Is there anyone out there who has ever felt as if they were a terrible writer and a worthless human being because the responses to your agent query letters are coming back addressed to Dear Author or Dear Sir or Madam and all say something like:
- I’m not taking on any new clients at the moment.
- In this difficult publishing climate, we feel that we would not be able to place your work successfully.
- No, just no.
“Rejections slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil – but there is no way around them.” – Isaac Asimov
I saved all of my agent rejection letters. Some of them were quite amusing although I doubt the agent intended them to be. A couple were addressed to me and signed with real ink (very classy). Most were impersonal form letters. One was a 1/3-page barely readable form letter that looked as if it had been copied a thousand times and then ripped from the mother page with a dull ruler.
If you are lucky enough to snag an agent, you must face the next round of rejections—from editors. Famous authors are not immune:
“I got a rejection letter from an editor at HarperCollins, who included a report from his professional reader. This report shredded my first-born novel, laughed at my phrasing, twirled my lacy pretensions around and gobbed into the seething mosh pit of my stolen clichés. As I read the report, the world became very quiet and stopped rotating. What poisoned me was the fact that the report’s criticisms were all absolutely true. The sound of my landlady digging in the garden got the world moving again. I slipped the letter into the trash…knowing I’d remember every word.” – David Mitchell
Writers must develop a thick, protective skin in order to survive the onslaught of criticism. How should writers handle rejection? In my quest to find answers, I asked Bonnie MacBird, a multi-Emmy award-winning writer/producer, actor, artist, and author of the Sherlock Holmes adventure, Art in the Blood. Bonnie also teaches screenwriting at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. I wanted to know what advice she gives her students.
"Rejection, hmmm. I know something about that. I'm an actor as well as a writer. A three-part sketch I once wrote for a show called HOT ROLES told of a young actor who fantasizes about an upcoming important audition. First he imagines the audition from hell -- he's got the wrong sides, then he's misunderstood, belittled, and finally thrown out of the room in a fury by the director. So he gives himself a pep talk, and re-imagines the audition, this time he kills it, and lands a star-making role. Snapping out of it, he realizes it's time to actually go to the audition. He arrives at the real thing. Waits. Waits some more. They call his name. He reads. Silence. Thank you very much. No feedback. We'll call you. In other words…nothing.
Alas, that's how rejection mostly is, nowadays. Impersonal. Nothing useful imparted. At best, as a writer you may receive a one line email. You can't even wallpaper your walls with this kind of thing. To be fair, I understand what readers face. I spent four years on the other side of the desk as a feature film development exec at Universal. I read six scripts a day, novels, plays… and twelve to fourteen pieces of material every weekend. And covered theatre. During this time, I wrote over a thousand reports, and hundreds of direct responses to agents and writers, never forgetting for an instant how much work went into each script or book.
As a writer, I hope for the same, but rarely get it. Back then, Universal had big bucks and hired Ivies with strong work ethics to read, and mentored us with experienced story wizards. But as a Disney exec once said when reneging on a promise, “that was then and this is now.”
Publishing companies nowadays have fewer dollars and fewer people. I'm guessing the stacks on the desks are higher. And…frankly… it's harder for young people used to googling, texting and surfing to really read a whole book now. But they are in the business of words, so this excuse only goes so far.
So, when I'm rejected, here's what I do. If there is a smidgeon of information I take it to heart, but only in the aggregate. If one person says the ending doesn't work, and four people (and you) know the twist is killer, don't listen to the first guy. Learn to be discerning in how you take criticism. But be open to it. Develop some armor. Beyond that, press on. My main tactic is to be already on to the next project. That, and chocolate. And a good run. Fuck 'em. I am in good company, and at least my work is out there, being considered. That's a win for me."
Craig Faustus Buck, an L.A.-based journalist, NYT bestselling nonfiction book author, TV writer-producer, Oscar-nominated screenwriter, Anthony Award nominated short-story writer and novelist says:
“Gloom is a writer's best friend as far as rejection is concerned. If you expect to be rejected, you'll never be disappointed. And when you're wrong, it's an orgasmic surprise. Rosy expectations will turn a perfectly normal rejection into a personal tragedy.”
Here's Chuck Wendig’s tough-love take on rejection. Wendig is a novelist, screenwriter, and game designer who writes a blog called TerribleMinds. Read his entire post on rejection here:
“If you’re a writer, a writer who writes, a writer who puts her work out there, you’re going to face rejection. It’s like saying, “Eventually you’re going to have to fistfight a bear,” except here it’s not one bear but a countless parade of bears, from Kodiaks to Koalas, all ready to go toe-to-toe with you. Rejection, like shit, happens. Rejection, like shit, washes off. Get used to it.”
These wise words are a reminder that when climbing the stairway to success, progress is made one step at a time.