Writers! How do I proceed after stasis & the sting of rejection?
February 7, 2015 12:23 PM   Subscribe

I am trying to decide where to focus my energies when it comes to writing. Where do I go from here?

I've been writing short stories since I was around 6 and was very consistent with this throughout childhood and early adulthood (I am 23). As a child I won competitions, and as an older teen, had a wonderful teacher who encouraged me to develop an idea into a novel (which I haven't done, yet, but would still like to do).

Then I studied English Lit and Journalism/Creative Writing at University. The course was good from the perspective that there was a lot of editing each others work and networking with writers already in the industry. At this time a published author/tutor of mine told me I needed to start publishing my stories. About two years later I finally took his advice, and amazingly, both stories were accepted by the respective publications.

I took a break after that because I was caring for a terminally ill family member and had no drive to write. When that drive started to return following bereavement, it was a relief! I write book reviews and features and was praised for the high quality work by my editor. However, when I started writing short stories again recently they were both rejected with "thanks, but this is not for us" types of notes.

Now I'm having a slight crisis. Like, maybe I've lost my mojo and might never get it back. Maybe I'm just not so good after all. But I have ideas for three books (two novels, one collection) and I wonder what I should do now. Keep practicing? Forget about entering competitions entirely and simply write what I want? I hate the idea of trying hard for years and feel like I wasted my 20s on something that never materialises but I'm struggling with how to proceed.
posted by Kat_Dubs to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You're in your 20s? Keep writing until you're in your 40s and then reevaluate.

Rejection is part and parcel of writing. If you don't want to get rejected, then keep your writing to your friends and family. Otherwise, it's an incredibly saturated market with gatekeepers who can reject as much as they want to. Getting rejections is a badge of honor for a writer; the more the better at the beginning.

The best thing you could do is get to the place where the rejections offer some feedback, so the next time you'll know how to refocus your efforts. But keep at it, keep sending, keep hearing back. Getting published is generally something that those with persistence get over the rest of the people who call themselves "aspiring writers."
posted by xingcat at 12:28 PM on February 7, 2015 [5 favorites]

Thanks for responding xingcat. What do you think about the part where I said Forget about entering competitions entirely and simply write what I want?

By that I mean sometimes you have to write for a publication in the way they want. So, for example, the collection I want to write. I took the idea for one of the stories and then moulded it to the requirements of one competition. Should I do this? Or should I forget about competitions for the timebeing? Advice appreciated.
posted by Kat_Dubs at 12:34 PM on February 7, 2015


Up in Glen Ellen, in Sonoma County, there's a room at Jack London's cottage that displays just a few of the 600 rejection letters he got before he was first published.

So take heart, and keep going!

Other writer rejections stories here.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 12:36 PM on February 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

You got two rejections and suddenly you're throwing it all out of the window? Don't be so dramatic.

You write because you're compelled. Keep writing. It's so easy to self-publish now, and if something as terrible as 50 Shades of Gray can make money, you might as well write and publish and see what happens.

Do you write because you love it, or do you write because you expect to always be liked and accepted and paid? I'm a writer, my friends are writers, and we all do it because we have fun with it.

Very few people make a living writing. But that's okay, writing is really cheap and you can do it everywhere, pretty much.

There comes a point, usually after you leave school, where the young savant enters the world and suddenly there's competition from all the other young savants, and the older savants, and the established geniuses. The pool of people you're competing with becomes exponentially larger.

Most writers are rejected, more frequently than accepted.

I would also suggest that writing will probably never be a day-job. You're going to have to come to terms with it. Think about all the newspapers that have folded and how content is moving on line and how all of those journalists are now out of work. I'm not saying it's impossible, I'm saying it's improbable.

Stop entering competitions, unless the topics light your fire. Write for enjoyment.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:39 PM on February 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

It's essential to recognize that with every story you submit, it's in competition with so many other stories that a rejection can mean "This isn't good enough," but can also mean "I bought a story too similar to this last week," or "My personal taste is for a more minimalistic (or less minimalistic) style," or "I had a bad sandwich for lunch and am not in a great mood to be receptive to anything," or "It's a great story, but we don't quite have room for all the great stories we get." A story that gets eight or ten rejection is probably not quite working yet, but you can't draw any conclusions about a story that gets one rejection. You got very lucky in having two early stories accepted right away; part of being a professional writer is accepting that you're not always going to be that lucky and it doesn't always have anything to do with how good you are.

I have had, in my own writing career, a similar history of things that broke my way followed by things that didn't break my way, and it wasn't that I lost my mojo (although there certainly was a vicious circle where being insecure and anxious about my writing made me write worse stuff, which made me more insecure and anxious about my writing); it was mostly just that my early good luck gave me unrealistic expectations for how easy things were going to be from then on.

I don't know much about the specific requirements for the competitions you're entering; I would just say, keep writing things, keep submitting things, don't put way more energy into your writing than you're getting back from it, but remember you won't have wasted your time if it turns out you don't make the New York Times Book Review Brilliant Young Writers pages; the hard work of writing stories can give you a lot of rewards that aren't dependent on money or publication, but it's up to you to decide whether it's worth it.
posted by Jeanne at 12:47 PM on February 7, 2015 [6 favorites]

I gave up on the idea of writing a decade or so ago. I don't have profound regrets over it, but I do wish I'd kept trying. Trying would have added to my life; not trying has not added to my life.

The answers to your questions depend on you. What does writing mean for you? Pure artistic expression? Dream career? What would you gain from competitions, and is that important to you? Do you want to make a bazillion dollars, write stories that are appreciated by critics? By masses? Do you just want to get published? Do you just want to write?

Regardless, I think you should go for an unbroken string of at least 100 rejections before you start to question your path. Question, not quit.
posted by bunderful at 12:57 PM on February 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

Stop thinking about your future. Stop thinking about success. Stop thinking about you and your talent and its possibly inadequacy or decline. This is all just a bunch of speculative b.s. that's distracting you from the only thing that matters (and the one thing you haven't even mentioned). Get all that crap out of your attention, and WRITE.

Write without giving a crap, without thinking about whether it's good, if people would like it, what people would say, or what its quality says about YOU. Write until you're pee-your-pants sure you've got something ridiculously wonderful. Don't wait for that moment, though. Just write, just to write, and put everything you've got into it because this is not a dress rehearsal, this is your life; this is what you'll remember when you're 90 and sick in bed dying remembering it all. This is the time when you'll wish you'd committed every cell of your body to the task at hand.

Then edit the stuff, with the same blindered immersion. Don't stop until every word carries motion and weight and rhythm and meaning. Don't stop until it's completely fucking beautiful.

Then, when you've got stuff so good someone would need to be a complete ignorant asshole to reject it, send it in somewhere. And if they reject it, it's because they're complete ignorant assholes, so don't sweat it. Keep sending it around until you find someone with taste.

If at any time during this process you find yourself doubting (even just a tiny bit) whether the stuff is really all that good, then rejoice! This is your opportunity to make it EVEN BETTER. Take it back to the shop and edit and work some more (or launch something new). And don't stop until it's utter majesty. Then return to the sending around part.

Quality comes first. Quality is the only problem in your entire world, and it's between you and the paper, so keep your attention RIGHT THERE. Any moment where confidence wanes, GREAT: that's your opportunity to make it EVEN BETTER. None of this has anything to do with YOU, or THEM, or anything but the words on the paper. Attend to that, make them so great that you have no reason to hesitate, and go from there.

This is the only way to do anything great. It's not about aiming to be great. It's about gushing care into what you do, just for its own sake, with greatness a possible side effect which you barely register because you're so busy gushing care into what you do just for its own sake.
posted by Quisp Lover at 1:31 PM on February 7, 2015 [6 favorites]

You know that story about how JK Rowling was rejected by twelve publishers before Harry Potter got picked up? And how that's supposed to inspire you to persevere? Turns out "twelve rejections" is not remotely a sign of failure. That's like she tried out baseball for the first time and then started hitting home runs before she'd had her third strike ever. The vast majority of writers have enough rejection letters to wallpaper their homes. And very, very few of them ever actually quit their day jobs. That's just not how the business works.

You should also consider that it's not entirely just you: the whole publishing industry is going through a lot of changes right now. Nobody really knows for sure what the "right" way to do things is anymore.

Write what makes you happy. Keep at it. You get better as you go.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 1:55 PM on February 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

Someone once said that if you can be talked out of being a writer, you shouldn't be a writer.

Are you a writer or not? I don't mean your profession but your identity. A writer writes because they can't not write. It's an obsession, a compulsion. They can't leave it alone, not for long.

If you are a writer then you will keep creating new stories, keep working to master your art, keep sending your offspring out into the world whether anyone ever accepts them or not. Because you have to.
posted by trinity8-director at 2:25 PM on February 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

You're not a writer because you love to be published. You're a writer because you love to write. If you don't have the love where you have to write, where you'd feel weird not writing, find something else to do. You'll be happier.

And if you really, really want to publish something, get thee to Amazon and publish it yourself. Then make little, well-designed notecards that advertise your work and extol its virtues. Drop them on every table in every coffee place in town. Shazam! Now you're a published writer with a marketing campaign.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:39 PM on February 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I feel that Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way might be a good thing to work through for you. The book helps you self-explore and find what you need to do in your writer's career - from your own perspective.

Basically, I believe that one should indeed forget about competitions and just write what one wants. One of the most difficult things to do as a growing writer/artist/musician is to learn to turn off the inner critic when s/he is in the way. To focus on external expectations on top of that isn't going to stimulate growth, it just adds tired routine to your baggage.

Trying hard and being rejected is a complication, I agree. But rejection is a lottery game - so many people are writing, so many people are reading, and so many people have poor judgment and/or taste. You don't want to waste time on rejections: that would truly be wasted years. Years spent on improving your skills for your own writings' sake, on the other hand, will never be wasted.
posted by Namlit at 3:46 PM on February 7, 2015

What are the competitions doing for you? This has nothing to do with rejection, this is about having a limited amount of time to do the work and choosing what to work on.

Unless the competitions are making you enough money to be worth your time and the diversion, you need to focus on the sort of stuff you can get an agent with (or, if you're going to go the self-pub route, on things you can finish, bring to market, and sell).
posted by Lyn Never at 4:14 PM on February 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Publishers and agents are rejecting so many good works now. You can't let it bother you. Time to indie-publish! Why let their rejection keep you from reaching your readers?

So... let it go. Let THEM go. They can't really give you anything you can't get yourself. You already have the prestige of traditional publication, so there's really very little more "they" can give you.

I'd say keep battering against that brick wall, except I've been traditionally published for 20 years, and I have NEVER seen publishers so resistant to going beyond the very tried-and-true (like "a book from that author who just had a bestseller"). It's really frustrating (and short-sighted on their part, but that's their problem).
Authors simply cannot let traditional publishing decide their publication anymore. Do it yourself. It's not all that hard, and the readership is huge, and the indie-pub community (like the Kindle Boards) is so supportive, you won't believe it.

You have the track record. You're a good writer. Your readers are waiting.
posted by pippin at 5:02 PM on February 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Second the Amazon thing. I'd have to say living is as important as writing. Make sure you have something to write about.

Get your stories together. You can have them up an Amazon in no time. Email me if you want help.
posted by larry_darrell at 5:26 PM on February 7, 2015

Like, maybe I've lost my mojo and might never get it back. Maybe I'm just not so good after all.

Well, maybe you're not! You're 23. Learning to write well takes decades. You're doing what you need to do.

And seconding everyone. Most of what you do as a writer will be rejected. When I was 23 I had a bag stuffed full of rejections for my short story. (OK, who am I kidding, I still have it, what was I gonna do, throw it out?) Then I wrote a novel and sent that out and got a bunch more rejections and put it in a drawer and went to do something else with my life. Then ten years later I sold that novel, and by then my writing has progressed a lot, and now I sell stuff (not fiction, though) all the time.

However: I don't think you should ignore your inner critic and I don't think you should necessarily throw your stuff up on Amazon and bask in the supportive vibes. If you want to write, your inner critic is your only true friend. When other people say "this is great" you have to be the one to say to yourself "No, it's still crap, but I can fix it." You have to not feel like you're good.

And by the way, even though I never did sell any of those short stories, and nobody will ever read them, I'm glad I spent a chunk of my 20s writing them.
posted by escabeche at 7:52 PM on February 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

One thing that has always helped me is to look at every life experience as fodder for another story.

Crappy job? Fodder for a story. Caring for an ill relative? Fodder for a story. Stories are what we live by, what we live and breathe. We tell stories over the water cooler, we tell them to our friends, our families.

I was also told I was a good writer by my teachers. Yay, me! But then my life got in the way. Having a child at age 19, that was a biggie. But I kept writing, and I took a course here and there. Later, I joined a writing group. That was fantastic.

I'm not a published writer. Tho' I have made a living at writing published works (for others). I've done a lot of fantastic things with my writing (newspaper columns, newsletters, non-profit writing, copywriting, etc.). I'm better than some and worse than others. I am solidly mediocre as a writer. But extremely well read and envious of those who are much better at the craft than I am. I read and I read and I read, and I admire it and I devour it. I love it, I love all forms of writing, even the crappy writing that makes me want to throw a book across the room.

Reject this: I got paid $20 an hour to write some things. I got paid to write a book for someone. I got paid to write copy for a brochure. And I got paid to research a lot of stuff that was fascinating to me. I interacted with a lot of really cool people in the process. So it's not all fiction writing, but it's pretty cool, nonetheless.

If you can write, you can do anything. You can literally get into someone else's head with your writing. Think about that. If you write a short story, about how you one time went to Key West and had an argument with your husband over whether or not to buy a t-shirt and he was too cheap so you both screamed at each other on the sidewalk, and that was when you knew, you knew he was just not your cup of tea, then you have just gotten into someone's head over that shit. You have brought them there, via your words, girl.

Writing is not rejection: writing is power. Pick up the power baton and carry it onward. We are all counting on you.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 8:05 PM on February 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Thank you everyone, for your responses.

I have actually been very lucky in that I have been a paid content writer since I was 17. I do my job to earn money, but it's not where my true passion lies. That is with fiction. I am keen to learn more about publishing on Amazon vs. the traditional route. Could someone send me their opinion/thoughts on each of these processes? I would really appreciate it.

I don't have a choice when it comes to writing. I can never stop because it's such an integral part of my identity. I remember when I had my first short story published I went to the launch and a woman came over and said "You wrote that story?!", having seemed to genuinely loved it.

I write for me, yes. But I hope to writer for others too. I hope that, temporarily, my writing can alleviate a person's pain, or make them feel better, or create escapism. Etc...so the thought of not being published would mean to me that none of those original aims materialise. What is a writer without their readers?

Nevertheless, I will continue writing. I am going to forget competitions for a while because I think it's creating some unnecessary extra pressure. In a way, it creates a deadline, which does help me. But overall maybe it's not the way forward. I will even keep going past the 100 rejections point if it comes to it. :)
posted by Kat_Dubs at 3:45 PM on February 8, 2015

"But I hope to writer for others too. I hope that, temporarily, my writing can alleviate a person's pain, or make them feel better, or create escapism. Etc...so the thought of not being published would mean to me that none of those original aims materialise. What is a writer without their readers?"

The only thing you can control is the quality of the writing you let out of your grip and into the world. Its results are beyond your power and ken, so I'd suggest you stop indulging yourself and concentrate on the thing you can actually do: bake all your love and care into the writing with single-minded purpose, rather than spinning up heroic mental scenarios about who you are and what you're doing and how you want it all to play out. People who indulge in such reveries tend to experience precisely the crises and doubts you describe in your question. And more.

Do you kiss someone to create an impression in the other person that you're someone who kisses lovingly? Or do you kiss simply out of unconstrainable love, letting the message carry as it will?

Similarly, are you writing because you want to write, or are you writing because you want to be a writer? The distinction is larger than it may seem, and staking out one side or the other will determine how miserable all this will continue to make you.

To answer your question, "What is a writer without their readers?", such a person is a writer. If that image repels you, then writing isn't what you're interested in; it's the trappings. You don't want to inspire people; you want to be someone who inspires people. Yes, that same innocuous-seeming distinction, the result of an unconscious mental flip you (and many others) do and which you'd be well advised to bravely self-examine, even if it leads to sober recognition that your motives may not truly be what your inner narrative claims they are.
posted by Quisp Lover at 8:09 AM on February 9, 2015

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