Rejection is part of the writer's life, whether that's from an agent or publisher, a one-star review, or lack of sales. But that doesn't mean that rejection has to destroy you.
Here are some tips from Michael Alvear on how to handle it in a more positive way.
What danger is to a cop, rejection is to a writer–always hanging in the air dripping with possibility. And drip it does, onto the talented and untalented in almost equal measure.
Actually it doesn’t just drip; it pours.
Rejection has a 360-degree aim — from literary agents who don’t want you as a client, editors who don’t want your manuscript, publishers who give you an insulting advance, bad reviews from literary critics, hate speeches on Amazon, and of course the ultimate rejection—poor sales. Somebody, somewhere at just about every stage of your writing life gives you the finger, a hand and sometimes the whole arm.
Success makes it worse because now you have more to lose. Who do you think suffers more—the newbie who can’t get her first manuscript accepted or the best seller who can’t get his last published because his prior two books tanked? Success, as any best-selling author knows, doesn’t protect you from rejection.
What’s Your Coping Strategy For Rejection?
I didn’t have one for a long time and it hurt my career. I’d spiral into a depression or get paralyzed by the twin sisters of seizure—anxiety and rumination. I tried the usual motivational Band-Aids (“Every no gets you closer to a yes!”) but all they did was slow my descent.
I knew I had to do something about it so while my contemporaries went to writing retreats I retreated to the library and investigated the latest research on building resiliency. The result is my book, The Bulletproof Writer: How To Overcome Constant Rejection To Become An Unstoppable Author. I want to share some of the book’s concepts in the hopes that I can prevent you from giving up in despair or simply help you get more enjoyment out of your career.
Most Successful Authors Have A Coping Strategy For Rejection
It may be unconscious but they have one. This isn’t just my opinion but a fact uncovered by the eminent psychologist Dean Simonton in his masterpiece On The Origins Of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity. He’s famous for saying:
“Creativity is a probabilistic consequence of productivity.”
Translation: Successful people produce more.
Ahhh, but here’s the catch. The only way to produce more is to fail more. And in fact, Simonton discovered that successful creative people fail at much larger rates than the unsuccessful. Given that all his subjects were near-geniuses what accounted for the fact that some succeeded and others didn’t?
A higher threshold for failure. The ability to bounce back from rejection. The successful rebounded like rubber bands. The unsuccessful like twigs.
The Main Component Of A Bulletproof Coping Strategy
You must first be clear on why you write. What are you offering to the public? What would the world miss if you weren’t in it? These are important questions for you to explore because they are the centerpiece of a “bulletproof consciousness.” Here’s why: People are more resilient when they operate out of their purpose than their ego.
My friend Lisa McLeod is a thought performance leader. Her research shows that individuals with a clearly stated purpose dramatically outperform those who don’t. Quick example: Two people are selling a mechanical part that helps a train slow to a stop. Which one is going bounce back from rejection and sell more product—the guy who’s focused on meeting his revenue goal or the woman who sees every sale as an opportunity to save the lives of passengers?
Apply this concept to publishing. Two writers are selling mystery thrillers. Which one is going bounce back from rejection and write/sell more manuscripts—the guy who’s focused on getting a bigger advance, seeing his name on a marquee and getting congratulatory calls or the woman who sees every manuscript as an opportunity to voice new ideas, give readers a welcome break from the doldrums of every day life and manifest her need to tell stories?
Stand on your purpose and your ability to rise above rejection rises exponentially.
Other Components Of A Bulletproof Consciousness
Operating out of a clearly stated purpose will do wonders for your ability to transcend rejections but it’s not the only thing that matters. Managing the pain of rejection is a huge component. I use the 48-Hour Sulking Rule to manage mine. And for particularly painful episodes I use something that researchers discovered works better than talk therapy: Distraction and Distancing.
You also need a strategy for dealing with bad reviews. Ever notice that you gloss over the 99 positive reviews on your Amazon page and obsess/rage on the single one-star review? Brain researchers believe we are wired to focus on the negative because it helped keep us alive (was that twig-snapping sound coming from a branch swaying in the wind or a tiger about to eat you? Staying positive could get you killed). There are ways of overcoming your brain wiring but it’s too long to detail here. I invite you to check out brain researcher Rick Hanson’s wonderful Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence. I used his discoveries and applied them to writers in my own book.
Managing The Biggest Critic Of All: YOU
Our inner critic is an indispensable help in establishing quality control. There’s a reason you don’t put out crap as a writer—your inner critic won’t let you. But the same inner critic that’s helpful in one area can be devastating in others. If you want to be more resilient in the face of rejection you have got to change the way your inner critic voices its discontent. For too many writers it takes the form of self-persecution rather than self-correction. There are proven ways to make that happen but they require your willingness for searing honesty.
Constant rejection is a fact of life for a writer. Your ability to master this challenge will have a profound effect on your career. If your inner strength is a little weak, if your ability to thrive under pressure is increasingly wilting it may be time to construct a conscious, deliberate strategy to manage rejection. With a little luck you might make it into Dean Simonton’s next book.
Do you struggle with fear of rejection? How do you get back up off the mat after a rejection and keep writing? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Michael Alvear is the author of The Bulletproof Writer: How To Overcome Constant Rejection To Become An Unstoppable Author (Woodpecker Media January 2017).
He’s been a frequent contributor to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and his work has appeared in Newsweek, The Washington Post, Reader’s Digest, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Huffington Post.
Greg Levin says
Nice post, Joanna.
Whenever I receive a rejection, I just send the agent or publisher my patented “Rejection Letter for Rejecting a Rejection Letter”:
Dear (name of agent or publisher),
Thank you very much for your recent rejection notification. Unfortunately, I am unable to accept your rejection at this time. Please understand that I receive a high volume of rejection notifications and must be highly selective in choosing those I am able to handle.
The acceptance of rejection notifications is a highly subjective process. The fact that I have decided to pass on your rejection in no way signifies your rejection is sub-par, and I encourage you to continue rejecting authors’ queries and submissions. Just because I have decided to pass on your rejection doesn’t mean there aren’t numerous other authors who’d be happy to be rejected by you.
I wish you the best of luck in your future rejection endeavors and want to thank you for allowing me to review your work.
(Here I always use a fake name to ensure I have a snowball’s chance in hell of ever having another agent or publisher even THINK about accepting my manuscript.)
W. M. Raebeck says
That’s really funny, Greg.
Nandini Godara says
I’ve been rejected by a few universities in the last 2 weeks for their creative writing programmes and this really made me smile. So, thank you!
Travis Chapman says
Thank you Michael for the shot of wisdom! I know I try to lean back into my plan when things are going less-than-well. “My book isn’t doing that great, it must be me!” leads to “No, you made a conscious decision to focus on writing the sequel for this week, not on promotion/marketing tasks. That’s on purpose. Stick to the plan!” Otherwise the lizard mind would have me looking at charts all day long while I eat corn nuts, ice cream, and lattes. Glad I have some new tactics to try!
Heather Day Gilbert says
Really enjoyed this. You’re so right–I’ve noticed one low review will stick with me more than ten great ones, and with a permafree book, I HAVE to be prepared for low reviews. Lately I’ve considered stopping reading reviews or bumping that book out of permafree, but so far, I haven’t done either. I like the concept that those who are successful fail at a much higher rate than those who aren’t–they get knocked down, maybe even flattened, and just drag themselves back up and keep working. Being a writer is one aspect of my life where I’m really grateful I was a strong-willed child. It gave me that internal oomph to keep striving for my goals no matter what (or who) gets in my way. 😉
Alice Orr says
Good post Joanna. I have a checkered history with rejection. I was a book editor and then a later on, a literary agent, so for a long time I was a dispenser of rejections. When I finally started doing my dream and became a full-time writer, I felt guilty about my past, almost as if I had to swallow rejection to atone for my years on the other side of the desk. To be honest, I’m not entirely cured of that, but I’ve been less neurotic about it since I took on a version of the attitude of the woman in this post “who sees every manuscript as an opportunity to voice new ideas, give readers a welcome break from the doldrums of everyday life and manifest her need to tell stories.” The need to tell stories, and the fun of it, are what truly motivate me. Articulating that for myself has made me more at home with the prospect of being rejected, and many other aspects of this challenging business. Alice – http://www.aliceorrbooks.com
Talya Tate Boerner says
Great post that came right when I needed to read it. Rejection clings to me fiercely and I need to learn to shake it off. I find myself wondering if I even want to put book two out there into the world.
I’m so glad I read this post on a very disappointing morning. Thank you.
I just mailed out my first children’s book manuscript a few days ago, now the wait begins…. I’m nervous everyday, but staying positive.