Learning From Literary Rejection

Learning From Literary RejectionIf you google “famous author rejection” you’ll learn two things. First, many authors had their manuscripts rejected over and over before going on to become bestsellers. Even J.K. Rowling was rejected 12 times before Harry Potter finally saw print.

The second thing you learn is that we writers love a good tale of literary rejection. Count the links in the search results. See what I mean? We thrive on that stuff.

Why is that?

My guess would be a mixture of encouragement and schadenfreude. Encouragement because, hey, if something like Harry Potter was rejected then maybe there’s hope for my story. Schadenfreude because J.K. Rowling may be sleeping on a mattress stuffed with money these days but at least she suffered to get there.

I know. Big call. But hear me out.

The point I’m trying to make is not that J.K. Rowling sleeps on a pile of crisply-minted thousand pound notes. I’m sure she doesn’t. (I mean, she could if she wanted to, but imagine how crinkly and uncomfortable it would be.) The point is, rejection is an integral part of the publishing process. In fact, sometimes rejection is the best thing that can happen to you as a writer.

“sometimes rejection is the best thing that can happen to you as a writer”

In some cases, like with Harry Potter, a rejection means the publisher doesn’t see a market for your otherwise impeccable manuscript. But sometimes a publisher rejects your manuscript because it’s genuinely dreadful.

If you’ve just finished the very first draft of your very first manuscript this may be hard to hear, but chances are it’s pretty awful. Mine was. And I’ve listened to enough author interviews to know I’m not alone. If you get swept up in the euphoria of finishing your novel and send it off to every publisher you can find, most likely all you’ll hear back is the sound of a lonely cricket chirping from behind the bookcase.

And that’s a good thing.

When I look back at my first manuscript, I cringe. I silently thank the publishers who rejected it for their good judgement. Once a book is published you can’t take it back. You want each manuscript you submit to be the very best it can be.

“Once a book is published you can’t take it back. You want each manuscript you submit to be the very best it can be.”

But there’s more to gain from rejection than just saving us from becoming the debut author whose book is the literary equivalent of a mullet — something that seemed cool at the time but now makes you squirm with embarrassment. As a writer you can learn a lot from being rejected by a publisher. You see, there are different kinds of rejection, and they each tell us something about our writing and where we are on the scale from unknown scribbler to published author.

The first type of rejection is the cold shoulder. The complete absence of a response. This could mean the publisher isn’t accepting unsolicited manuscripts, or you didn’t follow the submission guidelines on their website to the letter. (You did read the submission guidelines, didn’t you?) It could also mean your manuscript is unspeakably bad, in which case it’s time to do a course, or read some craft books, and start working on your next story.

“you sent a gore-splattered futuristic techno-thriller to Harlequin Romance”

Then you move up to the most common type of rejection: the polite form letter. Thanks, but this isn’t for us. Often this will mean exactly what it says — the manuscript may be sound, but you sent a gore-splattered futuristic techno-thriller to Harlequin Romance. It’s less discouraging than a total lack of response, suggesting that at least you rate highly enough to warrant a copy-paste email.

On Writing by Stephen KingNext is my favourite kind of rejection. In his memoir-slash-craft book, On Writing, Stephen King tells the story of how he got a rejection that came with feedback from the editor explaining where he was going wrong. I’ve received this kind of rejection myself on a couple of previous manuscripts. In both cases I got excellent editorial feedback, and encouragement to keep going.

I’ve spoken to a few editors since I began writing seriously. I know how overworked they are. If an editor takes the time to point out ways my story could be improved, that is gold. I’ve used what I learned from those comments in my current manuscript, and my writing is stronger for it.

I stand by my claim that literary rejection can be a good thing. Some rejections save you from a huge career mistake. The best rejections make you a better writer.