If you look up the word “bittersweet” in the dictionary (or, as most of my students do, at dictionary.com), you should see a picture of a “good” rejection letter to a writer.
Every working writer likely keeps three piles of letters from journals, magazines, agents, and publishers. Pile #1 consists of standard rejections–the kind that begin with “Dear Writer” and go on to explain that your work simply doesn’t meet the editor’s needs at this time. When you get one of these, you’re disappointed, of course, but unless you’re already a household name, it’s pretty much what you’ve come to expect. After all, writing success often seems like one part talent, one part sheer perseverance, and two parts sheer luck. You have to get the right piece to the right reader at the right time, a process that is often rewarding and sometimes maddening.
Pile #3 contains all your acceptances. Some of these come in letter form, others in emails or even phone calls. Unless you’re Joyce Carol Oates or Stephen King, you probably still jump for joy whenever you get one of these, no matter how small the journal or how low the pay. An acceptance means that someone “gets” your work, that they’ve trusted your voice to enhance their publication, that an audience will see your story or article and know your name.
Pile #2 is where “bittersweet” lives. This pile is where you keep your “good” rejections–the personalized ones that call you by name and speak to your work specifically. Sometimes they come in the form of a personally-written rejection; sometimes they consist of handwritten notes on a boilerplate rejection notice. Most of the time, they tell you that while the piece you sent was not accepted, the editors liked your work and would like to see more.
The bad news? No publication. The good news? Somebody liked your work enough to talk to you, to encourage you, to let you know that you don’t suck. I keep good rejections close to my heart–not as close as acceptances, of course, but pretty close nonetheless. When you’re in between publications, they give you enough hope and confidence to keep on writing.
I got a good rejection today. I’ve been shopping a novel for a while now, at a time when agents and editors are understandably gun-shy about taking on new writers. I’ve gotten some boilerplate rejections and a few nibbles, but I haven’t reeled in the big fish yet. These days, it’s a victory when you can move past the query letter stage. I got that far again, and with a New York agent to boot.
In the end, she passed on the project because the kind of story I was telling simply didn’t appeal to her. But she told me that I was a good writer and that she would love a look at my next project. There’s no guarantee she’ll like it better than the first one, of course; you can’t control your audience, and I’ve always felt that trying to leads only to ulcers and bad writing. When you try to please everyone, you please no one, especially not yourself.
But she’ll get the first look. She was professional and personable, and she responded promptly. I’ll remember that, as I hope she remembers her kind words the next time I’ve got a book-length work to shop. If she doesn’t, I’ll be sure to remind her. How? I’ve saved her response. I can quote from it verbatim. I can even forward her the email if necessary. But I don’t think it will be, because she doesn’t view her job as a gatekeeper charged with fighting off bad writers. She seems to believe that her job is to support stories that she loves. I can get behind that attitude, even if she doesn’t love mine this time.
If she ever stumbles across this post and recognizes herself in it, I hope she’ll see this as my expression of my admiration and my thanks. As a writer, it’s part of my job not to take rejection personally, to use any feedback to get better.
I hope we both keep doing our jobs for a long time.