by Katherine Harms (c) 2009
Every runner knows that in a race, there is only one winner. There is a lot of competition. Runners who train very hard and do their best in the race will, nonetheless, lose, because only one can win. Many runners compete for years and win only a few races. They persist in preparing and running. They don’t give up.
Every writer faces the same kind of challenge. Years of experience teach editors to be extremely selective when reading the manuscripts that cross their desks. They know that the risk of a failure is less with established writers whose customers are already waiting eagerly for more books. A good editor will give an unknown writer only a few pages to stand out from the rest of the crowd. Like runners in a footrace, many more writers lose than win in any editor’s slush pile.
Rejection is quite painful. I had an unrealistic introduction to the world of publishing, because my first submission, a magazine article, was purchased two days after I submitted it. I thought I was going to set records. I was wrong. I immediately sent out more articles, and I immediately started learning about rejection. I have submitted book manuscripts, and I have submitted magazine articles. I have been rejected over and over. I have even been ignored. When I submit my article or book manuscript, I feel a lot like the mother of Moses who set her baby adrift in the Nile in a basket. I know there are crocodiles out there.
There are several kinds of rejection. I have received some rejections that include kind comments about my writing. I treasure those, and I go back to them when I get the ones that suggest a two-year-old could write better than I do. Most editors simply respond, “Unfortunately, it does not fit with our publishing goals.” Some never respond at all.
I try to remember that editors have good days and bad days. My manuscript is part of a pile that never stops growing. They dare not buy a poor manuscript, and they dare not miss a good one. I wouldn’t change jobs with an acquisitions editor for any amount of money. I can handle rejection of my manuscript with more grace than I could ever handle the consequences of buying a manuscript that bombed in the bookstore.
I am learning to make peace with rejection, just as a runner who loses a race makes peace with the loss. Whether it is an article or a book manuscript, I am finally learning that there is a difference between the creative experience of writing and the business of getting published. I love the creative part. I tolerate the business part. I thank God for the gift of writing. Writing is the way I think, the way I learn, and the way I grow in understanding. When I begin writing on any subject, the process is like a deep conversation. As I write and rewrite in the attempt to speak clearly, I discover that I must do more research, or I need to learn a new word, or maybe I just need a new viewpoint on the subject. When I have finished a piece, I am a different person than when I started. This is a reward that nobody can take away from me. Editors can refuse to print my work, but they can never steal the personal growth and the excitement about life that is the result of my writing. At first, I thought that a writer with no readers was a failure. Now I understand that my calling is to write. That is my work, and that is my blessing.
The business side is a burden I bear. Rejection is part of that burden. The publishers who reject my work may or may not tell me anything about their reasons, but underlying every rejection is a determination that for some reason, my work will not contribute to their bottom line. There are a lot of reasons that might put my work in the rejected pile.
My article may have arrived the week after the annual issue on my subject. My timing is bad. If they publish a calendar of topics, I should use that information and time my submissions accordingly.
My article may have been among two dozen on the same subject. The “winning” article may have offered a fresh perspective, or the writer may have organized the material in a more reader-friendly form. Maybe after reading the first dozen, the editor concluded there was nothing to be gained by reading more.
My article may not have been my best work. If I added a paragraph at the last minute and hurriedly hit “send,” I may have missed a spelling or grammar error that convinces the editor I should not be taken seriously.
Or maybe my article simply did not grab and hold the editor’s attention.
The first time I was told that my submission did not meet the editor’s “goals” I was pretty sure that she needed new goals. After all, this piece was phenomenal. I had edited out clichés and checked my spelling. I rewrote it twice to eliminate unnecessary adverbs. I checked my facts. My logic was coherent. My grammar was correct, and my diction was precise. In my professional judgment it was a good article on a timely subject.
My dear writer friend Signe says that when she receives a rejection, she picks up her manuscript and says, “I appear to have mailed this manuscript to the wrong address. Now where exactly is the editor who loves this piece?” She finds another market, and she submits the piece again. I decided that this strategy was better than eating spaghetti until I fell into a stupor.
I have sold some articles. I am still looking for the address of the editor who loves my wonderful first novel. Rejection is just business. I refuse to take refusal personally.