Friday, March 26, 2010

For mental health, reject rejection

As someone who works with freelance writers, I reject the word "rejection" -- at least in our world.

Specifically, I reject its implications. "Rejection" indicates active opposition, as in "The government rejected the latest demand from the rebels." Or "The body of the transplant recipient rejected the new organ." Or "The 6-11 center rejected five of his opponent's shots."

In most cases, that's not what happens when an editor decides not to use something you have written or queried. And calling that a "rejection" only feeds into the self doubt and self loathing that destroys so many writing careers before they start.

I remember a wonderful cartoon that showed a small, balding man walking dejectedly away from the pearly gates, clutching a note that read: "Thank you for applying, but you are not what we need at this particular time." The title of the cartoon was "Hell for editors."

Like probably every other writer who saw that cartoon, I laughed. And sure, it's annoying when you get one of those notes (I'm often tempted to reply: "So, is there a particular time when it would be what you need?"). It's even more annoying when you never receive any response at all.

But those are not rejections. They're choices.

What I always tell writers is, it's similar to when you go to the grocery store for a loaf of bread. There are a dozen different kinds of bread hanging around on the shelf, all perhaps hoping in their passive breadlike way to be chosen, and you pick one.

Does that mean you're rejecting the other breads? Of course not. Maybe the one you picked is the cheapest. Maybe it has oats in it. Or maybe it's the one you saw in a commercial the day before.

It's like that for magazine and Website editors. I know, because I used to be one.

In that capacity, I would have a certain amount of space -- a "newshole," in the vernacular -- that needed to be filled. Every month, I would have more queries and manuscripts than I needed to fill that space.

Sure, there were times when I would decide that an article wasn't up to our standards, either because of the writing or the subject chosen. More often, though, it had to do with length, photo possibilites, and whether or not we had run a similar story in the last year or so.

So instead of saying "I just got a rejection on that idea," I call it a "no." There's a subtle, but important difference. Words have power.

Here's how I've learned to limit the destruction to my writers' psyche by bypassing rejection.

1. Always send queries, not a completed manuscript. Editors like to be able to decide on the length, tone and focus of an article, and you take that away from them when you drop a finished piece on them. Also, if you get a "no," you can take comfort in the fact that they aren't saying no to your writing ability, just the idea. If you're pitching a short story or essay, tease them with a few paragraphs.

2. Keep lots of queries in circulation. That way, having one shot down isn't that big a blow.

3. I interpret the phrase "no simultaneous submissions" to mean the editor doesn't want to receive what is basically a form letter. But one idea can be crafted for different markets -- and if you send that query the next day, it isn't simultaneous.

4. Respond to "no" responses. It's rude for editors not to e-mail or write back to us when we query them. But when you think about it, it's also rude for us not to answer them when they do.

When I receive a no, I always fire off a quick e-mail or note that says: ""Thanks for your consideration. Perhaps I can tempt you another time."

Don't expect a response to that, but it may implant your name in that editor's mind.

5. Sure, you're mad about losing a sale. Use that. I try to immediately send off another query on the same idea that day.

Rejection sucks. But not calling it that might ease the sting a bit.


Tom said...

Good advice, Darrell. I'm much more thick-skinned about rejections these days (having received a thick sheaf) and find it's pretty easy to move on to the next query. Unless it's a publication I REALLY want to get into, and I think I have the perfect pitch. Then I just exercise my favorite curses and move on.

I am surprised at the number of publications that don't even send the barest email acknowledgment for a query. I sent out 10 queries on a pitch for a roller derby article to some mainstream mags and some smaller publications and didn't hear anything. Oh well...

Zooleft said...

Thanks Darrell,
This is great advice and so hard to get past for those of us just starting our. It's easy to think the rejection is because your work wasn't good enough or to take it personally. After working as an editor on a small college literary magazine for two years, you'd think I would know it often has much to do with the work, and often has to do with any number of other things like theme, space, personal preference, etc. So, it's nice to be reminded to not take that no for an answer, and certainly not to let some blankity blank editor somewhere stop me from publishing what I have to say.

Grandma Vonnie said...

Reading your blog reinforced all the welcome words of widsom you shared at the Sedalia Writers' Conference today. As a new writer-wannabe, I have not yet developed the required thick skin to survive in this publishing black hole. I'll cling to your take on this rejection process like a literary lifeline. Vonnie Davis

karen97 said...

I replaced the word rejection with "pass" ages ago. My submission isn't a good fit, for whatever reason, and the editor has chosen to pass. No personal rejection attached to that.

Interesting take on simultaneous submissions, Darrell. I wonder if other editors share your interpretation.

Karen G

Darrell Laurant said...

Some of them probably don't. But just as they get to choose among submissions every issue, we should be able to choose to whom we sell our articles.