Here’s a rejection I got once: “Not for us, but cool stamp.”

I used the Animal stamp, which, I agree, is pretty cool. The story was picked up elsewhere, nominated for a Pushcart, and reprinted in a second magazine. Submitting stories is like that. It’s all about one person’s (or one small group of persons’) opinions. That is not to say that there weren’t plenty of rejections I received that had some hard truths in them – stories that weren’t ready, stories that were never going to be ready, and stories I should feel grateful are not out there, representing my body of work.

Rejection letters are part of the life and character of any writer brave enough to put his or her work out there in search of a larger audience. These letters also prepare you for those single-star Amazon reviews once your book is published.

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Like my recent LitPark guest, Jessica Keener, I’ve been on both sides of the rejection slip. I know some of you who read my blog have rejection slips signed by me, and I know that even when an editor tries to be gentle and even when a writer tries to have a thick skin, these little letters can hurt. They can chip away at your confidence. They can make those around you question why you stick with it.

When I was reading 25, 50, 100 stories a week, the main thing that struck me was how few stories got me where it counted – wowed me with every sentence; took me somewhere I didn’t expect to go; made me forget I was working; made me forget my phone, my email, the other stories waiting in the stack; left me utterly buzzed, emotional or changed. I never wanted to settle for an excellently-crafted story; I needed to be brought to my knees. (Think William Maxwell, Tim O’Brien, Nicole Krauss, Cornelius Eady, Donna Tartt, Virgil.) To be a great editor, you have to toughen up and say no to anything that falls short of that standard, knowing all the while that your standard is completely subjective.

What I hope I never did, however, was crush the spirit of a writer. Even a bad writer. This doesn’t mean I’m in favor of giving false encouragement, but it does mean that I’m in favor of remembering the impact of words, particularly to people who are feeling vulnerable. I talked about this extensively with Wayne Yang over here.

With experience, we all get better at judging when our stories are ready to send out, knowing what markets to target, and building those relationships with editors. But mostly, I think writing and becoming published is a game of endurance. If you think you have “it,” then you have to be bold. You have to write and write and write, revise and revise and revise, send and send and send. Some of us can only make our skin so thick, but you have to get your work out there because, unless you’re writing purely for therapeutic reasons, it’s not really a story until it has a reader.

I like this NPR piece about some of the famous writers who were rejected by Knopf. It puts these little slips you hate to get in perspective. And I think I’ll end on that note.

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SUSAN HENDERSON is the author of UP FROM THE BLUE (HarperCollins, 2010) and founder of the blog, LitPark, a literary playground for writers.

14 responses to “Rejected But Not Defeated”

  1. Judy Prince says:

    Susan, I loved this from your interview (Wayne Yang, interviewer):

    “Submitting to a magazine, for a lot of people, is like being in the junior high cafeteria, holding a lunch tray, and there’s nowhere to sit, and you’re afraid if you ask for a seat no one will scoot over. I didn’t want to be a part of making anyone feel that way. So, if I laughed when I read someone’s story, I told them so. And if I noticed that sentence they worked on for three days, I let them know. Why not?

    The other thing I tried to do via my rejection letters was to open doors. I know 60 or 70 literary magazines like the back of my hand. If someone sent us a story that was a perfect fit for some contest I knew of, it took all of two minutes of my time to give them the contact information. If I can help save someone another year of knocking on the wrong doors, I’d feel like some kind of a jerk for not speaking up.”

    And this from your post above:

    “When I was reading 25, 50, 100 stories a week, the main thing that struck me was how few stories got me where it counted – wowed me with every sentence; took me somewhere I didn’t expect to go; made me forget I was working; made me forget my phone, my email, the other stories waiting in the stack; left me utterly buzzed, emotional or changed. I never wanted to settle for an excellently-crafted story; I needed to be brought to my knees.”

    Those stamps (photo’ed) are definitely cool!

    • LitPark says:

      I don’t think I ever considered myself “editor” so much as one human being talking to another human being.

      Thanks for clicking over to Wayne Yang’s interview. He’s one of the true greats in this business.

      • Judy Prince says:

        Susan, you say: “I don’t think I ever considered myself ‘editor’ so much as one human being talking to another human being.”

        I’m sure you feel that way, Susan, and that is why you are an awesome editor!

        I do wish other editors would stop to consider your words and what you do, and somehow fashion a way to do the same thing. What a joy to writers if that were to happen!

        • Susan Henderson says:

          The flip side is that I was probably way too demanding of my staff. It’s very hard on an editor’s time (and eyes!) to read story after story and usually for no pay. Reading a story to the end and writing a personal note takes a lot more time, and I’m always very appreciative when that happens.

  2. It’s nice to see this story from someone on both sides of the story, so to speak. I was an editor for a long time, but it was of a clinical nursing journal, and I never actually had to choose what we rejected and what we published.

    Of course, your discussion of how you chose what you published highlights the major dilemma; namely, that what brings you to your knees may not bring others to theirs, and vice-versa.

    Which is, of course, why one must keep going.

    It’s also why circumventing the whole process and going straight to the readers is becoming a more popular, and even perhaps more logical, choice. A lot of agents and editors talk about the fact that an excellently-crafted story isn’t enough–that, like you, they have to be brought to their knees or, I think more popularly (at least, I’ve heard more often), they have to fall in love with a story.

    And then they sign on the cast of The Jersey Shore as clients.

    “knowing what markets to target, and building those relationships with editors.”

    This is also an interesting point, I think. Publishing, for a long time, became a business-to-business sort of service. Publishers sold books to booksellers, after all.

    The thing I keep thinking, though, is that I’m a writer. I’m not writing for agents and editors; I’m writing for readers. They’re the people to whom I want to sell my books. Which means it’s arguably more important to have a relationship with them than with editors, I think, and it’s worth noting one can reach them directly, now. Publishers, of course, continue to argue that writers need them for marketing and such, but the funny thing there is how many people tell authors they have to increasingly do their own marketing now, anyway.

    • Susan Henderson says:

      Will, I think it’s so important for writers to remember how subjective this process is. And a great wake up call, if you ever feel like you should stop writing based on some feedback you got here or there, is to look up your favorite-book-ever on Amazon. You know you love that book, you know it changed your life somehow, you know how often you recommend it to others. And now look at the one- and two-star reviews it got. Some other reader was bored or found the characters unsympathetic and so on. You can do this with music, too. William Maxwell brings me to my knees and Dan Brown doesn’t, which says less about them and more about my knees.

      Interesting point you make about going directly to the readers. I think we’re just beginning to see the possibilities of how this industry might change!

      • Judy Prince says:

        Wise idea, Susan, going to a life-changing (for yourself) book on amazon.com and seeing the 1 and 2 star customer reviews. So much for “objectivity” in reading tastes…..and, as you say, editors’!

        Re burdening your staff with reading and commenting on submissions, yes, I’m sure—-but l wager they did no more, and likely less, than you did.

        Thanks, as always, for your wise insights, Susan. I so appreciate the topics you present and your aim of being helpful to us writers.

  3. I keep all my rejection letters as a matter of remembering my lowly start in the writing world at age 21 when I submitted my memoir to a few literary agencies. The ones that sting the most are the partial reads — the that-sounds-promising-send-me-more responses, only to send more and have them pass.

    I’m glad you wrote this Susan. Taking the step to really putting yourself out there can be tough as a young writer, pretty defeating. But you just have to do it. I’m a realist so I embraced myself for a rejection. Not because I wasn’t confident in my writing but I knew then and still know now that I have a long way to go.

    That’s one thing (among many) I really admire and enjoy about this site: established writers that take the time to sort of take us young folk under their wing in regard to the ins and outs of the published world.

    I give this article two Mr. T’s up.

    • Susan Henderson says:

      The great thing is that once you get a couple of publications under your belt, it starts to snowball in a nice way. Here’s to your memoir getting a second life!

      • The snowball. That’s what I’m hoping. When I first submitted my memoir, I didn’t have any writing cred. No “writer’s bio” worth much. And I was young. 21 then. I’m 28 now. I’ve matured vastly as a writer and it definitely reflects in my writing style and use of the English language. I still have a long way to go. I know that. That’s why I’m trying to soak up the wisdom of people like yourself on my journey.

        I’m trying to resurrect the memoir while currently writing my first novel. The biggest obstacle is reformulating the style of the memoir to better reflect my maturity. Big difference in one’s prose from age 21 to 28. That’s for sure. Not to mention, a lot of the storyline has changed too. When I began writing it, there was hope for a happy ending. It was about a close friend of mine who had been diagnosed with brain cancer. One of the chapters from the book I posted here on TNB as “The Black Thunderbird: Parts I and II.” Unfortunately, there was no happy ending in the sense of the tumor being fully removed. My friend passed. So I’ve essentially been stumped with that because, well, I don’t want the book to be a total bummer. I just haven’t figured out what the silver lining is yet.

        But I’ll figure it out. I’m thinking of combining the memoir along with other stories to be a collection. I know literary agencies and publishers aren’t big on collections but it’s probably what I will have to do. I want it to be a collection on the pathos and comedy of life and death. Funny stories. Sad stories. Serious stories. A mix that represents what life really is. A smorgasbord of emotions up and down.

        Thanks for getting back to me.

        • LitPark says:

          I’m sorry about your friend. The answer to how to end your memoir and how to shift the voice to reflect a more current you will make itself known to you. Just get immersed in writing that novel and keep the memoir question in the back of your head. The answer always comes. It’s possible you haven’t lived the answer yet, but the day you do, you’ll know it.

          I got good advice once from Ron Carlson, a great short story writer, who said to never end a story or a book on someone musing philosophically. End with a physical scene where everything is grounded in an actual moment. That helped me a lot with endings… reminded me to get out of my head and out of my characters’ heads and into the body where they’re actually doing something.

          There are lots of agents who aren’t afraid to take on collections or young writers, by the way. PJ Mark comes to mind. And Jonah Straus.

    • Susan Henderson says:

      Hey, just checked out your website… I’m a Virginian, too.

      • Oh really, whereabouts?

        I grew up in southside Virginia in Charlotte County. Little place called Phenix. It’s south of Appomattox and east of Halifax, right near the North Carolina border about 15 minutes away. However, I’ve been living in Charlottesville for a number of years. I stuck around after graduating from UVA. It’s a lot different than where I’m from which I sort of like.

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