Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Guest Blog: Karen McCullough On Handling Rejection

On a chapter loop, Karen McCullough, multi-published author, answered a fellow chapter mate's request for ways to deal with rejection. Any writer will tell you that rejection simply is. It's a part of the game of being published. Karen wrote such a great post that I asked her if I could share it here on my blog. I think it needs to be seen by more than just our chapter!

I've had more than twenty years of rejections, which means I could probably paper the walls of a couple of rooms with them, and the collection is still growing. I've had a few successes in there, too, but I'm far, far from where I'd like to be in the publishing world. At several points I've been seriously tempted to give it up and do something else. But I can't. I just can't. So I'm still working on getting to that next level, which means coping with a lot of rejections. Over the years, I've developed a kind of plan for dealing with them.

It's a multi-part program and requires some work. It won't remove all the pain of rejection, but it does help. Here's the results of my twenty + years of learning to cope with rejection:

First: Adjust your Attitude: This isn't easy, but there are some things that help and I'll get to those.

The attitude is accepting that if you're going to seriously try for publication, rejection is part of the process. It's part of the learning curve and it's part of the business. Repeat: Rejection is part of the business of being a writer. You Have To Make Peace With It. I hope this isn't disillusioning, but it's the truth. Even multi-published authors face rejection. Think I'm kidding? Just ask on this list how many published authors have never been rejected. This is key: learning to cope with rejection is as much a part of the apprenticeship to becoming a published author as learning to write great stories.

Yes, there are a few lucky people who sell their first novels, who sell everything they write thereafter, who become such big names that the publishers will take anything and everything they write. They're not the norm. In fact, they're the writing world's equivalent of the people who win the lottery. This isn't to say they haven't worked hard to get where they are. You don't get to their level without a lot of hard work. It's just that for every Stephen King or Janet Evanovich, there are hundreds of mid-list and unpublished authors working just as hard as they are and getting lots of rejections. And by the way, Stephen King almost gave up writing due to rejections... If you haven't read his book On Writing, you should do it ASAP.

Second: The Action Plan

Part One: Rejection stings, so do something to compensate. Give yourself a treat for Every Rejection. Surely there's some guilty pleasure that you only indulge on occasion... Mocha Lattes from Starbucks? Milky Way bars? Mine is peppermint bark. You can only buy it at Christmas time, so I lay in a good supply, then put it away, and I only allow myself to have a piece when I get a rejection. If Starbucks is yours, buy yourself a gift card and then only use it after a rejection. Find something that you can use to reward yourself for the rejection.

Part Two: Set a goal. At the beginning of this year, I set a goal to reach one hundred rejections this year. AS of now I've only got twenty, which means I'm behind, but I'm going to start sending out queries for a new novel soon, so I figure I'll make it up. Here's the logic behind the goal: In this business, once you reach a certain level of competence in your writing, getting published involves a lot of luck. You have to hit the right agent/editor with the right project at the right time. There's only one way to maximize your chances of doing that, and that's to keep sending out lots of queries.

The more queries you have out, the better your odds of hitting the right person at the right time with the right thing. While you're querying set a weekly or monthly goal to get so many new ones out in that time.

Part Three: When you get a rejection, give yourself a few hours to be mad, to be hurt, to be depressed. I find some vigorous activity helps me get over it. My floors tend to get mopped after a rejection, or if the weather's good, I'll weed the garden. Then get to work on the next story/novel. The next one is going to be the one that blows everyone away. You should still have other queries out there anyway and you don't want to be drumming your fingers waiting for those to come back.

You want to be ready to be sending out queries on the new project before the final ones have come back on the old one.

Part Four: Analyze the rejections you're getting. Can you find any kind of pattern? If so, how can you address the pattern? The genre isn't one that is selling well right now. (You have to make your book so fabulous and outstanding, someone will have to buy it anyway.) You cross genres in ways that editors won't buy. (Can you rewrite it to make it lean more toward one genre?)

Or you can have my most recent experience. The book I've been sending around most recently is a cozy mystery with a background romantic element. It's gotten about fifty rejections all totalled now, and I now know that if it ever sells it will likely be to a small press or e-publisher. I got a lot of rejections of the "nice but I don't think I can sell it" variety from agents. Not too helpful. But then in one day (Whoohoo! Double helping of peppermint bark!) I got two rejections from agents that said the same thing and spelled it out. Both said, essentially, "nice writing, good story, but you need a strong marketing hook to sell a traditional mystery in today's market." I looked around, and sure enough, the mystery shelves were full of books with specialized appeal. Stories that centered on cooking, on gardening, on the art world, on various hobbies...knitting, quilting, etc. Light bulbs lit up in my brain. My book had no built-in audience the way those did.

By the way, if you get nothing but form rejections, that is a pattern, too. That tells you that some part of your writing is weak, so that it's not tweaking the agents'/editors' interest. Address that! Take some writing classes. Find a critique partner you can trust or join a critique group. Enter contests. All of those can help you spot what your weaknesses are so you can work on them. (Not finaling in a contest counts as a rejection, too, so you it works toward your goal and you get to treat yourself!)

Part Five: Examine yourself and your motivations. Will the rejections stop you from writing? If so, give it up right now and find a more rewarding hobby. There are plenty of possibilities. But if you know that in your heart you can't stop writing, then the next thing you need to do is decide is what you consider success. There's nothing wrong with wanting to write only to please yourself. There are people who do and enjoy it. Maybe you want to write stuff that isn't going to be commercially successful and a small press or e-publisher would be a better choice for you. All those are realistic options. Only you can decide what the ultimate goal is.

But if you want to go for traditional publishing, then be realistic about what it takes and what it means. And remember that the only thing you can control in the business is what you write and what you send out. And every rejection you receive is proof that you're making a serious effort toward your goal. As odd as it sounds, the more of them you have, the better! Every rejection is a step into the professional part of being a writer.

And now, I'll shut up. I only hope some of this is helpful.

By Karen McCullough
Now available from Cerridwen Press: Beneath a Christmas Moon
Shadow of a Doubt, Cerridwen Press
Wizard's Bridge, ImaJinn Books


Melissa Alvarez said...

Hi Karen,

Great post! You give some very realistic advice about the industry and rejections being a part of it.


Melissa Alvarez/Ariana Dupre
Beneath A Christmas Moon & Talgorian Prophecy Available Now from Cerridwen Press.

Robin Snodgrass said...

That's really great advice to both published and unpublished authors. Everyone fears rejection - especially rejection of something we've put our heart and soul into. Ms. McCullough has laid out several wonderful ways of coping with that.

Thanks so much for sharing.

Robin Snodgrass

Lynn LaFleur said...


Rejection is part of being a writer. Thanks so much for your words of wisdom and your positive attitude. I think I'll eat some chocolate and get back to writing!


N.J.Walters said...

Great post and great advice. I give myself one day to be upset by a rejection and then it's back to work again. That's the best cure for rejection.

Like you said, it's smart to read each rejection and learn why a book was turned down. That's the only way to improve.

Karen, I hope you don't reach your 100 rejections this year because you're too busy with your acceptances. :-)

Jennifer Ashley/ Allyson James / Ashley Gardner said...

Excellent advice! I don't think I've seen it spelled out better than this. I have an aspiring author's blog, and for today's post I'll put a link to this one. (

I faced rejection time and again, but like Karen, I didn't give up, and in the end it paid off. But with every new proposal, I'm still worried I'll be rejected. Even in the middle of a contract, I don't always get to write the books I'd originally hoped to (sometimes that's proved to be a good thing!) It's a never-ending readjustment process.

BTW, Janet Evanovich was a struggling mid-list author at the end of her contracts when she pitched and sold the Stephanie Plum books. Hers is another inspiring story!!

Marcia James said...

Hi, Karen! Great post! I like your idea of setting a rejection goal to up one's submission rate. ;-) I need to have a goal like that!

"Break a leg" on selling that mystery!
-- Marcia James ;-)

Shelley Munro said...

Great post, Karen. I usually get a hug from hubby and a glass of wine, and the next day, I'm good to go again. I think luck plays a huge part in this business, being in the right place at the right time.

Reading a lot and keeping up with the market can help with forecasting trends, so a writer's timing is spot on and an editor/agent snaps up their story. I haven't quite perfected this yet, but I'm working on it!

Heather Hiestand said...

Very wise, sensible advice. Keep in mind that even experienced, published authors get form rejections sometimes too!

Jane Leopold Quinn said...

Great post, Karen. Write, submit, write, submit, write, submit. That's the only way to do it.

I'm having a little crisis right now in my writing, and I'm starting to remember what it is that I'm trying to say about my characters and what it is that gets the good remarks from reviewers. That's helping me come to terms with things and helping me focus again.

My favorite quote regarding rejections was by Saul Bellow: "I discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, 'To hell with you.'"


Edie said...

OMG! My CP, Michelle Diener, told me about this. This is post I've read. You are saying all the things I've been thinking lately, including writing a better book, finding a hook, reward yourself with chocolate. And keep on going.

Love the Saul Bellow quote too. I've never heard it before.

I'm linking to this on Magical Musings today.

Karen McCullough said...

Thanks for all the nice comments, everyone. I originally wrote the post for one person who was having a problem dealing with rejection, but I'm glad that it's proving to be helpful to others as well!

Karen McCullough

Colleen Thompson said...

I followed a link from Jennifer Ashley's blog, and I wanted to say thanks for sharing. I so agree with this and will be adding a link from

Thanks so much for sharing!