Dealing with writing rejection (aka on robustness)

A former student emailed me to point out that I might have sounded less than empathetic in my last post. While it’s true that I think you must be robust to cope with life as a fiction writer, I’m not unsympathetic (at least I hope I’m not) to those who struggle with rejection. In fact, I’ve coached writers whose main problem is dealing with the no, and there are as many techniques for getting over rejection as there are people. But one thing always holds true – if you don’t think you’re good enough without the acceptance, you won’t think you’re good enough with it.

What does this mean for writers? It means we’re in a doubly damned business – it’s creative, so we have to find that elusive spark that allows us to even enter the race: and it’s competitive, so once we’re in the race, we have to beat a large number of others for every acceptance. Or, of course, we have to get used to losing – frequently.

I came from an industry where rejection IS the business – if you’re a model, you get used to being told ‘no’ a lot. You also get used to standing in front of a couple of guys, with half a dozen of your peer group behind you, and hearing the guys say ‘too fat’, ‘too thin’, ‘funny nose’, ‘bad boobs’ or whatever qualifies the ‘no’ they hand you, and they say it loud enough for your peer group to hear too. Funnily enough (or maybe not) models are the most generous and supportive folk I’ve ever come across, except for long distance runners. The big advantage of this way of doing things is that you can look across at the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen in your life, somebody much more gorgeous than you could ever be, and hear the guy say ‘no’ – and know he’s a complete idiot!

The disadvantage of writing is that you tend to get your ‘no’ in private – and you don’t often have any way of knowing if the ‘guy’ is an idiot or not.

So what do you do?

Build yourself a life.
Don’t define yourself through, and only through, your writing. Have hobbies and interests that remain entirely personal and non-competitive (this writer has been making a lot of bread this week, as she’s worked through various issues around the Willesden Herald and the resulting email/phone call deluge which has, to be honest, been something of a drain on her writing time). I’m a terrible embroiderer, but I like to sit down with silks and fabric and spend an hour or so just making stitches. I don’t show my embroidery to people – in fact I sometimes throw it away as soon as its finished – because for me it’s the process that matters, not the outcome.

Don’t take rejection personally. Easy to say, difficult to do. Building a circle of writer friends can help. I knew two other writers on the Willesden shortlist and have since started a fascinating email correspondence with a third; it’s given me a chance to vent, grouch, laugh, and generally kick back with people who’ve had the same experience, and that’s good for one’s self-esteem and one’s karma.

Live in confidence, not expectation. This is the toughest one, and it applies to everybody, not just writers. It’s the one I struggle with every day. I am confident that I will get a novel published in the next year or so, but I am not ‘waiting’ for anything to happen. People who put their lives, hopes, desires, ambitions, and quotidian pleasures on hold while they wait for the ‘big thing’, tend to die disappointed. I am guilty of this, and I’ve caught myself thinking ‘Oh, I’ll book a trip to India when my novel is published’, or even ‘Hmm, I’ll buy those expensive shoes when I’ve sold another three short stories’. Denying yourself a pleasure today (assuming you can afford it) for a future that may be indefinitely postponed is simply daft. Posthumous publication does you, the writer, no good at all. If you are confident that things will happen at the right time, you are more inclined to get on with other things, and those other things, more often than not, deliver the very ‘big thing’ you were expecting all along.

The picture shows rejection bread – with sunflower seeds!


  1. Nik's Blog
    12th February 2008

    What an intelligent post, Kay. Well said!

    And that bread looks yummy.

  2. Kay Sexton
    12th February 2008

    Thanks Nik. The great thing about bread is you use all your aggression making it, and end up with excellent food. There are few things in life that are so very satisfying as bashing bread around and then eating the results of your bad moment, all hot with melting butter …

  3. SallyQ
    13th February 2008

    Very good comments, Kay. I didn’t think you sounded un-empathetic in your last post. I took it as you being resilient in the face of all that’s happened.

    The best way to deal with rejection, which I’m sure you already know, is to make sure you’ve got plenty of other stuff out there doing the rounds so that whilst you may get a rejection one day, the next might well bring an acceptance.

    I was quite proud of the 100 rejections I got last year as it meant I’d tried, harder than I’d ever tried before – and luckily I had nearly half as many acceptances to ease the sting.

    But you’re right is that we can’t pin all our hopes on this one thing. There has to be more in our lives that fulfils us, then anything nice that happens in our writing is a bonus.

    That bread does look very nice indeed.

  4. Kip de Moll
    14th February 2008

    The worst way to deal with rejection is the way I did: get close enough to acceptance to be proud that so many rejections were personal letters of regret, which actually translated to encouragement for more submissions, but still getting rejected to the point I stopped writing for 20 years.
    What a waste!
    Now blogging seems a great way to pick up the pieces and feel like some of your thoughts matter to someone. So if you don’t get the words in that magazine, you get them in your own blog. It doesn’t pay as well, but neither does 100 rejections.
    And at least we have each other!
    Thanks, Kay

  5. Kay Sexton
    15th February 2008

    Sally, you’re a wise woman – five submissions a week means that you hardly notice the rejections rolling in because there are enough acceptances to keep you doing the happy dance all day …

    Kip, that’s a very sad story, but it’s great that you’re blogging now – are you starting to send stuff out again too? Rejection is very difficult to deal with, and we all have to build our own psyches to be able to cope.


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