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!

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. 😉

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.

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.

Stop Telling Me Not to Give Up

I’m sure you’ve heard those stories. The ones about extremely famous people, who experienced some form of rejection or failure, and went on to “prove them all wrong.”

Some are true. (The Beatles were rejected by Decca records. Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper and told he lacked creativity. Albert Einstein really was a late talker. Etc.)

Some of them are exaggerations or inventions. (Michael Jordan wasn’t cut from his high school basketball team. C. S. Lewis was not rejected 800 times before he was first published. Harry Potter was rejected by a dozen publishers, but J. K. Rowling already had an agent at that point, whom she snagged after sending only two query letters.)

The point of these stories is, of course, that rejection and failure don’t mean you can’t succeed. I think that is an important and inspiring message.

But I also think these stories are misleading, and even harmful, when taken at face value.

Here’s why.

The Danger of Survivorship Bias

A very well-meaning person once heard that I was trying to get my novel published, and told me not to give up. She saw the weary smile on my face and said, “It’s only the ones who give up who don’t succeed.”

I looked her square in the eye and asked, “Have you ever considered the possibility that you don’t know about the ones who kept trying, their whole lives, but didn’t succeed, because they didn’t succeed?

The Beatles were not the only musicians to be rejected by Decca. They were probably not the only good musicians to be rejected by Decca, either. How many music sensations did we never get to hear because they didn’t manage to find a recording company that liked their sound? How many truly amazing manuscripts were buried with their authors and never saw the light of day?

We’ll never know, but sadly, the answer is probably a lot.

We only hear about the ones who succeed, so we think they are representative. They aren’t. They are representative of the very small percentage of cases, of people who had just the right balance of talent, courage, and dumb luck/Divine assistance to make it big.

We need to face this truth and stare it in the face. We are not all the Beatles. We are not all J. K. Rowling. We are not all Walt Disney.

That doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

Freeing Ourselves from a Narrow Definition of Success

When I was contemplating the possibility of self-publishing Letters to Josep, I found myself approaching this question: what does it mean for me to be successful as an author? What specific, concrete results or experiences am I really dreaming of achieving?

When I sat down and thought about this, I came up with two things:

  1. I want to walk into a bookstore, see a book on the shelf, pick it up, hold it in my hands, and be able to say, “I wrote this.”
  2. I want something I wrote to change the way someone thinks or feels about something important to me.

That was it.

And I realized that I did not need an agent or a fancy publisher or even to sell more than a dozen copies to make that dream come true. I was willing to concede the brick-and-mortar bookstore part; after all, those establishments are becoming a rare relic of a pre-Amazon past.

But as it turns out, I didn’t have to.

Letters to Josep on display at Pomeranz Booksellers in central Jerusalem
Letters to Josep on display at Pomeranz Booksellers in central Jerusalem

Within a week of releasing Letters to Josep, someone wrote to me to tell me what an impact one small line from the book had had on her.

So under my definition of success, Letters to Josep was a success.

Typical inspirational success stories tell us that success means becoming rich and famous. They don’t give us room to ask ourselves what success really means to us.

Sometimes Giving Up Is the Bravest Thing You Can Do

If we buy into the idea that if we only try hard enough, we’ll succeed, one of these days we’re going to turn around and say, “This just isn’t working. I’ve given this everything I have, and I still haven’t succeeded. Why?”

I am writing this blog because I reached that point with my latest novel not so very long ago.

Let me tell you something. It is not easy to query more than 100 literary agents over the course of 18 months.

It is not easy to persist in the face of so many rejections. And there were little milestones along the way that made me feel that I was going in the right direction; encouragement from agents, keep going, keep trying. The manuscript evolved and improved dramatically over the course of that time thanks to the feedback I got from agents and friends. But all efforts turned up dry. All partial and full manuscript requests were turned down. All gates that opened led to dead ends. And at a certain point I realized that the querying process was no longer giving me hope, only anguish.

Sometimes we need to give ourselves permission to rest.

Sometimes we need to know when it’s time to walk away–temporarily, or permanently–from a pursuit that is taking away more than it is giving us.

“Giving up” has such a negative connotation in a culture so obsessed with productivity. “Quitter” is one of the worst insults in American English. But there’s a concept in economics called the “sunk cost fallacy.” It’s when you continue to invest in something that is clearly not profitable only because you’ve already invested so much in it.

Sometimes giving up is the bravest thing you can do. Sometimes you need to recognize that you’ve invested everything you could in something that did not bear fruit, and it’s time to cut your losses. Giving up from a place of self-compassion and faith that you are doing the right thing for yourself is completely different from giving up from a place of fear.

And… you can always decide to pick it up again when you’re ready. I still Google agents from time to time. I will only query when it feels right.*

Investing in the Right Things

There is one piece of advice that all writers get that is absolutely, 100% true.

“Keep writing.”

I used to be annoyed when I got this advice. It sounded kind of like “Keep dreaming.” “You’re not good enough yet. Maybe you’ll be better if you keep practicing.”

And I found it infuriating to be told that just because I was very young, I couldn’t produce anything worthwhile.

While it was true that I was an unusually mature teenager and that my age didn’t necessarily mean I couldn’t produce good literature, I still lacked something that could only be gained with time: experience. Anything I could have written at age 17, however talented I may have been, is going to pale in comparison to something I wrote at age 27. And I hope and pray that will be true of something I may write at age 37 or 47.

The perk of being an artist, my friends, is that we are like fine wines; the passage of time and experience itself gives our work depth, complexity, and color that cannot be achieved by anything else.

Sometimes we need to realize that the emotional energy we are investing in trying to get our work out there might be better spent invested in creating the next, greater work of art. Your “self-doubt demons” might drive the fear into you that you will never create anything better. This happens to me all the time. Sometimes I’m able to ignore those voices. Sometimes they suck me into their vortex of “never good enough.” It’s a struggle, but the important thing is not to let them stop you from doing what you love.

The Lack-of-Wings Predicament

You may have seen a meme going around with a quote from a poem by Erin Hanson. I should mention that it works a lot better in context. But this is what appears on the meme:

‘What if I fall?’
Oh but my darling,
What if you fly?

And I’m just like… really?

You think I should jump out the window and risk breaking my neck over the chance that I might fly?

Let’s be real. We have to weigh the risks of falling against the chances of flying. I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that most people reading this are not in possession of a pair of wings. Therefore, let me state the obvious: jumping out a window to see if you can fly is not called “brave,” it’s called “suicide.”

The choice not to jump is a lot less glorious, but sometimes it’s the right one.

So… my creative friends… this is what I want to tell you, and myself, today.

You are allowed to give up.

You are allowed to rest.

You are allowed to define what success means to you and operate accordingly.

You are allowed to choose which pursuits are most worthy of your energies–based on what’s right for you now.

And when you’ve decided to walk away from something, and someone tells you to not to give up… you have my permission to roll your eyes, curse under your breath, and keep walking with your head held high.


*I feel an obligation to add a footnote here for the sake of full disclosure, but please do not let it distract you from the very important message of this post. Just a few months after writing this entry, my novel was accepted for publication by a small publisher. More thoughts on what it means not to give up in my post about that acceptance, “Someday Your ‘Yes’ Will Come.