Just had a story rejected? Don't invest in a voodoo doll.
In this post, Max Sheridan offers some tested advice on how to get over the rejection blues that doesn't involve stale dog biscuits or Haitian voodoo dolls.
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
It's not you, it's your writing
I once saw a story of mine get rejected nine times in one week. “Saw” isn’t the right word. I felt each of those nine suckers land on the naked place in my soul where all my self-esteem and ambition lived as if I were filled with quick-drying cement, and not wafer-thin self-pity and self-doubt. They should have known better than to hit a man when he was down.
And, sorry to say, it never gets a lot better than that no matter how many rejection slips come in or how frequently. I think Isaac Asimov put it best when he said that you get better at getting rejected, but you never get over it. Having another person tell you they don't like your work is always a punch to the gut.
So, nine rejection slips in seven days. What did I do?
I fashioned a voodoo doll for each of the nine editors and put them all in very tight leather outfits (to humiliate them). Then I buried them under the driver's seat of my RV camper at the height of August in Perth with a box of stale dog biscuits, only taking them out in the moonlight to stab them in the nostrils while I ate their rejections slips one by one, cackling like Vincent Price in The Abominable Doctor Phibes.
Do you believe me? Please don't. Not even my children do. Not a word. I don’t own an RV or a dog or live in Perth, and if faced with the very attractive possibility of cackling at nine editor-voodoo dolls, I would probably sound more like Bela Lugosi in The Devil Bat.
But I did do this: I stayed in bed for the weekend wallowing in gorgeous self-pity. I was dizzy. At some point, in a haze, I sent an email to an editor-friend justifying my wallowing, and, of course, announcing my early retirement from the writing profession, as if this fact—leaked by my friend—would galvanize some concerned hack at the Rumpus and my early retirement would become front page news.
People's Author Max Sheridan Rejected Nine Times in One Week, Abandons Writing for a Life of Postal Service
I drank, too, and while I was drinking I'm pretty sure the thought of making voodoo dolls of each of the nine untalented creeps who rejected me crossed my mind at least once. Because how could any editor not see the value in a story about a redneck who sticks magic markers up his ass*?
It was a long weekend.
And a long week.
Eventually, I got out of bed and wrote another story, and it got rejected, probably nine times. Possibly more. Possibly it never got accepted. I have no way of knowing.
I kept getting rejected, and it never got better. The untalented creeps of the world multiplied like an army of Haitian voodoo dolls. They were everywhere.
Until an editor accepted one of my stories.
It was a strange story and he was a strange guy who happened to run a pretty respectable lit mag, and he happened to like it. Which I guess is what I’d like to say and what you really should be doing when you get rejected: realizing that editors accept stories simply because they like them.
I’m resisting the urge—so powerful it’s getting the better of me—to say there are a lot of editors out there whose predilections and knowledge of writing could, in fact, fit in a Betty Crocker cake box. But you can’t hold that against them. And don’t go reaching for your voodoo dolls either.
Here’s what you should do. Accept the fact that when an editor rejects your writing, they’re not punching you in the stomach. They’re merely exercising personal preferences. They’re just looking for something they like. Think about it. How many stories do you like? Why do you like them? What if you had to read a hundred a month and find one or two that you really liked? How much would you enjoy that? I can’t even fathom it. That’s what even the lowliest fiction editor at the latest flavor of the month lit mag that will be around for maybe two years does. Every few months or weeks.
Or put it this way. How often are you willing to be dragged out of your comfort zone to really dig into a story? There’s a reason publishers, once they find a sweet spot, try to find it again and again and again. It’s the same reason, if you’re a hardcore bibliophile with some favorite authors, that you’re always on the lookout for new authors who can duplicate your joy in reading your favorite authors—and, of course, your taste in writing.
Don’t let the fools get you down. Get angry and prove them wrong. Realize the odds are stacked against you—way against you—and keep writing. That needle in the haystack that editor is trying to find might just be the one they lost yesterday.
Of course, if none of that is striking a chord, you can find my email below. We can go fifty-fifty on that box of voodoo dolls. Because, honestly, folks, I've always wanted to try.
*That story eventually did get published. You can find it here.
Max Sheridan is still getting rejected. Some of his writing has made it into print in the US, UK and elsewhere. He's worked as a teacher, journalist, editor and copywriter. He's the founder and director of Write CY, a Nicosia-based platform for creative writing and community storytelling, where he teaches Story Craft, a 10-week short story writing course. His novel Dillo was released by Shotgun Honey in December 2017. Talk to him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.