How to Handle Rejection

This month I attended my second DFW Writers Conference, and I want to talk about rejection.

Rejection is something every writer experiences. Whether you’re self-publishing, traditionally publishing, or writing for yourself, you will experience some sort of rejection (pride check, as I like to call it) during your journey.

During my first DFWCon in 2017, I prepared a pitch for my first novel and researched agents like crazy. I stalked them on their websites, their blogs, their Manuscript Wish List profiles, their TwittersI scoured the web for anything I could find about the attending agents’ interests and preferences. And then I chose one for my pitch session.

Going in, I felt great. I was confident that I would get an invitation to query from at least the agent I was pitching to, even if I wasn’t able to convince any other agent in a (gulp) chance encounter. The day before the conference, I was prepared. I had written and rewritten my pitch, I had my book completed and revised and ready to send, and that’s when I found it. On the depths of one of my selected agent’s blog posts, she talked about how much she disliked chosen-one plotlines. My book had a chosen-one plotline. Standard hero’s journey epic fantasy.

Before I could panic, I took a deep breath. No problem. I would just rewrite my query and emphasize the other parts of my book. It was too late to change agents, so I would just pitch it and have a conversation. Ask for advice. No pressure.

Except there was pressure.

My pitch experience was awkward and disappointing. I felt like a fool when she offered little response and finally said no, because I had known my book wasn’t for her. It was a train wreck that I saw coming but felt I could do nothing to stop.

I thanked her for her time, picked myself up, dusted myself off, and learned as much as I could from the rest of the conference. At the time, I felt humiliated. Walking out of the pitch session, I was shaking all over. At the mixer on Saturday night, I spent nearly an hour talking to an agent about Star Trek, and never got up the courage to actually pitch.

After the conference, I did more research. I created a list of agents, and I began to query my book. I sent out dozens of query letters, got four form rejection emails, and no response from any of the others.

So I began planning my next book.

This year, I pitched my second book at DFWCon. I did cursory research. I rewrote my pitch a few times. I went expecting more rejection. But I was pleasantly surprised.

My pitch session encouraged me. The agent asked helpful, interested questions and invited me to query. She asked about my inspiration, my research, and my other projects. Later that day, I enjoyed a round table discussion about world building with other wonderful writers and another agent. This agent gave me her card and asked me to pitch her later that evening, so I did.

My first DFWCon was a lesson in humility and motivated me to hone my craft and gather knowledge about the publishing industry. This year's conference was an improvement and showed me that I am gaining endurance, thickening my skin, and learning (slowly) from my mistakes.

So I'd like to share some of my strategies for making the most out of rejection in our writing journey. Whether you're seeking traditional publication or self-publishing, every writer must learn how to handle rejection, endure, and improve.

How to Use Rejection to Make You a Better Writer

1. Take a Breather

Step back. Email rejections allow you all the time you need to ride the wave of your emotion until it dissipates before responding. For in-person rejections, I have a standard, respectful “thank you” or “thank you for your feedback,” and then I change the subject, or if the situation calls for it, I get myself the heck out of Dodge.

2. Find the Lesson

Once you’ve overcome the knee-jerk emotional reaction to rejection, reflect on what happened in the context of what you can learn.

Avoid rehashing the scenario over and over in what-ifs. Instead, examine your behavior and decide on what you want to change in yourself or your work going forward. My first book was a testament to my persistence, but it wasn’t ready for the market. In true epic fantasy form, it had more characters, subplots, and subtext than my writing skill could handle at the time. I resolved to write another book that would simplify these elements and strengthen my writing skill at the same time. So I got to work.

Take the helpful criticism, throw out the rest. You’ll get a lot of criticism about things you can’t change, and what you receive often depends on the taste and preferences of the critic. Dig into their feedback (whether it comes in the form of beta reader comments, reviews, or agent or publisher rejections) and pull out what you can use. If you’re self-publishing, research self-editing to improve your process, seek out editors or other professionals, and endeavor to put out a new edition of your book or do better with the next one. Sift through all forms of criticism, harsh or otherwise, and use what you can to better yourself.

3. Formulate a Strategy

Now that you have a goal in mind, make a list of concrete, measurable, and specific tasks you want to accomplish that will get you closer to that goal. For me, it started with studying the current fantasy market and brainstorming ideas for my new book. For you, it might mean researching craft, learning a new way to approach revision, or discovering ways to market yourself.

Rinse, Repeat

Refine your rejection strategy each time you get rejected. I’m still doing this, and still learning to cope with the pain and turn it into something productive and helpful. I look forward to the day that I get rejected and feel a thrill instead of a crash. Until then, I will set myself up for the joy of success by submitting to the Lord with patience. I will take joy in the increments of progress I make, and lean on my experience and the writing community for lessons when I fail.

Our journeys as writers are a web of highways, cobblestone roads, and footpaths. We will come across others who have failed differently, and we can learn from each other. As we query, revise, and write this summer in the wake of DFWCon 2019, let’s remember our past rejections and the lessons that have shaped us as we move forward in self-improvement.

This is the fifth installment of my Faith and Fiction Writing blog series. If you’re interested in the introduction and the year’s topic overview, visit the first installment.