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.

How to Take Criticism and Turn It into Growth, in 5 Steps

This is a blog about coping with rejection of creative work, but it would not be complete without addressing rejection’s notorious cousin: criticism.

It hurts to hear people say negative things about something you poured your heart and soul into. It hurts to recognize that you are not perfect at what you do and can always use improvement.

However, criticism–good criticism–is a very powerful raw material you can use to build yourself as an artist.

People generally react to criticism non-constructively in one of two ways: resistance (dismissing, arguing, or denying) or withering (collapsing in feelings of shame and inadequacy). Both of these reactions deny you the opportunity to learn and grow from the feedback.

To get the most out of criticism, you have to be humble enough to admit your work has faults, yet confident enough that you won’t wither. You have to push past the instinct to get defensive, and instead, get curious about how the criticism can help you improve your craft.

Let’s break it down into five steps.

Step 1: Filter out bad criticism

The only kind of criticism that is worth listening to has three components:

  • It’s constructive; meaning, its purpose is to build you, not belittle you.
  • It resonates; meaning, you think there is truth in it.
  • It addresses specific issues with your piece or your technique.

Anything that does not meet these criteria goes straight in the trash where it belongs.

Some examples of bad criticism:

  • “This is terrible”
  • “This is a pile of crap”
  • “This sucks”
  • “This hurts my eyes”

Some examples of good criticism (and I’m limiting them to the writing world because I know nothing about critiquing art!):

  • “I felt that this character wasn’t developed enough. I’d like to get to know him better”
  • “I wasn’t drawn in; the hook wasn’t strong”
  • “The descriptions were too wordy”
  • “Too much showing, not enough telling”
  • “The structure of this paragraph is confusing”

>>This goes for what you say to yourself, too.<<

I’ve heard so many people say things about their work they would never say about someone else’s (to their face, anyway). “This is a pile of crap” is not constructive criticism, it is bullying.

Self-bullying, similarly to regular bullying, is an attempt to distance yourself from your faults and shield yourself from criticism. “Well of course it was rejected, it’s a pile of crap anyway, and I can see that now. No one else needs to tell me.”

Nope. This is not humility or being good at accepting criticism. It is the exact opposite: it is using your own harsh criticism to stave off whatever (potentially useful!) criticism might come from other people. This is not constructive.

And you don’t deserve to be bullied by anybody, yourself included.

Step 2: Breathe

Criticism always hurts. Let it hurt. But remember that you are here because you were brave. You wouldn’t be getting criticism if you hadn’t dared to share your work with someone and risk the criticism in the first place. Celebrate your courage, and nurse your wounds.

But the sooner you can move on to the next step, the better you will feel.

Step 3: Get as much information as you can

Real-life example.

In the early days of submitting my upcoming novel to literary agents, I got a rejection I found particularly disheartening. Here’s what the agent said: “I wanted so much to want it, because I share your interest in crypto-Jews and those who fled the Inquisition. I feel the manuscript (sample that I read) is much too telling and not enough showing, if you know what I mean? I’d welcome taking another look if you revise the heck out of it. I do wish you the best of luck.”

In other words, she liked the idea, but felt the writing wasn’t good enough.

…Ouch. That is definitely not something that is easy to hear.

But you know what I did?

Something I’d never dared to do before.

I wrote back.

I thanked her for the feedback and asked if she would be willing to be more specific about the parts she thought were too “telling” and not “showing.”

I knew this was a lot to ask from a busy literary agent, but felt emboldened by her willingness to look at a revision. I was more than happy to revise it, but wasn’t seeing what she was seeing. I needed some guidance. I knew it was a long shot, but I thought that if she could just be more specific with the critique, I would be able to do something with it.

To my delight, she wrote back and sent me my first sample chapter with comments! She pointed out specific paragraphs that could be “shown” rather than “told.” She said that she found one character’s dialogue style unrealistic, and mentioned that “nothing really happens in this chapter.”

Step 4: Ask yourself: what can I do to address these issues?

The agent’s comments were enormously helpful because they identified specific issues to address:

  • Less telling, more showing
  • Unrealistic dialogue
  • “Info dumps”
  • First chapter doesn’t have enough action

Step 5: Re-engage with your work–and enjoy!

So I went back to the manuscript and tried to implement what I’d learned. I cut “info dumps” and tried to introduce information more organically. I scoured the manuscript for things that could be “shown” rather than “told.” I changed that character’s dialogue to sound more believable. And I asked myself: what could be happening in this first chapter that will introduce the characters and set up the plot well? How can I make it more compelling? I had an idea, and rewrote most of the chapter accordingly.

When I was finished, I was very satisfied and pleased, because I felt the novel had improved greatly thanks to the changes I’d made.

And I must have been right, because the very first query I sent with the revised sample resulted in my first full manuscript request for that book.

(In case you’re wondering: I did send it to the helpful agent to ask if she’d like to take another look, but she didn’t respond, and shortly thereafter she stopped representing manuscripts in my genre…)

I can’t tell you how much my writing has improved thanks to comments from readers–from literary agents and editors to non-writer friends.

I know criticism is hard and painful, but trust me on this. If you learn to use it right, you might even start to love it.

Dancing with the Self-Doubt Demons

I posted once on my other blog about Impostor Syndrome, and brought an anecdote that demonstrates the severity of my case.

It happened while I was reviewing a bio which was going to accompany a poem I wrote for Veils, Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression & Empowerment of Women. The editors of the book found a publisher a few years after my poem was initially accepted, and they sent out the proof of the manuscript for us to make sure that everything was still correct and accurate. My bio started with, “Daniella Levy is a writer, poet, translator, and self defense instructor…” And my first thought when I looked at it was, “Poet…? Really? Can I call myself that? Just because I write poetry occasionally… and performed a spoken word poem once for a small audience… I dunno, does that qualify me?”

…And then it hit me that the bio in question was for a poem.

That I wrote.

That was going to be published.

In a book.

HELLO.

Of course, I have since learned that you don’t need to be published to be a poet. You don’t even have to be a good poet, by any standard. All you have to do to be a poet is write poetry.

But I have this deeply ingrained perception that continues to torture me as my career moves forward: that there is this invisible line drawn across the universe that separates the Real Artists™ from the riffraff. And the riffraff are never aware that they are riffraff. They think they are Real Artists™ who are merely misunderstood or underappreciated by The Establishment™. So they flood the “indie” industries with their mediocrity and make it that much harder to find the Real Artists™ who really are misunderstood or underappreciated or otherwise chose an alternate route to showcase their work.

And one of the major downsides of harboring such an obnoxiously arrogant worldview is that I live in fear that I am, and always will be, in the riffraff section.

Consider the following. My short story, The Olive Harvest, was published last week in Reckoning, a new literary journal for creative writing on environmental justice. This is the first time I was paid for a piece of fiction (handsomely, too), and other than Veils, Halos & Shackles, my first publication of any sort on a platform that is not specifically Jewish or Israeli. This is, objectively, an admirable accomplishment–a step higher on the ladder I’ve been steadily climbing since I published Letters to Josepand recognition from The Establishment™ that what I am writing is Real Literature™.

And yet. A couple days before publication the editor sent out the proof for contributors to look over. And you wouldn’t believe the ridiculous things my self-doubt demons started screaming at me. Your picture looks dumb! Your bio is too long! Your story isn’t all that great! It looks pathetic next to the other stories! And your bio looks pitiful next to the bios of these other highly acclaimed/generally superior writers! Or alternately–maybe this is a second-rate magazine and all the pieces in it are meh and so is yours! Your message doesn’t fit the theme of the magazine perfectly! The editor is clearly insane to have included you! Not good enough not good enough not good enough who do you think you are blah blah blah blah blah

(I sincerely apologize on behalf of my self-doubt demons, Mr. DeLuca. They are unspeakably rude and have extremely poor judgement.)

Seriously, it’s amazing. I could win the godd**n Nobel Prize for Literature and they’d be like “Clearly the committee had a terrible selection this year.” “Yeah, but they gave the same prize to Bob Dylan. And um hello Yasser Arafat. The Nobel Prize committee obviously has no idea what it’s doing.” “BUT I STILL DON’T HAVE AN ACADEMIC DEGREE SO WHAT DOES ANYTHING MATTER?”

*headdesk*

The only way to navigate this is to recognize that those demons are not speaking Truth, they are speaking Fear. They are trying to protect me, from disappointment, from external criticism, and to some degree–ironically–from shame. Self-doubt and self-criticism are part of a mechanism for inoculating oneself against making mistakes and taking unnecessary risks. This is not always bad; a little self-doubt makes you cautious and humble. A lot of self-doubt, however, can be crippling, because HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO EVER GET ANYTHING DONE WITH ALL THIS NOISE IN MY HEAD?

It occurred to me recently that I have a reward system in place for my failures, and that serves me very well… but I don’t have a system for acknowledging and recognizing my accomplishments. I mean, back when I developed my “rejection chocolate system” I guess it hadn’t even occurred to me that I’d need a reward system for acceptance letters or contract signings. Getting an acceptance is its own reward, isn’t it? I imagined getting The Call from an agent or publisher, squealing and jumping up and down with excitement, crying for joy, and shouting from the rooftops!

In reality, when I got the phone call from my publisher at Kasva Press informing me that they’d like to publish An Ancient Whisper, I was in total shock. Like, staring-blankly-at-the-wall I-cannot-digest-the-concept-that-this-is-happening-in-actual-reality shock. And the emotion I felt most strongly was not joy–it was fear, of all things. The demons were saying: What if this isn’t real? What if this is like that time I was offered a contract by an “agent” who turned out to be a fraud? (This happened very early on, when I was a naive teenager, and thankfully my parents were suspicious when the “agent” asked for $250 up front. It was the worst let-down ever.) I knew that this was different, but I was afraid to let myself celebrate. I was terrified to believe it was true.

My husband, God bless him, took one look at my face and fixed me a stiff drink.

So then I told myself that I’d feel better once we had it on paper. But after we signed the contract, my primary emotion was, once again, anxiety. What if we missed something? What if this is all a terrible idea? What if the publisher invests a ton of money and time in this book and people hate it and it doesn’t sell? What if people write nasty reviews? What if what if what if

It. Never. Ends.

And I think that, paradoxically, is the key to dealing with these critical and fearful voices. Recognizing that it doesn’t end. They will always find something to say.

So… you can do what I do, and externalize them as “self-doubt demons,” who you can write letters to, dialogue with, and laugh at. But if you do this, 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.

And as for the riffraff section: it’s like I wrote in my previous post. “Not being great doesn’t make me unworthy. It doesn’t mean my work shouldn’t be shared and enjoyed by other people.” You don’t have to be a Great Artist™ for your work to be worth sharing. Some people are going to love it. Some people are going to hate it. Whether it complies with some stuffy academic standard of excellence is not what’s important. What’s important is that you are genuine about who you are and what you’re doing, and that you keep seeking the audience that connects with your work, because it changes their lives for the better and makes them feel less alone.

That is what matters.

Striving for Greatness While Embracing Good-Enough

A few short weeks before I self-published Letters to Josep, I received some really stinging criticism. “It’s nothing special,” I was told. And it wasn’t just anybody who said this: it was an author and educator I had contacted in hopes of getting an endorsement, who, months earlier, had called my work “impressive” and referred me to a potential publisher. I think he may have forgotten who I was in the meantime; I don’t know what else would account for the sharp discrepancy between his reactions.

Objectively, it was a really crappy thing to happen so close to the book’s release. It was the only response I’d gotten out of all the requests I’d put out asking for endorsements. Approaching people for blurbs and reviews is about the scariest thing I’ve ever had to do, and to have this be the only thing I got back for my efforts was really, really discouraging.

But as the existence of this entire blog attests… I’m stubborn as all hell. When I decide to do something, I do it, come hell or high water. So I nursed my wounds, had some chocolate, and went ahead with my plans to publish the book.

Half a year later, however, I’ve found that the incident still reverberates and makes me afraid to approach people for their comments on my work.

For example: I gave a copy of Letters to Josep to a well-known rabbi a couple months ago, and though I know he is very accessible, I have been too chicken to follow up with him. Josep has also sent the book to a few public figures in Catalonia, only one of whom acknowledged receipt so far. I’ve had an e-mail sitting in my inbox for more than a week, addressed to another author and public figure who I know likes me and enjoys my writing and would probably be more than happy to help… but I still haven’t worked up the courage to hit “send.” While I am really hoping to get some kind of positive response from any or all of them, I’m completely terrified that they’ll respond negatively. What if they hate it? Or, more realistically, what if they think it’s “nothing special”–like that critic mentioned at the top of the post?

Nothing special.

This phrase brought to mind something I remembered from the writing of researcher Brené Brown. She calls it “fear of mediocrity.” People today are terrified to be mediocre, to be average. I don’t want my stuff to be “decent,” I want it to be exceptional. I want to be exceptional. I want to be a great writer.

This desire to be exceptional at everything is a form of perfectionism. We want to be the best at everything we do. But we can’t be. We can only be the best at what we are.

I may one day be a great writer. More likely, I will continue to improve at what I am now: a good writer.

A good-enough writer.

As a good-enough writer, I’m probably not going to go down in the history books. I’m probably not going to win any prizes, nor are my books going to become bestsellers. I’m going to get some scathing reviews on Amazon. I’m going to get some criticism from people of all walks of life. (That happens to great writers, too.) It’s going to hurt. I’ll give myself chocolate when it happens, I’ll take what constructive criticism I can use, and I’ll move on to bigger and better things.

Not being great doesn’t make me unworthy. It doesn’t mean my work shouldn’t be shared and enjoyed by other people.

What if what that guy said is true, and my work is mediocre?

So what?

I know the true value of what I’ve done. And the artistic/literary quality is just the tip of the iceberg. Letters to Josep was more than collection of letters about Judaism. It was even more than a tribute to an important friendship in my life. It was the sweet fruit of a bitter struggle, a very troubled and turbulent period in our lives. Starting the blog was a sort of crazy, wildly creative coping mechanism. And then, the decision to turn it into a book and publish it myself was a great act of courage–a decision to stop sitting back and waiting for someone else to determine whether my work was “good enough.”

What I achieved with LtJ was far more than its value as a piece of writing. And I deserve to be proud of it, even if somebody thinks it’s “nothing special.”

…I know all that. In my head.

As I moaned about all this to my long-suffering husband last night, I asked him if he thinks it will always be like this. Will I always be terrified of criticism? Will the soul-crushing anxiety about the future always overwhelm the sweet satisfaction of success? I think the answer is yes and no. It’s like rejections. They always hurt, but after a while, it becomes easier to shrug them off, especially when you get enough praise and encouragement to hold as a shield against the criticism.

So… I decided that I need to give more space to the positive feedback. Negative feedback has this way of swallowing up all the good things people have said. So I made this graphic; gathered from quotes from some of my favorite bits of feedback in the last few years. As I gathered them, I noticed that at the center of everything, there were five words that resonated the most, that felt like the main reason my writing matters. So I put those words dead center.

I hope to be adding to this in the future, and I plan on making an effort to keep a record of all the lovely things people say to me about my writing, so I can take it out and read it carefully when I need it.

why-my-writing-matters

Someday Your “Yes” Will Come

When I started writing this post, it felt kind of funny.

Hypocritical, almost.

I mean… this is the blog I explicitly started on the banner of shifting focus away from success stories and happy endings, and towards talking about rejection. My first post was powerful precisely because of my particular position at the time–a writer who, for many years, had consistently failed to get her stories published, and despite this, continued to believe in her work and to keep trying. Without the “and then.” Because there doesn’t need to be an “and then” for that effort to be worth something.

But if you don’t give up, if you keep creating, and keep trying, and keep saying “yes” to opportunities, and keep risking rejection… one way or another, one day, you will have some kind of “and then.”

I am now 29, with another novel, a novella, and a handful of short stories under my belt… and more than 200 rejection letters to show for all of it.

That’s it. Not one of them has been published.

Two months after I wrote those words in my introductory post to the Rejection Survival Guide, my short story, Immersion, was published in the Jewish Literary Journal.

And then, my short story Scarf Sisters was accepted for publication in arc 25, literary journal of the Israel Association of Writers in English (to be published this winter).

…And then, I found a publisher for my novel.

Yeah. You read that right.

excited gif

I’ve been sitting on this news since the end of September, waiting until it was on paper before making official announcements. We just signed the contract.

It was one of those crazy situations where all the components have been slowly building and lining up for several years unbeknownst to me, and all it took was one conversation to make everything fall into place. The first piece of the puzzle was a poem I wrote on a whim, in response to a submission call years ago. This led to its publication in the Veils, Halos & Shackles anthology. The publisher, Yael Shahar of Kasva Press, contacted me to give me my contributor’s copy. She happened to be someone I sort of know from various online settings and through mutual friends; an author in her own right. From here to there, we ended up exchanging books and ideas, and when I mentioned that I write fiction as well, she enthusiastically invited me to send her my manuscript. Two days later she called me to tell me that she wants to take it on.

This is the “yes” I’ve been dreaming of for almost 15 years.

Well… sort of.

Technically my fantasy was a “yes” from a literary agent. I dreamed of getting published by a major publishing company–without any prior credentials or platform–and then sitting with my feet up waiting for the rave reviews, fan mail, and royalties to come pouring in.

I may as well have imagined using a unicorn as a footrest.

So, this is the “yes” I’ve been waiting for… adjusted for deflation of my ego and expectations over the years.

And in this rare, very long-in-coming moment of accomplishment… here’s what I want to say to those of you still drowning in “nos.”

Keep going.

I KNOW HOW ANNOYING IT IS TO HEAR THIS FROM ME RIGHT NOW.

SERIOUSLY.

If I were reading this entry six months ago I would have wanted to throw a book at myself. A few months ago I posted an entire tirade against telling people not to give up! But let me clarify that what I mean when I say “Keep going.

I don’t mean “Keep sending the same submission to the same exact market forever and ever and eventually someone will like it.”

What I mean is this:

Keep doing what you love.

Keeping listening to yourself.

Keep creating when that is right for you.

Keep engaging with your work and embracing constructive criticism and opportunities for growth.

Keep taking breaks when you need to.

Keep your mind open to other possibilities and solutions–and be humble enough to try “lower-prestige” opportunities. You gotta start somewhere.

Keep trying new things.

Keep putting yourself out there.

When you do this, when you are persistent and flexible and in love with what you’re doing, eventually, magic will happen.

The magic may not look like what you dreamed. But you know what? Up close, even getting everything you ever dreamed can be, in the immortal words of Wicked lyricist Stephen Schwartz, “a little… well… complicated.”

Once upon a time, I thought of a literary agent as a kind of fairy godmother who would swoop in, wave her wand, turn my manuscript into a magic carriage, and sweep me away to Authorland.

Comic of girl standing opposite fairy godmother saying,
Preach, sister. Used with permission.

But in the past few years I’ve learned that that’s not how it works. Even if you are lucky enough to have an agent, you don’t just hand off your manuscript and sit back waiting for the world to be blown away by your genius. You have to put yourself out there, you have to make connections, you have to keep writing and keep promoting until the book is pouring out of your ears and you never want to look at it again.

But I do have some good news about Authorland: you don’t get there via magic carriage. You get there by writing a book! No fairy godmothers required!

I got to live my dream of walking into a bookstore and seeing my book on display, not because of an agent-fairy-godmother, but because I believed in my work enough to publish it myself and put it out there without the validation of a higher authority.

And it was that–the putting myself out there, the daring greatly, the thinking outside the box, the grinding, consistent, difficult work of submitting and revising and clarifying for myself what success means to me–that got me a publisher for my book in a totally unexpected way.

I mean… I’m not exactly on my way to being a literary superstar here. I probably never will be, and I’m okay with that. Because at the end of the day–that’s never really what I wanted. And that fact is something I had to clarify for myself very carefully before I got to this point.

There are no glass slippers in my story. Just my own tired, blistered feet.

So… to those of you with equally tired feet. Those of you with inboxes and mailboxes and phone calls full of “nos.” Those of you who are questioning whether it’s really worth it to keep pursuing this dream. Those of you who are brave enough to keep going and who continue to believe in your work despite all the rejection and criticism.

To that brokenhearted woman I was, a year and a half ago, crying her eyes out at 3 a.m. because she finally let herself feel the pain of all the disappointment after a particularly difficult rejection.

Someday your “yes” will come.

It might take 15 years.

It might take hundreds of rejections.

It might require a serious shift in expectations and flexibility about what that “yes” will look and sound like.

And I know how hard it is to keep hoping for so long after so much disappointment. God Almighty. Trust me. I know.

Throw a book at me if you must. I know your pain.

But it will come. I promise you. It will. It will, if you just. keep. going.


P.S. If you want to know more about my forthcoming book, be sure to sign up for my newsletter here!

Letters to My Self-Doubt Demons

Dear Never-Good-Enough Demon,

You are an insane and unreasonable perfectionist with completely impossible standards.

Chill the heck out.

Sincerely,

Daniella


Dear Who-Do-You-Think-You-Are Demon,

Let’s make this one thing clear.

Just because I am not a Great Writer™, doesn’t mean my work does not deserve to see the light of day.

Just because I may never be able to write with the brilliance of J. K. Rowling, Dara Horn, or Ernest Hemingway, does not mean my writing is of no value.

So please stop citing my general inferiority as a reason to despair, give up, or cease my efforts to improve my writing and get it published. It’s just stupid.

Sincerely,

Daniella


Dear I’ll-Never-Have-Another-Good-Idea Demon,

Okay… you know, let’s do a little thought experiment where this fear materializes and I die never having written another story I love.

Now read this carefully because it’s important.

It won’t matter.

Much as I enjoy defining myself as a writer, much as I dreamed of one day introducing myself as “Daniella Levy, author”–author is not all I am. My writing, and its quality, does not define me as a person, and if I never accomplish anything great with my writing, that doesn’t mean I won’t have accomplished anything worth being proud of.

I am a human being. I am a friend, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a mother, and an aunt. I’ve raised three little boys to the ages of 7, 6, and 4, and they are happy and healthy and kind little guys who are not afraid to cry, who stick up for each other and for their friends, and who spontaneously express gratitude. That is probably the biggest accomplishment of my life so far. It won’t get me into any hall of fame, but who cares?

If I never write another story I love, I will still pray with tears streaming down my face; I will still sing at the top of my voice while washing dishes; I will still love deeply and fiercely; I will still support my friends and family; I will still wrestle with God; I will still bake the most delicious challah for Shabbat; I will still listen, I will still give solid hugs, I will still do what I can to inspire and encourage people, and raise my children to create a better world than the one I will leave.

The most important story I will ever create is that of my life, and it won’t need to be written anywhere.

Sincerely,

Daniella


Dear You’re-Nothing-Special Demon,

Neither are you.

Also, being special is overrated. I am me, and that’s enough, and you don’t get to tell me otherwise.

Sincerely,

Daniella


Dear This-Is-All-Pointless Demon,

I apologize for the impersonal nature of this letter. I receive hundreds of proposals from various demons and I wish I had time to respond to them all individually. I carefully consider every submission I receive, and I’m afraid I did not find yours to be a good fit for me at this time. Please note that this is a highly subjective market and another writer may feel differently.

I wish you the best of luck in your search for a creative person to torture.

Best,

Daniella