I’m not used to rejection. Though I clearly don’t epitomize the “tall, dark and handsome” type, I (almost) never lacked for a steady girlfriend. Though I’m often less than articulate, my presentations have generally been well received. Though I’m not the most focused, adept, or intelligent scientist, companies quickly jumped to give me more money to work for them.
As for my writing; perhaps it doesn’t stack up with the best, but it has always been well-received by professors, friends, mentors, and publishers. In my first attempt at a book an agent and publisher essentially found me, and the book – a non-fiction book about Nikola Tesla – sold as fast as it could be put into the stores (~30,000 copies and counting).
Which is why rejection was so hard to take. I had prepared myself for it – all the writing how-to books promised rejection was the norm, not the exception. When I entered my first writing competition and didn’t win I wrote it off as their loss (and not my best work). The second was a frou-frou 21-syllable poem (my first ever) that was, at least in retrospect, ghastly. But when the third and fourth came back-to-back on short works I felt were deserving of praise, I was a bit more miffed. Soon after, I was passed over for a scientific award I felt was a shoo-in. About this same time I just missed getting picked for an on-screen part in a History Channel program. A glimmer of panic started rising in my chest; what was I doing wrong?
During the ensuing struggle to right my mental ship I came across an article by Ruti Thorpe in Poets & Writers magazine called “Perversity of Spirit.” Early in the piece she says “Talent is the least important thing about a writer, compared to love of books, which must be deep and abiding.”
I appreciated that line, and immediately I understood its many meanings. But it was the next line that floored me, a sly comparison to the trials of one Wile E. Coyote:
“The only other thing a writer needs is a perversity of spirit, the emotional equivalent of a cartoon creature’s bouncy springiness, so that after being run over or blown up – or in the case of the writer, rejected and then rejected some more – the writer is irrationally unfazed by even the most valid criticism and continues with the work of being a writer, magically unharmed.”
I wrote the first draft of this piece before even finishing the rest of the article (perhaps the “ooh, a squirrel,” of ADD has its benefits).
It was a perfect time to be reminded that rejection is a part of being a writer. Sometimes it’s because your work wasn’t what they were looking for at the time; sometimes other’s work was better; and sometimes your work just happened to suck that day. Mostly it’s a numbers game. My first few rejections were me against more than 6000 entries. That’s a lot of competition. The odds aren’t quite as bad as winning Powerball, but 6000 to 1 isn’t good odds by any metric.
So what is a writer to do, especially one without a huge portfolio?
First, realize that the odds are against you. Yes, you lost, but so did more than 5998 other entries. You aren’t a loser, you’re just one of the nearly 6000 people (or 600 or 60 or 6 million) who wasn’t the one who won. Get over it.
Second, send the piece to another contest. The first one didn’t want it, but the next one might (after all, the first Harry Potter book was rejected a dozen times before some insightful editor saw its billion dollar potential).
Third, if they gave you feedback, use it. It’s rare that this happens so take advantage of any chance to better your writing.
Fourth, if you received the infuriatingly generic “Thanks for the entry (fee) but we picked someone else,” with no feedback, go ahead and revisit your work anyway. Was it really any good? Could it have been better? Can it have used another round (or two) of edits? Then follow through.
Fifth, let someone else read it. You belong to a writing group, right? Get a critique or two. Maybe you missed something.
Sixth, blog it. Try it out on your blog followers. Did you get a reaction, either positive or negative? If not, that may be the problem.
Seventh, move on. Don’t belabor it. When the cartoon coyote’s latest “foolproof” ACME roadrunner catching gadget slams into his face, he tries something else. Let me be clear, I do not mean give up writing. I mean if the piece was a short story, try poetry. An essay? Try science fiction. Or simply pick a different topic and start again.
The point is to get back up and keep writing. Then write some more. And keep doing that every day.
As Thorpe suggests, show that perversity of spirit. And laugh at rejection.
David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.