A Zen Method to Cope With Rejection

Literary agent rejections

The publishing stories worth reading this week: 

Publishing a Cookbook: Editors and Closing Day (Rachel and Polly of Thriving Home): This is a fun one for you! My authors, Polly and Rachel, give a great behind-the-scenes look at what really happens when we’re selling a book at auction. If you’ve ever wondered how a cookbook deal gets made and what happens when many publishers are interested, this is the perfect read for you.

The Effortless Effort of Creativity: Jane Hirshfield on Storytelling, the Art of Concentration, and Difficulty as a Consecrating Force of Creative Attention (Maria Popova of Brain Pickings): “In the wholeheartedness of concentration, world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.”

Can Serialized Fiction Convert Binge Watchers Into Binge Readers? (Lynn Neary for NPR): I love this idea of tapping into the popularity of binge watching and bringing it to books, but I’m not sold on the idea that a book = an episode. Actually, I think a chapter = an episode. People are already binge-reading when they can’t put down a book and race through it quickly. If anything, serializing a book (chunking it into sections and releasing them one-by-one) is the opposite of binge-reading, which requires you to have back-to-back access to the whole book/series.

A Key to Writing Books that Sell and Sell and Sell (Chad R. Allen): I’m often asked what the correct balance should be between storytelling and practical information in a nonfiction book–here’s a great explainer on this from Chad Allen!

Collards And Canoodling: How Helen Gurley Brown Promoted Premarital Cooking (Nina Martyris for NPR): “The Single Girl’s Cookbook sold close to 150,000 copies. But how did an editor who couldn’t cook and who described herself as a ‘grown-up anorexic’ end up writing a cookbook? She didn’t. The recipes were ghost written by cookbook author Margot Reiman. Gurley Brown simply added the garnish.”


A Zen Method to Handle Rejection

Literary agent rejections

Do you know the one thing I hate about my job? I hate writing rejections. I hate it, hate it, hate it. Please have me do anything else, including contract review, as long as I don’t have to say “no” to someone’s hard work.

The very thought of writing rejections makes me miserable. Because I know how hard some people take them—I see it with my own authors. I see the self-doubt and blame that springs up around a “no, thank you,” and I hate the very thought of afflicting that on someone else.

But I do it. And I do it because I believe in one thing: the best yes. Every time I say no to something that’s near-perfect for me, I’m saving room on my list for that project that’s 100% perfect for me. And I’m protecting my time for my authors, who deserve to have me there for everything they need.

That’s also how editors see it. That’s how sales, publicity, marketing, and everyone else who weighs in on an acquisitions decision sees it. We can only make magic when the very thought of a book makes us come alive. Otherwise, we’re doing a disservice to the author and the reading public by putting something out into the world that we’re only somewhat excited about.

And here’s a secret: Everyone in this industry gets rejected. It’s not just writers, I promise! An editor can have a book she loves rejected by her team. A marketing manager can have her new ad campaign denied from on high. A publicist can get hundreds of rejections (usually in the form of silence) from a press mailing. Agents and authors can get rejected by editors, and editors can get rejected by agents and authors.

There are thousands of things that can go wrong or get blocked by anyone along the entire acquisitions chain. Rejection is in the undercurrent of any media industry, and it’s the cardinal rule for anyone who creates and shares their work: you will get rejected. You’ll get stomped on; you’ll get battered; you’ll get tough.

Yet too many people let these disappointments destroy them. So let me say it now: I’m not going to let that happen to you. I’ve coached dozens of authors through rejections, and I know that how they handle it is what separates the career writers from the hobbyists.

If you’re serious about your work, you know there’s no Plan B to fall back on, no other career that will be good enough. The only way onward is through the wilderness of rejection. Here’s how I would coach you through each step along the way:

1. Keep a close watch over your initial reaction.

When rejection comes calling, your first instinct will be to turn on yourself. To go searching for someone to blame and ending up on your own doorstep. When you see those thoughts come creeping in (“I screwed it up.” “I should have done more.”), pull out a pad and write them all down. Do a nice, healthy brain-dump, but then step away and look at what you wrote from a distance.

None of it is true. And you don’t have to tell yourself that story. Which leads me to the next step:

2. See the story for what it is: untrue and unfair.

That story you’re telling yourself about how you’re not any good isn’t reality. It just isn’t. And that story most definitely isn’t your friend. It’s simply the primitive part of your brain that wants to protect you from pain. That’s also the part of your brain that thinks creating and discovering is too risky, and you should just stay home safe instead.

Try this story on for size instead:

You are learning.

You are sharing your work, and that is brave.

You are not in control of how others react to you and your work.

You are not afraid of criticism if it helps you grow.

You are going to be okay.

What you’ll be left with once you strip out the anger and blame is one thing: disappointment. Disappointment is just the simple acknowledgment that reality didn’t turn out how you hoped it would, but there aren’t any vast implications about your worthiness hidden inside that series of events.

3. Allow yourself space to feel disappointed.

That disappointment won’t feel great, but at least blame and anger aren’t there anymore, hacking away at you when you’re down. This is where you need to slow down and be present with those feelings.

I think this is the step that’s most misunderstood. Too many creatives think that handling rejection is about building immunity to it, soldiering on, not giving a damn about what anyone thinks. But that’s a sure path to limiting your own work and to becoming bitter and disillusioned with the business of art.

If you become immune to disappointment, you’ll never enjoy great triumph. If you become closed off to criticism, you’ll never challenge your own perspective and grow in unexpected ways.

Essentially, you can’t do a drive-by on disappointment. This is a rest stop.

4. Enjoy the rest stop by finding ways to comfort yourself.

I’m a firm believer in the mind-body connection—essentially, that the state of our bodies affects the state of our minds. So while you may not be able to crawl inside your brain and give it a hug (now there’s a weird image for you…), you can soothe yourself by making physiological changes that alter your brain chemistry.

And that is a fancy way of saying: go for a walk! Take a nap. Read a favorite book. Eat something you love. Call someone you love. Do a favorite workout. Hide in bed and watch Netflix. Bake five dozen brownies (and send them to me).

You are going to take it easy, Literary Agent’s orders.

Because tomorrow…

5. Back to work.

In many ways, this is the most important step. I am all about being kind to yourself and not rushing past the negative feelings, but that comes with one big caveat: you’re not going to dwell at that rest stop of sadness very long.

The longer you stay away from the thing that burned you (creating, sharing your work, getting rejected), the more overblown the fear of it will become. Suddenly it will seem like a mammoth task to sit down and face your work-in-progress again.

When that happens, try this comfortingly simple approach to making yourself work even when you really, really don’t want to.

At this stage, I also recommend rereading the rejection and hunting for a kernel of truth. A well-written rejection will give you a few indicators of what’s not quite jiving in your manuscript or proposal, and it will give you a good hint at the path you should take toward revisions.

And that’s it! (Saying this ironically because, no, this ain’t easy. It’s not supposed to be an easy 5-step fix—it’s more like a 5-mile slog through the wilderness with a grizzly bear for a backpack. But I ran out of space for that in the title!)

But over time, as you share your work more and more and, inevitably, face more and more rejection, you’ll find that you’ll begin to cycle through these steps quickly and organically, sometimes even in a few minutes or hours. The create + share = criticism formula will become second-nature to you, and you’ll naturally find the just-right spot between vulnerability and strength.

What’s one way to fast-track yourself through this process?

Share more work.

Over the years, I’ve noticed a marked difference between my blogging authors and my non-blogging authors when it comes to rejection. The bloggers are incredibly resilient in the face of rejection, and I’m convinced it’s because they share their work nearly every day and have already made peace with the whole can’t-please-them-all reality.

As one of my blogging authors once said, “You learn early on in blogging that you can’t make everyone happy, so why bother trying? People will always find a reason to complain.”

So the best thing you can do in the long-run to master the disappointment cycle? Put your work out there, early and often. (Especially you fiction writers! I know how scary that can feel to many of you, but it will get easier.)

And through each rejection, you’ll find the silver lining: resilience.


By the way, next week I have a fun freebie that will cheer you up no matter what’s going on in your creative life! Make sure you sign up below so you don’t miss it!


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4 thoughts on “A Zen Method to Cope With Rejection

  1. I love this! I remember my first experience in a critique class I took many years ago. I had never shared my work before and was eager to watch everyone faint from my brilliance. Well, as you can imagine, that did NOT happen. I was torn down, brought to reality, and I’m pretty sure I cried on the drive home. But I wouldn’t trade that night for anything. It taught me to be brave, to grow a thicker skin, and to listen to critique if it made me a better writer in the end. But most of all it taught me that even after the negative remarks, I still wanted to write. I still wanted to share. For me, that was the day I officially realized I was a writer.

    I especially love the part where you say to feel the disappointment. While it’s definitely easier said than done, it really does speed up the process to getting back to the important stuff. Like writing!

    1. So glad you liked it! I think every writer has had that cry-on-the-way-home-from-a-workshop moment. It’s awful, but it’s less awful than closing yourself off and never exposing yourself to the difficult things that will help you grow.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments and for stopping by!

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