Sunday, March 4, 2012

Writerly Stuff: Let's Talk About Rejection

No discussion about the writing life is honest or complete if we tiptoe around the subject of rejection.

After looking up the definition of rejection in the dictionary, it occurred to me that its antonyms may be more revealing than the definition of the word rejection itself. Words that mean the opposite of rejection include "acknowledgment," "admission," and, "confirmation." These are the very things that are withheld when rejection occurs.

There's no doubt about it: rejection hurts. As an unpublished writer, you will not avoid it. As a published author, you will not escape it. Even if you become a fabulously wealthy, bona fide best-selling, award-winning, highly successful author, you will still not be immune (although rejection may be less painful in the last scenario).

Rejection will take many forms, and it will accompany you throughout your entire writing career, so the best way to approach it is with a good helping of plain common sense. The thing to bear in mind is that rejection is simply opinion. It is nothing more, and nothing less.
Criticism or rejection of your work is an opinion of your work expressed by a reader. The opinion formed by a reader is based upon everything that makes each reader unique: education, life experience, personal beliefs and biases, and so on. A reader's rejection of your book is not a rejection of you as a person, though it might feel that way.

If you haven't been rejected by an agent or a publisher yet, you probably haven't submitted anything to an agent or a publisher. If you've had the good fortune to find a publisher who believes in your talent strongly enough to publish, market, and distribute your work at their own expense, then you may have experienced rejection in the mix of reviews that follows publication.

Only the most naïve writer will assume that the publication of their work signals the end of the rejection experience. The path to publication merely serves to prepare a writer for what lies ahead once his or her book is available for consumption. Book signings, first fan letters, kind words from reviewers, readers and other writers will bolster the ego and provide balm when rejection comes knocking on the door.

So, what can the tender-hearted (or thin-skinned) author do to prepare for the inevitable rejection that is as much a part of the writing life as fried Twinkies at a county fair? Here are some tips:

· Write the best poem, article, short story, novel, song, screenplay, etc., you're capable of each time, with the goal of having your writing get better with each new foray into the world of the written word.

· Don't dwell on negative reviews and don't give negative reviews any more weight than you do the positive ones. A glowing review full of praise can be just as misleading as a rip-your-heart-out-with-a-dull-spoon negative one. The truth is probably somewhere in between. If you allow yourself to believe only the bad reviews, you may never write again. Most writers probably aren't as good as their best reviews suggest or as terrible as their worst ones imply.

· Learn the right lessons from rejection: it's tough to keep an open mind and remain objective when the criticism is directed at your work, but if there's a lesson to be extracted from the criticism, be willing to learn it. If you committed the cardinal sin of tossing your reader out of the story, study your craft so that you don't make the same mistake again. If the contest judge who critiqued your story provided sound advice, pay attention to it, even if the delivery of the advice lacked tact and diplomacy. If your editor pointed out plot or character inconsistencies in the margins of your galleys, be grateful for the opportunity to fine-tune your novel before it reaches publication.

· Always put rejection into perspective and view it from a variety of angles. For example, an interesting thing about numeric rankings on sites such as Amazon, Goodreads, Shelfari, and LibraryThing is the detail behind the aggregate ranking. At first glance, a ranking of 3 out of 5 seems dismal until you look more closely and discover that some reviewers routinely rank everything a 1, 2, or 3 (nothing higher than a 3). You'll often see the same book appear on both "Best Book" and "Worst Book" lists. Reviewers who gave your work a low rating may have bestowed a similar mark on a classic work by an author you admire. The reader who announced to the world that your book is the "worst book I've ever read. If I could give it a zero, I would!" may have also said the same of the work of Mark Twain or John Steinbeck. If that's the case, you should be pleased to have been included in such illustrious company. Don't obsess over the 1's and 2's and don't get too puffed up when your book receives the highest possible rating (although do pause to be grateful!)

In the internet age, every reader who has an opinion has a forum for sharing their opinion with millions of other readers. That's not a bad thing because it increases the odds of people hearing about your book, although the veil of anonymity provided by the internet tends to encourage no-holds-barred, sometimes brutal candor because book reviewers and authors share a similar goal: we want what we write to be read. The more sensational the review, the more entertaining it is to read (unless it's highly negative and you happen to be the author of the book being slammed).

The final decision about whether a book is "good" or "bad" rests with each individual reader. Some readers will embrace your writing and some will reject it. The ones who enjoy your writing will encourage and sustain you, and the ones who don't will find other writers to support. That is as it should be.

Rejection is nothing more than opinion, and to quote Edmund Wilson, "No two persons ever read the same book." The only way to avoid rejection entirely is to have your Mom or best friend (but no one else) read your novel. However, if you're writing to be read by a wider audience, be prepared to be both loved and loathed at the same time.

Lisa Marie

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