to pay my bills *and* I write because it's fun for me, I like these characters, and I like these stories. You can do both. Life is rarely so black-and-white.

"Technical writer" is nowhere near the same as "fiction writer."

Hell, someone in advertising is probably closer to a fiction writer, as both understand some level of narrative and creativity implicit in the work.

Rejection is no different for the paid writer, except it represents a loss of work. That sounds serious, and in some ways, it is, but you still learn the same things, and rejection still represents similar opportunity (that you note) and similar trouble (that Joelle notes).

To be honest, out of all of this, I remain baffled by writers who don't seem to want to earn money by what they do, especially when they are writers who are taking *steps* to earn money by what they do (courting agents, courting publishers).

Here's the thing. If you don't want to earn money or make a career, why do it? It's a serious question. Lots of hungry writers out there. I genuinely believe that writers who don't care about getting paid do actual, honest-to-god harm to the craft and the business. I'm not saying that's you -- I assume you care about getting paid *something,* right? You're not doing it purely for the love, one must imagine.

-- c.

Dana King said...

I was going to post an uplifting and witty comment, but I subscribe more to Joelle's point of view. At some point repeated rejection strike me as Einstein's definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

Chuck said...


The insanity only comes in if you keep sending the same story to the same outlet (which leads to the same result).

Some writers do this, of course.

And some writers are insane, so it works. :)

But rejection leads to improvement, and further, rejection is subjective.

On any of these, you don't bat a thousand. It's nearly always a minimal return -- one out of ten, let's say, just to make up some bullshit numbers. :) But you can't take the 9/10 as a career ender.

I've long said that writing is like trying to break down a wall by hitting it with your bucket-covered head.

Further, you must enjoy the bucket-headed demolition, I think.

-- c.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

Hey....I never said that rejection didn't have positive points. I am beyond happy my first manuscripts never got writing is better now. My storytelling ability is better. And I like the genre I'm writing WAY better. All good things.

But while I do believe there are lots of positives in rejections - I have a whole workshop worth of material on that one that I have to present in a week and a half - there is one undeniable fact that still exists in either post - you have to get used to rejection and find a way to deal with it in a constructive manner. Rejection is going to happen. Writers can't escape it. So get used to it and find a way to benefit from it. I'm a better (insert rejection career) because of it.

Joanne Young Elliott said...

Great post and great discussion! I'm at the 'need to start searching out an agent' point. I'm not looking forward to the 'rejection' part of it, but after reading this I feel a little better. I want to be a better writer so I'll use rejection to do that. I also want to make money writing, though that's not the sole reason I write. So I need to get out there and get used to it and use my experiences with agents and editors to get better. Thanks all!
And Steve, I'm going to take this quote and post it near my computer. "Sure, I had plenty of rejection. But it's kinda like that Thomas Edison line. I never failed. I just found 20 ways that didn't work."
Great reminder!

Steve Weddle said...

John -- Being "out of contract" isn't an entirely bad thing, I've heard. Especially with these fancy innerwebs around.

Dana -- It's OK to be uplifting. We can use that around here.

Joelle -- Yeah. Of course I agree.

Joanne -- I figure it doesn't do me any good to look for what the next bad thing might be. Don't have an agent. Get an agent, but you don't have a book deal. Get a book deal, but you don't have good reviews. And so on. You can have three books in print and still be discouraged because your Kindle sales are slow.
If you're writing because you enjoy writing, then you should be able to have some fun with it. And if you're not enjoying it, then why the heck do it?

Chuck said...

As snarky as I am about everything else --

"If you're writing because you enjoy writing, then you should be able to have some fun with it. And if you're not enjoying it, then why the heck do it?"

That pretty much captures the awesomeness right there.

Well said, Steve. And, as always, well done on a very thoughtful and thought-provoking post. You and Joelle both.

-- c.

Josh said...

This is a fantastic breakdown of most (if not all) of the negativity that can come flying at a writer, especially one just trying to break into the field.

Rejection is one of the things that can discourage a writer from continuing to try and get published, and it shouldn't. It should do the opposite, in my mind. With six billion people in the world, there's bound to be someone out there who's willing to not only read a writer's work, but also would be willing to pay for it.