HANDLING LITERARY REJECTION


First off, I want to apologize for the lengthy 3-month delay in blog post material, and to say hello once again after such a pause. I was traveling Europe and ended up hiking the majority of the 500-mile Camino de Santiago (“The Way of Saint James”) spiritual pilgrimage in Northern Spain. It took me 29 days. Ever see the film, “The Way,” with Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez (2010)? That’s what I did. No doubt I will have many more stories now to tell. And not enough time to write them.

When I was on the trail—and while in Europe in general—I received many emails from agents, publishers, and literary journals and magazines. This is because I had sent material to these sources before I left the States, in the form of novels and short stories that I, once again, felt were “ready.” I’d written a nonfiction piece about Bernie Sanders (in support of the Vermont senator) and had received a very kind, very personal rejection regarding the piece from the editor at Across the Margin (www.acrossthemargin.com), while my girlfriend and I were still in New York City. (A very professional online journal that looks like The New Yorker.) I bantered back and forth with the editor. He explained how they liked the writing in the political piece but why they were ultimately turning it down. I read a few of the stories on the Across the Margin website, got a feel for their style and content, and then found two fiction stories of mine I liked which were new and homeless still and were in my “sent” email folder. I asked if he’d be willing to take a look, he said yes, and I emailed them.

The knowledge that, as we traveled, from NYC to Berlin, from Berlin to Austria, from Austria to Naples, splitting ways (me and my girlfriend) in Italy, then going solo along the French Riviera, then to Valencia and finally to Pamplona and 29 days west on El Camino, there was at least one editor who I’d connected with and who was reading my stories, was calming. Because the majority of the emails I received (you stay at “albergues,” like pilgrim hostels along the trail that have WIFI; pronounced “wee-fee” in Spain) were cold, brutal, form rejections. One was from a book publisher turning my novella down and giving helpful yet harsh (ok, not harsh externally but it felt harsh to my sensitive writer’s mind) bullet points for why he was rejecting the work. But most simply said, “Thank you so much for sending us your work. We appreciate the opportunity. Unfortunately, this is not the right material for us. We wish you the best in your writing journey and career.”

That defining and principal word—“unfortunately”—can still make my head spin if I’m in the wrong frame of mind when I read a literary rejection. The form rejections are the worst—it shows they probably gave it five seconds before stamping it with a fast “no.” And likely it’s not even the editor themselves but their 18, 19-year-old college assistant who’s volunteering for the company. I would know. I used to intern with a literary agent. I know how they work.

But I—and all writers—have to remember that every author—from Hemingway and King to Jennifer Egan and John Green—have gone through and experienced rejection. I’ve heard stories of some of the big authors, like John Grisham, being told they “couldn’t write” and should “give up and find a real job.” Rejections were a lot more harsh back then, even 20 years ago.

But the truth is, you can’t get mad at publishers, agents or literary magazines/journals: They’re just sifting through the chaos. The reality today is that everybody thinks they’re “a writer.” With the popularity of the craft soaring in the last few decades, the evolution and growth of the trendy MFA across campuses all over America, and the advent of the dreaded and yet for some absolutely wonderful Self Publishing Industry, there are so many people trying to connect their work to potential readers that publishers, agents and lit mags are, by a long shot, overwhelmed. Big time. The white noise is staggering. I remember working at the agency: We had to reject a certain number of submissions per day. You have to! And so you ultimately end up finding ways to reject for stupid and unfair reasons. It’s like capitalism. It’s like MFA candidates applying; 20,000 applying for 200 open seats. Many will be rejected because they misspelled a word on page four, even if their prose is gem-tight and solid. It’s wrong but it’s life. Half the battle in this industry is luck and connections. Sad but true.

As the trip moved forward, and I received rejection after rejection for book and story, I felt that familiar slump, that emotional jet lag you get after too many people have said, “No, your writing is not good enough; it’s not important. You are irrelevant.” Of course that’s my own too-sensitive interpretation, mind you, but that’s nonetheless how I feel. Usually when I discover too many of these turn-downs I will call a friend, take a walk, go see a movie at the local theatre; anything to momentarily get my mind off the rejection (and what I perceive it to mean), and remember that I have many published works of fiction and nonfiction, that I am a good and worthy writer, and that, if I do this for the rest of my life, I will get to the level that I hope to get to. It’s common sense. If you have the talent, the patience, the ambition, the energy, the drive, and you know how to work the system, make connections, do your due diligence, eventually, you will darn well get “there.” You just have to keep rolling forward.

In the end, while I was roughly halfway across Northern Spain on the trail, I found out Across the Margin is going to publish the two stories I had submitted. It was wonderful news, especially since I’d been swimming in a veritable sea of Writing Rejection. It lifted my spirits and made me once more realize that things aren’t as horrible as they seem. For every 50 rejections I’ll maybe get one acceptance. And it’s always worth it. The stories will appear online at Across the Margin (www.acrossthemargin.com) very soon. One is called either “The End” or “Desperate Land.” Please search for that one within the next week or two. The second is called, “Emotional Surfing.” I’ll keep you updated on that release. They are both so-called “slice of life” tales about being a teen and in my early twenties and wreaking good ole havoc. (With a deep message, of course.)

So the moral of the story? Keep writing, keep submitting, keep doing what you do. Because they can’t reject you 100 percent of the time. Keep reading good books, keep learning the craft. Go to writing conferences, take writing classes, join critique groups, hire a freelance editor (like me) and continue to polish your prose.

You’ll get there. Until then, savor those rejections. They are teachers. And they won’t last forever.

Michael Mohr

Check Across the Margin for my latest stories. I am in the process of editing with the online journal but one should be up next week (“The End” or “Desperate Land”) and the other “Emotional Surfing” should be up sometime soon. (Check back for more info.) Also, you can purchase my story, Tightrope, at Alfie Dog Press, an online mag, for 66 cents. I am a former literary agent’s assistant, published writer and freelance book editor. Check the “Clients” section of this website for some examples of my work and testimonials. Email me for a free sample edit and a price quote.

Across the Margin: www.acrossthemargin.com

Alfie Dog Press: http://alfiedog.com/fiction/stories/michael-mohr/


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