Adventures of a First-Time Editor: Stage 6 – Dealing With Rejection

This one’s a little shorter than the others, but I suppose that’s not saying much. It’s also…uh…not really that short. Sorry about that.

This is the seventh installment of a series about the Oregon Coast Anthology Workshop, which is being held in Las Vegas from this point on. It’s a week-long look into the inner workings of traditionally published short fiction. The first post in the series outlines the event and provides links to the entire series. The workshop is multi-faceted, so if you’re not familiar with it I suggest reading that post before proceeding.

That post also notes that my daughter (Brigid) and I are editing Face the Strange, an anthology in the Fiction River series that comes out of the workshop. It’s going to be an awesome set of stories that we’re spending time working on as I type this.

Today I want to talk about rejection.

Let’s face it, most stories submitted in this workshop are rejected. First off, there’s just the pure math of space available vs. words submitted. Second, as noted in earlier posts, despite the fact that workshop attendees are a collection of writers who are actively working in the field, some of the stories won’t work—either they’re flawed, or they don’t hit the editor’s vision, or they hit an editor’s anti-cookies, or…

Well, they get rejected because of hundreds of other reasons—which, if you haven’t gotten the idea yet, is part of the learning here. Welcome to the world of traditional publishing.

In the history of the workshop I believe only two writers have sold every story they wrote during any one particular season, so the odds that you’re going to be dealing with rejection are very high. And rejection hurts. Or at least it can. So much of being a professional writer—especially in the traditional market—is about developing your own personal reaction to rejection.

Some people brush it off. Others treat each rejection as a badge of honor (in my days as a baby writer, I kept a section of my website as “The Accept-O-Matic” in which I reported the huge number of rejections I received vs. the pitifully small number of acceptances…yes, a certain sense of dark humor might be your cup of tea, too).

What makes the workshop such a unique opportunity is that rejection comes in a very public way. It’s nowhere near the same as getting an email in the privacy of your home. There’s no time to process in isolation.

This has positives and negatives, and I think there’s value in a workshop attendee being cognizant of both because if you know what to expect, you’ll be ready to learn—or at least ready to deal with the results in such a way as to affect a useful change in yourself.

I originally titled this section “The Bad.” But that’s a misnomer. Rejection is not, in itself, bad. Instead, it’s tough to deal with. It’s hard.

And, if you’re new to this workshop, I can tell you that hearing an editor tell you in person why your story is being rejected is sometimes as hard as it is educational—especially if the story is particularly dear to you. And, to be blunt, while most conversations about any particular story are solid, straightforward discussions, sometimes it happens that an editor is not particularly kind.

No one is heartless, mind you. No one ever means harm. I can say with 100% certainty that every editor I’ve seen in the workshop has been dedicated to helping writers get better.

But having now been on both sides of this fence, editors are human. They have their own personalities and their own sensibility toward what I’ll call “teaching pragmatics” that can range from straightforward discussion to dark humor. They can jump the shark sometimes. They have their own pet peeves and communicate in their own ways and come with a wide background of baggage and expectation. See? Human.

Editors like Kris Rusch or Dean Smith have decades in the business, and that experience shapes their approach and their language. A set of new editors like Brigid and me have very different flavors. I’ve seen editors quarrel. I’ve seen them bond together and almost gang up on stories as they argue one way or the other in front of the gathering. When that happens it can be great fun, or can be hard. In the comfort of a closed group that comes together all day for a week at a time, certain senses of familiarity will arise that can create looser lips than might normally happen. And fatigue sets in, too. As professional as they are, editors are also human. It all adds up to that fact that sometimes feedback comes in harsher than expected.

At least that’s how it can feel when you’re a participant.

And sometimes those editors are just wrong. Sometimes they miss things. I’ve had editors miss something in my manuscript and go off about that missing element, only to have another editor suggest (kindly) that it was all there, and they were buying the piece. Having been on both sides of this, I can say that I know I’ve missed things in manuscripts and given “flawed” comments.

My read is still valid, of course. My comments still stand. It was my read, after all. If I missed something, maybe someone else will too. But that’s not what this conversation is about. This conversation is about that instant that a piece of feedback hits your ears in a way that bruises—which certainly can happen in a real-life setting. At that instant it doesn’t matter whether criticism is valid or not—only that it stings. And, if it happens as the result of an over-energetic editor, it can sting even more in the moment.

Regardless, the goal is to process it. That’s the learning opportunity, really, and in that light it’s one of the most important and unique learning opportunities that the workshop provides.

Learning how to deal with rejection is a never-ending game, of course. And if you search any writer’s blog you’ll find all sorts of advice on how to do it. But if you’re like most folks book learning only goes so far. If you’re like me you learn by doing (or mostly by failing enough times that things suddenly start working).

Given that, I think there are two extremely helpful things to think about when it comes to using the workshop to help you process rejection.

You get to watch 40-50 other writers deal with rejection: I don’t know…perhaps that sounds sadistic. But the fact is that after every anthology closes, you’re going to have 30 or more writers to commiserate with. If you are so inclined, you can talk about the process with them. If you’re not so inclined, you can still watch. Writers are great watchers of people, eh? If you pay attention you’ll see nuances that you’ll not see elsewhere. You’ll see the use of humor, or a simple shrug. You’ll see some writers ask questions in the room about the craft, others about big picture elements of the art. You’ll see some people go for walks. Quiet conversations. Simple bonding with other writers—doing something that takes their minds off what just happened.

There are no wrong ways to deal with rejection, after all, but if you’re relatively new to the game perhaps the best thing you can get out of the idea of rejection at the workshop is that you are not alone.

You get to see writers and stories you love get rejected: Again, sadistic, eh? But, still. If you’re going to work in the field of traditional publishing, I think there’s value in the idea that great stories get rejected all the time. When it happens to you, you can be subject to the fears that “well, the story just wasn’t as good as I thought it was.” But when it happens to a story that you loved by another writer, you can suddenly find yourself taking that personally. I’ve personally been offended when certain stories from other writers were rejected (including, of course, the one I’ve mentioned in earlier posts that we wound up buying for Face the Strange).

Aside: The workshop includes the opportunity to have lunch with the editors. This past year, one of the writers I was having lunch with asked me a question about how many times a story should be rejected before either trunking it or publishing it themselves. My answer was a bit rambling, but along the way I mentioned that I’ve been rejected well over a thousand times, and that I still get rejections. This surprised the writer in question. And, in fact, that day I had circulating stories both rejected and accepted—a fact that I shared with the writer.

Every working writer I know still gets rejected sometimes. This is a fact. Seeing writers and stories you loved get rejected at the workshop helps you internalize this fact as just that.

So, yeah, you can go read a lot of advice about rejection, but the workshop will give you something deeper. Something organic. Whether you think so or not, this workshop is teaching you something about every aspect of what it means to be a writer of short stories in the traditional market, and coming to an understanding of how you’re going to deal with rejection is one of those things.

We’re getting closer to the end of this series. The next segment will be about what happens after the workshop—working with editors (from the writer’s side) and writers (from the editor’s side). After that I’ll touch on the rest of the workshop, the stuff that happens outside the classroom—which, as a returning writer, is probably more important for me than anything that happens inside the classroom.

But for now, I’ll leave you here. Because, the fact is I’m going to be Skyping with Brigid about some of the stories we selected for Face the Strange.

Have I mentioned how cool this anthology is going to be?

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Posted in Anthology, Face the Strange.

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