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How to Use Rejection to Grow Stronger

No - rejection
No - rejection
Photo credit: foilman on / CC BY-SA

This is a true story.

Not long ago, an aspiring writer reached out to me for advice on how to deal with the worst kind of rejection.

Delia (not her real name) had decided once and for all to finally write that book she’d been dreaming about for years.

And she did it – she finished the book, which by the way most people don’t.

That was step one. Then she did the smart thing and joined a writing group. She received all sorts of feedback, and realized to her chagrin that her book needed serious work before it was publishable.

Undaunted, Delia sat down and struggled through a lengthy and difficult rewrite. Then she got even more feedback and polished her book until it was absolutely the best she could possibly make it. She didn’t cut any corners. She did the hard work. She made it a story she was proud of.

Then she took a deep breath and submitted her unpublished manuscript to every literary agent she could.

That’s when the rejections started pouring in. But she kept going. She didn’t give up.

Finally, one of the top literary agents in the business decided to take her on. Delia was ecstatic. She was so close to becoming a published author that she could almost taste it.

Then the agent gave her a laundry list of changes she needed to make to the book. That meant another rewrite.

To her credit, Delia didn’t freak out, like most would-be writers. She acted like a professional. She sat down and did the work.

The story still wasn’t good enough. The agent sent it back to her for another rewrite. So she rewrote it again.

And again.

In all, she spent 10 months doing four separate rounds of revisions.

But she kept working until finally the manuscript was good enough to send out to publishers.

When that manuscript finally went out to the publishers, I don’t know how badly Delia chewed her fingernails, but I imagine it was pretty bad.

Then, one by one, the editors of those big-name New York publishers responded. And they all rejected her book.

Every. Single. One.

They said they loved certain things about the story, but ultimately they would pass. The final answer was no.

And that was it. Her book was a non-starter.

By this point, she had already come farther than 99% of all aspiring writers out there. She had gotten all the way to the bleeding edge of the big leagues.

Then she’d been shot down. Her book was DOA. Even after all of that backbreaking work, no one would publish it.

If she wanted to be an author, she would have to start over from scratch. She would have to come up with an entirely new book idea. And then go through the whole process all over again, with no guarantees of success.

Staring down her bleak future, Delia was about to lose her freakin’ mind.

But instead of giving up, instead of flipping out and blaming everyone and everything else for her lack of success, again she acted like a pro.

She asked for advice. Even though she was desperately depressed, she reached out to me, a published author, and very politely asked me WTF she was doing wrong.

Nothing, I told her. I hate to say it, but you’re doing it exactly right.

Believe me, I sympathized with her 100%. Because I’ve been in that exact spot. More than once.

In fact, if you’ve ever heard me speak in person, you’ve probably heard me talk about collecting more than 1,000 rejection slips before my first book was published.

Yes, you read that right: more than one thousand rejections.

Multiple books, endless short stories, countless literary agents. We’re talking daily rejection, for years on end. That will grind down anybody’s soul.

It will make you quit. In fact, I did quit writing for a while.

But then I said: Well, this is stupid. If I want to write, I’ll write. And I did.

Here’s the hard truth: this is how you learn to be a writer. By doing it.

It’s part of the process. It’s how you learn to become a better writer, so that you eventually become good enough to get published.

Consider every rejection to be a key part of your training. You’re learning how to write a book.

Forget writing for a moment, and look at all the training that goes into most other professions. If you want to be something — a pilot, an electrician, a lawyer — you have to do the training first. You have to put in the hours. You have to graduate, get certified, get experience.

For some reason, people tend to have this weird belief that anyone should be able to sit down and write a book, and have it come out brilliant on the first try. But it doesn’t work like that.

Nobody would expect you to be able to rewire a house, win a court case, or land a Boeing 747 on the first try. Right?

First, you need to learn how.

Writing your first book is your on-the-job training. If lightning strikes, and the book gets published, hey, that’s awesome. But that’s just icing on the cake.

If not . . . Rejection hurts, and there’s no way around it.

But you were going to write another book anyway, weren’t you?

Yes. Because an author keeps writing more books. That’s your job.

Once, I was talking with a veteran literary agent who offhandedly said, “Every writer has to spend the first few manuscripts learning the craft.”

That may sound cold to someone who has spent years laboring to complete even a single manuscript. But it is so true.

Keep writing. You’ll get there. You’ll get published. Maybe not on your first try (or the first several tries). But if you refuse to give up, if you keep learning and getting better, you’ll make it.

You will.

I hope that my advice helped Delia. I hope that she came up with a new book idea. Several, in fact. I hope that she will keep writing book after book until she finally gets published, maybe even hits the bestseller list. I hope she never gives up.

Because sooner or later, it will pay off. Writing isn’t an easy business, but it can be fun. When you love to write, you can deal with the worst rejection if you see it as part of your training. Just keep writing more books. Each one will be better.

Whenever I complain about the difficulties and deadlines of being a writer, a friend of mine says: “You mean it’s like a real job?”

Yeah. It’s like a real job. Plus, you get to wear comfy slippers at your desk. How many professionals get to do that?

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