Clipped Wings: Coping with Rejection’s Sting

A few days ago, on a writing thread I frequent, a young writer jumped the gun and started querying too early in her manuscript’s life to find much chance of success. Her choice prompted a fascinating discussion, and became a showcase about the many ways to handle the prospect of failure.

Some people leaped in with clear desire to protect her from unnecessary pain and choices that might limit her career. Others were annoyed that she’d waste an agent’s valuable time, thereby making their own climb to publication more lengthy. Still others yet took the philosophy, “Eh, let the kid try. Maybe she’ll learn some valuable life lessons.” 

Then today, on a personal level, my own gentle-souled man-child began a new year of junior high. Let me just say the world is not always a kind place for insightful boys. Nor is it easy on their mothers, who must watch.

So all that got me to thinking about failure, and how each person’s perceptions and beliefs about rejection or set-back, determine the effectiveness of their response. 

We’re all told, in the writing biz, that one must grow a thick skin and develop the ability to bounce back. What’s seldom said afterword is exactly how. So I’d love to have a conversation about what helps you keep going, even on days where your in-box radiates hostility and your writing is greeted by shattering reader silence.  

How do you do it? Where did you learn your resilience? I’d love to know, so that I can increase my own repertoire. And while I’m waiting for your response, I’ll list a few things that help me:

The understanding that it’s not necessarily what happens to us, but the story we tell ourselves about its meaning, that determines our reaction:

For example, I can’t imagine anything more devastating than losing a child. I think I’d probably curl up in the fetal position for a long time, then go on to carve out a limp half-existence.

But some people don’t go that way. Some people, after a decent mourning period, even thrive. Others, still, transmute their suffering into purpose and start agencies that serve the greater world. (I’m thinking of MADD, and America’s Most Wanted.)

I so admire this, because I can slip into victim-hood all too easily.

But I’m learning to question my underlying beliefs, and whenever rejection feels deeply personal, to ensure I’m not committing obvious errors in thinking. (Eg. Thinking that because one person found one character unsympathetic, all people will; and that I suck as a writer, and always will.) 

To that end, this post here lists some resources I’ve found helpful.


Finding or Building, if Necessary, a Community of Hope around Writing:

In the past two years, I’ve logged a lot of computer time on this endeavour. Let’s be clear: by a community of hope, I don’t mean finding a group of sycophants who’ll blow smoke up my ass on bad days, in the understanding that I’ll return the favour. (I think we’ve all seen enough bad auditions on American Idol to make the point that self-esteem, in the absence of competency, is meaningless, and possibly even harmful.)

No, I mean those who’ll tell me, to my face, kindly, both what I do well as a writer, and how I can improve.

I didn’t realize how crucial this community had become to me until just this last week, when a new critique partner challenged everything I thought I understood about one of my manuscripts. It was hard to hear her words; harder yet to acknowledge she might be right — that I haven’t done a character I absolutely love justice. 

Had this occurred two years ago, when I was without a community of writing friends, I might have committed suicide by office stapler.

Not this week!

No, this week I had others to fall back on. They calmed me, helped me understand what a golden opportunity I’d just been given to learn, and best of all, they conveyed a quiet certainty I can do what’s required. Wow! Unbelievable. I’m still kind of dazed with gratitude.

So if you haven’t got one yet, please find your community. I’ve found mine at Absolute Write, in the Cherry Forums and the Cherry Tarts, and now, with some local writers. 

Lastly, the Victor Frankl’s quote: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’”

I figure that any philosophy that can help a man endure a Nazi concentration camp, without evidence of tremendous bitterness, is likely to help me with my concerns. To that end, I’m showing you a partial list of “why’s” that I keep in my computer. As you’ll see, many of the entries have less to do with writing itself, and have more to do with the kind of person I’d like to be in the world.

Reasons to Write with the Imposter Syndrome Raging:

1.  Because the cure for writing problems is to write.

2.  If you don’t write these stories, then no one else ever will.

3.  You invested the damn money on the damn laptop and courses.  It behooves you to ensure that wasn’t a complete waste.  

4.  Malcolm Gladwell says it’ll take 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery of any kind of skill-set.  Writing excrement is not only your right, but necessary.

5.  You’re modeling strength and self-actualization for your children.

6.  When you conquer fear of rejection and perfectionism in one arena of your life, you’ll be bolder in the other areas.  The ones that matter.  (Yeah, my subconscious doesn’t quite buy that writing doesn’t matter either, but it’s the principle, right?)

7.  Intellectual challenge wards off Alzheimer’s, which is an incredibly nasty disease. A diaper will never touch you nether regions, if you continue to write!

8.  Because it makes you a more appreciative reader.

9.  When it works, the feeling is like no other, except possibly an expansive bout of [edited for sensitive eyes] with P.

10.  When you follow your bliss, it gives others implicit permission to do the same.  And you know how to support them.  For instance, when P comes home, with this model airplane looking like this —

 P's plane

— you know now to just shrug and push him out the door to the hobby shop, instead of cringing and wondering how much this is gonna cost.

So, that’s my list.  What would make yours?  What keeps you going on the bad days?

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36 thoughts on “Clipped Wings: Coping with Rejection’s Sting

  1. This is a great post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    For me, understanding that everything really is subjective helps me to cope.

    I was once lucky enough to have a staged reading of one of my scripts which concluded with a Q&A with the audience. Literally half the audience LOVED what they’d seen, while the other half was totally confused by it. While it was a painful experience, it really illustrated how subjective art truly is.

    1. I agree, love2write. That’s what I came to understand of my crit partner’s reading- which I’m immensely grateful for, by the way, despite the fact it was challenging.

      We all come to the page with a different life experience and different reader expectation. No one person can be the writer for everyone.

      Thanks for sharing. I can’t even imagine what that would be like, to be hit with a 50% “failure” rate live. Hats off to you for surviving it with such a philosophic attitude!

  2. What a wonderful post, Jan! I’m going to link to it tomorrow, when I update my blog.

    And as for me… I sent out a few query letters prematurely, too, but then quickly realized that my manuscript wasn’t ready. Hence, the revision process began!

    I certainly don’t have any hostile feelings toward a writer sending out queries too soon. He/she has to learn sometime. But, from my own experience, I’ve learned that it’s better to wait until you’re REALLY sure before sending your heart out into the world.

    Rejection isn’t easy for anybody – no matter how tough someone claims to be. I think your tips are pretty on-the-mark. You just have to keep going – stick to your calling as a writer and accept that your story must be shared with others, one way or another!

    1. I’m just so grateful for the on-line writing community, Laura, because without it, I’d probably be making some of these huge mistakes. (I’ll just make some others, I’m sure.)

      Glad you found the post helpful. And I do hope you keep working on your mms. Although I haven’t read your fiction, I know I did love its premise.

  3. I am 55. I have been telling stories all my life (mixed reviews). Now I am putting them on paper and sending them into the void.

    Rejection is not an issue for me. It is not because I have an ego or I am that confident or even that comfortable with myself. I don’t know anyone who is entirely comfortable with themselves. No. I think it is because I can’t do anything else.

    A young man once walked into Dwight Moody’s office and claimed he was called to preach on the mission field.
    “What do you do now for a living?” Moody asked.
    “I fix cars.”
    “Do you enjoy that line of work.”
    “Oh yes…” The young man went on for 15-20 minutes.
    Moody finally spoke again: “Son, be a good mechanic. You are not caled to preach.
    “If you were truly called to preach, God would not let you do anything else.”

    If my work is rejected, well, that is just part of the process but it means nothing to me. I will improve my writing, I will tell my stories and I will continue to send them into the void. Why? If you follow me, “God won’t let me do anything else.” You see?


    1. Ooh, I’m glad someone mentioned faith here. I’d call myself spiritual, rather than religious, but it strikes me that people who have a deep belief that they’re called to write have a distinct advantage. It’s all about that sense of purpose.

      You sound like you have a peace of mind that pretty much every writer would envy. Good for you.

  4. I like no. 3 on your list. No, seriously, rejection is the worst part of writing, because you never know if you’ll accomplish your goals, unlike many other skills. On the other hand, some people set their goals too high, without the necessary willpower to stick with it. They think just because they’ve finished something, it’s ready to be read.
    I am always thrilled when I hear about a young writer who gets an agent, a book deal, etc., but I’m also dismayed for the message that sends to 99.99% of the rest of us, for whom time and practice are so essential to turning out decent work.

    Writing related rejections were a fairly constant thread in my life for years. I gave up at times, but always came back to it just because I couldn’t stay away. One thing that helped me is reminding myself of all the other things I’m good at in life. I make a killer chocolate cheesecake, for example. My kids think I’m a good mom, for various reasons, as long as I don’t wear my sparkly shoes around their friends.

    I would have been very disappointed to never be published, but it wouldn’t have ruined my life. There are so many other things that would ruin my life, like the examples you gave about losing a child. When you think of it that way, it helps keep a sane perspective. I think it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that writing should just be one part of life. Life’s other experiences are necessary fodder for fiction.

    And if a writer truly want to be published, he or she needs to remember it is a business, and throughout the whole process a writer is always dealing with either rejection or criticism from agents, editors and readers. Learning to deal with rejection before getting published is a way to build up the thick skin necessary for the criticism that comes after it.

    Besides, if we gave up writing, it wouldn’t be so much fun to hang out with other writers.

  5. You can wear your sparkly shoes any time you want in my blog, Dee. 🙂

    One of the things I love about the positive psychology movement is the emphasis on reusing core strengths for other applications, rather than concentrating on fixing a person’s weaknesses. We all have evidence of success in our lives that has required – how does a friend of mine put it? – “commitment and diligence”. If we apply it here, with a modicum of luck, and a baseline of talent, there’s a reasonable chance of success.

    But as you say, what is success? We are more than our writing. (Although my kids might beg to disagree, especially when it’s stir-fry for the third night in a row because mom’s on the computer.) Sometimes it’s crucial to remember that.

  6. Good one, hope!

    I find that I take a lot of comfort from the Dunning-Kruger effect. Check it out at:

    Hopefully that will show up as a link. If not, just google “Dunning Kruger” and click on the Wikipedia page.

    I am sometimes overly sensitive to negative feedback from others. The Dunning-Kruger effect has not only lead me to understand why most people think they are great drivers, but also allows me to temper feedback that I may find, for whatever reason, harsh! (Sometimes by considering the source, but certainly considering myself.)

    …of course I could take my interpretation of the Dunning-Kruger effect too far and, well, just trash my self-confidence so I appear more competent. I guess this could be the “meta Dunning-Kruger effect”

    1. OMG, people! Thud. My on-line persona has just crossed paths with my brother. And no fair! You sounds way smarter than me in this comment. 😉

      Love that link, by the way. What an elegant way of summarizing unconscious incompetence. Then it adds in the dimension of that unconscious competence can be easily undermined.

      Just in case you needed clarification, I’m in the latter category. 🙂

  7. I write because I have to. There’s no other way to put it. As for surviving, I just do. It’s a philosophy I’ve held for all areas of my life…you pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. I don’t know why I’m that way (wipes blood off her blade before stashing knife back in boot).

    Interesting that you mention MADD. Some years ago, I worked for a woman who was national president at the time. She’d lost her only child to a drunk driver. She wasn’t a ‘tough as nails’ person…she just continued on. In the end, it’s all you can do.

  8. Okay, that Dunning-Kruger effect reminder depressed me — I’m all happy thinking I’m a good damn writer (just undiscovered as of yet 😉 and now I find out I’m just don’t have that meta-whozit ability to be self-aware. *Throws hands up in the air and stomps out of the sandbox*

  9. Hiya, Bane! Nice to see you. Yeah, that’s my brother for you. Now you know just what I had to put up with for nineteen MISerable years. 🙂

    How ya been?

    BTW, stomping is not allowed. You are a damn fine writer. I’m the one who helped you out with your query, you know.

  10. Yeah, I know — muchos gracias for all your help then — and now I’m off rewriting it (not the query, but the story — agents found the MC not sympathetic enough, ah well)

    I haven’t seen you round at the PQSP recently and I’ve been off absolute write for awhile now that I’m back into full time writing mode (and blogging — which takes up way lots of frickin’ time)…

    And I was never really very good at stomping — my legs were too long and I couldn’t generate enough thrust… can’t skulk either… perhaps I’ll try slinking…

    Oh, and younger bro, keep up the good work 🙂

    1. Too bad about the agents. Do they not know talent when they see it? 🙂 At least I can assume that some found the premise interesting. That’s a really good sign!

      Blogging does take a lot of effort, especially if you hope to do a decent job of it. But personally, I think it’s worth it, although I have had to cut back on some visits elsewhere — PQSP being one of those excellent places.

      And since you’re on the way out, you might consider slithering… 😉

  11. Submissions. Every guy should know about rejection by at least 13. Submitting your writing for publication is like getting off your folding chair, taking the loooong walk across the gymnasium floor to where there’s an even longer line of girls with their eyes glued on you while snickering with their friends. You stop in front of one and ask meekly, “May I have this dance?” She krinkles her nose and practically shouts, “No way!” Then you take that loooong walk back to your seat thinking maybe you’ll get lucky next time. It didn’t cost you postage out and back, but you had to pay to get in the dance.

    1. What a good analogy, Yarnspnr! It’s exactly like that. And may I just say, as the mother of a young male who will have to go through this process, and as a person who received her fair share of social snickering, “Ouch!”

      You don’t happen to write YA, do you?

  12. THere were times the rejections were so “out there” that I could laugh and say “well, you’re just wrong” and move on. There were times they knocked me on my butt for a few days while I felt sorry for myself and questioned myself as a writer.

    In the end, my fear of never getting sold always surpassed my fear of rejection and I have folders of rejections to prove this.

    Get your submission ready, without writing the life out of it because you’re so worried everything has to be perfect, and send it out. NEVER take one’s person’s opinion. If there are 2 or more that say the same thing, then it’s worth examining.

    Anyhow, having just recently been rejected by 2 agents, I will say the rejections don’t stop after being published and they still bite. The key is to keep biting back!

    1. Michelle, may I just say that I’m not surprised by your spunky reply, having had the privilege of meeting you in person? “The key is to just keep biting back”. Good advice there. Guess I better take care of my teeth, huh? 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by, especially during such a busy time. (For the people who don’t know, Michelle’s second historical romance was just released two days ago. Woot! Her first is in my TBR pile, and still requires a signature.)

  13. Great inspiring post Jan.

    I have suffered through tons of rejections, the first time hurt, the second time did too, but now it just pisses me off. LOL

    I’m not sure how I cope with it, I just do. I have confidence in my writing and that I was supposed to do this, so that’s what keeps me going.

    1. Woot! A visit from another of my local RWA chaptermates. Vivi, I’ll have to consider adopting your response. 🙂 How many published books has it powered you through? Eleventy billion? That says a lot for an unquestioning faith.

  14. Hi, Jan!

    I read your exchange with Bane (above) – that’s funny, I haven’t been around the PQS lately either… I want to, but with writing and blogging and beta-reading and doing chores, I have no “free” time anymore. Must head back soon – I feel like I’m letting Rick down.

    Anyhoo, I wanted you to know that I’ve linked to your blog in my post today – yesterday’s advice was just so darn helpful!

    1. Thanks for thinking of me, Laura! I’m visiting your blog after I type this. Yeah, I miss Rick and the gang. But somehow I think he has a lot of new friends after guest-blogging on Nathan Bransford’s blog, which was my gig, if only they’d both listened. 😉

  15. I linked here from Laura Martone’s site. This is a great post! I was one of those people who queried too soon. I learned a big lesson, and don’t regret it. The rejections I received actually helped me improve my writing quite a bit. And as for what keeps me going on those bad days is usually the pure joy of writing. I remind myself that even if I’m never published, I will still love to write.

    1. Hi, Susan. We were probably on each other’s blogs at the same time, LOL. Laura is quite the facilitator. I like your shoes metaphor/meme, by the way.

      Thanks for your comment, and you are so right. In the end, it’s best to do what we love from a place of gratitude. After all, none of us can ever have a guarantee of commercial success. (Well, except me. ;))

  16. You asked if I write YA. My fantasy novel is geared toward teen through adult. Scenes and short stories therein could easily be slanted toward the YA market, however.

    1. Neat. I was curious, because of all the social scenarios you picked to embody humiliation, you picked the teenaged-gym dance one. Thought it might tip your hat as to area of writing interest.

    1. Aw, so glad if it was helpful, Jewel! If you’re having one of Those Days – and don’t we all in the crazy business? – you might also enjoy the “Claiming a Charter for Tartitude” post. Lots of inspirational quotes I’m collecting there.

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