Some thoughts about my probable impending rejection by Tu Books

Simon-Chan-network-marketing-training-rejectionOn 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.

Does it ever get easier to handle rejection?

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Recently, I was talking to a writer friend about submitting and he said to me: “I’ve been submitting, but, well, you know how it is. The rejections grind you down.”

And I was like, “No, no, after awhile they’re not as bad anymore. When you first get a certain kind of rejection–the one where the editor holds it for twice as long as normal or the one where the editor says he came this close to buying the story–it’s painful, but the next time, it doesn’t hurt as much.

However, even after my peptalk, my writer friend still seemed a bit dubious. And I don’t blame him. What I said was the truth. After 952 short story rejections, it’s impossible for me to imagine the magazine rejection that is capable of upsetting me for more than a few minutes. I’ve gotten rejected after rewrite requests. I’ve gotten rejections where the market said that we would’ve bought this, except that we’re closing. I’ve gotten rejections where the editor was like, “I loved this story, but I couldn’t get past this one thing that I felt to be scientifically inaccurate”. I’ve gotten nasty rejections from all the magazines that are famous for giving nasty rejections (you know which ones you are).

But…you know…I could be wrong. Because what I didn’t say to my writer friend is that as you improve and move into higher echelons, you start to get all these new opportunities…and each one of these opportunities involves new and more-horrifying types of rejections that you really haven’t built up any defenses for. For instance, last year, I pitched an article to a super well-known online newsmagazine. They were excited about the article and assigned me to it. I wrote the article and became super excited about the millions and millions of people who’d start coming to my blog. Generally, in non-fiction, once you’ve been assigned an article, the chances that they will use it are pretty high. But after I turned it in, the editor basically said that it wasn’t what they’d wanted and that they couldn’t use it.

I was devastated.

Like…that’s not like a short story rejection. Short story rejections are not really personal. You can always submit again and it’s really no problem. This was different. This was a relationship that was severed and an opportunity that was lost–maybe forever.

Of course, all the rejection clichés apply. You have to take risks in order to succeed. It was a learning experience. Next time it won’t be as bad.

But, man, I never again want to have another learning experience like that one. That really sucked.

But I will. In fact, if I continue as a writer, I can see all the new and more-horrible ways that I can potentially be rejected: losing my book deal, going out of print, getting bad reviews, losing awards, seeing blog posts that call my work racist…there is a world of horrible stuff that is just waiting to happen to me.

I don’t think that every profession faces this kind of omnipresent rejection. For instance, it seems like doctors almost never get rejected (which explains a lot about them, I think). If you want to be a doctor and you get rejected by the wrong people, you just can’t be a doctor anymore.

But it’s not like that for writing. For writers, the primary determinant of success is: How well can you handle rejection? If you can’t handle rejection well, then–no matter how good you are–you won’t submit, you won’t pursue new opportunities, and you’ll eventually fade away. If you can, then you’ll persevere and, eventually, will be published. My impression is that there are very few people who submit aggressively for 5+ years without seeing some kind of success.

But I just used the term “handle rejection” as if it’s some kind of skill that you can learn. It’s really not. The “handling” doesn’t mean that rejection doesn’t affect you. Some people say that you shouldn’t feel angry or depressed by rejection. I’d say…good luck with that. Is there some surefire technique out there for not feeling angry and depressed about things? Because a lot of times people give advice that seems to presuppose that with a little effort, you can just stop feeling negative feelings. That is bullshit. There is no such technique. It is very difficult to avoid negative feelings. They will descend upon you like a horrible black cloud of faulty neurotransmitters and there will be nothing you can do about it.

No, all that I mean by “handle rejection” is that writers should operate as if the fear of rejection is not a consideration. If you want to be a successful writer, then you shouldn’t avoid doing things, just because you’re afraid of the pain that comes from being rejected. You should pursue all the opportunities that you see. You should submit to all the markets that you want to be in.

Perseverance is a super simple lesson, but it’s one that I have to keep reminding myself about. However, at least I’ve seen the benefits of perseverance. I feel sorry for all you jerks who just have to take my word for it. Good luck with that.

My sixth hundred rejection

I got my sixth hundred rejection today.

Let’s see, my five hundredth was roughly nine months ago  on June 22nd, 2010.

My four hundredth was about nine months before that, on September 13th, 2009.

And my three hundredth was a year before that, circa August 8th, 2008.

In keeping with the general acceleration of my writing career, it took me four and a half years of submitting to get my first three hundred rejections, but only two and a half to get me my next three hundred. Some readers might also remember that my sale to Clarkesworld occurred right after my 500th rejection, meaning that 100 rejections have gone by since then without any positive news.

But that’s okay. I read only already-published and largely already-canonized books, but even amongst that selection, I find that some books speak to me and some do not. Some books, just because I was forced to read them in high school, or because I read them during a lunch break when I was particularly anxious and distracted, will never appeal to me in the way they would have if I had read them on the beach, or during a long plane trip. I assume that this problem is much worse for editors, who read stories under immense constraints in terms of time and speed, and who read the rawest, least pre-selected stories possible, and who, hence, cannot help but assume that any given story they’ll read is going to be kind of mediocre. I know that I’m getting better, and that I’ve written many stories much superior to the ones I’ve sold, and I feel confident that eventually some editor’s mind will click at the same time as he or she is reading one of my stories, and I will succeed once again.

But in the meantime, it’s fun to have 600 rejections. At this rate, I will reach my goal of 1,000 in only 36 months, or March 2014.