Thursday, March 11, 2010

Rejections and Healing Potions

It's very energizing to get a few short stories out into the market, but once the rejections start coming back you soon hit the business end of the writing game – dealing with the rejections.

I can’t complain – I’ve only been seriously sending out shorts again for the last four months (after a few years exclusively rewriting books) and one of them managed to win a $1000 short story prize. Even so, the other rejections still impact.

I have this strange disconnect where I will recognize the rejections mentally without a seeming ripple on the surface, yet they somehow hit below the psychic belt on a subconscious level. I feel like some D&D role playing character. There I am whacking away with my broadsword as happily as ever. The hits keeps coming, but it does not slow me. Then all of a sudden I run out of hit points - Bam! I am down.

Now usually the other fighters step in and slay the beast and its color by numbers from that point. There is a healing spell, or some sort of potion in the treasure to get you up and running in no time. Hell, even if you get killed the DM usually has some way to get you back in the game, some local Temple where the High Priest will resurrect you in return for retrieving some priceless artifact. No sweat.

Which makes me wonder what the Healing Potion is to deal with rejection.

The problem with me is that I keep whacking away at my writing, emotionally dead on my feet. Nothing is flowing, somehow I get locked away from the core inspiration or idea that is driving the piece. It takes me a while to realize I’ve actually left my creative self unconscious on the road about two weeks behind me. The triumph of willpower over sense perhaps. I call this Blood Out Of Stone territory – that’s how hard it feels to get the words out. But I do it. I’m too busy to believe in writer’s block.

So what healing balms do you have to get your creative self up off the floor? I always find escaping back into Science Fiction and Fantasy books or movies helps. Or taking the time to step back and reengage with the piece you are working on. Anyone got any tips? Links to discount suppliers of Healing Potion perhaps?


Anonymous said...

Dave gave me some really good advice on that (and it's helped a lot): Give yourself 24 hours to be furious about it, rail at the injustice of the world, and bemoan how nobody understands your genius. However, while doing this, also refrain from posting anything online for that same 24 hour period, so you don't say something in a fit of rage that can come around and bite you in the arse sometime down the road! Then square your shoulders, set your jaw, and send that story out again.

(How'd I do, Dave? Did I cover everything?)

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


If it gives you a thrill and you have to keep coming back to it, because you can't stop thinking about it. Then the book is working.

But sometimes you just have to push through until you hit that point. One book I wrote, I reached page 70 before I felt the buzz.

Dave Freer said...

Pretty good Bob. :-). The part about not posting is important. Seriously Chris, the problem is you are expecting a fair, systematic assessment of your work based on its worth. And given that90% of all submissions are NOT GOOD ENOUGH - tossing almost anything makes editors at this level right 90% of the time. Firstly you don't (and probably have never) belong in that 90%. So does this mean that the judgement which is so right at the raw sub edge is right with the 10%? Well, no. Because that is very difficult. Most editors have no tools for this beyond their gut instinct as to what readers may like... This is a very hard call. Unpopular though this may make me there is solid evidence that they get that wrong 75% of the (and that's the good ones) That still means they're getting it right 92.5% of the time, but if you are part of the top 10% which you are...
I have read your work and it is excellent. You have a powerful and unique voice. But don't expect every editor to realise that. Because they only get the basic selection right 25% of the time. Because it is HARD.
And yes. I stll get dispirited and furiously angry and frustrated when I get rejections. Which I still do.

C Kelsey said...

I've no idea how I'll react to a rejection letter. Hopefully, I'll know within the next couple of months. I think one more re-write on my current short and I can start surfing it around.

Amanda Green said...

Chris, I got much the same advice from Sarah that Bob got from Dave -- I sense a trend here? -- especially the part about not posting anything online. Of course, what that means is that there are a few lucky souls who get to hear me moan and groan and bitch instead and I thank them for it.

The odd thing is that I've never considered myself a short story writer. I write them, but they are hard for me, much harder than novels. For that reason, I seem to take their rejections more personally than I do novel rejections -- from editors that is. I can rail with the best of them about agents rejecting my novels, especially when those rejections come within minutes or hours after I've sent the query out and I know they haven't had time to read it. But that's another post.

So, what do I do with regard to rejections? With short stories, I check for the next market to send them to. I try to get them out again pretty quickly, not that I always do. With novels, I pout and rant and eat chocolate and then immerse myself in bad SF movies. What, you mean that's not normal? That I'm not normal? Noooooo! ;-p

Mike said...

Rx for a rejection overload

1. Give yourself permission to be upset. Go ahead and rant, rail, write a complaint about the stupidity, etc. -- in private! Don't forget denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and that last stage of acceptance. But don't just "tough it out" -- give yourself permission to be upset, angry, etc.

2. Give yourself a treat. That might mean icecream, it might mean a mystery novel, maybe a slice of rhubarb pie -- it might be almost anything, but give yourself a treat. Hey, you've been slapped by life, you deserve a little TLC, and who knows better what will pick you up than you? So put a little lotion on the scrapes of life, eh?

3. Pay attention to the distinction between "this piece" and "me" -- they really aren't rejecting you, even though it often feels that way. Yeah, they said your baby is ugly. Doesn't mean you have to agree, or that you take that label for yourself, too. Keep some distance between yourself and the piece. Helps to have a slew of pieces, of course.

4. Persistence, pervasiveness, and personal control -- that's the way I remember the Learned Optimism theory. Persistence -- do we believe this bad event is going to go on forever, or is it a temporary aberration? Pervasiveness -- do we believe this bad condition is everywhere, or is it just local? And finally, what do we have control over? Frankly, there is no way that you and I can control the editors or modify their rejection. BUT we can control our own behavior, and keep sending out those cards and letters -- er, make that submissions. Pay attention to what is under your control, and what you can change. Don't waste a whole lot of time ranting at the weather -- it won't change just because you want it to, and you can waste a whole lot of energy trying to make it do what you want.

5. Talk to your readers, or take a look at the overall plan again. Do you believe in what you are doing? Do your readers think these are good? Then accept that the rejections are outliers, part of the cost of business, and go again! Take a look at sales literature -- most fields, sales people don't sell most calls (and that's what you're doing with submissions). But they keep cold calling, making those contacts, polishing the presentation... and eventually they start selling. You can too. Just keep submitting.

So -- take two pages, and call me in the morning if symptoms persist.

'nother Mike

Stephen Simmons said...

I've been "writing" for a whole nine months now. In which time, as far as shorts go, I have amassed a grand total of a pair of sold stories and a trio of rejections. So, take my "wealth of experience" for what it's worth" ...

What I discovered works for me is to take the rejected short and promptly re-write it into something genuinely WORTHY of rejection. As campy, trite, utterly BAD as I can manage quickly. Then remind myself that I'm not THAT guy. My story was worth submitting, I just sent it to the wrong editor.

Now that the first novel is read to go out the door, though ... I don't know how the coping will go if it comes running back home ... :)

Anonymous said...

I got over emotional reactions to criticisms while writing reports for oil companies. Between that and the Slush reading, the fiction rejections haven't bothered me much.

I mean, look at the Baen situation. They publish what, six or seven books a month? Figure their established authors snap up all but two or three spots. Baen reprints a bunch of "classic" SF, Heinlein, Laumer, Norton and so forth.

So there's maybe two dozen opportunities for a new writer to shoulder aside a reprint, every year. Except that those reprints are making money, so most of them are going to happen. One dozen possibilities a year may be overstating the opportunities.

We've had 49 manuscripts submitted so far in March. Eleven days worth. 1057 since March 11 2009.

Toss 90%, and you've still got eight manuscripts fighting for every _possible_ slot. And that doesn't count the pre-screened stuff from agents that I never see.

So I don't take it personally when something gets rejected. Because it isn't personal, not at our level.

It is perhaps a little humbling to think that so few new writers beat the reprint sales that we represent an unacceptable risk in hard times or when distribution systems have messed up.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, RJ. Good advice. There is nothing worse than shooting off an email that you regret. Surfing the net after a bottle or two of red is not such a great idea either for the same reason:)

Chris McMahon said...

Thanks, Dave. Great analysis. It really is a numbers game, with the writer as the little metal duck up the back of the shooting gallery:)

I think you are right about gut instinct for editors. I have more respect for the ones that recongise this and simply say 'did not work for me' or 'did not resonate with me' rather than criticising some element of the work (seemingly at random) to justify their rejection.

I have seen a similar thing in critique groups. Someone will have a negative reaction to your story and they will criticise a whole host of minor points that have nothing to do with their emotive response - but they do so to justify their dislike to themselves (often without consciously realising it).

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. I certainly know the feeling of pushing through a book! Its great when you feel it building up a head of steam of its own. I find the beginnings -- the work on the characters and world and plot -- the hardest part.

I am trying to write a proposal and first three chapters at the moment and really finding that hard. I think I will have just about really 'started' by the time I finish, if you know what I mean. I think it would be just as easy to write the whole damn thing!

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Chris. Good luck with the short. Have you put it through a critique group/ had some feedback on it?

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Amanda. Sounds pretty normal to me! - except in my case its Atomic Tomato potato chips and bad SF movies:)

C Kelsey said...


Both Amanda and Doc John have been first readers for me. Highly valuable first readers. The first draft, not so good. The rewrite after their input, much better ( I think). It needs just that little bit more though.

Chris McMahon said...

Thanks for that, Mike. A very useful set of guidelines.

The ideas in no4 - the Learned Optimism - were particularly interesting. When the rejection hits it really is like you are going to feel that way forever and all time - thats a great mental check to go through to put that feeling at arms length.


Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Stephen. That's an interesting approach, but I guess in a way (the deliberately bad rewrite) is a way of recongising all the things that are good and work in your story. That is hard to do when someone has just criticised it (well if you are not an egomaniac:)).

Good luck with the novel. Best advice there is the move straight on to something else. Novel rejections often take some time to come back.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, matapam. That we are competing against reprints is certainly sobering!

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, matapam. Hit the return key too quickly. The statistics are frightening, but also really help to put things in perspective. It certainly helps not to take the rejections too personally. It is business. And I guess there are probably a whole swag of novels that may do equally well. Which ones to pick? I don't envy the editor!

Anonymous said...


It's easy at my level, if I liked it well enough to read the whole thing and was satisfied with the end, off it goes to Toni.

Picking from among a couple hundred hundred good stories to find the ones that will loose the least amount of money and maybe show a profit on a second book has got to be painful.

Kate said...

I use Sarah's method, more or less. 24 hours wallowing in self-pity and imbibing copious amounts of chocolate, then pick up and battle on.

It plays havoc with the attempts to deplete the surplus poundage I'm carrying around, but something about giving myself permission to be absurdly, ludicrously self-pitying is quite effective for getting over the disappointment.

Anonymous said...


When you reach the point of "I want some chocolate, where the &^%$ is my next rejection slip?" you will know that you have destroyed the psychological hold a mere piece of paper held over you.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. Where on Earth would all us writers be without chocolate? Just think where the arts would be if the world did not have chocolate!

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

The exciting new story idea. And I agree with the twenty four hours. Also, chocolate.