Monday, July 17, 2006

The R Word

What do you do with them, the long-awaited, always neatly printed messages that arrive at last in our own familiar envelopes, to turn our hopes to ashes at a glance? I doubt you throw them away. If you're like me, you put them somewhere out of the way, to languish in the dark with others of their spotty kind. A friend of mine once papered a guest lav with rejections from the New Yorker, patiently varnishing them up one at a time. It was quite impressive when done, and it didn't take that long. Probably raised the property value, too. By the time the upstairs was papered he'd almost succeeded in drinking himself to death, but he got it done. Both.

One certainty: no matter what you do with them, nothing will make them hurt less. And that's the question I'm asking here. How do people handle that pain, administered with less than numbing frequency but repeatedly, predictably, with no quarter earned by prior success? Even the most successful writers face it all the time.


Do we begin to think of the rest of the world as a parade of idiots who wouldn't recognize quality if it stepped on them at the beach? Or do we begin to think of ourselves as idiots, and go back and tear our lovingly crafted work to bits, trying to reassemble the shards into something that might approximate "what they want?"

I myself simply withdrew from the market. I didn't stop writing, excepting short periods, but I didn't send anything out. The poems of mine that Pundy put up were the only things I'd sent anywhere for almost twenty years. Now granted, poems are different than fiction. Poets have no real prospects to begin with. And we like it like that, strangely. But for others abandoning the market is a non-starter. So, what do you do?

C'mon. 'Fess up.



  1. I don't believe anyone who says they just shrug and move on. Of course it hurts at the time.

    But if you have enough positive feedback from other sources to know that you're producing something people will want to read, you just have to feel you haven't been in the right place at the right time. So far ...

    Literary history is littered with famous people who walked the rejection road over and over until ... And then there's the successful ones from the past who would never make it if they tried to be published now.

    I guess we have to have an inner core of strength and self-belief (backed up by loyal friends etc!) so it hurts but doesn't go so deep that it feels personal ...

  2. Cry, laugh, scream, shout obsenities, run naked through the streets, put a hex on them....and then start again!

  3. Abandon the market. Just walk away. That works just as well for novels and short stories and journalism as for poetry. The internet provides a channel for sharing work without having to market it. If people like it, they can read it and they might even write and tell you they liked it. If they don't like it, they can move on and it hasn't cost them anything or imposed on them.

    Have you read 'On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile' by Michael Allen, aka Grumpy Old Bookman? He makes a very persuasive and logical case for abandoning the market. He calls it 'pro-am status', i.e. you write as nearly as possible to professional standard, but don't expect to be paid for it. The essay is here. Much food for thought, whether you agree with his conclusions or not.

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  6. Anonymous12:33 am

    Of course rejection hurts but I like what I've seen of your poetry on here, being accepted by the Literati is no sign of quality or passion.

    I once attended a lecture by Robert Minhinnick who edits Poetry Wales and has just won the Welsh Book of the Year. I'm paraphrasing here due to it being a few years ago but this is how he described the selection process for the Journal - Poetry Wales -
    - he said he sits in an easy chair with a nice glass of red, listens to Radio 3 and casually flicks his way through the submissions, he just as casually discards the vast majority of them simply because they don't resonate with him at the time, to be fair I don't suppose he's got time to rigourously examine every syllable anyway.

    The point is that it's a totally subjective activity - one person in one casual moment can start the countdown on those dreaded R's that seem so important to us

  7. Anonymous2:27 am

    Hi, Bill:
    I was lucky (though I didn't know it at the time) and placed my first book during a casual conversation with an editor whose wife was a childhood friend. My second book, also nonfiction, was rejected by about 15 editors. (And I had a really well-known agent, Connie Clausen--since deceased--at the time.) I finally placed the book myself after even more rejections. My third book (nonfiction again) was placed over a lunch where the person involved put his hand on top of mine! Uh oh!

    Here's what I've learned:
    1) To be an author is often to be a journeywo/man, going from one pub house to another for each book, even if your books are successful.
    2) If you have a good book, you have to be able to pitch it so that the first few pages of the manuscript get read. THEN the manuscript has to sell itself.
    3) If you a papering the wall with rejections that are impersonal and you can tell no one has taken your query seriously, find out more about the literary agent or the editor and really personalize the query. This third step, I've come to understand, is really crucial. I now know I would have had a lot easier job with the second book if I had done some serious research into the types of books the editors had published before...and if I had bothered to read them and then reference them in my query.

    I know everyone will say that it's easier with nonfiction, but I think doing your homework is what can make the difference.

    Lynne AKA The Wicked Witch of Publishing

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