I’ve thought about rejection a lot lately, especially as we’re forced to choose between some really great stories for our upcoming anthology. Publishing is an industry rife with rejection, and we talk about it often, but I like thinking about rejection as a necessity to developing your best writer self rather than an evil to slog through and survive.
Rejection is a rite of passage. It’s not just okay to be rejected—it’s an initiation into the special club of authorship. (Just ask George R. R. Martin about his Hugo Losers Party.)
Nobody will take you seriously as a writer if you’ve never been rejected.
But more importantly, rejection isn’t just something that happens to great writers. It’s something that creates great writers.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath, he explores the idea that “What is learned out of necessity is inevitably more powerful than the learning that comes easily.” He focuses on how things that seem to be a disadvantage can truly be an advantage. The book contains tons of examples, and you should definitely read it if you haven’t, but I think the ideas are as applicable to writing as anything else.
With Gladwell’s logic, I would argue that Stephen King didn’t survive years of hard work and 100s of rejections and then get his big break. He got his big break BECAUSE the rejections showed him that his work wasn’t quite there yet. He was forced to keep learning, honing his craft, and becoming a better writer. Only then did he receive the deals he wanted so desperately. Only then did he find his rhythm and flow. The rejections were the fires that honed and shaped him into the writer who would create new genres and alter the literary world in unmistakable ways. If he’d been published the first time he’d tried, he likely wouldn’t have ever pushed himself in the ways he needed to develop strong habits, study the craft so intensely, or write so prolifically.
I fully believe that all writers have a shot at success. There’s no required schooling or mandatory expertise. The only competition we each have is against ourselves. Gladwell says that “geniuses have a perverse tendency of growing up in more adverse conditions.” There are hundreds of stories about little guys making it big, breakout debuts, the “overnight success”—most of them from authors who have written many books over many years, struggling to cultivate their craft until someone recognized their worth.
So take heart. Don’t feel like a pass from a publisher or agent or contest is a rejection. Think of it as one more tool in your arsenal of learning and growth toward being the best writer you can be. As you strengthen your skillset, you’ll be ready for that break when it does come.
James Scott Bell calls publishing a game. “It’s part skill and part chance. If you up your skill and take more chances, your odds of success increase.” Isn’t that a relief? That it isn’t all about you? There are all kinds of factors in selecting stories for publication, and many of them aren’t about you being “good enough.” But you can take each opportunity to improve your skill, up your game, hone your craft, and increasingly put your work out there so that someday, when that perfect chance comes, you’re ready.
If it’s not this time, maybe it’s next. All that matters is that you keep working. Keep trying. Gladwell asserts that “the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty,” and what industry forces greater odds than publishing? Be the author who accepts the odds, learns from rejections, and keeps pushing forward until you become one of the success stories we all love to hear. Until facing rejections turns into your own greatness and beauty.
Bell, James Scott. How to Make a Living as a Writer.
Gladwell, Malcolm. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.