I heard it once said that you’re not a real writer until you receive your first rejection letter. This of course isn’t true – you’re a writer the moment you start writing – but it’s true that rejection is a milestone, especially the first time it happens. It’s the mark that someone out there in the agent/publisher world has looked at your story. And, yes, it means they’ve decided your story isn’t a good fit for them.
Like the heroes of our stories, this can be a Dark Night of the Soul moment for us. It can be the turning point where we learn how we’ll handle rejection of our work and whether we give up, pursue a different route like self-publishing, or stop writing altogether. I didn’t have any idea what this moment would be like until it happened to me.
tl;dr, I received my first rejection letter from an agent this week.
A lot of things went through my mind when I read those fateful words: “We don’t believe your story is a good fit for us.” What I did not expect was an overwhelming rush of excitement and gratitude. Maybe that quote about rejection and true writers hit deeper than I thought, but in that moment all I could think of was, I did it! I put something out there and took a step I have never taken before!
About twenty-four hours later, the sadness finally sank in. But it also brought with it the realization that we have a choice in how we face rejection – whether it defines us and dictates the future of our story or not. So what can you do with that first rejection letter? Here are some of the things that have crossed my mind in the days since that form letter hit my inbox:
1) Save It and Cherish It
Maybe it’s not the instant-love, million-dollar-at-first-glance book deal you wanted, but that first rejection deserves its spot in your own life-story nonetheless. It’s the sign of the risk you took, and like the moment the story idea itself first struck you, it has its place on the timeline of your book’s journey from conception to success. You did it. You tried. You deserve accolades. Even if it hurts, you can save that letter or email and look on it years from now to reflect on how your course changed from there.
2) Consider Any Advice That Came With It
Some agents or publishers only send form rejections. Some respond personally to each one. If your rejection comes with the latter, deeply consider any pointers they give you for why they turned down your MS. It could be a personal preference on their part – i.e., you pitched a contemporary romance to someone who only represents historical romance – or it could be a matter of content and ways you could polish your story. Take the time to consider how you can improve your next pitch based on any feedback you receive.
3) Don’t Get Angry. Don’t Lash Out
We have every right to write the stories we want to tell. Just as well, every publisher and agent has the right to decide your story is not for them. It’s more harmful than helpful to simmer at the rejection, concocting scenarios for why they turned down the story and painting the other person in an unfavorable light. There are even horror stories of writers who started an email chain arguing with the agent about why they were wrong for rejecting the story! Ouch! Don’t be that person. Accept the rejection gracefully and step forward on your journey. Don’t linger and sulk. It will only hurt your chances and make it that much harder to face any further rejections that come down the road.
4) Give Yourself Space to Feel What You Feel
When I texted my family about my rejection letter, I was excited. So excited I was shaking. There was no sadness in me, only joy. My family did not understand that. They were confused and frustrated on my behalf, and for a while I wondered if I was over-or-under-reacting. It was rejection, not a publishing deal. Why was I so happy? Honestly, I still don’t know exactly why I felt that way. But I had to give myself permission to feel what I felt that day, and the next one where the sadness set in, and the one after that, where I was back to being excited. Rejection comes with a gamut of emotion, and you don’t have to apologize for how you feel as you walk out that scenario.
5) Know that Rejection of Your Story Is NOT Rejection of YOU
We writers bind ourselves up so tightly in our stories, sometimes it can feel like if the agent or publisher rejects your story, it’s really YOU that they’re rejecting. Thoughts of “Am I actually good enough for this?” or “Do I fail as a writer?” or even “Should I keep trying?” are perfectly normal. Just know that you ARE good enough, you HAVE NOT failed, and you SHOULD keep writing. Most of the authors you love and even aspire to imitate were rejected at one point or another.
My favorite part of the rejection letter I received, even though it was a form letter, was the closing: a well-wish that another agent would pick up on my MS. Because that’s what I want, too. And it only takes one person to take a chance on you and your story, and that’s where a totally different chapter begins.
But until then, rejections will come. And the emotional storm will pass. And you can and should keep writing, because you are a writer, and the rejection of your MS doesn’t actually make you less of one – or more of one. You were a writer before that rejection, you will be one after, if you choose to keep going…and this rejection does not define you.
In closing, I want to reiterate: rejection is hard. It is painful. But it is also just a bump in the road of your life’s story. Dust yourself off and keep moving. Cherish the hurdle you crossed – facing professional rejection for the first time. And keep working, keep improving your craft and your story. The best thing you can do is become better while you search for that agent who is the perfect fit for you, and your story is for them.
You, and your story, are worth that perseverance.