Rejection: A Step in the Right Direction

You’ve heard this: You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince.

The same mindset holds true for writing. You have to submit to a lot of literary journals before you find the perfect fit for your story or essay. You have to query a lot of agents before you find the one who loves your book enough to go to bat for it in a big way.

This isn’t always the case, of course. There are outliers. I have a couple of friends who found agents relatively quickly and early on in their querying process. But they are the exception to the general rule that the road to writing success is a long and winding one, and they’d be the first to tell you that road doesn’t end with landing an agent.

Rejection doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with your story or your book. It can mean many things, but it usually doesn’t mean that. It might mean that you didn’t research the market or agent well enough, and they aren’t a good fit for your work. It might mean the market just published a similar story a couple of months ago. It might mean the agent is already working on a similar book with another writer. It might mean the market only had five slots for stories open, and yours was a close sixth—the next market might rank you in the top five. It might mean the agent really liked your book but didn’t fall in love with it enough to spend two years, without getting paid, working on it with you—another agent will.

Rejections aren’t the goal, of course. The goal is to get your story or your book published. I’m not sure it holds true to the same extent today, but 30 years ago, getting a story in a top tier literary journal meant it would be read by agents looking for new talent. That’s how author Catherine Ryan Hyde (Pay it Forward) was discovered by an agent in the late 1990s. Today, getting a piece in The New York Times “Modern Love” column will do the trick.

So rejections aren’t the goal, but they are a huge part of the process. You’re probably going to get a lot of them. I know I have. My work was rejected 62 times in 2021 alone. I’ve published a handful of pieces that were each rejected multiple times before they found a home. But I firmly believe every rejection is another step closer to that yes, and the good news is, you only need one of those.

Hyde talks openly about the many rejections she racked up before her first short story acceptance.

It might sound like dwelling on the negative if I say I received 122 short story rejections before my first acceptance. But, for writers just starting out, it’s important to hear. If you know I was rejected more than a thousand times while placing fifty stories, it might be hard for you to justify giving up after five printed slips. —Catherine Ryan Hyde

Hyde has said some other things that have really helped me put things into perspective, too. Like, she doesn’t revise her stories to fit a specific market. She keeps searching for the market that’s a fit for her story. Her philosophy is, if you know you’ve done your best work, you’ve got to leave it alone and keep going. In frog/prince terms, this means, it’s not you, it’s them.

My favorite Catherine Ryan Hyde saying is this: “Keep hope in the mail.” In other words, always be submitting. Always be querying. If you’ve always got things out on submission or queries out to agents, there’s a chance you’ll get good news today.

It’s all about tenacity—be diligent, be persistent, be consistent, and be patient. All the -ent’s. Try different things and multiple approaches. Think outside the box. Get a lot of balls up in the air, kites up in the sky, boats out on the water—use whichever visual works for you. I firmly 1,000% believe this is the secret sauce—writers who doggedly keep writing and keep submitting or querying will eventually achieve their writing goals.