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So you were rejected . . .

imagesNot long ago a student of mine received a rejection from an editor that included the statement that the project lacked conflict. The student was confused because she felt she had strong conflict, and lots of it. And from what she told me, it seemed she might be right. Of course, I can’t know that without actually reading what she’d sent to the editor, but on the face of it, it did seem like there was plenty of conflict in the story. So if that’s the case, why did the editor say what she did?

Well, the truth is, sometimes editors simply don’t like a project and rather than tell the writer that, they say the most obvious thing they can think of. Since most newbie work does lack enough conflict, that’s a pretty safe thing to say. So the editor ends up taking the lazy/easy way out and figures saying there’s not enough conflict is probably true, anyway.

However, no matter what an editor might say, the bottom line probably is that the writer simply isn’t ready for prime time. The execution of the work might be technically fine, the writing adequate, but it’s not great. It simply doesn’t grab the reader, it doesn’t sparkle and sing. This is a tough thing to say to a writer, because there’s nothing concrete the editor can put her finger on, nothing firm she can tell the writer to work on improving. For all she knows, the writer may never get any better. Perhaps this work is the best she’ll ever do. In that case, she may never sell. No editor ever wants to tell a writer that, because she could be wrong. The writer might just need to become more seasoned and experienced. She might need to learn more and grow more.

Rejections are tough. I know firsthand how tough they are because I’ve received plenty of them in my day. And I’m sure I’ll continue to receive them for as long as I submit work to editors. They are simply part of the life of a writer. There are very few writers who have never received a rejection. In fact, I don’t know any, and I know a lot of writers, many of whom are NY Times bestsellers.

All rejection is not bad, though. Sometimes a rejection, no matter what the reason given, is the best thing that can happen to a writer because if an editor isn’t crazy about the work and willing to really fight for it in her publishing house, then that writer doesn’t want to be acquired by that editor, anyway. Sometimes there’s not a thing wrong with a project, but an editor just doesn’t “get” it. I firmly believe everything that happens, happens for a reason, and when one door closes, another is right around the corner, ready to open. I don’t consider this a Pollyanna attitude, either. I think it’s a realistic attitude. I’ve experienced tons of rejection in my writing life, from beginning to end. A much loved project that won a contest (published and unpublished writers) some years back, a project “loved” by my then-agent who called it “very high concept”, a project my critique partners thought was terrific, and one I heartily believed in — got half a dozen rejections, then was loved by an editor who wanted to buy it but her boss said it was too similar to the work of another writer they were already publishing and not having a great deal of success with. That project is sitting about forty percent finished and I still love it and wish something would happen with it. Maybe one of these days I’ll finish it and self-publish it for the digital market. Even if it only earned a few hundred dollars and covered the cost of getting it out there, it would be worth it to see it finished.

Such is the world of publishing. Nothing is easy. You never know why something is turned down. Maybe it’s not good enough (we are incapable of seeing our own work objectively) and maybe it is, but it was seen by the wrong editor. The main point I’m trying to make is, don’t beat yourself up over this. And, most importantly, don’t change anything while you’re still disappointed and unhappy and upset. Wait awhile. There’s no urgency. Give yourself time to mull the editor’s comments. You should never change anything just because someone tells you you should. If you make changes because of one editor’s comments (or one judge’s comments), you’ll drive yourself crazy.

Maybe the truth is, you really aren’t ready yet and this rejection is a blessing. Maybe someday you’ll think, thank goodness I didn’t sell that project to that editor and waited till I was much more skilled and had a much better first (or 10th or 20th) book to put out there. Or maybe you’ll sell this project next month to someone else. In the meantime, try to enjoy the process of improving and learning and writing. Try to take joy from the journey.


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