Rejecting Rejection

By James Scott Bell

The writer Barnaby Conrad tells the story of a matador, all decked out in his "suit of lights," talking to a group of reporters outside the arena.

One reporter asks, "How did you happen to become a bullfighter?"

The matador replied, "I took up bullfighting because of the uncertainty of being a writer."

Truth be told, many of us would rather face the horns of an angry bull than another rejection letter. At least we can run away from the bull!

But for a writer, rejection goes with the territory. There is no way we can avoid it. There are ways, however, to keep it from becoming a poison, something that makes us want to curl up and quit. Here are a few things to keep in mind about rejection:

1. Rejection is not personal

Rejection of your manuscript is not a rejection of you as a person, or as a writer. It is only a rejection of a piece of writing you have turned out.

That makes a difference. You can always grow as a writer. Always. You can learn from your setbacks. If you stick to it, you will get better. So the rejection of a piece of writing is not saying anything about your potential.

A rejection says one of two things. Either a piece isn't right for the publisher at that time, or it is not up to their standards. The first is something you can't change; the second you can. You do it by learning to write better.

If, for some strange reason, someone were to tell you that you personally don't have what it takes, you can be sure that someone is off his or her nut. How can anyone predict your future? Writing is a learned craft. People can learn how to write. No one has the capacity to tell you that you are the exception to the rule.

An obscure editor once told a future Nobel Prize winner: "I'm sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don't know how to use the English language." Rudyard Kipling we remember. The editor no one can recall.

Writer Ron Goulart said, "Never assume that a rejection of your stuff is also a rejection of you as a person. Unless it's accompanied by a punch in the nose."

2. Rejection happens to the best

It's comforting to know that rejection happens to all writers, no matter how well known. Just remembering that fact helps enormously when a new rejection letter trembles in your fingers.

Such examples can also remind you of the value of persistence. One of my writing heroes, William Saroyan, collected a pile of rejection slips thirty inches high--some seven thousand--before he sold his first short story! Alex Haley, author of Roots, wrote every day, seven days a week for eight years before selling to a small magazine. They stuck it out, and eventually broke through.

During my period of constant rejection, I often turned to one of my favorite little books, Rotten Rejections from Pushcart Press. This is a little compendium of the setbacks some of our most famous writers received. For example:

Zane Grey, who became one of the best-selling authors in history, got this from an editor rejecting one of his early novels: "I do not see anything in this to convince me you can write either narrative or fiction."

Tony Hillerman has sold millions of books about a Navajo police officer working on the reservation. An editor wrote him, "If you insist on rewriting this, get rid of all that Indian stuff."

Regarding Animal Farm, George Orwell was told, "It is impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A."

If it happened to them, it will happen to you. So always remember you're in good company. And keep writing!

3. Rejection can point the way

The best rejection is constructive rejection. Unfortunately, it is all too rare. Editors usually don't have the time or inclination to sit down and tell you where you manuscript may have gone wrong.

When one does take the time, though, treasure the advice. See what you can learn from it. And write a thank you note to the editor. It's not just the right thing to do; it will almost always put in the "good graces" section of that editor's mind. This can be invaluable when you submit another piece to the same person.

When rejection comes with specificity, use it as a road sign. It will help you get closer to your eventual target--publication.

4. Rejection is not final

I wrote for three solid years before selling anything. I wrote a small landfill of stuff—novels, screenplays, plays, articles, essays, jingles, poems and shopping lists. Part of this was my dues; I was learning the craft of being a writer. I was also learning the discipline of production, sitting down each day and doing a certain number of pages. This was invaluable education and training.

I had faith that rejections would not be final. At each step of the way I made sure I learned something. What was it I could have done better?

What it came down to was one simple concept: persistence. That's the only "trick." Keep writing, soak it in prayer, and reject rejection. Someday you'll break through.

James Scott Bell studied philosophy, creative writing, and film in college, acted in off-Broadway theater in New York, and received his law degree, with honors, from the University of Southern California. A former trial lawyer, Bell is the Christy Award winning author of Deadlock, Breach of Promise and The Trials of Kit Shannon series which includes A Greater Glory, A Higher Justice and A Certain Truth. He lives in Southern California with his wife, Cindy, and their two children. You can learn more at his website:

© 2010 James Scott Bell. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.

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