How I Declared Myself a ‘Rejection Expert,’ and Other Stories of Creative Reframing

I had a conversation with a friend recently where she told me that my whole “self-doubt demon” personification thing doesn’t really speak to her. She said it feels shallow, almost cutesy, and not like real coping.

It made me realize that if that’s all I was doing–personifying the voice of doubt in my head and making light of it–it probably wouldn’t work that well for me, either. There’s something deeper that has to happen.

Getting Comfortable with Failure

In my first post on Rejection Survival Guide, I wrote the following (emphasis from now):

I know what it’s like to be in the trenches. I’ve been there. I’m still there. I may be there forever. So I’m getting comfortable, setting up shop, and mapping this place out for those of you who haven’t gotten to know this place like I have.

And in my post for The Artist Unleashed, I wrote:

Along with the 100+ rejections I’d racked up from other agents, plus all the rejections for the short stories I’d been submitting to literary magazines, I started to wonder if my calling in life was to get rejected. ​Well, I reasoned, at least I’m pretty good at it.

No, seriously.

All the writers I’d heard of hadn’t been rejected nearly that much before getting published…. Getting rejected was the one area in which I could sincerely boast a great deal of experience.

These two passages reveal a shift that happened somewhere along the way in the way I viewed my failure to get published. Rejection was no longer something to run from and avoid at all costs. It was a place I could get comfortable and explore without feeling threatened. I knew that every successful writer has been there, and the fact that I had spent a lot of time there wasn’t something to be ashamed of; on the contrary, I should be proud of it. Heck, I’m so experienced at getting rejected, I’m practically an expert.

An expert at getting rejectedWhoever heard of such a thing? The idea was crazy–and so empowering. It turned this thing that had been giving me so much grief for so long completely on its head.

In psychological terms, this is called reframing: shifting perspective on a feeling, event, or thought and giving it new meaning. Sometimes, a cognitive shift is all that’s needed, and the results are immediate and powerful. Sometimes, the shift is a slower, deeper process that takes more time to unfold.

In this case, I think a lot of the groundwork was laid out by the work I’d been doing in therapy during the years before–a process of connecting with myself and becoming more confident and comfortable in my own skin. I think if I’d been told to think of my vast experience with rejection as “expertise” five years ago, I probably would have rolled my eyes and felt that whoever said that was making fun of me–and invalidating the real pain I was feeling, to boot. The change needed to come from within me.

Here are some other “reframings” I’ve done that help me cope with some of my creativity-related challenges:

Self-Doubt as Part of the Growth Process

For a long time, whenever I had a wave of self-doubt–a “writing crisis,” I called it–it scared me. It made me worry that I was losing faith in myself, that I was giving up, that I would never make it–or that it meant that I was finally facing the truth, that I really wasn’t “good enough.”

Only very recently, I began to reframe those “writing crises.” Now, when I’m thrown off by a stinging rejection or a bad review, I see the “self-doubt-demon festival” as a natural part of my processing. I almost welcome it. It means that the system is still working. If it didn’t sting, I’d be worried.

Why? Because self-doubt is part of the growth process. It keeps us humble; it makes us reassess what we’re doing and look for ways to improve. Thinking of it this way helps me avoid wallowing in it unnecessarily. That’s what I mean with my allegory of “inviting the self-doubt demons in for tea.” Self-doubt is an unpleasant, but not unwelcome guest. I let it in and hear it out, but don’t let it take charge. I think practically and follow all the concerns to their conclusions–which generally exposes how ridiculous or irrelevant they are. And when I’m done with all that, I show it the door and get back to work.

Writing letters or conducting “interviews” with a personification of self-doubt is a creative way to engage in this process, but by all means–do what works for you!

Jealousy as a Way to Connect to Your Dreams & Aspirations

This is a very recent one that I only managed to put in words in an offhand comment to my husband this past Saturday night.

You know how sometimes the world feels like it’s conspiring to make you feel a certain way? It started off with turning on my phone after the Sabbath and learning that my sister- and brother-in-law were on vacation in Barcelona–and didn’t want to tell me about it because they were worried I’d be jealous. Well, of course I’m jealous! I’ve been dreaming about traveling to Spain for years! But I’d be jealous anyway; at least let me know so I can live vicariously through you!

So I gave them the contact information for Josep (the long-suffering addressee of Letters to Josep, who lives in the area), and while I was still nursing the jealousy that they may have an opportunity to hang out with a good friend of mine who I hardly ever get to see, I scrolled down my FB feed (NEVER a good idea if you’re trying to recover from jealousy!) and saw not one, but two posts from fellow authors getting excited about their book deals.

You’d think such things would no longer spark my jealousy, seeing as my own novel is finally being published in under two months. But there’s always something. One of the authors in question has an agent and I’m certain she’s signing with a Big Fancy Publisher. The other has tons of connections in the publishing world and her only trouble is producing enough stuff for agents and editors to happily snap up. “Clearly,” my self-doubt demons said, “these authors are the Real Deal, and you, by contrast, are a Nobody.”

As I settled into bed and told my husband Eitan that the theme of the evening seemed to be Things that Make Daniella Jealous, he told me this is why I should avoid Facebook and Instagram; and I found myself saying to him that on the contrary, I think a little jealousy every once in a while is good for me. It reminds me of my dreams and aspirations and gives me a chance to re-explore them.

I don’t want to forget how much I want to visit Spain. That would suck, especially since one of these days I will get to go, and if I forget how much I want it, it won’t be nearly as satisfying, will it?!

I don’t want to forget that I always have higher places to strive for as an author–but that it is my choice whether I want to spend the effort and make the necessary sacrifices to reach them. Reminding myself of these aspirations helps me reevaluate where I am in my writing career and ask myself what I really want my next step to be–and whether those goals I longed for in the past are really relevant to what I know of myself now as a person and as a writer. Jealousy is a somewhat painful, but powerful reminder.

(For more on coping with jealousy, see: How to Not Strangle People Who Are More Successful than You)

Writer’s Block as “Slow Cooking”

There is a ton of literature devoted to coping with creative blockage–and there are many different things that may cause it. I am a passionate proponent of doing what works, and I think these methods can be extremely helpful.

I find, though, that most often, when I feel like I’m forcing something out, what that means is that it just needs more time to “brew.” Creative processes can be slow and build over many years. There are always going to be those obscenely prolific artists who effortlessly churn out amazing work on a regular basis. We can’t all be Mozart. Some of us are more Beethoven. (And between you and me, Beethoven owns Mozart’s pretentious Austrian butt. Mozart didn’t have the emotional complexity of a trombone, let alone enough to achieve the pathos of Beethoven.) (Who? Me? Jealous? Of course not. I’m merely… um… connecting to my aspiration to be prolific.)

Ahem. Where was I?

Ah yes. Slow cooking. When I find myself feeling stuck, I get up and do something else. As I’ve written before, the vast majority of my creative process takes place during meditative, mindless tasks, preferably ones that involve running water. (Like doing the dishes or taking a shower.) Sometimes I’ll put down the manuscript for a while to focus on background research. I don’t think of it as being blocked. I think of it as needing some more cooking time.


What are some other challenges creative people encounter that we might be able to frame differently? How have you used reframing to help you in your creative endeavors? Let’s discuss it in the comments!

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Dear Jim Carrey: Your Art Is Beautiful, and the Cheap Critics Can Shove It

Dear Jim Carrey,

I recently came across your short documentary on your new career as an artist, and I was very deeply moved, not only by your colorful and poignant pieces, but by the pure courage and vulnerability that resonated from you as you spoke about your childhood and your struggle with heartbreak.

Then, I stumbled across this article in The GuardianJim Carrey’s art is yet more proof that Hollywood stars should avoid the canvas by Jonathan Jones.

I’m sure this is not the first time your work has been criticized and ridiculed by some critic or other. Your acting career has included a dazzling variety of roles, from the signature comical roles in silly films like Ace Ventura and The Mask to the very serious and emotional performances in films such as The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I was not very surprised to learn that you are an introvert with a rich inner world. As we have learned from tragedies like the suicide of Robin Williams, the funniest people are often also full of pain.

Still, I was angry for you when I read Mr. Jones’s article. It reminded me of the arena metaphor that Theodore Roosevelt invoked and Brené Brown elaborated upon in her groundbreaking book Daring Greatly:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I was curious about the critic who saw fit to write about your art in such a dismissive and mean-spirited way. It looks like he is a regular of the cheap seats at the arena. He has written in The Guardian that photography is not art: “This hollow and overblown creation exposes the illusion that lures us all, when we’re having a good day with a good camera–the fantasy that taking a picture is the same thing as making a work of art.” He has also described Wikipedia as “a corrupting force” that is “eroding the world’s intellect” through a relativist approach to knowledge. The cheapest shot I found (which, by the way, I found on Wikipedia, and I’m not ashamed to say so) was his snide critique of Terry Pratchett’s work right after that author had just died. His article drew criticism, particularly since by his own admission, he hadn’t actually read Terry Pratchett’s work. He later went back on his words and admitted that the writer’s work was witty, but still claimed that it fell short of his standards for literary fiction.

Yes, indeed. Mr. Jones appears to be quite a veteran of the tomato-hurling section.

The blog on which I publish these words is called The Rejection Survival Guide, and in it, I discuss strategies and attitudes for artists and writers that build resilience against criticism and rejection. In one post, I listed three criteria that comprise “good criticism”: it should be constructive (that is, it should build and not belittle), it should resonate with you, and it should be specific and point out specific issues that don’t work or can use improvement rather than make sweeping statements about how bad it is. Mr. Jones’s criticism of your work fails all three of my criteria.

In another recent post, I posited that there’s actually no such thing as an objective measure for what makes good or bad art. The only factor that makes a piece worth reading, viewing, or listening to is how much it resonates with people. Apparently, your work didn’t resonate with Mr. Jones, and he has every right to hate it. It did, however, resonate with me–very much. I may not be an “art critic” for The Guardian; I’m not even a visual artist, and I never went to art school; but I’m a fellow human, a fellow human who has actually spent a little time in the arena–risking criticism, risking failure, risking being seen in the most vulnerable of ways, and therefore, according to Brené Brown, my opinion matters a lot more than his does.

Your art is beautiful. I would love to have that “heart entering the atmosphere” piece on my wall. The colors, the motion, the imagery all speak to me on a deep level.

Screenshot (19)
Screenshot from “I Needed Color”, featuring Carrey with my favorite of the featured paintings

Mr. Jones and his ilk can enjoy their cheap seats and continue making themselves feel important by belittling others, but their opinions will never really matter.

With admiration and respect,

Daniella Levy

Author of By Light of Hidden Candles and Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism, and blogger at The Rejection Survival Guide and Letters to Josep

How to Recover from Painful Negative Feedback, in 5 Steps

There it is.

That feedback you’ve been so terrified to receive. The one that makes all your self-doubt demons shriek: “YOU SEE?! WE TOLD YOU SO!!!”

You know which one I’m talking about.

Ouch, ouch, ouch.

I’ve written here and there about strategies to deal with this sort of thing, and I’ve addressed coping with constructive criticism. But today I want to give you a straightforward, step-by-step first-aid procedure to follow when that very painful rejection or piece of criticism hits.

Step 1: Breathe

It may sound trite, but it’s the most important and most effective thing you can do right now.

Close your eyes and draw a deep breath to the count of four. When your lungs are full, rest there on the top of the breath for a moment, then let the air out to the count of four or six. Rest again at the bottom of the breath when your lungs are empty, then draw a new breath. Repeat this several times.

Breathing this way is not just a woo-woo spiritual thing; it’s neurobiology. Our brains interpret criticism as a threat, and they react to it exactly as they would to an attack by a saber-toothed tiger. Your heart starts pounding, your breath gets shallow, your hands and knees feel rubbery, you break out in a cold sweat, your vision narrows, your senses sharpen, and you might find it hard to think clearly. This state of alertness is constructive when we are, in fact, dealing with a saber-toothed tiger. But we’re not. We’re dealing with some painful words. We can’t respond constructively to them when we’re in this state.

The good news is, you can hack that neurological response by deepening and slowing your breath voluntarily. This sends a message to your brain that actually, there is no saber-toothed tiger in the vicinity, and no physical combat or swift escape will be necessary for your survival, thankyouverymuch. This deactivates the stress response and bringing us back to a state of calm.

Like I said: breathe. It works.

Step 2: Create a Positive Association

This is my second brain-hack: my “rejection reward system”. Here’s how it works: every time I get a rejection, or a negative review, or painful criticism, I reward myself. Not for being rejected per se, but as a reward for daring to risk that rejection in the first place. I keep a bag of mini chocolate bars around for this purpose.

Why does this help? It creates a positive association, however trivial, with receiving negative feedback. Instead of just sitting there in the gloom and shame of the rejection, I have a little something to enjoy about it.

The moments at which this helps the most are the moments where I’m about to click “send” on the next submission. “BUT WHAT IF THEY HATE IT?!” my self-doubt demons scream. (As you may have seen before, self-doubt demons are not very good at maintaining their indoor voices.) “Hey, what’s the worst that can happen?” I ask them. “Either they accept it, or they reject it and I get chocolate. Win/win.”

Chocolate might not be the best idea for everyone, of course. If you have issues with comfort eating or are afraid you won’t have the self-control–or, if you deal with rejection and criticism on such a regular basis you’re afraid it’ll be too much–find a different way to treat yourself. Maybe keep a “rejection jar” around and put a coin or bill in it for every rejection, and when it’s full, use it to buy yourself a gift.

Step 3: Reach Out for Empathy and Support

Brené Brown says to take a one-inch-by-one-inch square of paper and write down the names of the people in your life whose opinions really matter. If the names won’t fit on this tiny piece of paper, you are counting too many.

The people whose opinions really matter are the people in your life who you trust to stand with you in your worst moments with nothing but empathy–no judgment, no shaming. They’re the ones you call in moments like these.

As Brené says: shame cannot survive empathy. Call that friend or sibling or mentor or whoever it is who will listen, calm the self-doubt demons, and connect you back to your confidence and hope. Bonus points if they will also make you laugh (see below)!

By the way–this person doesn’t have to exist in real life. I once got the most helpful feedback from my favorite imaginary friend character in my upcoming novel, By Light of Hidden Candlesby writing myself a letter from him. If you don’t have such a friend in real life or in your imagination–make one up and write yourself a letter from her. You can call her Daniella. 😉

Step 4: Call on Hope

We’ve been over this, right? Hope is the main key to resilience. This is when “getting your hopes up” becomes a tool for healing.

There are lots of different ways you can call on hope:

  • Keep a record of any positive feedback you get, and read over it in moments of doubt.
  • Engage with your work and remind yourself what you love about it. Be careful with this one, though; if the criticism is too raw, you might see nothing but flaws in your work and that’ll make you feel worse. If you find that happening, try something else.
  • Start a new project, or plan one. This gets you thinking about future possibilities unrelated to the piece that was rejected or criticized.
  • If you’re feeling confident enough about the current piece–send out more submissions!

Step 5: Self-Care

When the world is being cruel to you, you have an even bigger obligation than usual to be kind to yourself.

The key to taking care of yourself is learning how to ask, and answer, the question: “What do I need right now?”

Start with the basics. Are you tired? See if you can arrange a nap or an early bedtime. Are you hungry? Treat yourself to a healthy and delicious meal. Have you been drinking enough? Stay hydrated!

Beyond basic needs: what’s one kind thing you can do for yourself today? A nice hot shower? A relaxing walk in the park? Ask someone to give you a massage? If you’re too stressed out and busy to do it now–give yourself a pledge, and schedule it in.

Two strategies I particularly recommend, both of which make excellent use of YouTube:

  • When I feel emotionally overwhelmed and like I need to “reset” myself, I lie down and do a guided meditation. YouTube is full of them and you can find one at any length you like–5, 10, 20 minutes, an hour, however much time you have.
  • When I’m feeling down and want to try to pull myself out of it, I look for something funny to watch on YouTube and get myself laughing. Laughing is great: it gets you breathing, releases endorphins, and generally makes the world a better place. I recommend staying away from political humor for this purpose, because while it is funny and might make you laugh, it is also usually quite stressful. Stand-up is my go-to.

I’d say I hope you never need this post… but actually, I don’t.

My friend, author Saadia Faruqi, quipped to me that you’re not a real author until you get a bad review. I got my first bad review for By Light of Hidden Candles today; I’m popping open the champagne!

So, I hope you join the club of “real” artists–real, not because we have a stamp of approval from a higher authority, but because we are authentic enough to put ourselves out there and brave that kind of criticism.

I hope you need this post, because I hope you’ll dare greatly enough to need it.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll be off to have myself some rejection chocolate. 😉

But What If I Actually Suck?

I believe you have had the misfortune to meet my self-doubt demons. I wanted to dedicate today’s post to one of them; a tiresome little guy I like to call the What-If-I-Actually-Suck Demon.

He’s not one of my regulars, probably because I have a strong resistance to his wiles; I have been lucky enough to build up enough external validation from “high-stakes” critics (agents and editors, for example) that I have a solid pile of evidence against his case.

I’ll tell you when he does tend to show up, though. He shows up when I am unimpressed by somebody else’s work. Especially when that somebody approached me specifically and asked my opinion of said work, and I find it sloppy, or not well executed, or just plain bad.

You see, self-doubt demons are highly skilled at creating paradoxical vortexes of shame. On one side of the vortex is the fear that I’m a snob: who the hell am I to judge someone else’s work as being “not good enough”? On the other side is the fear that we’re both in the “riffraff section”–it takes one to know one, right?

Look, there’s a grain of truth here: not everyone is a “great” artist. Not every person who dabbles in a creative discipline is going to become a master at it. There is a certain measure of talent that’s required, and talent is not something you can choose or develop, it’s something you were born with. It’s all well and good for me to say, as I do in the Creative Resilience Manifesto, that “the only opinion that really matters is your own”; but what if your work does suck and you can’t see it?

On surface level, it’s a legitimate question.

But let’s look a little deeper.

Art Is Subjective

In the academic world, what they consider “high-quality” art or literature generally lives up to a certain set of “standards”. However, the thing about those “standards” is that they are subject to change. Once upon a time, if your piece didn’t resolve neatly into classical harmonies, it wasn’t music. If your poem didn’t rhyme or fit whatever meter was fashionable, it wasn’t poetry. These things aren’t objective; they change all the time.

So what does all “great” art, literature, and music have in common?

Can greatness be measured objectively?

A Matter of Taste

The more I’ve learned about literature, the more I’ve been able to put words to what I enjoy or don’t enjoy about a piece. For example, I probably won’t enjoy a story that doesn’t have a solid plot structure, good character development, crisp, believable dialogue, and the kind of writing that reads smoothly and engages the senses well. I also happen to prefer stories that convey a nuanced and complex message–preferably a hopeful one, but not Pollyannish. That’s my taste; it’s developed through my own encounters with literature, as a reader, a student, and a writer.

Some of the things I appreciate in literature are fairly “standard”. If you take a creative writing class, your teacher is likely to help you develop your skills to create pieces that have many of those characteristics. But that doesn’t make them objective requirements for great literature. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse has, like, no plot. Charles Dickens was paid per word, and you can tell from his pages and pages of descriptions that any sane writing coach in the 21st century would take a serious hatchet to. Heck, even J. K. Rowling, who was my heroine as a teenager, could definitely have done with a frank conversation about conciseness vis-a-vis the latter books of the Harry Potter series. (What editor let her keep that epilogue in book #7?! Seriously!!!)

So What Makes Art “Great”?

If greatness doesn’t have objective perimeters–what makes something great?

One thing, and one thing only: it resonates with people.

That is, people connect to it and find it meaningful.

The more people the piece resonates with, the more likely it is to be considered “great”.

This is very fickle and impossible to predict. Because even the same person might feel completely differently about a piece of art if he has a different background, or different information, or is influenced by fashion and the culture around him. That’s why artists, writers, and musicians are often grouped by era; what they were doing resonated with people who were influenced by the times. Bob Dylan would probably not have won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905. Then again, if he had been raised in the late 19th century, the stuff he’d be producing would probably have been very different.

The Quality of Your Work Isn’t Static

If what you’re producing now is not the kind of work that resonates with a lot of people, that doesn’t mean that will never change.

Talent is only a small part of what it takes to make art that resonates. Hard work, experimentation, technique, and practice have a much bigger part in creating impressive art.

You’re on a journey. As long as you stay open and willing to learn and experiment, you will continue to improve, making your work resonate with more and more people. Take a class if you like; read about your craft. Never stop viewing, reading, or otherwise enjoying art in your field; you can learn a ton from the work of other people. I can’t promise you that you’ll excel and find hundreds of thousands of fans. That, as I’ve discussed in the past, has more to do with luck than anything else.

But your job isn’t to find hundreds of thousands of fans. Your job is three things:

  1. To remember that you are the highest authority where your work is concerned. It doesn’t actually matter what anyone else thinks of it. If you think your worth is worthy–it’s worthy. Period.
  2. To find your audience–even if it’s an audience of one. If your work resonates with someone, it may resonate with more. Find those people and use their support to inspire you and improve your craft. Don’t let it discourage you if your audience is small. What matters is that you are making someone’s life richer and more meaningful with your work.
  3. To keep growing, keep practicing, and keep “daring greatly”.

The Bottom Line:

“What if I actually suck?”is not a helpful question.

This shouldn’t surprise us; it’s a self-doubt-demon question. If anyone sucks at anything, it’s self-doubt demons at coming up with helpful questions!

Here are some better questions to replace it with:

  • What am I trying to accomplish with my work?
  • Is my work achieving that goal?
  • How can I move toward that goal?
  • Who is my work resonating with?
  • Do I want it to resonate with more people?
  • How can I make that happen?

Remember item #1 on the Creative Resilience Manifesto?

I create because creation is an act of love.

Not greatness. Not success. Not talent. Love.

So get out there and show us some love.

An Interview with My Self-Doubt Demons

So my editor and I are almost finished editing the manuscript of my upcoming novel, By Light of Hidden Candles.

Among the things I’ll need to do next is start asking around for reviews and testimonials.

And… dear God almighty. It’s the absolute worst. So much scarier than querying agents or submitting to literary magazines or publishers.

Why? Because it involves putting yourself in a much more vulnerable position. You’re personally asking someone you admire to read your work and say something nice about it. The more famous the person, the more likely she is to say no (or nothing at all, which to me, is worse than no).

I started freaking out about this and found myself digging through the archives of this blog looking for something to help me feel better, and I found this piece I called “Dancing with the Self-Doubt Demons“.

The only way to navigate this is to recognize that those demons are not speaking Truth, they are speaking Fear…. don’t forget–they are still a part of you, a part of you that is trying to protect you. So don’t be too harsh on them. Be the responsible adult. Let them have their say and then, when they’ve calmed down, do the brave thing anyway.

So I decided to take my own advice.

I sat down my self-doubt demons for a thorough interview.


Daniella: Well, my friends. We meet again. Do make yourselves comfortable. Can I get you anything?

Self-Doubt Demons: How about every ounce of your self-esteem?

Daniella: Charming as always. Tea?

SDD: Sure.

Daniella: So. What brings you to me on this fine day?

SDD: This early review thing. It’s terrifying.

Daniella: What exactly are you afraid is going to happen?

SDD: We’re sorry to tell you this, but no one is going to want to read your book.

Daniella: Oh? No one?

SDD: We concede that a few individuals may be willing to take a look, but only out of pity.

Daniella: How charitable of you. And what are you afraid those individuals are going to say when they’re done reading it?

SDD: That it’s nothing special. It’s mediocre. Or maybe they’ll hate it. Maybe they’ll criticize it. Maybe they’ll write angry blog posts about how anti-[insert cause here] it is and how you are an evil person who hates [insert group here]. Or the worst worst worst? You’re a fraud. You wrote a book set in medieval and modern Spain but you know nothing about the places you wrote about and you haven’t even visited them. Someone’s going to find a flaw, a sign that you didn’t do all your research, and you will be exposed as an IMPOSTOR.

Daniella: That word. It sounds familiar.

SDD: ALSO, it’s not Real Literary Fiction™. It’s too lighthearted. It’s fluff. No author of Real Literature™ is going to think it’s any good. But it’s not Young Adult either because the characters are too old and that agent told you the “scope of the book” takes it out of YA. And it’s not New Adult because New Adult is basically Young Adult with older characters and a lot more sex scenes.

Daniella: I’ll definitely agree with you on that last point.

SDD: For real. And your book has no sex scenes. Also, as your editor repeatedly pointed out, no zombies, vampires, or werewolves.

Daniella: That was a recurring joke throughout the editing process and it was frikkin’ hilarious.

editor 8 cropped
Actual screenshot from the Google Doc.

 

SDD: –But nooooooo, instead of writing about paranormal heartthrobs, you had to write about RELIGION. RELIGION!!! WHO WANTS TO READ ABOUT RELIGION?!?!

Daniella: Not you, apparently.

SDD: AND instead of making it a fluffy kumbaya story about how we’re all actually the same, you presented the religions as being in CONFLICT! WHAT WERE YOU THINKING!!!!

Daniella: I was thinking, I’m a religious woman who has a different and refreshing perspective.

SDD: “REFRESHING”

Daniella: Are you okay? You look like you need some more tea.

SDD: YES PLEASE

Daniella: Can we just steer back on track here? Realistically, a lot of these people are probably going to say no, or nothing at all, and that’s going to suck. But do you really think every single one of the people who say yes are going to hate the book? C’mon–really, let’s think this through. If you think they’ll hate it because of the subject matter–why would they agree to read it in the first place?

SDD: We… it…. hmm. You have a point there.

Daniella: Also, I know this comes as a complete surprise to you, but most people are nice and like to help. Writers, especially, like to help other writers.

SDD: BUT

Daniella: Oh yes and another thing: why do you keep talking about it like it’s a huge burden? Like I’m asking them for the world’s biggest favor? WRITERS LOVE TO READ. I’M GIVING THEM A FREE THING TO READ.

SDD: Because it takes time away from reading Other Things! Other Things which are undoubtedly much more interesting and worthwhile than By Light of Hidden Candles!

Daniella: Yeah, like what, their Facebook feeds?

SDD: HAH! Real Writers™ don’t waste precious time on Facebook!

Daniella: …I have some earth-shattering news for you, Demons.

SDD: ANYWAY YOUR BOOK IS BORING AND THE TURNING POINT IS TOO LATE AND ALSO

Daniella: INSIDE VOICES, PLEASE.

SDD: *ahem* and also, um, “too much like real life”. At least one person gave you that feedback.

Daniella: Some might argue that that’s a compliment.

SDD: And you also sent the manuscript to a bunch of people who care about you and love your writing and they never even bothered to read or finish it. BECAUSE IT’S BORING.

Daniella: Boring? Really? Then why did my publishers at Kasva Press decide to publish it?!

SDD: Because they clearly have no idea what they’re doing!

Daniella: Okay, now you’re just being rude.

SDD: We’re just telling it like it is!!!

Daniella: LOL. Sure. For the sake of the argument, if the opinion of my publisher doesn’t count: why did several agents read the full or partial manuscript and compliment me on it?

SDD: Are you forgetting that one agent who said–

Daniella: No, but why is her opinion more important than that of the others?

SDD: Maybe she was the only one willing to tell you the truth?!

Daniella: Really…?

SDD: YES, REALLY!

Daniella: Okay, I think that will be all for today. Thank you so much for your time.

SDD: BUT

Daniella: Bye-bye now.

SDD: YOU’LL NEVER AMOUNT TO ANYTHING

Daniella: The door is that way.

The Case for ‘Getting Your Hopes Up’

I cultivate hope.

I refrain from the use of prophylactic pessimism to numb myself to disappointment.

I have found that of all the affirmations on the Creative Resilience Manifesto, it is these two that tend to meet the most resistance or confusion.

“It’s not that I don’t believe in hope…” people say. “It’s just that that kind of investment makes rejection so much harder to deal with. We can’t live our lives like that, plunging from hope to disappointment and rocketing back up again ad nauseam on a dizzying emotional roller-coaster of submission. Isn’t it better to learn to moderate our emotions and keep ourselves steady, so we can stay focused on our work?”

First of all: I want to make it clear that the path I propose may not be right for everyone.

It’s definitely not for the faint at heart.

I also don’t want you to think that I’m so great at taking my own advice! I, too, sometimes check my hope, either subconsciously or because I don’t have the strength to deal with the roller-coaster. I think it’s totally normal to need to step off sometimes and fall back on your old, comfortable coping mechanisms. It’s not all or nothing.

However.

I do sincerely believe that embracing hope fully is the ideal. And I’m going to devote this post to explaining why.

Let’s start here:

Should We Learn to “Moderate” Our Emotions?

I used to think this was the healthiest approach as well.

Two things happened that changed my view: embarking on a very meaningful and enlightening process of therapy; and becoming acquainted with the work of social researcher Brené Brown.

Brené Brown became famous for her TED talk about the power of vulnerability. If you haven’t seen it yet, definitely take 20 minutes out of your day to do so.

Her main point is that vulnerability is the key to creating meaningful connection and living life with courage and “wholeheartedness”. We can’t selectively numb our feelings, she says. If we numb sadness and anger, we also numb love and joy. So if we want to truly experience the good things in life, and maintain relationships that are open and honest and healthy, we have to stop running from the feelings that scare us and face them head on.

I grew up thinking that it was my responsibility to control my emotions. “Don’t be sad.” “Stop being so sensitive.” “You care too much.” Most of all: “don’t be angry.” The problem is, these feelings don’t actually just go away when you tell them to. If you’re successful enough at suppressing them, they turn into something else–something else that is often a lot more destructive.

This is what Brené Brown and my therapist taught me:

You cannot, and should not, control how you feel.

You can, and should, only control how you respond to what you feel.

Many of us respond to painful or scary emotions by numbing or suppressing them–or, to put it more gently, “moderating” them. Keeping them in check.

The real question is: what are we sacrificing when we do this?

And is the cost of letting ourselves hope really that much worse than the cost of preventing the disappointment?

Prophylactic Pessimism: A Win/Win Strategy?

The second affirmation at the top of this post mentions something called “prophylactic pessimism”. It’s my term for the technique of shutting down hope to avoid disappointment. We all do it to some degree, and it has a logic to it: if I always expect the worst, the worst that can happen is that my expectations will be met, and the best that can happen is that I’ll be pleasantly surprised. Win/win, right?

I certainly thought so. I wrote about it in my guest blog post for Trish Hopkinson, Riding the Rejection Roller Coaster:

I became a pro at “Don’t get your hopes up.” In fact, I made an art of killing hope at every opportunity. When an unread e-mail with the subject “Re: Query” would pop up in my inbox, I would automatically assume it was a rejection. Usually I was right. Occasionally, I was pleasantly surprised with a request to see more material. When I found myself fantasizing about The Call, I immediately shot it down by imagining how awful the rejection of that full request would be. I wanted to be prepared for the let-down, so I practiced it. This system—preventing disappointment by preemptively shutting down hope—seemed to be working well for a while.

Until it didn’t.

What if I told you that prophylactic pessimism doesn’t actually prevent disappointment?

What if I told you that all it does is turn that disappointment into something else?

Here’s what happened when I perfected the art of prophylactic pessimism:

  • I was less motivated
  • I was sadder and more jaded about life in general and the publishing industry in particular
  • I gave up more easily
  • I believed in my work less
  • I started fewer projects
  • I burned out quickly
  • I avoided taking risks that could have led to promising opportunities
  • I shrugged off my actual successes and dismissed my triumphs as not really meaning anything
  • When I did actually receive that rejection I had “practiced” for–I still felt awful!

I thought it was making me tough, impenetrable, resilient–but it was only making me numb.

Nonetheless, at the time, it seemed better than the alternative.

But one day I decided to do an experiment. You can read about it in greater detail on the guest post mentioned above. I decided to embrace hope just once; to let myself believe that a full manuscript request would end with an offer of representation.

It was scary. It really was. I knew I was setting myself up for a big, big disappointment. And when that rejection finally came, it was devastating. It was, as Brené Brown calls them, a true facedown moment; one of the worst I can remember. I had stepped into the arena of hope, just like Brené said to; I had dared greatly and faced my fears; I had made myself completely vulnerable; and I got sucker-punched and knocked flat on my face.

But. While the fall was definitely worse than it would have been if I had prevented myself from hoping…. I was surprised to learn that my recovery was much, much faster than it had been in other cases.

Gradually, I started to walk into that arena more and more. Sometimes I was too afraid and didn’t think I was strong enough to take the fall. But every time I did, I found that getting up again was easier; and more than that, my entire attitude towards my writing career was changing dramatically.

I started to realize that I was no longer constantly questioning whether I was ever going to succeed; I just knew that I would. The question was becoming how.

I was starting to enjoy the journey.

I no longer felt like a martyr.

I no longer felt weighed down by the expectations or standards of some external entity.

Sure, I was still terrified; sure, I still regularly experienced disappointment and despair and frustration; but something was fundamentally different. I felt unstoppable.

This was true resilience.

Disappointment Is Not Nearly as Bad When You Actually Know How to Cope with It

So was it worth facing that horribly painful disappointment to enjoy the benefits of fully embracing hope?

My answer is an unequivocal yes.

Because here’s what I learned from the floor of the arena of hope: it is completely possible to face disappointment head-on, in its full intensity, and walk yourself through and out of it effectively–and come out stronger, more resilient, more wise, and more hopeful than before.

But no one teaches us how.

All they teach is to avoid disappointment–and then they tell us it’s our fault for feeling it, because we made the mistake of letting ourselves hope!

Seriously?!

Here are some of the strategies I found:

  • Acknowledging and letting yourself feel the pain instead of struggling to make it stop (which just piles guilt and shame on top of the disappointment).
  • Being kind to yourself and giving yourself what you need, physically and spiritually–whether that’s rest, exercise, meditation, a walk in the park, a chocolate bar, getting a hug from a friend.
  • Sharing your pain with people who will respond with empathy.
  • Rewarding yourself for your courage and reminding yourself that you are awesome for taking this chance.

But the most powerful and most effective strategies for recovering from disappointment? They all involve the active cultivation of one particular emotion.

Guess which one.

Hope Is Not Just the Problem; It’s Also the Ultimate Solution

Here’s an unusual strategy I stumbled upon during that first experiment:

Then I did something kind of bizarre. I wrote a letter to myself from my favorite character in the novel.

“He” reminded me that this business is entirely subjective, and assured me that there is still a chance, and that he believes in me. “Honestly, woman, I don’t know how you do it,” “He” wrote. “I would never have been able to withstand all this negative energy from the universe. You have our support and love and admiration, and that’s got to be worth something, even if we are fictional characters who live in your head.”

Strange as it sounds, that was what helped me start to feel better. By that evening, I was already surfing around looking for more agents to query and chattering to my husband about new ideas.

In a way, writing that letter was calling up an inner voice that I was having trouble accessing through other means at that moment. And when I thought about it, I realized what that voice was.

It was the voice of hope.

That same hope that I thought did nothing but harm was what pulled me out of despair and helped me pull myself together and keep going.

Hope is not just something that sets us up to fall. It’s also the thing that helps us pull ourselves back up.

But we can’t have it one way and not the other. We can’t numb hope selectively. We have to embrace it completely to fully benefit from it. You can’t hope your work will succeed only when you need to get past disappointment, and then turn it off again when you’re anticipating a response to a submission. Feelings don’t work like that.

Here are some more strategies that involve rekindling hope:

  • Engaging once again with the work that you love, and reminding yourself what you love about it and what makes you believe in it.
  • Calling up the encouraging voices that reinforce your belief in your work: rereading any positive feedback you’ve received, or speaking to someone who loves your work about the criticism or rejection you experienced.
  • Starting something new that makes you excited about future possibilities–whether that’s a new project, or sending a new wave of submissions. (I’ve seen people refer to this latter strategy as “revenge submission”!)

Yes, I Know I’m Crazy.

I know my approach here goes against a lot of what you’ve probably been taught about how to deal with life.

But I firmly believe those common wisdoms are flawed and come from an approach that is fearful and unhealthy–one that is meant to prevent us from feeling painful things instead of effectively coping with them and growing from them.

I really, truly believe that the world will be a better place when we all learn to face our fears and disappointments fully, head-on, with unflinching courage. And I really, truly believe that doing this will ultimately make you happier and more resilient, as a person and as an artist.

Rejection Survival Guide Featured on “The Artist Unleashed”

Just wanted to bring your attention to this article, which I wrote for an inspirational blog called “The Artist Unleashed,” about the extraordinary origin story of this blog. I think it’s a good summary of the journey I’ve been on so far and the principles on which this blog is based. Check it out:

In June of 2016, I committed a rather strange act of desperation.

I started a blog: The Rejection Survival GuideIt had been 15 years since I’d sent my first query letter to an agent. Since then, I’d had many ups and downs and starts and stops and even some “almosts”—but never a “yes.” My sixth novel showed the most promise, but a few months earlier, the full manuscript had been rejected for the fourth time. Along with the 100+ rejections I’d racked up from other agents, plus all the rejections for the short stories I’d been submitting to literary magazines, I started to wonder if my calling in life was to get rejected. ​Well, I reasoned, at least I’m pretty good at it.

No, seriously.

(read more here)

5 Great Creative Writing Tips (Which I Never Follow)

I am very much a self-taught writer. I had to be; my formal English language education more or less ended in fourth grade when I immigrated to Israel. I learned mostly from reading, writing, and getting feedback from my friends. The only writing book I read during my adolescence was Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.

In recent years, however, I decided to see what I could learn from outside resources. So I took a few online creative writing classes through FutureLearn and Coursera, and read Anne Lammott’s Bird by Bird and Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I started reading essays passed around on social media about writing, and watched TED talks about writing and creativity, etc. etc. etc.

But the truth is… more often than not, I find such things more annoying than helpful.

(The Coursera courses through Wesleyan University were a notable exception. Definitely check them out.)

Why?

Because…

There seems to be this narrative, this formula, this body of advice that most of these things follow. Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure it’s excellent advice… for most writers. But there are a few bits of advice that come up over and over that have never worked for me.

For a while, I thought, “Well, I’ve got to get my act together! Because Real Writers™ do all these things, so I must do them too to be a Real Writer™!” But when I tried to follow the advice, I found myself nothing but frustrated and hating everything I was writing.

Eventually the irony of this dawned on me. I had already written six novels, a novella, a non-fiction book, more than a hundred poems and songs, countless articles and essays, and over a dozen short stories. I maintain two blogs. And here I was, thinking that following some dude’s advice on the Internet was going to make me a Real Writer™.

Duh.

So here are the ones I stopped even trying to follow:

1) Write Every Day

First of all, by default, I can’t do this because I’m an Orthodox Jew and I don’t write on the Sabbath.

But I also don’t believe in forcing myself to write when I don’t feel like writing.

The thing is–writing is like breathing for me. I always feel like writing. It’s just not always the thing I’d ideally like to be writing. For example, I am, at this very moment, writing a blog post. Ideally, I’d like to be writing my next novel. But that’s not what’s happening now, and I refuse to force it. Some days all I write are mundane e-mails to people. Some days they’re relatively boring content articles that people pay me for. But in my book–everything counts.

Furthermore, and this is more important: sometimes my best “writing” is done far away from the keyboard. I invent plotlines while I drive to doctor’s appointments. I come up with dialogue talking to myself in the shower. I compose blog posts while washing dishes or cooking dinner. Daydreaming is a huge part of writing. And if all I’m focusing on is the output, I don’t give myself time or space to do that.

2) Don’t Wait for Inspiration

Many writers advocate setting aside a specific time every day to write and fill a certain quota in minutes or words, even if you don’t feel inspired. If you wait for inspiration, they argue, you’re going to waste a lot of time. Get the words and ideas flowing, they insist. Inspiration can come later.

Me? I don’t even know how that works.

I have tried sitting myself down and telling myself to write. Nothing happens. How can I write when I’m not inspired? Why should I write creatively if I’m not enjoying it?!

I understand if you’re writing for pay and you have to keep up a steady output to get food on your table. In that case, you have to crunch away at it just like every other job. But let’s face it, how many of us are relying on creative writing for an income? Why give this advice to writers who are doing it as a hobby? I guess it must work for many people. Well, not for me!

3) Set a Deadline

If you haven’t guessed by now, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is not my thing.

Very, very, very much not my thing.

For those who have no idea what I’m talking about: NaNoWriMo is a challenge to write 60,000 words of a novel within the month of November. Yup, that’s an average of 2,000 words per day. The idea is, as above, to just get the words flowing, no matter how terrible, and only after you’ve finished the first draft, you can go back and edit it.

Now, I’ve had periods where I was writing 1,000-2,000 words per day in a novel. (In one memorable incident, I wrote 5,000 words over the course of 24 hours!) But I’ve also had periods of days or even weeks in which I wrote not a single word.

And you know what? Those breaks were absolutely essential.

I dunno about y’all, but at least for me, some things work much better when I give them some time on the back burner. As I mentioned, my creative process includes a lot of daydreaming away from the computer. Sometimes what I’m working on needs some space to breathe and grow inside me before I write it down.

You know how sometimes the grocery store sells pears or avocados that were picked too early? The idea is that they’re easier to ship that way and last longer in storage, and they can theoretically ripen on the shelf. But when you pick them too early, they never really ripen. They just stay hard and astringent until they turn brown and mushy. Or they have a window of ripeness that lasts approximately 12.8 seconds. Even when you catch them at the right moment, they’re nowhere near as delicious as they would have been if they’d been picked in their prime.

So too with my writing. If I try to write it before it’s ready I’m going to end up hating the project and abandoning it.

4) Get It All Down Now, Edit Later

Nope.

With all my love for Anne Lammott, who coined the phrase “s***ty first drafts”… I don’t do those.

I know the idea is that you shouldn’t expect to love what you’re writing when you’re getting down the first draft. All first drafts are crappy, argues Anne. Just write it all out, even if you hate it, and edit it later.

I take issue with the phrase for two reasons:

Firstly: I have to love what I’m writing.

That doesn’t mean I have to think it’s perfect and ready to submit. It means that I’m having fun and enjoying what I’ve written so far. It means I think I have a good concept that I’m excited about, and that I’m capable of executing it reasonably well.

Secondly: I don’t think it’s healthy to use such a strongly negative word to describe your own work. (See: self-bullying in my post on criticism.)

I’ve never liked this “vomit words on page and clean them up later” approach. I like to reread what I’ve already written and tweak it before moving on to the next part. I like to take my time when I write and get it in reasonably good shape. Of course I edit after I finish the whole thing anyway. I spent just over 3 months writing my latest novel, and about 3 years revising it!

But maybe this is why my drafts always get longer, rather than shorter, when I revise. My tendency is to expand too little, not too much.

In one of those Coursera courses, there was a class on revising. The instructor said that your revised manuscript should always be about a third shorter than your first draft! That never happens to me.

5) If You Have an Idea, Write It Down Right Away so You Don’t Forget It

The way my brain works, if an idea is worth remembering, I won’t forget it. In fact, I will probably tell it to go away because chances are I’m busy doing something else. (I have three little kids, a’right?) But if the idea is worth pursuing, it will continue to pester me so persistently that eventually I’ll have no choice but to write it down–the dishes be damned.

I carry around a little pocket notebook, but in my entire life I’ve only written down maybe two lines of poetry in one of those. Sometimes when I think of something on the go I open an e-mail draft on my phone and tap it out on there so I can access it from my computer later. But I’ve never had a situation where I was afraid something would slip away from me if I didn’t write it down that. second.

It’s more like, I’m going to go insane if I don’t write this down right now because otherwise I won’t be able to think about anything else!

Yes, I’ve had the experience of an exact phrase coming to mind and not wanting to lose it. But more often than not, even if I do forget it, something just as good or better will come up when I get the chance to write it down.

In other words, I trust my muse to wait for me if the idea is good enough.

What pieces of creative-work advice have you heard that just don’t work for you?

Why Submit to Publishers & Agents When You Can Self-Publish?

Last week I celebrated the one-year anniversary of the publication of my first book, Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism.

I posted specifically about that experience here. But for now, I want to address a totally legitimate question I’ve been asked in the context of coping with rejections: why bother? Why bother with this whole submission thing when you can just self-publish? Why submit yourself to the good graces of literary academics and traditional publishers in their ivory towers, when you can just do it yourself?

Self-Publishing Is Awesome–If You’re Up For It

Let’s just head this off by saying–as evidenced by the fact that I self-published that book myself, I am not anti-self-publishing in any sense. I think it can be an amazing solution for many writers.

Before the Amazon revolution, self-publishing was considered a last resort, expensive and clunky, and the quality of self-published books was notoriously awful. These days, that’s no longer true; self-publishing is a totally respectable and affordable option, and you can pretty easily produce a beautiful book using a POD (print-on-demand) service.

Self-publishing offers a flexibility and control over the process that you can never have with the traditional model. I am glad that I did it and I think it was a great experience for me.

But.

All things being equal, I still prefer getting published by a publisher, even a small independent one.

Why?

The Learning Curve

From what I’ve learned, successful self-published authors have the following in common:

  • They produce high-quality books
  • They are great at engaging with and expanding their audiences via social media, forums, and content marketing
  • They are prolific and produce new books all the time, consolidating their revenue and audiences

The first two items require a much wider skillset than just writing a book–or the money to pay someone, or several someones, who have those skills.

Producing a high-quality book means editing, proofreading, book design/typesetting, and cover design–not to mention formatting the eBook. Publishing it yourself means choosing the right tools and platforms for you, and learning the differences between them and how to use them was a major project for me.

Engaging with your audience on the Internet requires some computer skills–building an attractive website, managing an e-mail list,using social media, etc. You don’t have to be a gregarious extrovert to succeed, but you do need to be willing to put yourself out there and pitch your stuff to people. This, in particular, is something I really, really struggle with.

Editing as a Service, and the Problems Therein

My biggest investment in LtJ was hiring an editor. I felt it was indispensable to have another pair of professional eyes look over the manuscript.

First there’s the question of finding a good one. I hired one on the recommendation of a colleague–and had a fairly negative experience with her. Working with an editor at a traditional publishing company isn’t a guarantee that you’ll love each other, but it does at least set a baseline for the quality of the work you can expect from her.

But even if you manage find an amazing editor—you’re still hiring her. That is, the editing job is a service she is providing you.

I think this creates a problematic dynamic.

In my opinion, you should want to please your editor, not the other way around. If your editor is worried that giving you certain feedback may make you unhappy, he may opt to gloss it over or omit it. He is not invested in the success of the project–he’s only invested inasmuch as he gets paid for his work, which happens before the book goes to print.

I’m not saying it shouldn’t ever be done this way. But it’s a disadvantage, one that can negatively impact the quality of your final product.

The Investment

If you have the money to invest in the production of a great book–awesome. I didn’t. I did most of the work myself, including book design and setting myself up on CreateSpace et al, paying only for the editing (which I was unhappy with, remember?) and the ISBNs. I enjoyed the process of designing the book myself and I have an eye for design, so that worked out just fine for me:

But it’s not for everyone.

Depending how much you invest, you’ll need to sell several hundred copies to break even, and that usually means investing a lot of time in marketing. (Unless you also have the money to invest in a publicist, but… yeah. Time and/or money either way.)

You’ll have to invest time in marketing no matter who publishes your work, but at least with a traditional publisher, it’s them making the seed investments, not you–and you have a team of people, not just you, who are invested in your book’s success.

The Distribution

If you’re on top of your social media game and get the hang of content and social marketing, you can achieve excellent results. Still, you can’t achieve the same level of distribution that a traditional publisher will have. Getting your books on a shelf in a brick-and-mortar store will require a lot of work and ultimately doesn’t really pay off financially when you’re self-publishing.

The Recognition

Look.

In the Creative Resilience Manifesto, the collection of core beliefs that guide this blog, I state the following: “I share my creations because I believe in their worth. Not everyone is going to share that belief, but the only opinion that really matters is my own.”

Self-publishing, for me, was an exercise in letting go of the need for a higher authority to approve of my work.

And yet.

Obviously, the quality of your book is far more important than who published it. Nonetheless, having the reputation of a publisher behind you makes people more likely to take you seriously. In the world we live in, people are obsessed with qualifications and credentials. There will always be snobs who will turn up their noses at a self-published book no matter how good it is. (It happened to my heroine Brené Brown with her first book, which was self-published!)

People are lazy and they like relying on the judgment of “professionals” instead of forming their own opinions.

That doesn’t mean you have to get the approval of an authority. Absolutely not. But having it can be an advantage.

A Note on “Author-Invested” Publishers, a.k.a., Glorified Self-Publishing

Now, the publishers that exist today fall all along the spectrum from strictly traditional to what I call “glorified self-publishing.” I dabbled in submitting LtJ to some Jewish publishers before making the final decision to self-publish it, and discovered that the vast majority of them are what they call “author-invested,” which is a euphemism for “fork over $10-15k so we can produce your book and distribute it, and you will enjoy high royalties.”

Look–I’m not pooh-poohing this model entirely. If you have that money and don’t want to handle the production yourself, it might be worth it for the distribution. And I get that from the perspective of a publisher, investing in a book is risky, and this is a smarter business model that eliminates that risk. But to my mind, that’s also the biggest problem with this model. Because thanks to your investment, their editors and graphic designers will get paid either way; and thanks to your high royalties, they aren’t left with much of an incentive to make sure your book is successful and profitable.

It’s Not Really One or the Other

I think this is the most important thing.

The two models are not mutually exclusive.

When you self-publish, the book still belongs entirely to you. This means that another publisher can still acquire it from you. This doesn’t happen to everyone, but it does happen. (It happened to another author I know, and it may happen to me–I have a publisher interested in LtJ, but we haven’t signed anything yet.)

If you are successful and achieve good sales with your self-published book, that makes you a much safer bet for a publisher or agent, since you already have a platform and have proven yourself at marketing.

Yes, there are agents and publishers who will turn up their noses when they hear that you self-published something. They need to get over themselves and get with the times.

Ultimately, it’s a very personal choice, and I can’t tell you what’s right for you. Both routes require courage and resilience; it’s just that some of the challenges you face are different. And I’m sorry to tell you that no matter what you choose and how successful you are, if you’re a creative person putting your work out there… there is still plenty of rejection in your future.

But hey–that’s what this blog is for, right? 😉

How to Write a Rejection Letter That Won’t Make People Hate You

Getting rejections is hard. That much is obvious.

Sending them can be hard, too. Especially when you know the rejectee is going to be very disappointed.

Not that I’ve ever had to send one quite like that. But I get it. Many of you people who must send rejection letters regularly have been on the receiving end at some point or another. You know how hard it is. You want to let them down gently. You want to be encouraging, but not so encouraging that they’re going to flood you with more submissions or applications, especially if you really didn’t like what they sent you. It’s a delicate balance.

Well, as a highly experienced rejectee, let me share with you what actually helps me feel better about a rejection letter… and what decidedly doesn’t.

How to Write a Good Rejection Letter

1) Get to the F-ing Point

Most rejection letters start out with a thank you. This is appropriate. But the bad news should be in the second sentence at the very latest, and it should be stated clearly.

You’ll see some examples below where I had to hack through all kinds of verbiage to confirm that what I was reading was, in fact, a rejection letter.

Listen. I hate to tell you this, but the moment we open your letter, we couldn’t care less how glad you are to have the opportunity to read our work, how many submissions you receive, or how much you wish you could respond to each submission personally. Our hearts are in our throats. We just want to know your answer. Put us out of our misery.

2) Don’t Apologize for Sending an Impersonal Form Letter

I know this may be counter-intuitive for the more empathetic among you, but please, don’t apologize for sending a form rejection. There’s nothing more phony than an impersonal apology for being impersonal.

I know many of you do wish you could respond individually and it pains you to have to send form letters. You can mention that if you have to, but really, all we hear is “O woe is me, I am so successful that I can no longer afford to respond individually. Woe!” And it kinda makes us wanna slap you. And then send an impersonal apology.

3) Do Apologize if the Letter is Late

If you committed to a specific response time (in your submission guidelines or elsewhere), and you’re sending the rejection later than that projected time–please apologize and thank the rejectee for his or her patience. Every additional second is torture for us. We know you’re busy, probably underpaid, and doing your best, but failing to meet a deadline you set for yourself is unprofessional and disrespectful of our time, and the least you can do is acknowledge that.

4) Don’t Give Empty Praise or Encouragement

Do not ever include words of praise, even the most vague, in a form letter.

Not ever.

Doing this is damaging in multiple ways. It makes us unsure whether the letter was a form letter or a personal rejection. So it can both give us false hope, and undermine the genuine value of praise we receive in an actual personal rejection.

I’ve had several rejections from agents that said vague things like “While I found the premise intriguing…” or “This looks interesting, but…” Sometimes, when I compared notes with others who had been rejected by the same agent, I discovered that their rejections were identical. Not cool. Don’t say it unless you truly mean it.

5) Keep It Short

It is unspeakably irritating to trudge through a long letter that says nothing you want to hear. Especially when you’ve read dozens exactly like it.

A form rejection letter should be one or two short paragraphs long. You’ll see a few examples of good ones below.

Of course, you do have to consider the possibility that this is the first rejection letter your rejectee has ever received. So I understand why some feel a need to add something along the lines of, “Please don’t be discouraged; this is just one opinion, and another may feel differently.” But this often comes off as patronizing–especially toward us “veterans.” See below for examples of letters that manage to convey this message without that patronizing tone.

Really, if you’re trying to be helpful, all you have to say is, “I know getting rejected is hard. If you’re interested, there’s this amazing blog about coping with rejection that I highly recommend…..” 😉

Some Examples of Annoying Rejections

Happily, I have an abundant pool of examples to draw from.

You will find my comments {in these brackets and in bold}.

Let us begin:

Sample #1

“Dear Ms. Levy:

It is with kind thanks that I respond to your submission to [Fancy Literary Agency]. {Pompous-sounding. Keep it simple.} Please be assured that I have carefully considered your project. {Oh, Agent. We both know that “carefully considered” means “took two seconds to scan your query letter and wasn’t hooked.” That’s how things work in this industry. Let’s not overstate our case, shall we?} Unfortunately, I don’t feel the manuscript is right for me at this time.

Because we receive more than two hundred submissions per week {Cry me a river}, it is necessary to be extremely selective on a very subjective basis. {This sentence is clunky. Consider revising.} There are numerous excellent agents that might be the right fit for your manuscript. I wish you the best of luck.

Sincerely,
[Fancy Literary Agents]”

Sample #2

“Dear Ms. Levy:

Many thanks for the arrival of your letter describing your writing project. {Okay firstly this sentence is a mess. I am not responsible for the “arrival” of the letter, so I don’t know why you’re thanking me for it. Just cut “the arrival of.” It’s superfluous.} Unfortunately, we must report that we do not feel sufficiently enthusiastic about the project to pursue it further. {This sentence could be half as long and still say the same thing. “Unfortunately, we do not feel sufficiently enthusiastic about it.”}

I regret the seemingly impersonal nature of this letter. {“Seemingly”? Are you implying that it’s not impersonal and only seems to be?…} Because the agency handles so many letters of query and wishes to provide the timely response that any author needs and deserves, we have had to depart from the practice of responding personally. {I give up. Let’s just say I’m not hiring you as an editor anytime soon.} Please be assured, however, that we continue to carefully consider each query, including yours. {Seriously, why do agents say this? Do they think that if they don’t, I’m going to write back and accuse them of never having read my query, because if they had, clearly they would be begging me for my brilliant manuscript? Listen, if the writer is enough of a megalomaniac to do that, assuring them that you have carefully considered their submission is not going to stave them off. And what it does to the rest of us is make us think, “Huh. I hadn’t even considered the possibility that you didn’t actually read my query until you mentioned it.”}

We do appreciate the opportunity to consider your work and wish you much success and pleasure in your writing.

Sincerely,
[Literary Agent]”

Sample #3

“Dear Daniella Levy,

Thank you again for submitting your story to [Literary Magazine].

As you might imagine, our small team of volunteer readers {Blah blah blah. Acceptance or rejection?} is forced to select an extremely small number of works from the hundreds of great submissions we receive each quarter. {Acceptance or rejection?!} Submissions for our Fall Issue were once again excellent, and plentiful. {ACCEPTANCE OR REJECTION?!?!} Although we have to pass on your work for this edition {THANK YOU}, we’re truly grateful that you were kind enough to send it our way. {I’m truly grateful that you were kind enough to finally let me know that you rejected my story.}

All the best in your future writing. Warm wishes and good luck!

Sincerely,
[Magazine Staff]

Sample #4

“Dear Author, {We’re already getting off to a bad start, I see.}

Thank you for writing to me about your project. I apologize that it has taken me so long to get back to you! {Apologizing for lateness. Acceptable.} I’m so sorry for the impersonal response, I hate to do this. {Annnnd strike two. I must admit, however, that the warm, informal style does soften it a bit.} [My agency] used to respond directly to each query, but the letters have now reached a volume that is frankly unmanageable. {Boring. Is this a rejection or what?} Writing a good book or proposal is among the hardest things in the world to do; I promise, we’re not unsympathetic! {I don’t need your sympathy! I need to know whether you are rejecting my query!!!} You have our word that we are reading every single query letter that comes our way, {DEAR GOD WOMAN, SPIT IT OUT} but from now on, we’re only responding personally if we’re sufficiently curious and would like to read further. {AHA! I can now engage my powers of deduction to conclude that this is, indeed, a rejection! Thank you for this vigorous intellectual exercise.}  I’ve been focusing on maintaining my current list for the last few years and can only make an exception for the rare book for which I am completely over-the-top enthusiastic. {You sound really sweet. But I want to strangle you right now.}

I do encourage you to continue developing and submitting until you find the perfect home for your work-it’s out there! {This sentence was doing great until the last three words. DO NOT SAY THIS. There is literally no way that every single person you have rejected later found a home for their work. I know you’re trying to be encouraging, but it just comes off as overly cheery and insincere.} Along those lines, I wish you the very best.

Take care,
[Literary Agent]

Some Examples of Excellent Form Letters

The Rejection Survival Guide Award for Best Form Rejection goes to… The New Yorker.

“Dear Daniella,

We regret that we are unable to use the enclosed material. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider it.

Sincerely,
The Editor”

IT’S PERFECT.

The bad news is delivered right away. It’s only two sentences long. It manages to be polite and encouraging and impersonal at the same time.

Their reputation as the #1 literary magazine in the world was confirmed for me, not by their illustrious list of awards, nor by the the work they publish, but by the masterpiece that is their form letter.

Here’s another good one:

“Thank you for your submission to Wolf Literary. We’re afraid your project isn’t quite right for our lists at this time, but we encourage you to continue editing and querying other agencies.

Thanks again, and best of luck in your search for representation.

All the best,

Wolf Literary Services”

Again, it manages to be encouraging in a sort of general way, without the mildly patronizing tone of “this is a subjective industry, etc.”

One more:

“Dear Daniella,

Thank you for thinking of me with your query, but unfortunately I just don’t feel I would be the right agent for this one.  I do wish you the best of luck and success with your book.

Sincerely,
Stephany Evans”

Short and sweet, and manages to sound sincere. Thumbs up.

A Note on Personal Rejections

I’ve focused primarily on form letters in this post because I think personal ones are a lot easier to write, even if they may be somewhat harder to send. I never wanted to slap anyone who sent me a personal rejection, and I could tell that in most cases, the agent or editor was genuinely sorry to be turning me down.

The key is to be sincere. If you’re writing a personal rejection, that means you saw potential there. Your goal is to encourage the rejectee to keep going and to consider trying you again in the future. “I really enjoyed reading this” is one I got a few times. One agent went into great detail about what she liked about my characters and the way I approached certain themes. A few told me I was talented and that my manuscript had potential.

What’s important for you to know is this: those were the rejections that made me keep trying.

If I hadn’t gotten any genuine positive feedback at all, I would have given up long ago. It is thanks to those comments that my debut novel is being published in September.

So if you’re writing a personal rejection, remember that this letter you are sending right now may be the difference between your rejectee walking away and giving up, or finding a home for their work.

What are some of the more annoying rejections you’ve received? What are some of the best? Please share in the comments! And hey–if you’re an editor/agent/other-person-who-sends-rejection-letters and would like me to review yours, I’d love to help. Feel free to contact me.