For a while now I’ve been working on some short stories. Currently, due to a deal falling through for various reasons, I am actively looking for publication. This is a really interesting process for me because everything I’ve written that’s been published before (Don’t ask. If these short stories get published, they will be the first thing I’ve ever published under my own name.) has been published because someone read it and said, “Hey, I want to publish this in (insert something here).” This is my first time actually actively seeking publication.
Being a novice in this area, please understand that I have no idea what I’m really talking about, but after seeing a lot of people bemoan various points of the looking-for-publication process, I’ve decided to give you some of my insights.
I’m coming from an area of complete inexperience with navigating publication, but a lot of experience with navigating the ins and outs of rejections from art dealers, art shows, magazines, and so much else. You see, I’ve been throwing my photography at people for years, so I might not know much about rejections from a publication background, but I do know quite a bit from a photography background. I think the two arenas are very similar in the fact that they are both art mediums, and I think the rejections come for the same reason, despite the different forms.
The thing I’m realizing through reading blogs and looking through websites with people who are in the same boat I’m in, (and there are a lot of us), is so many take rejections so incredibly personally. It’s not a personal thing. I learned early on with my photography, you have to have a thick skin and absolute trust in the value of your own work. The problem with rejections is usually they aren’t personal (Unless they are, and usually if they are personal you won’t get a “form letter” rejection, you’ll get a rejection telling you all the reasons you suck at life. Those are always so much fun and incredibly rare.). People are rejected for a lot of reasons, and usually, in my experience, it doesn’t boil down to skill, it boils down to the fact that the shoe you are selling doesn’t fit on the art dealer/publisher/magazine’s foot at the moment. Wrong tone, wrong feel, wrong jive for whatever whoever is going for at that time. That’s not bad, mind you. It just is. There is so much art out there, that art dealers/publishers/magazines/whatever have every reason and right to be choosy.
It’s the same reason I’m choosy with the books I review on my blog. I get so many, that I have ever right and desire to be choosy about what I read and review. I don’t have all the time in the world, so I try to tailor my content to best please me and my readers. I know I overlook a great number of quality, fantastic books, but I have to in order to keep content flowing, and so do publishers/art dealers/whatevers.
The problem for the artist is seeing this rejection, and not taking it personally. Perhaps my photography and my years watching my dad deal with rejections has hardened my skin, but I seem to be one of those lucky ones who gets a rejection letter and thinks, “Yay! Now I’m freed up to bother someone else…” I move on fast and it has almost no impact on my psyche (Unless I get one of those fun ones that lists all the ways I suck at life. It’s impossible not to let those bother you. I’m glad they are rare, but it is unfortunate that not everyone handing out rejections is as polite as the majority who are.) Rejections excite me, because at least I’m trying. There’s something to be said for putting yourself out there.
Rejections aren’t thrilling to most people. I think I probably need psychological help for how little they impact me, but most people, especially new to the art world, find them incredibly difficult to deal with. Art, no matter what kind of art you deal with, is part of yourself, and its hard to learn how to take someone saying they aren’t interested in you lightly. It hurts. No matter how much we pretend it doesn’t, it always hurts a little bit. That small chip away at the ego, at what you’ve worked so hard with, can be pretty horrible if you let it be.
One person in charge of a photography show I got rejected from told me something that has stuck with me ever since. He said, “Sarah, you are incredibly talented and I love your work and your unique perspective. I’m not rejecting you for your lack of talent. I’m rejecting you because what you are presenting doesn’t fit the feel of the show this year.” I think that’s probably what most rejections are saying, and even if they aren’t, it is helpful to keep that in mind. Usually rejections aren’t about quality, but about the fit and feel with the (insert venue/publisher/show/whatever here) or the fact that they are swamped with talent and just don’t have time at the moment.
The other thing that I’ve learned with my time in the art world is that you have to have absolute trust in your own talent, ability, and the work you put out there. If you lack the belief that you can be, or are amazing, why are you doing it? I don’t just say that to be cliched or mean, but really. Why submit work that you don’t think is knock-your-socks-off fantastic? Why participate in any art medium, if you don’t trust your abilities, talents, and your desire to continually grow and develop in (insert art medium here)? That’s the key to art, and the quality I’ve seen in photographers, painters, authors, whoever, that submit their work and handle their rejections with aplomb. All artists will get rejected at sometime or another, but the ones with the true trust and love for their art medium won’t let a rejection define the quality of their work. For example, they’ll never say, “I must be a shitty painter because (insert venue here) doesn’t want my paintings.” Most authors take an emotional hit with a rejection, but I’ve seen something like this said more often than not, “Sucks that I was rejected. Oh well. I’ll try again.” Why? Not because their writing sucks, but because they know their writing is amazing, and the place that rejected them just wasn’t the right fit. No biggie.
Trust your talent.
If you lack even a little bit of confidence in your own skill, those rejections will hurt so much more. I experienced this earlier this year when I submitted a subpar photograph to an art show. I knew it was subpar, but I submitted it anyway for some stupid reason. I literally drove myself insane felt like the biggest moron when that rejection came in because I should have known better. Or something. Those were the thoughts that went through my mind. In contrast, when I submit work that I know is as good as I can possibly get it, I have absolutely no worry, no niggling thoughts, no paranoia, no coulda-shoulda-woulda’s that keep me up all night. It is what it is, and I know that no matter what the result is, at least I did as much as I could with what I gave (insert person/venue here), and I’m proud of that fact. That psychological relief is why I refuse to submit anything to anyone unless I know it is absolutely as good as I’m ever going to get it on my own.
That trust in your own ability to produce quality work makes all the difference in the world. As long as you know you can pump out some great stuff, who cares what anyone else things? You’ve already impressed your harshest critic: You.
I’ve seen way too many people write about their disappointment, or emotional upheavals with rejections. In fact, just yesterday I read a blog post where someone was officially closing the doors of their website and turning their attention away from art (which they had been doing for YEARS) because they couldn’t handle one more rejection (despite all of their successes). No one should have that power, and (insert art medium here) will truly miss this person and their amazing contributions to the field.
Art is a lot of fun, but once you cross the bridge from doing it for yourself, to trying to market your art, you’ll quickly realize that it is a dog-eat-dog world out there, and these rejections feel even more personal because we all pour so much of ourselves into our art. Everyone has to learn how to deal with them on their own, and we each do it differently. I deal with them by distancing myself from them. I realize my work is quality. Sorry (insert person here) doesn’t like it. Oh well. Move on. But it took a long time to get that far. Years, in fact, and photography was the art medium I have taken most of my lessons and emotional/ego bruising from, which is making my writing rejections easier to handle. The truth is, each photograph I take is a unique insight into how I view the world. It’s one of my favorite moments captured and frozen in time. Having that rejected SUCKS. My writing is my soul. Period. Having part of my soul rejected SUCKS. But I know I produce quality stuff, so I refuse to let those rejections define my work or my ability, and you shouldn’t either. Don’t fall into the trap the artist I just mentioned fell into. It’s not worth it. Love your art and take everyone else, and their opinions, lightly.
So, what does all this huggy-kissy crap boil down to? Damn the man and don’t let it get to you. As long as you’ve impressed yourself, who cares what anyone else thinks? Rejections usually aren’t personal, and you should congratulate yourself for trying, because so many people won’t have the courage to try. Trying is hard. It takes courage, and it takes practice to learn how to take a punch and not care, but if you love your art and your skill enough, you’ll get there faster than you think. Realize that your skill is not dependent on a third party confirming your ability. And, as a final thought, if you aren’t having fun with your art, why are you doing it? Don’t let those pesky little rejections suck the fun or meaning from what you pour your soul into. No one should have that power.
And hell, as long as I’m saying this, you can take everything I’ve said here and apply it to authors and their negative book reviews.
Pretty much all of what you say is spot on, Sarah! 9 out of 10 people fail because they give up. Why do they give up? Because they lose confidence in themselves and their art. It’s those who can hold onto their self-belief (rather than their self-delusion) that will finally conquer all. Example: it took me 25 yrs finally to get my book deal with Gollancz. J K Rowling was rejected by 20 publishers with Harry Potter. Charlaine Harris was rejected with True Blood for two years before someone saw the light. What if J K Rowling had given up after the 19nth rejection?
And another reason not to give up is that you DO improve over time and with practice. I’m not necessarily talking about the artistic quality of your work. Rather, you can make your work more commercially appealing with practice. Also, your ‘selling’ skills improve with practice. You should therefore seek out rejections and see if their nature changes over time. Because here’s the truth: writing is the easy bit – selling it is the tough bit. Selling skills are ‘hard’ business and communication skills, whereas writing is the ‘soft’ stuff. It’s so hard for artists and writers to master both sets of skills – but those that succeed invariably have managed to do so.
But I go into the ins and outs of this stuff much more on my own site, under the ‘Author Advice’ pages. I’m also more than happy to field questions on how to get the breakthrough. Why would I be so generous with my advice… cos if I’d got some advice sooner, it could have saved me some years of heartache and grief. There’s no right way to do it, but there are definitely things you should avoid.
Final thought. Rejection should not be the same as dejection. You have not been rejected cos of the quality of your stuff. Similarly, Fifty Shades of Grey wasn’t accepted because of its artistic quality, now was it?
I love this: “Rejections should not be the same as dejection.” Spot on. I also had no idea how many times Rowling had been rejected. Amazing!
I appreciate when authors are open about this stuff. It seems like people are getting more open and willing to talk about their rejections, and seeing a successful, published author talk about it helps a lot of us new people quite a bit.
Thank you for your comment, and your priceless insight.
Another great and inspirational article here, Sarah. I really like your ability to turn potentially negative experiences into positive ones, and that you share these experiences to help others do the same. Thanks so much for the advice – I’ll keep it in mind when my own stories are finished. – LH
I don’t mean to be all inspirational. I just learned with my cancer battle that if you don’t turn your bad experiences into learning opportunities you won’t get anywhere. Cancer could have defeated me emotionally, but I refused to let it. Instead, I am still trying very hard to turn it into a learning opportunity, and that’s how I try to look at everything. Getting rejected sucks, and yeah, it hurts, but if we don’t learn from it, how will we ever grow? And I appreciate all the authors who are open about how they handle this stuff. I think that helps everyone a lot…. you aren’t alone, etc.