On my computer, I maintain a word document called “Things I am worried about” where I periodically go and list all the things that I am worried about. It’s not an exhaustive list, it’s more in the way of a mental exercise. The purpose is and was to show myself that most of my worries end up being baseless: I wanted to demonstrate to myself that my worries usually don’t come to pass and, if they do, it’s usually not that bad.
And in the case of personal, professional, and academic worries, this is largely true. However, for writing worries it’s absolutely not the case. When I worry about writing-related stuff, the worry usually does come to pass and when it does, it often is kind of bad. If I am worried about something being rejected, it usually does get rejected (since most things get rejected). If I am worried about a project falling through, it usually does fall through. If I am worried about a story sucking, it usually does suck. This is just the way the writing world works. Unlike in most areas of life, there’s a massive amount of churn that goes on beneath the surface.
Right now, I’m about two or three weeks away from the biggest selection moment of my life, this Tu Books contest where I’m a finalist. If I win, I’ll, like, be a novelist. I’ll have a novel that will come out and be published. Those stakes are way higher than any short story submission or agent search.
But there are these four other finalists. And they seem like pretty good writers too. So what can I say? I am not hopeful about my chances. I mean, I could win, but experience tells me that I probably won’t.
I can’t even say that I’m terribly anxious about it. I don’t spend much time ruminating over it and cataloguing reasons why I do and don’t have a chance. I literally do not lose any sleep over it (when I’m really worrying about stuff, it definitely cuts into my sleep). However, it does pop into my mind once in a while, “Oh yeah, that’s happening. I’m probably going to lose. When I do, it will be incredibly disheartening.”
There’s not even any kind of preparation you can make. After I lose, it’s almost definitely going to suck for a few days or weeks. I mean, this will mean that several people read my whole manuscript and decided they’d rather not publish it. That’s always hard to take.
And yeah, I know the writer’s mantra is to be insensitive to rejection and develop a thick skin and all that. But, ummm, whatever. I have about as thick a skin, rejection-wise, as anyone in the world. I submit constantly. I’m rapidly approaching 1000 short story rejections (wooo, that will be a party day). But some rejections still do sting. There’s nothing you can do about that.
When I was on a Baltimore Science Fiction Society panel recently (about the slush pile), I said that sometimes when I get a rejection, I feel an urge to email the editor back and say, “Come on, I think you should take another look. In my opinion, this story really does belong in your magazine.”
And everyone laughed, as if that was kind of crazy (which it is. Obviously, I would never send that email). But still, I can’t be alone in wanting to send that email. There’s a real frustration in wanting something so badly and being fairly close to seeing it happen, but still not really being able to make it happen.
Helena Bell posted a long blog post on cover letters recently, which included the (to me) rather odd tidbit that she leaves her Nebula nomination and her Clarkesworld sales out of her cover letters. When I asked why, she basically said that she didn’t want her credentials to sell a story that wouldn’t stand on its merits.
To me, this sounded like insanity. What are a story’s merits? How many great works of art are bitterly hated by how many people? Andre Gide—a very sensitive and assiduous reader—rejected Proust’s novel. Proust basically had to self-publish it. I think that editors are generally good readers, but I don’t think that they have a monopoly on assigning merit. I think that editors frequently reject stories that, if published, would’ve been better-received by their readers than the ones that they actually did publish.
All this is just a long way of saying that I believe in my work. Not in some kind of crazy “I am an unsung genius” way. But just as a statement of fact. When I send a story out, I generally believe that it is worthy of publication at the market to which I’ve sent it. Once I no longer believe that, I usually stop sending it out. Sometimes frequent rejection of a story spurs a reappraisal, but oftentimes it doesn’t. Just this last week, I edited the galleys of my story “Droplet” (which will appear in the We See A Different Frontier anthology). I wrote this story nearly three years ago, in March of 2010, and it’s been rejected 14 times. I expected to be embarrassed by it, but instead I was really impressed by its subtlety and insight. That story caused me at least as much angst as I’ve ever had from a short story: it got very close to publication at three separate magazines. I definitely cried over it at least once (when it got rejected after a rewrite request).
I don’t want to make editors feel bad over this. I rejected 850 stories when I was reading slush. I know for a fact that my rejections made people really upset. And that they questioned my judgment. I know that I rejected stories which went on to sell to other professional markets. I don’t feel particularly bad about that and I don’t think they should feel bad about being upset over my rejections. That’s just the name of the game. You put your heart and soul into something, and although you know it’d be healthier to be dispassionate, it’s hard to see exactly how that dispassion is to be achieved.
After awhile, you get to be less sensitive (I am rarely upset by short story rejection, even one where I came really close), but tender spots do still remain, and I am pretty sure that this Tu Books thing is one of them.
Oh well. The only thing to do is to manage the fear of rejection. I try not to worry about my submissions while they’re out (and, this post aside, I’ve done a pretty good job of not worrying about this contest) and I try not to let the fear of being rejected prevent me from submitting things.
But still, it’s odd to think that there’s this fairly painful thing coming for me and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.