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#321: Artistic Discouragement

Dear Captain of the Awkward Army,

I have recently decided to do something about my lifelong dream to be a professional writer. I still have a non-creative-writing job that makes money (well, a paying internship, but close enough), but I am trying to spend more and more of my free time writing fiction, editing, and submitting stuff. I haven’t finished the book I started last year yet, but I’m probably 60% done, and in the last four months or so I’ve written six short stories, all of which I have submitted to at least one magazine.

Here is my problem: I’ve gotten ten rejections so far and no acceptances. I get that this is totally normal and most writers and creative people weather a nightmarish storm of “Your piece is not what we are looking for right now” for weeks or months or years before the “We would like to pay you to do this thing you like” Magical Skippy Unicorn shows up, but the fact is: I get a little more depressed and lose a little more confidence in my abilities with every form letter I receive.

Do you have any other advice besides “just keep writing”? That’s not really the problem for me; I write almost compulsively and really enjoy making up stories. The problem is finding the energy to keep trying to improve my work (through rigorous editing, seeking feedback, reading books about the craft of writing and so on) and keep submitting when it feels so pointless—I’m probably going to get rejected anyway, so why do the hard bits that I don’t like? I’ve been trying to get critique to figure out where I’m going wrong, but the online forums I have tried are really frustrating, I think my friends are pretty sick of reading things I wrote, and I’m currently working in a country where the main language is not English, so I’m not sure how successful I’m going to be in finding an English-speaking writers’ group.

Help?

Yours,

Not starving, and apparently not an artist either

Dear Not Starving:

Sorry to disappoint you. You can:

1) Keep writing and sending out your work.

2) Give up and do something else.

You said:

 I get that this is totally normal and most writers and creative people weather a nightmarish storm of “Your piece is not what we are looking for right now” for weeks or months or years before the “We would like to pay you to do this thing you like” Magical Skippy Unicorn shows up, but the fact is: I get a little more depressed and lose a little more confidence in my abilities with every form letter I receive.”

What I read is: “I get that this is totally normal for other people, but I was really hoping that it would be different for me, especially since I’m usually pretty successful at things that I do.

10 rejections is NOTHING.  I know it feels upsetting – and as a filmmaker, I’m usually paying $20-$50 in Festival submission fees in return for my stupid form letter, and I feel it personally every single expensive time – but if you’re applying to the People Who Officially Curate And Publish Things they have many, many, many, many submissions to wade through and they can’t always fall in love with your stuff.  It has to be good enough, it has to fill a niche or a need they have, they have to have a spot for it, it has to fit in somehow with total package of things they have planned for this issue or festival program but be different enough to stand out, they have to like it enough to want to put their own time into it, they have to see a market for it. It’s subjective and not fair.

In many ways it’s just like dating. Rejection hurts. It sucks. But because it’s so based on other people’s subjective opinions and decision-making, the only things you can really control are a) improving the product (polishing the draft of a short story, getting a flattering haircut and taking a better dating profile photo) and b) contacting more people in the hopes that one of them will like what you have going on. Which perversely sets you up for even more rejection. But if you look at it as “Other people made their own subjective decision that I can’t control, guess I’d better make more stuff/try again until I find the people who really get and appreciate me” it’s a much more manageable and less depressing outlook than “WHAT’S WRONG WITH MEEEEEEEEE?”

It’s not comforting, but it’s a line that every single person who makes stuff must walk at some point or another. And it doesn’t really go away once you do have some success, because then you have the pressure of maintaining it with each new project, so whatever you think life will be like when you get to be a “professional writer” the reality will probably be very different and you’ll need a love of the work itself and to have created a good life – friendships, other interests – to sustain you. When someone gets published and critically acclaimed it may look like overnight success. That success is bought with years of rejections and tiny small victories and baby steps. You have to really celebrate every victory and give yourself credit for those, and let the rejections fall into the pool of “Who knows what people will like? This is what I do, so I’m going to keep doing it.”

Otherwise:

Maybe look around for that English-speaking writer’s group. You never know. If one doesn’t exist, start one. Or look for an online version. The internet is full of people who love using words and reading words!

Maybe say “fuck improving the craft” for a while and write things purely for fun and for the joy of it for a while. Tell good stories. Take more risks.

Maybe do some blogging or creative transmedia stuff to build an audience for your work and get some of the good feelings that come from having people read and respond to your writing. Find someone to collaborate with where you each take turns writing a story Exquisite Corpse-style. Find a graphic artist to turn one of your stories into an animated graphic novel or an interactive app. Take a story or idea you love and find a different medium to tell it. Write stuff that you want to read. Write stuff that’s missing from the world. Find a few people who like what you do, and decide that they are your audience.

If rejection is killing you, eff the gatekeepers and look into self-publishing your work. My friend Phil did just that, check it out. Chuck Wendig is another person who is creating his own writing career and connecting directly with audiences to sell his work. Catherynne M. Valente wrote short stories in the form of letters to her audience for years. Filmmakers, check out the work of King Is A Fink and Awkward Black Girl. The gatekeepers will take notice of them and come to them eventually with money and contracts and offers of a mainstream audience, but they aren’t waiting for that to do what they want to do. And when the big time comes, they’ll be ready because they’ve already been doing it. Think of what it would mean to a publisher or an agent to take you on as an author with a built-in following who is great at self-promotion and attracting fans? Lots of people can write well. Not everyone can have the hustle to make their work stand out in today’s crowded marketplace.

Don’t stop pursuing traditional publishing channels. Look at what successful authors who write in the same genres you work in are doing. What are their websites like? How do they interact with fans? What kind of magazines & journals did they get their early work published in? Who are the agents that represent them? Keep sending out the short stories. As in filmmaking, it’s easier to get people to watch & respond to short work than it is to get them to commit to reading or watching a feature film.

Maybe devote 2 hours/week to marketing your work – crafting query letters, looking for places to submit – and then give yourself permission to not worry about it at all the rest of the time. Make it your goal to get 1000 rejections by the end of the year!

Maybe take some time off and devote that time to reading for pleasure. (Keep sending your stories out during that time).

Finish that novel! And then celebrate because you finished a novel!

The best “other” advice I have for you, if you really want this, is to make your life something that will support your work and help you get through the low times. If you’re falling into depression, treat that depression. Take really good care of yourself. Get sleep, get exercise, eat good food, enjoy this internship that you have and get the most you can out of it, write both for money and for pleasure, try out other jobs that might interest you, make great friends, have a string of interesting romances, see as much as you can of the country that you’re working in. You don’t have to be tortured to be an artist.

Finally, I’m linking this great commencement address by Neil Gaiman, who answers this question really fully and beautifully (and with the benefit of being a published, established, beloved author rather than someone like you who is working her way up into that job called “professional writer” the best way she can). He deals directly with “…the problems of failure, the problems of hopelessness, of discouragement, of hunger. You want everything happen and you want it to happen right now…and things go wrong!

I especially love this:

“The things I did because I was excited and wanted to see them exist in reality have never let me down, and I have never regretted the time I have spent on any of them.”  -Neil Gaiman

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89 comments
  1. Sarah G. said:

    Awesome advice! I’m another would-be writer and I appreciated both the tone and the heaps of useful links you posted.

    10 rejection slips IS nothing. It’s like job hunting today – I submitted my resume A LOT before finally getting an interview. Sometimes a person is great, but not a right fit for a particular office. Sometimes a story is fantastic, but the month’s edition of the magazine is focused on dark comedy and the piece is light fantasy. It happens. Basing your self esteem on rejection slips is a recipe for disaster, LW. As we learn in teaching school – when a kid blows up at you, it could be because his folks yelled at him that morning, not because you did anything wrong. Let it slip off your shoulders and keep on working.

    Two people I like reading are The Ferrett (www.theferrett.com) – he’s published a number of short stories now – and Writing about Writing (http://chrisbrecheen.blogspot.com/), which is by a person who is making a real, solid stab at writing and getting published, but for whom (to my knowledge) it hasn’t happened yet. There’s worth in reading both.

    • Sarah G. said:

      Also, check out No Red Pen, by Vicki Hudson (http://www.amazon.com/No-Red-Pen-Writers-Critique/dp/1470042134). It has no reviews yet on Amazon because I haven’t got off my ass to write one – I’m an advance reader – but it’s got a lot of really good information on how to find or start a writer’s group in person or online.

    • alphakitty said:

      If you write, you’re a writer, not a “would-be writer.”

      • LW said:

        Thank you for saying this.

      • Sgt. Senior said:

        This! I’m a “would-be writer,” because at the moment I’m not actually producing anything and for the last few weeks I’ve really been blowing off my set “writing time.”

        Last spring, when I was doing 10,000+ words/month, THEN I was a writer. :) And I will be again, whether or not I get published. LW, if you’re writing, you’re a writer.

  2. Architectrix said:

    As the Captain says, this is totally normal, and the ability to deal with being rejected over and over and over again is necessary for being a professional writer. If you hate this too much to keep putting yourself through it, do something else for a living and write for fun.

    If you want to write professionally, I think you’re basically doing the right things. But “where am I going wrong?” after four months and ten rejections suggests you may not have a realistic sense of how long it usually takes to sell anything. Keep doing what you’re doing, make it your goal to sell one short story to a paying market this year and to finish your first novel, think about what you want your second novel to be about, and try to chill. And maybe go easy on the “how to write” books — it’s tempting to spend time reading those rather than writing, and actually writing is probably a better investment of your time.

    (This is assuming you’re not doing anything wrong that is easy to fix — submitting in formats other than what submission guidelines ask for, submitting to magazines that don’t publish what you write, making sloppy mistakes, etc. But ten rejections doesn’t suggest anything other than that you are a normal person early in the process of trying to get your first sale.)

    • Sarah G. said:

      Mercedes Lackey worked on her first book for 5 years before she got it published. She’s over 50 books published now. Sometimes it takes a while. :)

  3. I love all of this advice. I would add that you should find someone who won’t critique you, but can just act as a cheerleader. I have friends who I can ‘talk shop’ with, but you need someone who will tell you you’re great and encourage your work, especially when self-esteem is suffering.

    And really watch the Neil Gaiman video Captain linked. Do it. Now.

  4. Martine said:

    If you’re considering self-publishing, you could check out the “Self-Publishing” and “Digital-Age Publishing” posts in this tag. He talks about how the actual process of self-publishing a book went for them there (there are also posts about the book(s) during the process and about getting proofs).

  5. RMJ said:

    Good advice. There is no shortcut for “write, all the time.” I’ve only been paid for my writing a few times, but one piece of advice I have:

    If you’re convinced that no one likes or could ever like your work? Or if you’re hurting for people to give you feedback on your writing? Start a blog, for real. If you engage with people elsewhere and promote the hell out of your work and publish regularly, people WILL come and like and hate and love and react to your work. Not right away, but they will come, probably at a much quicker rate than publication elsewhere. Make your own space. You probably won’t be Dooce, but you might gain an audience and a sense of validation from it, and if you keep at it it may lead to non-self-publication.

    Also! Think of it a little like applying to college – there are safeties, and there are reach schools. Send pitches to places that need you to write for free, and send pitches to your favorite magazine EVAR. The results may surprise you.

  6. Sarah said:

    I’m also trying to make writing my career, and I’ve been working at it for years, actively writing, submitting, going to conferences, workshopping… 10 rejections is a pittance. Bleh.

    “I have recently decided to do something about my lifelong dream to be a professional writer.”

    So, what does being a professional writer looks like in your dream? Cause, for me, the dream I had was SO WRONG, and I’ve found a lot of people shared my delusions.

    The reality is rough and endless hard work (even after you get published). It requires a balance of art and business, and the publishing industry these days is a mess. Not only is practicing craft something to obsess over forever, but an aspiring professional NEEDS to learn the business–stay on top of the swift changes in the industry, learn at least the basics of what to look for in (and negotiate out of) contracts, study self-publishing, follow pro author’s blogs (the ones who are where you want to be), go to conferences to meet other writers and editors, etc.

    Also realize that when an editor rejects your work, you’ll probably never know why. Maybe she ate that huge slice of dark chocolate lava cake after the bacon cheeseburger at lunch and has a tummy ache and hates the world? It’s not personal. Even if she really hates your story, it doesn’t mean she hates YOU. So when you get a rejection, take of your artist hat and put on the business hat and send that sucker right out again.

    And do everything else the Cap said.

  7. K. said:

    Another place to look online are the Absolute Write forums (http://absolutewrite.com/forums/index.php). There are posters there who can beta read/critique your work or give advice on how to write a query letter/which markets are good and which to look out for as well as any number of subjects.

    Not to mention a place to commiserate/sympathize on rejections &/or how to develop a thicker skin on dealing with critiques and rejections.

  8. I’m in the same boat as LW, and it’s exactly no fun to experience it sometimes. I recently went to a scifi/fantasy con in my hometown and made it a point to go to several writing panes and they had some really great advice.

    https://www.loft.org/online-classes – check out this site. They are local to me but they do offer some online stuff and every author at the panel raved about how helpful their classes and community are for those who are working towards getting published.

    https://duotrope.com/ – an online list of publishers, their response times, rejection rates and all that jazz. Sometimes if you know the time frame you are working in it can be easier to handle.

    They stressed that sending your work in the correct format is one of the best first impressions you can give to an editor. Putting in the correct margins, spelling, grammar, and all that jazz tells them you know what you are doing in that department at least.

    The thing that they repeated more then anything else though was to submit your stuff everywhere and all the time and not to send it only where you think you deserve. Send it to the very best, the ones that are last on your list of places you are willing to be published and everywhere in between. One line they said that really got to me was that if you feel that your story deserves to be printed and you are comfortable with it send it to places that will publish but not pay and these also may reject your story, but that’s ok its worth a shot. It doesn’t contribute to the living fund but just having something printed gets your name out there and it’s something you can put on your intro letter and tell people and feel a little bit awesome about.

    Good luck! Power through the negative feelings and keep sending stuff out. Also that Captain has great advice as do all the people who responded, in particular the bit about the blog. It gets you used to dealing with people’s commentary and it’s a little boost that at least someone else likes your stuff enough to keep reading.

  9. Fizz said:

    Also, don’t forget that the parts you “hate”–editing, polishing, everything after the making-up-a-story part–are part of being a pro writer too. In the best case, where there starts to be a lot of demand for your work, you’ll have to do much MORE of that, not less. Would the confidence that you’re going to get paid for it make that worthwhile? Or would you still hate it?

  10. remi said:

    Another thing the LW can try is writing fanfiction. It’s a good way to just write for fun but still put it out for other people to enjoy and, possibly, write positive reviews for that will boost your ego as the rejection letters tear it down. And popular fanfiction authors, as we’ve seen with Cassandra Clare and the lady who wrote 50 Shades Of Grey, can use their personal fan base as a boost towards getting published.

    Of course that’s not really a reason to write fanfiction in the first place, if she chooses to. There’s no guarantee that she’ll suddenly get a huge fan base within the fan base, or that it will help her get published. But the first point still stands, she can legitimately write for fun without having to worry about publishing it, and she might get a bit of self esteem out of it if people like it and write positive reviews.

    • Mary said:

      Crossed in the mail with you :-/ It takes me ages to do phone keyboarding :-(

      • remi said:

        You wrote all that on your phone? Woah! I’m impressed! When i try to write on my iPod the result is usually completely unintelligible haha.

        • Mary said:

          It was a stark choice: downstairs to a real keyboard, or phone typing from bed, on an unusual cold Australian winter morning. Brr.

    • K. said:

      Thirding fanfiction. It’s what I’m using to practice my skills and refresh my grammar before I tackle original works. Mind you, my readership is minute even on AO3 & FF.net since I write original characters in an uber-obscure fandom anyway.

    • Absolutely fanfiction. Without it, I wouldn’t have half the courage I do. Plus, my fandom friends are amazing; one of them came to my wedding, many of the have gone on to jobs in publishing and are Good Contacts, and we still read each others’ work.

      The only problem I had with it was that people liked me and said nothing but ” YES MOAR HAVE MY BABIES” so the push to get better, to skin yourself and make something new, has to come from within yourself. But that, on balance, is a good problem to have.

    • LW said:

      The last time I wrote fanfiction was around the age of 9 or 10, so this is something I will think about.

      • Fun Fact: Fifty Shades is a republished Twilight fic with a find-and-replace done on the names!

        • LW said:

          I knew that! But somehow it just made me more depressed. Alack.

      • I completely disagree with this advice – your problem is marketing, not writer’s block, and fanfic is by definition unmarketable. (Unless you zombify it like “50 Shades”! SHUDDER)

        I do recommend online writing groups or a writing coach. I had a fairly brief, cheap coaching stint via email & phone with Nerissa Nields (songwriter/novelist) and it was very helpful. She’s at http://www.nerissanields.com/ but I expect there are lots of other online coaches and published authors who have similar side businesses.

  11. Mary said:

    A suggestion that is really taste dependant: some people find writing in the fanfic community useful. (It’s possible you do already, I know, in which case everything I have to say will be known to you, sorry.) Pros:
    – self-publishing is the norm, you stick things on a website (try Archive of Our Own) and hope they find readers (promotion skills are still useful, but a lot of readers in smaller fandoms literally read every story)
    – it contains a huge number of skilled writers and editors (although you will of course need to look around for their communities)
    – it’s online and so friendlier to isolated people
    – a number of pro writers, especially of genre fiction, started there

    Cons:
    – not everyone thinks it is ethical (I’m good with it myself, but YMMV)
    – not everyone enjoys reading or writing it: some people have powerful worlds and characters in their head that aren’t fanfic compatible
    – you can almost never get paid for fanfic, in fact the community ethos is anti-pay in many places (the exception is the process of “filing the serial numbers off”, that is, altering stories radically to the point of being original fiction), so you need to consider that it will eat into your time for original potentially paying fiction
    – the publishing community is not entirely hostile to fanfic, but hostility is widespread enough that you probably want to write under a pseudonym, and won’t be able to sell yourself as “I’m huge in fanfic”
    – it’s harder to become “huge in fanfic” than it may sound: lots of excellent competition

  12. Margo said:

    I’m not a professional writer, but I am a professional reader (teacher, literacy specialist, library curator).

    Not everything that gets published is stellar writing. I know this is not news, but stay with me. The gatekeepers to publishing are not magical talent gods laying down final judgement on your worth as a writer. They are people. Yes, they are pretty good at what they do, but they are still just people. The same people who said no to Harry Potter and yes to Fifty Shades.

    When they say you are “not what we’re looking for right now,” it could mean “don’t quit your day job” but just as easily as it means “your work is great but not right for us.” It could also mean “I am not able to see the quality in your work write now.” They’re people, and even talented people make mistakes or aren’t able to see the potential in everything. As a professional reader I can also say that anyone who has to cull through the amount of reading these people probably do is going to make mistakes on occasion. At the very least, it requires plenty of snap judgments. This is not a final judgement on the worthiness of your writing or of you as a person. It is the reality of the process.

    Another reality is that in many cases it’s like a twisted game of musical chairs. In my job I’m also on the selection committee for a gifted and talented program. We are allowed space for 36 students. Everyone who is not ranked numbers 1-36 on our list gets a rejection letter. Despite the fact that 100 students who applied are fucking amazing. In another year, with different applicants, any one of those other 64 kids could have made it into the program. But in this moment, with this list of applicants, they aren’t the top 36 so we don’t have space for them. It sucks.

    But that is why you keep at it. This isn’t the Oscars. You get to submit in again elsewhere. You also get to keep writing. That doesn’t make it any less frustrating, but I hope it helps make it less demoralizing. It really is less about you than it appears.

    As for the frustration: use it. Rejection IS something that all writers go through. Have you considered using it as a twisted badge of honor? Rejection from twelve publishing houses…”Congratulations, NotStarving! You have unlocked the J. K. Rowling level!” Or some other ritual that allows you to reaffirm a mantra of, “Fuck you, world. I’m not giving up on my dream!” Rejection is a hallmark of professional writing. Use it to reaffirm that you are a professional. If you need some humor to get you through it, try reading “Dear Clueless: The Rejection Letters of Edna Albertson.”

    Personally, I’ve always liked Stephen King’s ritual best: nailing rejection lettes to the wall. As he explained in On Writing, “By the time I was fourteen … the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing.”

    Good advice. Especially coming from someone who, despite his success, many people still consider to be a hack.

    • At the high school my dad went to, the seniors had a lounge room of their own. Tradition was that ALL the college rejection letters went up on the walls. Apparently by April or so there often wasn’t much bare wall left.

      • Margo said:

        I’m at the middle school level or I might have to steal that idea.

    • LW said:

      Thanks for this comment. “The gatekeepers to publishing are not magical talent gods laying down final judgement on your worth as a writer,” is something great to remember. I tend to use “but TWILIGHT and FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY got published” as a stick to beat myself up (i.e. “if they can do it, there’s no excuse for you not to do it!”) as opposed to a way to distance myself from the submission process as arbitrary and unexplainable.

      • lizzieladie said:

        Definitely keep that in mind, and also remember that taste is subjective and publishing, even fiction publishing, is a big tent that encompasses a lot of work with a lot of different goals. There is a set of writing skills that you can work on building, but success is arbitrary and quality is personal and the two are not necessarily connected. Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey speak to a lot of people or they wouldn’t sell, and if they’re not speaking to you then don’t worry about chasing their audiences or being turned down by the gatekeepers to their audiences.

        Find your voice and hone it and then find your people. Maybe you’ll get there because some of the gatekeepers to traditional publishing are your people (plenty of them agree that Twilight and 50 Shade of Grey are total crap!) and you manage to submit the right piece at the right time. Maybe you’ll have to find another way. (It might be helpful to check out extribulum.com for an example of a writer coming into self-publishing and building an audience). But keep writing, keep producing work that you’re proud of, keep honing your craft and don’t measure your success or self worth by the yardstick of work that you don’t like anyway.

      • I met someone who sent a story to a specific editor at The New Yorker & got rejected. About a year later, just b/c she had messed up her own tracking system, she sent the EXACT same story to the SAME New Yorker editor, and he bought it.

  13. daffodil said:

    LW should also consider what ze wants to get out of publication. I’ve published enough essays to call myself a “professional writer” but it is not my fulltime job and it certainly has never paid like one. Benefits of publication are many: affirmation that your writing is good enough to merit pay (meager though it may be), pride of seeing a print object with your writing in it, the ability to engage with strangers over something you’ve written, finding joy (no really) in the revision process.

    Depending on which of these is most important to you, you might find other ways to achieve those benefits sooner, while still pursuing your skippy unicorn. Others have made brought up good ideas like fanfic, blogging, self publishing. I’m sorry to tell you, self-consciousness and the hard parts persist after the checks are spent and the author copies are filed and shelved, so keep paying attention to the inherent joy of writing, and keep doing all those other self-care things the Captain suggested.

  14. case-in-point said:

    Hi. I’m a professional illustrator. It can be tough tough tough to work in a creative field. You are going to get constantly rejected. When you are accepted and work work gets put out there, you’re going to be criticized as often as you’re lauded. You’ve got to develop something of a thick skin to deal with it.

    Do something cheeky with your rejection letters. A friend and I have an ongoing contest to see who can make the best art with their rejection letters. Having a ritual for how you deal with the letters (and thus the rejection) can help you clear your head and your emotions for getting on with things.

    And the most important thing I’ve found for dealing with the frustration of it all is this– don’t spend ALL your time with your writing. Especially if you aren’t having a lot of success getting it out there. Spend at least some time every week doing something that you will succeed at. I mean, I’m an illustrator. I draw fantabulous pictures. I also make handbags. I do this because handbags are easy, relaxing, and pretty much always draw compliments and attention. When I sell them or give them as gifts, people are thrilled to be the recipient. So, when I’m feeling down on myself about my other work, I have something that I can use as a pick-me-up.

    The advice about blogging and using social networking to get your stuff out there is excellent. I especially like it because it is an avenue where you can get things out there to a larger audience more quickly. Also, I think it’s important at this stage of getting things out there that you go to the conferences and meet other writers, agents, and publishers. I drove a friend of mine down to a conference in New Orleans a few years back– one section of the conference they paired writers with agents and publishers to do an in-person critique of their work. I think you would find that supremely useful. Look around and see what support is available to you.

    • Margo said:

      Oooo! The conference idea is excellent. Aside from the professional contacts it can also help you build a support network of fellow writers.

      An easy way to try it out is next week’s online WriteOnCon. (http://writeoncon.com/)

      Plus just about every region has a writers association (if you’re in the Northwest like me: http://www.pnwa.org) and most areas also have various writers retreats and workshops.

      • Margo said:

        Oops. I totally forgot that bit about your location until after I posted this. But it just makes an online conference even more perfect. And there it’ll may be local conference resources for you, even in a non-English country. Definitely look into it.

  15. Maybe say “fuck improving the craft” for a while and write things purely for fun and for the joy of it for a while. Tell good stories. Take more risks.

    Maybe do some blogging or creative transmedia stuff to build an audience for your work and get some of the good feelings that come from having people read and respond to your writing. Find someone to collaborate with where you each take turns writing a story Exquisite Corpse-style. Find a graphic artist to turn one of your stories into an animated graphic novel or an interactive app. Take a story or idea you love and find a different medium to tell it. Write stuff that you want to read. Write stuff that’s missing from the world. Find a few people who like what you do, and decide that they are your audience.

    This is really important, and a corollary to the fact that the gatekeepers are just ordinary human beings making fallible subjective choices among a vast number of possible works to publish. In an environment like this–where any single work has a very low probability of being published–diversifying your audience by diversifying the kind of works you create increases the likelihood that you will eventually have one of your works show up in front of the correct set of eyes to appreciate it.

    This is exactly how effective scientists strategize their grant writing and submission–also an intrinsically low-probability-of-success endeavor for any single given grant application–to maximize the overall long-term likelihood of success. Think about it like gambling in Vegas: You have a lot better chance of getting lucky before you go broke if you play some craps, play some blackjack, and play some poker, than you do just standing at the roulette wheel putting all your money on “33” spin after spin after spin.

  16. Emma said:

    Make it your goal to get 1000 rejections by the end of the year!

    I love this!

    When I was struggling with my MA my dad gave me a good way to think about failure: If everything were coming easy, you’d know you could be doing better. If you fail sometimes, that’s how you know you’re performing at the highest level you can, and you should be proud of pushing yourself to be the best you.

    I’m also wondering who you’re seeking out critique from – it seems like there’s no one reading your work whose positive opinion balances out the rejection. I know I have trouble feeling really buoyed up by friends’ good opinions, because I assume they’re trying to say nice things, so it isn’t as “real” a critique. This is part of why I turn to my dad for advice like the above – he’s kind of a hardass and would tell me if he thought I wasn’t doing good work. Do you have someone more disinterested you could get an opinion from? Maybe a former teacher? Have you considered writing fanfiction, just as a side project? I’ve seen people get some amazingly detailed (and not at all internet-rude) critiques within fandom, from total strangers.

    • JenniferP said:

      I love your dad and I think he might be a Calming Manatee in disguise!

      “When I was struggling with my MA my dad gave me a good way to think about failure: If everything were coming easy, you’d know you could be doing better. If you fail sometimes, that’s how you know you’re performing at the highest level you can, and you should be proud of pushing yourself to be the best you.”

      Take that, EVERYONE’S JERKBRAIN.

      • Emma said:

        He is! <3

    • Sarah G. said:

      “When I was struggling with my MA my dad gave me a good way to think about failure: If everything were coming easy, you’d know you could be doing better. If you fail sometimes, that’s how you know you’re performing at the highest level you can, and you should be proud of pushing yourself to be the best you.”

      I AM POSTING THIS ON MY CLASSROOM WALL. Seriously.

    • drst said:

      Things come too easy, I get suspicious
      Things come too slow, I get bored
      If it don’t work out I get superstitious
      But if it does, oh my word

      David Gray, “New Horizons”

      I always identified heavily with those first two lines of that lyric. (I tend to be more superstitious when things *do* work out.)

    • Emily H. said:

      Yes, yes.

      If you can find one, the best thing to have is someone who cares about you and cares about the craft of writing and likes the kind of thing that you write. It can be awful to get a rough critique from someone you love; it can be awful to get “It’s good, I liked it” from someone you love; but if you can cultivate someone who will listen when you say “Please read this and then say some vaguely encouraging words at me” or “Please read this and tell me how to fix it, in the nicest way possible,” that’s the best thing.

      • Ethyl said:

        I miss my former advisor so so much when I think about who in my life could do this. Supportive, encouraging, passionate about writing, but also would ink up your assignments like nobody’s business. ::sniff::

    • Briz said:

      If everything were coming easy, you’d know you could be doing better. If you fail sometimes, that’s how you know you’re performing at the highest level you can, and you should be proud of pushing yourself to be the best you.

      THIS. One thousand-billion times.

      This quote is SO PERFECTLY timed. For awhile now I’ve been struggling with my MA thesis, and despite reassurances from my advisor and friends, the jerky brain continues to rear its ugly head. YOU’RE NOT DONE YET?! WHY ARE YOU SO LAZY?! MORE REVISIONS? YOU MUST SUCK.

      LW, I’m not quite in the same boat as you [aspiring film and art historian], but I’m facing similar problems with where to go with my writing dreams. I’m (for the moment) fed up with the Academy(TM), but unfortunetly genuine academic degrees and ties really help get a foot in the door. So, my plan for the moment is pretty much what others have suggested (after this damn thesis is done, that is):

      1.) Set up a blog where I can self-publish my own histoical musings and get used to examining topics of my choice vs. responding to assignments.
      2.) Start making art again. I put it down while pursuing the MA, but I really need to get back into making things just because it’s fun. Oh! And pick up embroidery.

      So…this letter is scarily perfectly timed (thanks Capt’n!), and good luck LW!

    • Ellen said:

      Emma, I love your dad’s quote so much that I want to post about it on my writing blog – obviously I will credit him fully. Please let me know if you’re OK with that or if you’d prefer I didn’t :)

  17. Lily said:

    You can:

    1) Keep writing and sending out your work.

    2) Give up and do something else.

    There is a third option: route around the damage of the gatekeeper model and publish yourself, online.

    I do a great deal of writing — and I never get paid a cent for it. However, nearly all of the money I do get paid is a direct result of the writing I do online. I’m generally getting paid (and really fairly handsomely) for work I did two or three years ago — it takes the market awhile to catch up.

    This has a number of great outcomes:

    1. I have total editorial freedom.
    2. I have a far greater degree of control over the direction of my career than most of my peers do. If I’m interested in something, I start writing about it. Eventually, someone hires me because I’m a well-known figure talking about that subject.

    • I’m intrigued….how did you end up doing this?

      • Lily said:

        I started a blog on a topic I was really fascinated by. I started getting invitations to speak about that topic at conferences. I’d give short, funny slideshows that were very different from the typical talk at such gatherings. At those conferences, people would come up to me, tell me about their project, and ask if I could work with them on it (for money).

  18. Maximilia said:

    I have to say there is some excellent advice. Another thing you can look at is writing contests or submissions online for e-zines. There are some very reputable ones, and writing something specifically for a deadline helps a lot to get in the habit of writing every day, even when you don’t want to. If you want to write, write, but it IS a job and requires work at it every day. When you’re not writing, dreaming up ideas or plotting current ideas. Write down story summaries when they come to you, write down characters, or a turn of phrase you like. Have a notebook and keep it with you specifically for writing down ideas. Another fun exercise is National Novel Writing Month in November, where you write 50,000 words in 30 days. It’s manic, and isn’t concerned with quality, but rather just writing for fun, writing to get words down.

    Ten rejection letters is nothing. I’ve dozens, and will have dozens more. Don’t be discouraged. If 50 Shades can get published, anything can be.

  19. Two things I wanted to add to the other comments.

    1. I spent two and a half years in a rural province in South Korea teaching English, and found that a lot of writers were living in Korea because the hours were decent and the pay was good, so it was a good way to pay the bills/student loans while having plenty of time to work on their craft. NaNoWriMo was a big event, where foreigners came from all over the country to Seoul or Busan to write together on the weekends. There might be a bigger English writing community out there than you think! (And even if not, obviously you have internet!)

    2. Other commenters have shared about similar experiences with job rejection. It sucks, but one thing that helped me when I was job-searching and may help you with your submission process, is to think “if they reject my work, they probably would not have been a good publisher for me, and if they want to publish my work, then it is their turn to convince ME that they would be the best platform for my work.” It helped me reclaim a little power from an inherently unequal dynamic – to remind myself that my opinion and wants are also important. It helped me go into interviews saying “Hmm, would this be an awesome place for me to work? Please convince me that I want to work here” instead of “OH GOD PLEASE GIVE ME A JOB PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE.” The Evil HR Lady has written about how a candidate’s ambivalence towards a job can sometimes be an attractive feature – maybe it is the same sometimes in the publishing world?

    Good luck!

  20. Naamah said:

    It is a frustrating position to be in. Some advice that sounds easier than it is: Don’t let the rejections get to you to the point that you stop trying to get published. Because I guarantee you, I guarantee it, if you quit you will be unhappy in ten or fifteen years that you didn’t keep trying. Because this? That you want? It is a part of you. It won’t go away. You will still want it in five years, or ten, or twenty, even if you become disillusioned. Even if it hurts.

    You are either doing this to feed the part of you that loves to do it, or for validation, or — like a lot of folks — a mixture of both, but the only part of that equation you have control over is feeding the part of you that loves it. Not only can you not control whether others give you the validation you crave — even if you are a superb writer — that sort of validation, from others, never fills you up. Not completely. It can help. It can keep you afloat when things are rough. It can smooth the way. But the little furnace of self inside you, your core, your engine, your warp drive, that can only be fed by the pleasure you get from making the things that you make, and the pleasure you get from having made them.

    I can’t tell you not to want validation — I desperately crave it, I’m terrible about it! — but I can tell you to put that in its proper place, which is neither over you like a sword of Damocles, nor under you as the only thing you stand on, but comfortably off to the side where you can take it as it comes, and when it doesn’t come, just continue with what you’re doing. It hurts. Even if it doesn’t objectively matter, it matters emotionally. It does. But you can lessen that. It’s not a matter of being tougher, it’s just a matter of valuing yourself and your work. You do already, or it wouldn’t hurt when it’s rejected. You just have to learn to value it more than others’ opinions, and you have to learn that an opinion about quality is one thing, and an opinion about suitability is another, and it is surprisingly common for people to think something is really amazing and still not right for them. (Dogs: amazing. Not right for me. It is not personal when I reject a corgi puppy — and I have done this, which at the time kinda sucked ’cause she was adorable. I’m just not the right market.)

    How you learn to put aside the rejections and frustration and hurt that come with them is up to you; people deal in different ways, but you can learn to do it. And if you want to do this, you will have to. I know. Bitter pill to swallow. I didn’t want to swallow it either. So I quit. For many years, I quit.

    Don’t do that. Don’t quit.

    That’s the only advice you have to follow. People will give you a hundred other kinds of advice, and any one of them might be wrong. Any one might be right. You can’t know. You can’t try them all. The only sure way is to steer by your own stars. Wherever your passion lies, go that way. Go as hard as you can. Stop for nothing. Do what you WANT to do, as long as you are doing SOMETHING. You don’t have to find the perfect path. There isn’t one. There’s just you, and your machete, and that goddamn compass that only points to the thing you want most. Follow the fuck out of that thing. Your path may wind around or branch or double back, but it is yours. Don’t let the business end of things weigh you down and keep you from pressing on.

    Now, MY advice, which could be bullshit as it applies to you, is that I like the suggestion that you just write for fun for once in a while. It sounds like you’re hell-bent on driving yourself to improve, and that’s probably not helping. You’re working so hard to get GOOD at this, you ARE good at it, and you still aren’t getting anywhere! You’re following the rules, but nothing is happening! It’s frustrating!

    Except something is happening: you are improving. Just by writing, even if you are not deliberately seeking out every form of teaching and critique you can find, you are learning. I have to say, writing, just writing, has taught me more about writing than anything else. And that’s saying a lot, because by sheer dint of luck, I have had access to some AMAZING people available to me for feedback. What’s helped the most is just writing. That’s the important part. Not the nuts and bolts of psychic distance and point of view. And sometimes we have to throttle back on the conscious learning part to let things stew and settle and sink in, and just do something we love, and we come back renewed.

    So maybe devote some time each week to doing stuff with no mind toward publishing it, something fun, something for you, to keep you centered on the important part: the wonderful imaginary things happening inside your heart and your head, and the joy of calling down the lightning and putting it all on the page, no holds barred.

    I paint My Little Ponies for fun, because the art I do is sometimes really stressful due to me relying on it for income. Setting up a safe space, something I will not turn into a commercial thing, has helped me remember why I like doing this.

    Your goal, if you have your hat on straight, is to tell the stories you want to tell, not to get published. Getting published, even getting “famous,” won’t turn what you are doing into something externally glamorous or give you an enviable, interesting life. The glamorous part is the alchemy of words and ideas and symbols and feelings, and how you do amazing things with them. Love that. Want that. By all means, work at getting your stuff in print, but never forget that the really cool part is not seeing your name on a cover or under a table of contents. The really cool part is making something amazing.

    Yeah, you will want to share that with people — I love that part so much it’s crazy — and it can hurt when they don’t seem to agree or care that it IS amazing, but as other folks point out “You aren’t good enough!” is not the only reason for rejections, or even (I suspect) the most common. It’s just that there’s limited space in each magazine or anthology or webzine, and editors have to apply some pretty weird filters in order to cull that.

    I was once rejected from a high-profile contest where my IRL friend was a judge (entries were anonymous) and when I queried her later about why she’d rejected me she basically said “You wrote THAT story?! Oh my god, it was an amazing story and I desperately wanted to put it in the group of ten to send up the chain, but I just passed along a haunted sword story last quarter, and was judging for that same anthology. O_O I’m really sorry!”

    I just sort of stared for a moment, and then we both laughed our asses off about the idea of two people picking the same idea out of the ether at the same time, submitting them to the same place, and having the person who knew the judge in person be the one who was actually rejected. It was deeply hilarious, and we never stopped being amused by it.

    She got a couple of thousand submissions a year for that contest. She passed along about forty each year, only that many, to the final round. Twelve to seventeen made it into the anthology each year. Mine would have had a damn fine chance of winning if it had been passed to the final judges, but was weeded out at the last minute due to a fluke that, hilariously, had nothing to do with me. If I hadn’t known her personally, I would never have known how very, very close I came.

    So don’t take it personally. Seriously, don’t. Because there are haunted sword stories for all of us, every editor has rejected corgi puppy after corgi puppy, and once you get past amateur level (which you will, if you aren’t already) most rejections are due to things we couldn’t have guessed at and can never know. Background stuff that has nothing to do with how good we are, and everything to do with the market and the issue and the other stories and whether someone else by sheer bizarre coincidence sent in a story about a magical dancing tiger ballet troupe just last week and it maybe wasn’t better, but it came first, so they bought it.

    That friend, a writer judged good enough to be the first judge for that contest, was KD Wentworth, one of the finest writers and finest people I have ever known. She came to nearly every meeting with a rejection or two of her own, as well as (usually) an acceptance, because she was incredibly prolific. The rejections never stopped coming. It never stopped being a part of her process. She’d been at it for twenty-five years or more, she published regularly, and was still rejected. She never stopped writing. She loved what she did so much she fought like a devil and worked like a dog to make sure people like you and me had a chance to have it too, which means that when she rejected something, she knew that it would suck for the rejectee. She always felt so bad about that.

    Another friend heads a writing conference, and is first reader for THEIR submissions. She is the sweetest person I know (literally, I mean that). She feels the same way. I’ve seen some of what both friends had to reject, and . . . man, that was some good stuff. I’ve spoken to editors and heard them at panels describing what it’s like. Sure, some submissions are . . . uhh, well, indescribable and uniquely awful . . . but you don’t strike me as the fifteen pages of notebook paper covered front and back with incoherent conspiracy theory writing type of person.

    Trust me, the people doing the rejecting don’t hate you or think you suck. They want you to keep writing. Honestly, they do. And they WISH they could make it personal by providing feedback or encouragement or a personal letter, but they can’t, because there isn’t time. Which sucks for everyone.

    Bah. I rambled a lot. So sorry. But I want you to keep going. Keep at it. The good parts are so awesome. Your corgi puppies are adorable. Feed them and make more. It’s not work that pays much in glory or money, but it’s really cool.

    • LW said:

      Thank you for this fantastic comment. I really appreciate somehow giving me some tips for HOW exactly to go about getting a “thicker skin” — I know I need this mysterious object but am still figuring out how to acquire it. -_-

      • Naamah said:

        Well, the were-writer option is to take it from someone ELSE, but that’s kind of grisly and frowned-upon, not to mention terribly hard to accessorize for.

        Going at it the long way around is not easy. Won’t pretend it is. Just . . . let yourself believe that your work is wonderful. Not flawless, not prefect, not unassailable, just full of wonder. You love your characters and your setting and your little details. Let that fill you up. That’s the stuff right there. Acceptance letters cannot touch that. For an hour or a day, yeah, they can, but long-term, over weeks and weeks of near-sleep dreamtime revelations and midnight ideas and suddenly figuring out a problem over dinner and falling in love with a character and getting your finger right in that light socket of understanding, that is THE SHIT. You already love it. You already have it. Let yourself feel like it’s good enough to enjoy. It is. Truly, it is.

  21. K. said:

    Also, when looking for writing markets AVOID PUBLISHAMERICA LIKE THE PLAGUE IT IS! Seriously, they are scam artists in the writing world!

    • Seconded. I’m surprised they haven’t been sued out of business yet.

      Good rule of thumb is to do a lot of research on any self-publishing company you consider. Some, like PublishAmerica, will skin you alive. Others aren’t outright evil, but don’t provide great customer service and maybe will try to sell you stuff you don’t need.

  22. Writing isn’t easy nor is it for the weak. If you want to be a writer, you can never give up no matter what.

    Rejection is hard on everybody. It’s best if you build up that tough skin now rather than later. There are tons of reasons why work gets rejected, which may have nothing to do with your actual piece. Rejection does not mean you can’t write.

    There are tiered rejections. The first is something like thanks for submitting your work. Good luck elsewhere. The second is, thanks for submitting your work, but this isn’t for us. Please send us more of your work in the future. The third is a personal rejection. When you start getting those, you’ll know you’re on the brink of publication. Ten rejections may seem like a lot, but it isn’t. It’s important to self-teach.

    That said, even though you think your work may be ready for publication, it may not. For several years, I was getting rejected and I didn’t know why. I now know it was because my work wasn’t as polished as it should’ve been. I got better at writing by reading a lot of classics. It may not work for everybody, but it’s what worked for me. I also spent a lot of time editing. What I’m trying to say is that there is always room for improvement.

    Have you ever picked up Writer’s Market? If not, check it out and read the essay’s in the front. It is an invaluable tool. I second Duotrope.com and Nanowrimo.com. They are incredible assets. Also, have you heard of meetup.com? You can use it to start your own writing group in your area. This post comes at the perfect time because from August 14th thru the 16th there is a free online writer’s conference called the writeoncon.com and it is amazing. I implore you to check it out.

    Good luck with all of your writing endeavors and whatever you do, DON’T GIVE UP.

  23. This will either make you feel better or a lot worse. I’m a published writer. I have eight novels with a NY publisher. Before I was published I completed three novels (often feeling like I wrote each of those a zillion different times with revisions.) I sent them every where. Rejection and I were best buddies. I didn’t sell any of those books. Looking back- I’m glad. The books weren’t that good. I had a lot to learn. (I still have a lot to learn btw).

    The best advice I got was from another writer. I was complaining that I couldn’t face sending in my book for another rejection. She sat me down and said: “Here’s the thing. You’re already not published. The worst thing that will happen is that you still won’t be published.”

    If this is what you love to do- keep writing.

  24. JK Rowling – 39 rejections before the first harry potter book was accepted for publications. the publishers now look like gigantic douchebags for rejecting her but what i’m trying to say is that it happens. I completely and utterly get where you’re coming from. Every letter can seem like a knife through the heart of your artistic endeavours but honestly, it isn’t personal. It feels that way, but it isn’t. Publishers have a very narrow criteria of what they are looking for, and MOST work doesn’t fit. It definitely isn’t about your work personally. I am a poet and I have found that most journals, anthologies and places of submission have extremely strict criteria that mean only certain types of work get in. It used to drive me around the twist untill i realized that it wasn’t about me. Definitely finish the novel, 60% done is 60 % more than a great deal of people achieve. On towards completion, you’ll have the entire awkward army behind you.

    • A few years ago I read an article about the Harry Potter rejections, and how all those publishing companies must feel really stupid now. Somebody at one of the companies said something to the effect of, “You know what? We still made the right decision. It wasn’t the kind of series we publish and we wouldn’t have had the slightest idea of what to do with it.”

  25. Writing isn’t easy. If you want to be a writer, you can never give up no matter what.

    Rejection is hard on everybody. It’s best if you build up that tough skin now rather than later. There are tons of reasons why work gets rejected, which may have nothing to do with your actual piece. Rejection does not mean you can’t write or that you shouldn’t.

    There are tiered rejections. The first is something like thanks for submitting your work. Good luck elsewhere. The second is, thanks for submitting your work, but this isn’t for us. Please send us more of your work in the future. The third is a personal rejection. When you start getting those, you’ll know you’re on the brink of publication. Ten rejections may seem like a lot, but it isn’t. It’s important to self-teach.

    That said, even though you think your work may be ready for publication, it may not. For several years, I was getting rejected and I didn’t know why. I now know it was because my work wasn’t as polished as it should’ve been. I got better at writing by reading a lot of classics. It may not work for everybody, but it’s what worked for me. What I’m trying to say is that there is always room for improvement.

    Have you ever picked up Writer’s Market? If not, check it out and read the essay’s in the front. I second utilizing Duotrope.com and Nanowrimo.com. They are incredible assets. Also, have you heard of meetup.com? You can use it to start your own writing group in your area. This post comes at the perfect time because on August 14th thru the 16th there is a free online writer’s conference called the writeoncon.com and it is amazing. I implore you to check it out.

    Good luck with all of your writing endeavors and whatever you do, DON’T GIVE UP.

  26. swarmofbeasts said:

    I’m now a published writer. I wrote seven books before I sold one to a publisher, and even after that it’s not like I got a gift basket full of puppies; actually, it is like a gift basket full of puppies, because you’re initially thrilled and then you realize how much work it is and you spend a lot of time cleaning up poop. (I’m on the eighth draft of a book right now. Sorry for the metaphor.)

    There are three things that helped me.

    One was having a friend who could read my stuff and understand what I was trying to do, but was always kind and generous with her critiques, and willing to listen if I said “Can you read this and then say something encouraging?”

    The second was learning other ways to measure success. It’s hard to explain this without sounding new-agey in the worst way, but you have to say to yourself: Success is showing up. Success is the commitment to trust the process. Success is following the trail without knowing where it’s going. You have to trust in the reasons that you’re making the things that you’re making. For the first half-dozen years I was writing, I told myself that I was doing an apprenticeship, because when you’re learning a craft it’s pretty normal to go for six or seven years and not be good at it yet. Now I tell myself that I’m doing a Ph.D. dissertation, because you work on the same thing for a couple of years until you’re absolutely sick of it, but in the meantime you’ve learned a heck of a lot of things that you would never have learned otherwise, and when I’m done I would like to think I’ll be an expert in writing the kind of thing that I would like to write.

    The last was finding hobbies that were just for fun and that worked a different angle of my brain than writing and that I knew I could succeed at. If I take it too seriously then I go find something else to do instead.

    But, I think it might be a good idea to take a break from rejection letters. There’s a story Ursula LeGuin tells in “The Language Of The Night” — she wrote a story and sent it out very young, maybe as a preteen, and got a rejection letter back. She didn’t send out anything else until (I think) her early twenties, and started selling very soon afterwards. I think there is a time in your artistic career when you have to be trying lots of different stuff, some of which will fail spectacularly, and if you’re only judging by rejection letters — then you may tamp down what’s wild and great about your spectacular failures. It’s hard to do writing on top of the day job, and it’s harder when that becomes just a source of “sorry, not for us.”

  27. If rejection is killing you, eff the gatekeepers and look into self-publishing your work.

    A note about self-publishing. I work in that industry, and I’ve seen people get decent results with it. I’ve also seen people not sell a single copy beyond their circle of family and friends.

    A lot of this has to do with effort and expectations. If you think of self-publishing as a magic pole vault that will allow you to soar over the effing gatekeepers, you’ll be in for a disappointment when you reach the other side. Yes, you’ve bypassed the agents and traditional publishers, but you still have to market yourself and convince readers to give your writing a chance. You will find that this takes as much or more time as all those query letters.

    Oh, and you’ll have to have put in just as much effort to make your stuff good. Otherwise those readers won’t read your books even if you do make them aware that you exist.

    I don’t want to discourage you! Just do your homework and know what you’re getting into. I’ll be happy to answer any questions about the self-publishing route if you’re interested.

    Oh, and I second the advice to start a blog. If you can develop an audience through it, it means you’ve already done some of the aforementioned marketing work by the time you get a book into print.

  28. John F said:

    Think of 10 rejections not as a failure, but as a form of success. I know that seems weird, but I finished my novel, and I have gotten 0 rejection letters, because I was so demoralized by my initial feedback. To be able to stand back up in the face of adversity is an admirable quality.

  29. First of all, congratulations on being 60% done with your novel! 

    I’m a professional book editor. At various points in my career I’ve been the person on the other end of that rejection letter — the form ones as well as the personalised ones. LW, I can tell you that when any decent editor turns down your work, that’s exactly what they’re doing — turning down your work. I know how painful it is to be rejected, but in this case it’s not about you*. Sometimes we have too many dragon books and we can’t take on any more (which is something you have no way of knowing), or a particular work just doesn’t suit our personal tastes. (Hugely subjective business, this one.) I used to look at hundreds of manuscripts a year and sometimes I rejected stories that I knew would do well with someone else, but they weren’t right for where I was working at the time. 

    Getting rejected and getting an edit letter aren’t the same thing, but my authors tell me that sometimes they can feel equally devastating. At least a rejection allows authors to move on; an edit letter means weeks, possibly months, of work, and might challenge the author’s confidence in and understanding of their own work. And if the edit letter identifies major issues that the author is either unwilling or unable to address, things can get very tricky. 

    With getting rejected, I’d give you similar advice to what I say to my authors when they’re feeling confronted by an edit. Give yourself a certain period to feel the full force of your emotions — 10 minutes, a day, etc. Then put the rejection away and do other things. Come back in a couple of days’ time, especially if the rejection has feedback, and see if there’s anything you can take away from it in a cooler headspace. Sometimes there’ll be something specific you can learn; if not, you can chalk it up to experience and move on from there.

    Look, I don’t want to scare you, but rejection is one of the reasons the life of a professional writer can be frustrating and uncertain. From dealing with authors for years, debut and otherwise, I can tell you that a lot of them struggle with the notion of ‘success’, because as soon as they get an agent/get published/[other external marker of achievement], the goalposts shift. Success becomes about sales, or the ability to get another book published, or film options, or awards … things that are even more out of the author’s control than the ability to get published in the first place.

    Being an author is also really hard work, with intense periods of revision and editing and marketing and publicity (especially for multi-book series) … but also long periods of hurry-up-and-wait. Some writers thrive on this, and some decide it’s not for them. Sometimes these are the same people at different points of their lives. 

    I do think that self-publishing is an increasingly viable way for writers to get their work read, and if you have the right kind of hustle it can work as a business, but for some writers it can result in putting out undercooked work (especially with fiction). For many writers, the process of getting rejected and revising and keeping on writing for extended periods of time helps them to find the stories that they really want to tell, and the best ways for them to tell them. It’s a really hard way to get there, but for some people it serves as a kind of writing apprenticeship. Not that I’m saying you should only pursue traditional publishing markets for X years, or whatever, but you might like to think about this in terms of your overall development as a writer.

    The Captain’s advice is excellent, as always, and what the other commenters have said about finding a writers’ group and investigating potential markets is good too.

    Let me second (third? fourth?) the idea that if you decide that professional writing isn’t what you want and you prefer to write for yourself, or in a non-commercial arena such as fanfic, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. You’re a writer if you write. 

    Good luck!

    * It is possible for an author to be rejected, rather than their work, but in general if you haven’t verbally abused the editor/assistant while submitting your work and you’re not claiming to be a time-traveller, this doesn’t apply to you. 

  30. LW said:

    Letter Writer here! Thanks so much for answering this. First of all, I appreciate all of the tips and resources to look at here — I feel like a lot of the last seven-nine months or so have been spent accumulating knowledge of tools, forums, places to find listings, etc., and figuring out which ones do and don’t work for me. (For instance, I know from past experience that reading the actual huge official Writers’ Market physical book makes me feel like I’m going to throw up, but Duotrope (mentioned above by konekon1nj4) narrows down my options to a number that I can deal with.)

    Stupid though it sounds, I feel like a significant part of the battle is just being able to accept that what I’m doing is a Real Thing and that even though I haven’t had much success yet, it still doesn’t mean I am not trying to con people by writing things and then trying to get people to read them. I do tend (in spite of myself) to read my rejection letters with an underlay of, “We know that you didn’t major in creative writing in college even though that was an option and you didn’t even read that much literature in the last few years and you have not invested enough in your craft to be considered legitimate and WE HAVE SEEN THROUGH YOOOOUUUU and your dishonest ways.” I feel like there are so many jerkbrain tendencies tied up in creative work — not only does it feel like crap to be rejected, it also feels like crap to *care* about being rejected, because AS A CREATOR OF ART I SHOULD BE SO DRIVEN THAT NOTHING EVER BOTHERS ME, EVER, OR MAKES ME TOO TIRED TO WORK.

    Ack.

    Maybe take some time off and devote that time to reading for pleasure. (Keep sending your stories out during that time).

    So, this is the advice that I ended up gravitating to inadvertently (because exhaustion and a feeling that the writing inspiration well was running low.)

    Maybe do some blogging or creative transmedia stuff to build an audience for your work and get some of the good feelings that come from having people read and respond to your writing.

    I think this is a good idea for me. I blog a lot, but I have only written personal things or nonfiction/theory type things online before. For some reason doing a fiction blog is not something that ever really occurred to me. . . I think because I always thought I needed the proof of a story being accepted by someone else’s magazine/ezine to show that it was worth reading. >_<

    In any, I appreciate all the ideas here, and this post gives me some ideas of what to try next so it doesn't feel quite so much like bashing my head against a wall. Thanks!

    • staranise said:

      AS A CREATOR OF ART I SHOULD BE SO DRIVEN THAT NOTHING EVER BOTHERS ME, EVER, OR MAKES ME TOO TIRED TO WORK. [...] So, this is the advice that I ended up gravitating to inadvertently (because exhaustion and a feeling that the writing inspiration well was running low.)

      F that cultural narrative. Man does not live on bread alone, or artist on divine inspiration. We need rest and food and play and love just as much as any other kind of person. Your brain and body, independent of art, are smart about what you need. If your body’s telling you, “fuck this, I quit,” the answer isn’t always to get up and heroically struggle onward. Sometimes it’s to go to the doctor and see if you have a medical or psychological issue slowing you down. Sometimes it’s just to take a break and let yourself regenerate.

    • Even if you never make a cent off of writing, even if you never send out a word for publication, even if you never revise, even if you spin stories only for your own pleasure: that is a REAL THING. It is all real. It’s all important. Money does not equal worth.

  31. General Expression said:

    I just want to briefly weigh in as someone who is in a similar position to that of the “editor” in another field (music.) I often audition people for ensembles or solos, or have to evaluate music that composers have sent me to see if I’ll perform it. And my decisions are so much about how things fit together, what I need at a given time or for a given piece, what slots I have in the ensemble (which might be none) what text the composer chose to set – in short, the majority of my decision never has anything to do with an objective measure of excellence.

    I can only imagine that the same thing is true for editors. Who was reading the slush pile that week, did they have a stomach-ache while they were reading your story, or were they having a fight with someone in the office, were they getting millions of stories about vampire-fairy hybrids that week, how long was your piece and how long was the space in the magazine, etc. Editors are always looking to fill a need; it’s just an unfortunate truth that you can never know the parameters of that need and have to be flying blind.

  32. If you’re getting disappointed after only sending some of your stories out once, you’re probably leaving too much time between getting a rejection letter and sending the story out again. So, when you finish a short story, consult duotrope or ralan for markets that accept that sort of thing. Make a list of places you want to send it–order it by how much they pay, how cool you think they are, how long their typical response time is. Then send it to the first one. When it comes back, send it to the next place on the list as soon as possible. Repeat until it runs out of markets.

    There are a lot of markets out there, and everyone wants something slightly different. If you don’t send it to them, they can’t fall in love with it. (Four years, working my way toward 100 rejection letters on short stories. Haven’t sold anything yet. Still plugging away.) And–if you have time–consider reading slush for a magazine. Unpaid, but someone’s always looking, and having experience on the other side of the desk can make a big difference in how you view the submissions process.

  33. JP said:

    I’m also someone who hopes to be a professional writer someday (currently sidetracked with Issues), and probably the most useful experience I had was doing a senior practicum on the editorial board of a literary magazine. Now, this magazine was…vaguely affiliated with my school in the sense that it was run by this practicum class but separately funded so it was a “legit” journal (i.e., not a student journal) but a very small/not “known” one. We got ~5,000 submissions which I’m sure is tiny compared to a major or even midground journal, but of those we still only picked 16 to be published. And of those 16, there were…3-4 that I absolutely HATED, so if I hadn’t been outvoted by the rest of the board, the rejection/acceptance thing would have shook out a little differently. My point is, I learned a lot about the difference of taste that can be present even within a group of peers (and the journal didn’t have any theme besides “contemporary short fiction” so we got a wide variety) and that no matter how good your odds are *somebody* is going to get rejected. A lot of people got rejected from what they probably considered their “safety” (no-pay journal with little/no name recognition) and that’s just kind of how it goes.

    The other best thing are friends who are willing to rip your writing apart. I know you said that you think your friends are kind of burnt out from reading it, but maybe you will be able to find a connection through blogging/fanfic/whatever (the person who beta reads my fic is definitely someone that I go to for approval in my original work) that you haven’t been able to find through an online comm that’s ostensibly “for” critique (I haven’t had much luck with those either). Also, try telling your friends what exactly you’re looking for when you ask them to read their work? Personally (because I’m a vicious editor with an insatiable thirst for red ink), there are people who will show me work and want me to coo over it, which is a legitimate need at a point in the process (I like having people tell me how clever I am too!), bu what really gets me raring to go is when a friend sends me a draft and says “have at it.” (This only works, of course, if you trust your friends’ literary instincts and their ability to be constructive in their criticism)

  34. Wendy in Editorial said:

    LW, think about your goals a little differently.

    “Professional writer” is a pretty vague term—does it mean that you can make a full-time living off your work? (Few writers do—I don’t, and I have three books published with an imprint of Penguin.) Or if it means that you’re paid for your writing, how many paid sales will make you a “pro”—one? Seven?

    Professional Writer isn’t so much a job title as it is a validating phrase meant to tell the world that what you’re doing is legitimate, not a hobby—your life’s work. It can feel like a necessary phrase in a world where everyone seems to have a blog or a book idea. All the same, it makes for an awfully amorphous goal.

    I’ve seen people make themselves deeply unhappy trying to be a Professional Writer because they get caught up in doing things they think will make them one, whether or not they enjoy doing them. Rejection sucks to begin with, but if you’re sending off to magazines you don\’t really know or like, just for the sake of a publication credit, then the rejection seems like yet another deferral of your goal to be a Professional Writer and stings even more.

    (And if your SOLE reason for sending to magazines is to be able to impress an agent or an editor with your publication credits, you can stop right now. Publication credits are nice, but the lack of them will not hurt you if you have a great manuscript and they will not make a bad manuscript look better.)

    Make your goals much more specific and about things that you have control over. You have a book in progress and you can finish that book, so that should be a goal. Writing another story can be another goal, and so is submitting to X number of places by the end of the year. Meeting these goals on a regular basis is what makes you a writer—and a pro—more than a sale or an acceptance letter. Keep submitting things, but writing more—and writing what you LOVE—should always be the higher priority, because that work will ultimately shape your path more than anything and tell you what kind of writer you are.

    Also, having a day job is perfectly realistic and don’t ever apologize for having one, because plenty of Professional Writers have them.

    Finally, don’t be afraid to pursue projects that seem truly fun just because they don’t pay or don’t seem like the sort of thing that will help you become a Professional Writer. I’ve had better leads come from just having fun writing online than I ever did when I was pursuing a serious poetry career and sending stuff off to all the “right” lit journals. And no wonder, because those fun writing projects were the ones where I gave myself the freedom to express myself without worrying about impressing anyone or being taken seriously.

  35. Featherless Biped said:

    Whoa, this is an awesome outpouring of good advice and support. I’d like to add my two cents.

    I’m a poet. I like to refer to poetry as “the get poor quick scheme that could make YOU a worst-selling author”. I also have a nice day job that I love, and that pays most of the bills. My poetry money is for buying poetry books, donating to poetry causes, and otherwise putting back into the art. As others have pointed out above, being paid is absolutely not the difference between real vs. unreal. It’s harder to keep love alive when you rely on your love for money; I think that’s true of both people and artistic pursuits.

    People have suggested some excellent ideas for handling rejection letters already. (I love Steven King’s spike–so badass!) I have this game with a friend: rejection letters are drink/dessert coupons. Rack up 10 rejections and the other person has to buy you a treat.

    Having a community of other supportive writers is also really valuable. I used the Internet to find The Poetry Free-For-All, which has been a huge source of creative sustenance for me. I also signed up for an inexpensive online writing workshop, which seems to be going well, and which has been getting me in touch with more local people. I’ve also been spending some time on the open mic circuit. The great thing about all these venues is that they allow me to read other people’s work. People whose work moves you really love it if you come up and tell them that you liked it. You can make writer friends this way! Plus, it’s good for getting out of your own head. My exact venues will not be your exact venues, but hopefully you can translate this advice into a version that works for you. Look for where other people are sharing work that you like!

    Best of luck!

    • Featherless Biped said:

      *Stephen King. Man. I begged to go trick-or-treating at his house in Bangor when I was a kid, too.

    • Featherless Biped said:

      P.S. A couple of reading recommendations I forgot.

      Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott deals hilariously with rejection, and voices in your head that tell you you are worthless. Recommended for anyone with a sarcastic sense of humor.

      Rejection letters for famous papers in computer science. (The point being that these people are clearly awesome, and they too got rejected.)

  36. Sheelzebub said:

    If you need validation for your writing, maybe start a blog? But be careful–don’t let that take over your time to write fiction. Write essays or something–people who check in and like it will comment positively and you’ll know that you’re generally good.

    Also keep in mind that what often fuels rejections isn’t always about the quality of what you’ve submitted. It might be that it’s not quite a good fit for the publication or something like that.

    With novels you have several levels of rejection. You shop it to agents and most reject it–the majority of them are professional and courteous and you ache for their approval (OK, at least I do), and you get an asshole or two who scrawl a snotty rejection on your letter, and you can figure that it says something good about you when an asshole doesn’t want to consider your work. (Really–I got a rejection like that and I regarded it as a bullet dodged. Because holy unprofessionalism Batman!) If someone shows interest, you send them an excerpt and they decide from there if they want to represent you and shop it to publishers. Even if the agents who express interest ultimately decide after reading the sample that it’s not for them, it’s quite something to get that far. And if you’re able to land an agent, you still have to pique the interest of a publisher. So there’s a third layer of rejection.

    What I’m saying is that it’s a way of life for writers. It’s why we tend to have to work full-time jobs to pay the bills. After a while your skin thickens and you realize that everyone else goes through it–and if you keep at it, at some point you will get published.

  37. alphakitty said:

    As it happens, I just met a guy this past week who, when he saw me working on the manuscript of my book said something to the effect that a guy he knew wrote a book, and thought it was going to be easy to get published… but then it wasn’t. Not at all. But then it did get published. And it was well received. And then one day the phone rang and it was a woman from the NY Times wanting to know his reaction to getting a Pulitzer. He thought it was his aunt, pulling his leg. Really, really thought it was his aunt. But no. Dude really won a Pulitzer. His name is Paul Harding, author of Tinker.

    Now, we’re not all going to get *that* story. But I’m sure you see the point: having it not be easy is no reason to despair, or to quit.

  38. kyoske said:

    As someone just starting the querying process, this is a nice post to hold onto. I assume I’ll need this advice in 2 months or so!

  39. Shaenon said:

    I’ve had five stories published. Sounds good, right? But between those five sales came twenty or thirty rejections. Getting published is a long, slow slog, and your first sale is unlikely to change that.

    Some stuff that may help:

    — People who tell you to develop a thick skin are annoying and unhelpful. They’re right, of course, but still unhelpful. That said, over time I’ve grown more accustomed to rejections. It helps to see each rejection as an accomplishment, a part of the process. Some people do the rejections-on-the-wall-thing. I keep a spreadsheet of all my stories and the markets to which I submit them, with notations for each rejection and acceptance. It feels like I’m moving toward the goal of publication rather than just passively accumulating rejections.

    — I also hate the revision process. It feels like ripping my abdomen open. One idea: build a ceremony around revision work. I wanted to feel above it all, so I got a vintage Hugh Hefner-style smoking jacket, and when the time comes to revise I put on my smoking jacket and sip wine (or Coke in a wineglass) while making tut-tut comments at my work. (Thanks to my awesome former therapist for thinking of this one.)

    — Perfectly good stories get rejected for market reasons. Maybe you wrote a brilliant story about a telepathic space whale but the editor doesn’t think telepathic space whales are selling this year, or she already bought a story about a telepathic space walrus, or the publisher doesn’t know how to market stories about telepathic sea creatures. And perfectly bad stories get accepted for the same reasons. I can’t imagine “Twilight” got published because an editor read it and thought it was an insightful and moving coming-of-age story. It got published because an editor read it and knew that vampire porn sells.

    ADDENDUM: This does not mean you should write vampire porn. Unless you want to.

    — Sometimes editors just don’t get your work. Or have tastes that don’t align with yours. Or have an off day and reject your story without really engaging it. It happens.

    — From my mentor and spiritual guide, Daniel Pinkwater: set aside an hour a day to sit in front of a blank page or word processor. You don’t have to write anything, but you can’t do anything else. Either the hour will pass uneventfully, or (more likely) you’ll get bored enough to start writing something. Later, you can increase the time you spend sitting. This is what a professional writer does. Get used to it.

    • I need to do that last one. If Daniel Pinkwater said to do it, maybe I can even justify the time away from whatever I’m officially supposed to be doing. :)

    • JenniferP said:

      OMG, a Hugh Hefner smoking jacket has been seriously missing from my life.

      Love this response.

    • LW said:

      This comment = very ace. Thanks!

  40. Nicole said:

    I just wanted to add that the Ferrett just did a numerical tally on his blog, of his past work over the last four years.

    219 rejections.
    25 stories sold.

    http://theferrett.livejournal.com/1747940.html

    That’s a little over 1 rejection *per week* for the past four years, and one sale every eight weeks.

    There’s some more great stats in there – I highly recommend the post for a little perspective.

    • LW said:

      Thanks for posting this. 219 is a lot of rejections, but it’s still comforting to me to have a range of numbers to visualize (i.e. I might eventually sell every other or every third story; 6-10 rejections before selling a story is normal; blah blah.) 14 rejections out of a vague number of potential future rejections could be AN INFINITE NUMBER OF REJECTIONS, but 14 rejections out of say 200 or 250 is a number I can actually imagine. (7 (or 9, if I give myself credit for the two stories I started and haven’t finished yet) stories out of 90 is a little more intimidating, but still imaginable.)

      (Caveat: obviously the figures different for every writer, and I would be very surprised if I didn’t have a cluster of unsold stories at the beginning of this process.)

  41. syrens said:

    To the LW:
    I feel your pain (also a writer who gets rejection letters way more often than not). I once read some Advice To Writers which basically said “celebrate your rejection letters: it means that someone read your stuff. Which means you actually wrote something good enough to submit somewhere. Go you!”
    Another person told me “If you write, you’re a writer. If you write and get published, then you’re a published writer. There is not ‘not being a writer’ in this scenario”.
    I have to remind myself of that frequently, but I find that it helps.

    (Also, Cat Valente is still totally doing those letter-stories. I get them every month. ;-)

  42. Dear LW,

    One thing that struck me when I read your letter: you don’t mention reading within your chosen genre. I mean, this may be so assumed that you didn’t think to mention it, but reading voraciously in the genre I knew I wanted to write in has been HUGE for me. I spent two years simply reading before I typed out a single word of narrative. You can either write or you can’t, IMO, so reading other books from your niche is FAR more useful than any guide to writing is. (if your writing/craft isn’t great, you have a whole other set of problems)

    Read how others are crafting stories, both well and not-so-well (I get the most productive writing done after reading books I think are terrible!). See what they do with POV, structure, tone. Compare and contrast. Being intimately familiar with what’s coming out now (in addition to keeping an eye on what is selling now) will help you two-fold: in your query letter (showing you know the industry beyond Harry Potter, Hunger Games and Twilight, or what have you = good), and in shaping what you are working on. I keep a really close eye on the industry to make sure I’m not being redundant. (for example: dystopias are kind of done, so I scrapped my dystopia and got creative within another sub-genre of YA). Agents won’t buy something that is done, or close to it, because they know publishers won’t buy it, either. (yeah, yeah, there are exceptions, but not that many)

    NaNoWriMo is also a great place to find writing buddies — sign up for this year’s, and check out the forums! Also, if you don’t read Miss Snark’s First Victim, definitely start: there’s a great community there and she recently had a critique partner buddy thing that I hope she will do again.

    My advice: push through that remaining 40% ASAP. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just get the words on paper. You can fix things in revision. Once you’re finished, put your completed novel in a drawer (figuratively speaking) and don’t look at it for 1-2 months. Then take it out and revise, revise, revise. It is usually easier to find beta readers for a completed novel than for a WIP, so you may find it easier to find critique partners at this stage. Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings. Once your novel is polished, start querying. Once you’ve sent out your query letters, start working on your next novel (not a sequel to the first one). A lot of people don’t sell their first novel (or their third or fifth), but I do know a couple of people who washed out on their first but sold the second (to agents who asked them to send along any future projects).

    It’s great that you’re writing short stories (rejections: not so great), but if you want to be a novelist and you’re 60% done, just focus on the novel for now. An agent won’t really care about your short stories, not if you’ve got an amazing hook and strong writing in a query. The novel’s the thing.

    Don’t give up! Sometimes you do need a reality check (if every single agent rejects your first manuscript, you may need to finish the 2nd and query that one), but even the best authors face countless rejection.

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