By: Noelle Sterne
How Long Does it Take to Get Over Rejection?
“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 went on writing.”― Stephen King,
The experience I’m about to relate was the kind of marvel we may read about and say, “Yeah, yeah, okay for you. But it could never happen to me. When I get rejected, I stay rejected.”
I’m recounting this saga for several reasons. The first two admittedly serve my ego:
- I’m proud of the final outcome.
- It precipitated for me, delicious feelings of vindication, validation, and a perfect irony.
When You Reject Their Rejections
The next four reasons serve, I hope, to temper your cynicism and possible despair of ever getting anything from your writing send-outs but rejections:
- I used no special methods of submission and went “over the transom,” as most of us do.
- This account, with its troughs and peaks, may shore you up and cheer you on to keep submitting and hanging in.
- My story should demonstrate that you don’t have to consider rejected pieces as dead, to be mercifully buried at the bottom of a storage box. They can be resurrected. You just have to discover how, and where to send them.
- Finally, this history should prove, once again, that editors’ rejections aimed straight at your entrails aren’t sweeping damnations of your work, talent, and life. Editors are not impenetrable icons—they change positions, policies, and their minds.
It All Started . . .
About ten years ago in late September, with the usual mixture of anticipated glory and stomach-sinking trepidation, I submitted an essay about my love for the thesaurus to one of the top writing magazines. With the manuscript, I enclosed a letter summarizing the essay and listing several credits.
A month later, to my shock, I received a personal note from the editor-in-chief (I still treasure it). She rejected the essay with great grace: “I regret that we cannot make a place for it and I am returning it to you herewith.”
The second paragraph, though, bowled me over, and incidentally saved me from the canyons of depression. She wrote:
I note that you have written a very successful book for children [my Tyrannosaurus Wrecks: A Book of Dinosaur Riddles] and perhaps you’d like to try your hand at a piece on writing nonfiction books for young people. If you do so and are willing to submit it on spec, we’ll be glad to give it a careful reading and prompt reply.
Rejections: Yes, No, Maybe for Publication
More than ecstatic at this invitation, I set to work. But all I knew about writing for kids was creating the riddles for the dinosaur riddle book. I’d never taken classes in children’s writing, didn’t subscribe to any newsletters, didn’t read any children’s lit blogs or participate in chat rooms, and hadn’t written anything else in the genre. In fact, it wasn’t my favorite type of writing.
Besides, how could riddles be considered nonfiction, as the editor labeled my book? Science fiction, maybe—I’d pushed the envelope, and almost ripped it, with puns in the book that belonged outside the grounds of Jurassic Park.
Ruminating on the editor’s invitation, and reading it more times than Mesozoic millennia, I realized—like a classic knock on the head—that I should write what I knew.
So, with new resolve, over many weeks I squeezed out a first draft about how I created the 450 riddles (of which 146 were used)—the techniques I discovered and invented. Over several more months, I carved the second draft, adding representative riddles. Then I dragged through third, fourth, and fifth drafts. Six months after receiving the editor’s letter, in April, I could finally sleep—the piece was ready to send.
Repeating to myself that she had actually asked for the article, I sent the manuscript with a note reminding her of her invitation.
Only a week later, a letter arrived. Even before reading it, I felt rejected—the return address was not the editor’s but one of her minions. Scanning the message, I barely noticed the compliment, trying to fend off the death blow: “While the piece is certainly well-written, we feel that overall, it’s too specialized for our readership.”
At first, I cursed the tunnel vision of editors. Hadn’t I included writing principles that could apply to many kinds of children’s writing? Weren’t the examples excellent? Didn’t I put my absolute all into the piece?
Then I sighed and stuffed all my drafts and the letter far back in my writing file cabinet (the equivalent of the morgue). And had no desire to resume any other writing projects.
But I couldn’t drag my pencils forever.
Mounting Up Again
Forgetting that lone piece, I climbed back on another, different horse, and then another. As I kept sending submissions out, more pieces, to my incredulous inbox, got accepted. Such results gave me the courage to jump onto more writing steeds.
One of these newer works was my proposal to a major writers’ publication for an interview with a children’s writers’ magazine editor. Organizing my questions for the proposal, I thought of that long-interred article on the riddles.
Holding my breath, I exhumed it. Now my more mature critical editorial eye saw the need for reworking, tightening, and polishing throughout. It was all manageable.
Heartened by this self-assessment, I recalled that the magazine I’d sent the article to those many years ago had been recently sold. The publication had a new look, a new editor, and a new staff. So, the next September I mailed the spruced-up article and a note to the recently anointed editor. And waited.
And waited. I eventually forgot about the mailing.
One bright summer day, ten months later in early July, I spotted in the mailbox a #10 with the magazine’s return address. Slowly I unfolded the letter. The note was from a senior editor:
We discussed your article at a recent story conference and think it may have potential for us down the road. But we are not in a position to purchase it at the moment. We are keeping your article charted and on file and will get in touch with you if a slot opens up for it.
“Charted and on file”? What the blinkin’ syntax did that mean? “If a slot opens”? This was almost worse than an outright no. I was sure they’d contrived such elaborate rejective phraseology as a tacit apology for having kept the piece for nearly a year.
This time, though, slightly more toughened, I sighed and shrugged. Then I stuffed the letter into the writing morgue next to the drafts of the article and earlier correspondence.
Sitting not quite as tall in the saddle, I jogged out again into other writing fields.
And Then . . .
One day five months later, in December, among the bills and my own returned SASE manilas, I spied a #10 with that same distinctive return address logo. Reading the letter, I almost fell off my pile of rejected manuscripts. The signature at the bottom was the managing editor’s, and the words I’d craved forever and had nearly given up on sang out like a Broadway chorus:
We’d like to publish this piece in a future issue. Please let me know if you accept and/or if you have any questions.
If I accept? When I called him, I tried not to drool into the phone.
And so, the almost-defunct dinosaur riddle piece, which had risked fossilization in my dead-article writing file, emerged snorting with restored life and belly-laughing riddles. The article came out—six and a half years after its first rejection by this very magazine.
Pardon the Pedantics on Persistence
Lessons? If you’re going to write, you’re going to produce many pieces. Some will find immediate berths, some will dock after roundabout sojourns through the magazines, and some will bob on the sea of anonymity for years, maybe decades. I’ve known of writers who have resurrected, resubmitted, and finally published twenty-year-old articles. My dinosaur riddle article wasn’t that hoary, although still long in the tusk.
You’ve undoubtedly heard it before—persist in your publication efforts. No matter how old a piece is, it can likely be revitalized and resent. Many subjects we write about deal with timeless, “evergreen” issues—like principles of children’s writing or experiences everyone can relate to. These pieces will continue to be relevant as long as we stay human.
Old Rejections? Update and Find a New Audience
We can, and should, update our recirculating articles. If some of your phrases are outmoded, bring them current—“groovy” to “awesome,” for example, or “hip” to “cool.” If your allusions give away a former era, fix them: “typewriter” to “iPad,” “wall phone” to “cell,” “note” to “text,” “bibliography” to “webliography.” If people you describe emerge a little fussy, give them some edge. Such revamping will hardly violate the spirit or substance of your piece.
Dig into that old storage box or rusted file. See what dusty rejected pieces catch your eye and heart. Remember your early high hopes for them, like children, and how you thought they had such promise. Maybe, with a little or a lot of revising, they still do. Your growth since writing them will impel adjustments that increase their substance and professionalism. Work on the pieces until you feel satisfied. Send them out. And again and again.
Go for the same markets—remember my change of editors. Explore new ones. Keep up your research and comb the writers’ newsletters. New writers’ publications, online and print, and blogs appear regularly. Enlarge your view of where your piece might fit, and boldly send the manuscript where none of its kind has gone before.
And one day, after your piece is accepted, you too will be able to encourage and spur despondent fellow writers with your own unbelievable, unlikely, implausible, and wonderfully satisfying not your mother’s rejection story.
Author, editor, writing coach, writing workshop leader, and spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 400 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, and short stories.
Publications include Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Coffeehouse For Writers, Funds for Writers, InnerSelf, Inside Higher Ed, New Age Journal, Pen & Prosper, Sasee, Story Monsters Ink, The Write Place At the Write Time, Unity Magazine, Writer’s Journal, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest.
She is an academic editor and coach, with the Ph.D. from Columbia University. She helps doctoral students wrestling with their dissertations and publishes articles in several blogs for dissertation writers.
Her book Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015) further aids doctoral candidates to award of their degrees. As part of pursuing her writing Dream, Noelle’s mission is to help other writers reach their own and create the lives they truly desire.
Author, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams. Unity Books, 2011.
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