A student of mine got a rejection slip the other day. Encouraged by the success of a classmate, he submitted his story to a paying market. It soon made it to the “second round of review for publishing,” an Olympian peak, according to the editor, to which only “10% of submissions” ever ascend. There my student could see himself, ruling, with lightning bolt in hand.
Naturally, when the piece was ultimately rejected, he fell hard. He has no idea what about his story caused it to be dumped so summarily. Raymond Chandler once ranted to The Atlantic that “editors do not make enemies by rejecting manuscripts, but by the way they do it.” The way that they tend to do it when you’re starting out is through either rejection slips that tell you nothing, or throwaway comments that leave you a quivering mess of self-doubt and despair. But make no mistake. The editor is not your enemy.
I haven’t heard from my student for a while and I’m a little worried. It’s like when an alcoholic sibling goes back on the sauce. Suddenly you’re not getting as many emails as you were before, messages like, ‘went for a beach walk this morning,’ and ‘how about I switch the flashbacks to first person?’ Now it’s just a deafening silence that smells faintly of Pinot Grigio.
Art is the mask that enables us to save face from the invisible demon of self-doubt and panic and paranoia. Especially paranoia, because as Jim Butcher puts it, and despite what our moms tell us to the contrary, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean there isn’t an invisible demon about to eat your face.” We’re our own worst enemy here. When the mask slips, we’re faced with our lesser self staring back from the mirror—the one with the chunk out of its cheek and the big red R stamped across its head. Listen, the demon says, “You suck. No really, you blow, and suck.”
Gabino Iglesias, novelist and tireless champion of the rejected artist, wrote a piece on weathering the storm, a piece that so totally nails the self-immolating indignation with which we respond to those “Thank-you, but unfortunately” emails, that I can’t wait to show it to my student—if I ever hear from him again.
“Reply immediately,” Iglesias writes. “You don’t want your pain and anger to subside. This editor hurt you and you have to swiftly hurt them back to teach them a lesson…Explain your story…… Insult their publication.…Simultaneously submit the story to seventeen venues without revising. Face it: you’re an awesome writer and there’s no way in hell that story could be better.”
Face it: you need, like Iglesias, to laugh and cry for yourselves and for each other. It makes you feel less alone, and the swampy wallowing support can be a literal life line. You need to howl for the works of your fellows that don’t get published, and dance when they do, because their stories make the world a better place. You need to howl for your crazy art. There’s heavy weather blowing in from beyond the wall, not just at the beginning of your career, but at regular intervals throughout, and you need to find whatever it takes to get you through the night, because rejection can be funny, sometimes, but it isn’t fun, ever. The legend of Philip K Dick’s Berkeley porch collapsing under the weight of his rejected manuscripts, the blizzard of rejection slips that all but buried Ray Bradbury in the early decades, Joan Didion’s abortive foray into short story writing (“I had no past,” she writes, and it seemed increasingly clear to me that I had no future”)—all this got me through some pretty dark times.
I heard about Iglesias’s article on the This is Horror Podcast with Bob Pastorella. Pastorella discusses how his Booked story, “Take My Breath Away,” was originally commissioned by another editor who then rejected it on the basis of something called “Kahn Tint,” which it took me a while to realize was “content” said in a South Texan accent. In that mesmerizing drawl of his, Pastorella describes how the story for the twins-themed publication took him months to write and plan, and how he felt when the editors passed on it because its “kahn-tint,” was just too disturbing.
“Golly! Nothing unfortunate about it. That’s very fortunate. I wrote something that people liked but they didn’t want to publish because it was too damn weird. Too disturbing. That means mission accomplished. Okay. I like that. I accept your rejection! Move on!”
“Take My Breath Away,” content intact, did find a home, and it put this talented writer on the map. But not everyone gets to find out why their work is rejected, much less has a cool accent in which to describe it. My early strategy was to print out those rejection slips, spear them on a two buck receipt spike from Staples, and send my story to the next publication on the list. Move on. Robert Heinlein’s 5th Law of Writing: If you believe in the story—and why write it if you don’t—keep it on the market until it’s sold. I’ll remind my student next time I see him.
Because, kahn-tint. Huh.
My first successful short story got rejected initially because, according to the editor it was “a little dry, a little airless.” That told me less about my story than it did, as a supportive friend suggested, about the editor’s private parts, but I was still gutted. It was a story I believed in, and it did get picked up and even anthologised, and somewhere along the way I read that Ursula LeGuin’s Nebula and Hugo award-winning novel, Left Hand of Darkness, was rejected for the same reason—“so dry and airless.” If I had a South Texan accent I probably would have drawled, “All right! I accept your rejection!” and thrown in a ‘golly’ for good measure. But I have a hybrid Australian-by-way-of-New-York-and-California accent so I mostly rely on vodka to do the talking for me. Point is that editors are entitled to use whatever catch-all phrases they have at their disposal to tell us that our work doesn’t touch them in their front-bottoms or anywhere else, and whatever toll that takes on our self-belief, it better not be all she wrote.
My first agent could have been my last. P was a coming-from-hunger trooper, who’d list, in her pitch letters, all the publications that had previously rejected her clients’ novels. It was bizarre. Her letters read something like, “Dear ________, I am writing to introduce you to JS Breukelaar, an expat writer living in Australia, whose novel Viper, a noir retelling of the Princess Diana conspiracy, has had generous passes from Soft Skull, MacCadam/Cage, Canongate and others, but could possibly be a wonderful fit for Picador US, although probably not.”
In P’s defence, I wrote Viper for my degree and it should probably never have seen the light of day. She managed, by way of blood, sweat and a pre-loved fax machine, to get my novel into some pretty heavy-hitting hands. I even have a gracious personal rejection note somewhere from Sonny Mehta with a line P scrawled below that reads, “Sorry for the news, J, but I think it was expected!”
Ah P! You did your defeated best and I mostly adored you with your cats and kneeling chair and dark hallway crammed with books. I loved our desultory Caesar salads at Tropicana after you returned from one of your fruitless forays to the Frankfurt Book Fair, where you once wandered the aisles in a broken heel, unaware you were leaking Evian water from your book bag until Dan Simon’s assistant stepped on it.
Nothing unfortunate about what happened next: I gave P my next novel, the kahn tint of which was so unsettling, she said, that she couldn’t even keep it in her apartment. I was free. That novel has since found its champions, but only because a kind writing instructor followed the smell of alcohol and adderall to the dumpster of self-doubt behind which I’d crawled, and introduced me to a guy who knew a guy—my current agent. So yes, it’s taken a while, but golly, P. I accept your rejection.
Because as Bradbury says, “The blizzard doesn’t last forever; it just seems so.” And you want have enough of your face left to look cute for the author shot when the storm clears.
Rejection is the content and context of this life that has chosen us and it forces us to face-off with our doubts and grow stronger. A writing group buddy has been facing off with the demon all year—last week she found out that a forgotten work has been selected for Best Australian Short Stories 2015, and the editor wants to see her unpublished novel. Rejection makes us mad but it also make us kind, literally. It drives us to follow the smell of Pinot Grigio to its source, to extend a hand to our demon-diminished sister or brother, and take a swig, even if we wish it was vodka. Here you are, I will say to my student when I find him. I accept your rejection. You’re one of us now.