Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Coping with Rejection

(Honesty/Laziness Alert. This blog ran a year ago on Melanie Sherman’s blog, If you haven’t been there, visit soon and treat yourself to a laugh.)

 It’s as much a part of my writing life as carpal tunnel syndrome, brain cramps, and a butt that looks best in a bathrobe.

Being rejected cuts as deep as not being asked to the prom or being stood up on your wedding day. (Although, for the record, I had a darn good time not going to the prom, and have been guilty once or twice—in the midst of a discussion that wasn’t going my way—of wishing there’d been nobody waiting at the end of that aisle.)
Just as there are stages of grief, there are also stages of rejection—in fact, the first few stages are almost identical.
Shock and Denial. Check. I find myself staring at a rejection notice confident that if I look long enough I’ll see someone else’s name at the top or that the “not” will disappear and I’ll see that an agent is “interested.”
Pain and Guilt. Check. I feel I failed my story by not saying the right things in that query letter, by not writing a better first sentence for the first chapter, or by not being worthy to tell the tale.
Anger and Bargaining. Been there, done that. I’m guilty of crumpling rejections and hurling them against walls, and guilty of promising to drive within the speed limit, be nicer to those with too many items in the express line, and eat more fruit and vegetables if only . . .
Depression and loneliness. Oh yeah. Writing can be a lonely experience at the best of times, and loneliness can be a slippery slope into the depths of What’s the Point? Canyon.
So, unless you’re one of those rare writers who lands a publisher with the first toss of the query net, you might want to have a coping strategy—or several coping strategies—to get you through these early stages of rejection. And you might want to be aware of the potential cost of each course of action.
Here are some of the strategies I’ve employed in the past and the benefits and drawbacks I’ve discovered:
          Imagining that agents are the dirt beneath the beater bar, I charge around the house sucking them up. On the plus side, I discover the carpet has a pattern. On the minus side, I pinch a nerve in my shoulder and wear out the carpet attachment. Dirt returns and brings along its close friends, dust and pet dander. I put away the vacuum and start
          Taking long walks
Going with the theory that a tired writer is a less angry writer, I set out to see my neighborhood. I raise my metabolic rate, strengthen my heart, and lose a few pounds. But I develop planters fasciitis, suffer excruciating pain in my heels, and have to fork out $400 for special orthotic devices that make it feel like I’m standing on a pipe. I give up walking in favor of
Water Aerobics
Telling myself that others will suffer more from the sight of me in a bathing suit than I do, I hit the pool six days a week, strap on a flotation belt, and start building something I never knew I had—core muscles. Within two weeks, I’m doing the cross-country ski maneuver and tuck jumping jacks with the best of them. Within three weeks I develop dry skin, split fingernails, and things on my neck that look a lot like gills. I cut back on water aerobics and substitute
Pretending that weeds are agents, I uproot them by the dozen and trim back shrubs with a vengeance. The lack of weeds and overhanging branches reveals numerous bare places. I spend a small fortune on bulbs and plantings to fill them. My dog eats several and digs up more. Others are attacked by grubs and bugs devour most of the rest. I retreat to the deck and the strategy of
          Catching up on the TBR pile
I inhale some great literature and feel energized, then come across some not-so-great literature and contemplate unfairness of life. Feeling  sorry for myself once more, I resort to
          Whining to friends
On the first day I collect 10 “poor baby” responses. On day two, I rake in 6 “poor babies” and 4 “I’ve got a call on the other line.” On day three I get two “poor babies” and 8 message machines. On day 4, no one answers. With one foot sliding down that slippery slope I mentioned earlier, I sulk to the bottle-filled cabinet in the buffet and begin on my new strategy of
          Indulging in chilled adult beverages
Determined to numb myself to the pain of rejection, I drink too fast and get a stabbing headache. After self-medicating to treat that headache, I wake up the next day experiencing hangover Armageddon. Furious at myself, I hit on a new strategy
          Writing another novel
          “I’ll show them,” I chortle. “They haven’t seen the last of me. I will learn more about plotting, characterization, scene structure, subtext, and backstory. I will never quit. I will never give up. They’ll have to pry this keyboard from my cold, dead fingers.” Finally, a strategy that combines time-consuming, distracting reaction to failure with time-consuming, distracting forward action.

To my surprise I found that, for the wrong reasons (spite and revenge), I did the right thing—burned off the negative energy and faced up to the realities of writing for publication. The next step was to accept those realities and the fact that I couldn’t change them. That enabled me to move on, to reconstruct myself, to practice discipline, to nurture others. Over the years, I published a number of mysteries through small presses and recently landed a contract with Five Star for Hemlock Lake.
Reviews so far have been positive and with each one I tell myself, “You wouldn’t be reading this if you hadn’t stopped arguing, avoiding, indulging, and whining.”
Like writing itself, I found coping with rejection was a journey during which I learned much about myself. I’m not the same person I was when I got my first rejection slip. I think that’s a good thing. I think my friends—who now take my calls again—would agree.


  1. HA! I do remember it. But it is still appropriate.

  2. Yeah, it's always good to review your plan for how to deal with rejection - there's a ton of it out there in writer-land.