Years ago, I took a class on writing for children. In this class, the students turned in a manuscript every week. One week I wrote a story that I really liked about a small boy who was constantly in trouble.
At this point, I made a mistake beginning writers often make. I fell in love with my first draft. I typed it up, made copies, and sent the manuscript out to five publishers.
For some reason, the teacher decided to read this story in class. At first, I was excited because I thought she’d chosen the story because it was so good. But the teacher stopped after the first paragraph and pointed out the problems–the characters were flat, and the plot wasn’t logical. She couldn’t find one good thing to say about my story. Except for one thing–she said, the story was a good example of everything a beginning writer shouldn’t do.
I was embarrassed and humiliated. How could I have been stupid enough to think the story was good?
After that, I dropped out of the class. As the weeks went by, I dreaded getting the mail. One by one, all the manuscripts came back. Only one copy never came back, and I figured it had been lost in the mail. I decided that, based on my teacher’s remarks, the story was a loser. I’d never send it out again.
A year later, I got a call from the fifth publisher. I couldn’t believe what the voice on the phone was saying. An editor had read my story and wanted to publish it! Did I have any more stories I could send her?
I put down the phone, whooped, and danced around the room. Then I called my mother. The publisher, Follett, did eventually publish my book, The Grumpus Under the Rug. It’s still in print and has sold more than 40,000 copies.
So who was right? Did the teacher who criticized my story have a point? Well, yes, because the characters were flat and the plot wasn’t completely logical. Was the editor who took the story wrong to publish it? Well, no, because, in spite of its shortcomings, the story did have kid appeal, and the editor saw that.
This is what I've learned. Stories are like people–imperfect and flawed. If your work is competent, some readers will hate it; some will like it. You have to find a way to believe in yourself, even if others don't. A writer puts her heart on the line and it gets stomped on again and again. You may think successful writers have some special talent, some magic potion, that allows them to avoid all this heartache. They don’t.
So what’s a writer to do? How should you handle rejection? How do you find the strength to believe in yourself when your writing is rejected?
I have no secrets, but I do have a few thoughts that have helped me over the years:
1. Success as a writer depends more on intelligent persistence than on raw talent. By "intelligent persistence" I mean the ability to learn from mistakes, to figure out what you’re doing wrong, and then to change it. I know a talented writer who gave up after one rejection from one editor. I know another writer–with very little natural writing ability--who writes and rewrites and gets rejected over and over. The first writer has never been published. The second writer has published more than thirty children’s books. As James Michener said: "Character consists of what you do on the third or fourth tries."
2. If your manuscript is rejected, it may have nothing to do with merit. An editor once said to me, "If people only knew the trivial factors that determine which books get published and which don’t, they wouldn’t take it all so seriously. Yesterday I turned down a story about a cat because we had just bought a cat story. Sometimes I reject a perfectly good girls’ story because we’re trying to buy more boys’ stories–or vice versa. A week ago I rejected a story about spiders. It was a great story, but spiders just aren’t my thing."
3. Plan for rejection before it happens. Not long ago, I received six rejections in one day–probably a world's record. O.K. I was a little discouraged. But I wasn’t devastated because I had a plan. I sent two new stories to two of the rejecting publishers (my way of getting back on the horse that had just bucked me off). I also popped the rejected manuscripts into pre-addressed, ready-to-go envelopes and sent them out again. In fifteen minutes I'd moved from disappointment to hope.
Rejection is part of the process, so be ready for it. Or, as Jonathan Winters says, "When your ship doesn’t come in, swim out to it."
4. If someone gives you specific criticism, regard it as a gift. I always thank the person who gives me criticism–whether or not I agree (and even if I’m tempted to have a temper tantrum). Unless the feedback is deliberately hurtful (For example: "Your story is so boring, I’d rather read about manure."), I assume that the reader is trying to be helpful. If I agree with the comments, I make the suggested changes. If I’m neutral about the comments, I still might make the changes as long as they don’t violate the integrity of the story.
If I disagree with the criticism, I usually check with someone I trust to see if the comments have any merit. For example, an editor once told me to change all the human characters in my fractured fairy tale CINDER EDNA into pigs. Pigs?!! The characters seemed just fine to me. But a friend helped me see the real problem. "The story’s nice, but sort of ho-hum," she said. O.K., now I understood. The story wasn’t funny enough. I solved the problem by making the people funnier, not by turning them into pigs, and eventually I found the right publisher for it.
5. If you find yourself in Nobodyland, explore the terrain. Why are people afraid of rejection? Because they don’t want to live in Nobodyland. The people in Nobodyland, are slugs and worms. They’re invisible–or worse than invisible. Have you ever lived in Nobodyland? Most of us have at one time or another.
But don’t be afraid of Nobodyland. It’s your best source of material, especially if you write for kids. Think about it. Children, by definition, are powerless and lack control in their lives. Being in Nobodyland can help you remember what it's like to be young, powerless, and afraid. Rejection helps you empathize with those who have no voice.
6. Rejection-proof your manuscript. Write from your heart. Everyone is looking for a little bit of wisdom to help them get through life with courage and grace. Do you have wisdom to share? Is your gift humor? Can you make a child laugh? Can you tell the truth in a new way? What was important to you when your were a child? Make the clear expression of your passion your primary goal. Then show your writing to friends who know you and will understand what you’re trying to say. If one person "gets" it, you've planted a seed. Your writing is successful–no matter how the rest of the world judges you. The rest is just ego.