No matter how you look at it, getting a rejection letter can take the wind out of your sails. It can be hard to keep going, or know what to do next. When it comes to rejections, though, writers have lots of company (see below).
In a recent guest post for the fantastic blog The Quivering Pen, Algonquin Young Readers author Kelly Barnhill, whose most recent novel is the critically acclaimed The Witch’s Boy, wrote about her own early attempts at getting published: “I wrote a lot of truly terrible fiction. . . . I recognize now that it was terrible for a reason. Terrible, as it turns out, is an excellent teacher. One of the benefits of writing truly terrible fiction is that it requires a certain tenacity to continue to produce, knowing full well that the product produced will be absolute dreck.”
Continuing to produce is key to the question of what to do next. Everyone says it, but it’s true. Don’t give up. As you continue writing…
•Find a critique group (if you don’t have one already) or a few trusted readers (preferably who aren’t related to you) who will promise to give you honest, insightful feedback on what’s working and what isn’t.
•Start writing something else. You’ve learned something in the writing of the current manuscript, which you will take into the writing of the next one. Flex different muscles, listen to new voices in your head. Often, these are the very things that may make something click for the old manuscript.
Find comfort and motivation in the false starts of those before you:
The responses to one of Joan Didion’s short stories included that it was “too brittle” and “so utterly depressing that I’m going to sit under a cloud of angst and gloom all afternoon.” (Ouch)
Ray Bradbury described his many no’s as “snowstorms of rejections” but wrote, “they didn’t realize what a strong person I was; I persevered and wrote a thousand more dreadful short stories, which were rejected in turn.” Until, of course, they weren’t.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter was reportedly rejected 12 times before . . . you know. (Spoiler: It made out OK.)
Though C.S. Lewis (left) apparently was not denied the supposed 800 times often attributed to him, his The Chronicles of Narnia was rejected before finally being published.
George Orwell’s Animal Farm was rejected as a “stupid and pointless fable” that was “damn dull.”
Many of Algonquin’s most successful books were rejected by other houses before we got our hands on them, including Robert Goolrick’s A Reliable Wife — which went on to be a No. 1 New York Times bestseller; Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants — also a No. 1 New York Times bestseller, on the bestseller list for four years, and a major Hollywood movie; and Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish — rejected at least a dozen times; went on to be not just a best-selling book and a successful movie but also a Broadway production.
For Barnhill, an agent’s encouraging rejection set her free. “Failure,” she writes, “was not an indication of perpetual failure—no! Instead, it was another step along the creative process: we make; we discard. By discarding, I could make again. I could do what I needed to do: write the next book. Write the right book.”
We’re so glad she did. And we hope you’ll keep writing too.
[Editor’s note: For a quick pick-me-up, check out the 13-second video “flip book” of rejection letters in the Wired Magazine piece about George Orwell, which also includes a very kind “no” from Mr. Rogers and one from the Barnum & Bailey Clown College.]