The Other Side of Rejection

TheOtherSideofRejection

Being on the receiving end of rejection sucks. It really, really sucks. I’m a wannabe novelist and I’ve had my mystery MS — my baby, my pride and joy, my masterpiece — rejected by over sixty agencies and countless more competition judges. I’ve been overlooked in Twitter contests. I barely scraped through the Pitch Wars agent round. I’ve received ‘NO!’s from agents whose wishlists asked for my book. So trust me, I know rejection.

But I also know what it feels like to do the rejecting.

Last August I joined the judging panel for the Mash Stories flash fiction competition – which, eagle-eyed readers may remember, I was previously shortlisted for myself. (Full disclosure: I didn’t win. Bastards!!) Now each week I receive a dozen or more 500 word stories containing three keywords, as per Mash’s guidelines, and I have a simple choice on each of them: thumbs up or thumbs down. Yes or no. Accept or reject.

Although each story is read and rated by multiple judges and the majority ruling decides the story’s fate, I’m fully aware of the responsibility my cursor has as it hovers between acceptance and rejection. I always wonder: am I the deciding vote? Am I the shithead who’s going to ruin this poor writer’s day, week, or month? How would feel if my story had been rejected?

Well, I’d feel like crap. And while that’s an entirely normal reaction, it’s not one I’d wish on anyone else.

I don’t like rejecting stories. I feel awful every time I have to — especially since I judge Mash’s free to enter submissions, which don’t receive any feedback. ($9.99 a month gets you extensive feedback on up to three stories per quarter + guaranteed inclusion in the podcast for shortlistees, if you’re interested.) That’s hard for me. As the poor sods in my writing group will tell you, I love to critique anything I can get my hands on, so having to stay silent is horrible. And sometimes the only thing that lets a story down is one line, or a few typos, or a dip in tension. But I can’t tell them about it!!

Maybe the plot absolutely blew me away. Maybe a metaphor hidden in the middle of paragraph three was exquisite. Maybe the voice felt enticing and deep and real. But all I can do is vote yes or no. That’s it.

Yes or no.

After months and months of submitting my MS with limited success, I started to think agents were unfeeling. Cruel. Every ignored query or form rejection made me a little more bitter, and I stopped seeing agents as people. Even the ones with lovely Twitter presences and blogs and websites seemed like evil, dream-crushing cyborgs when the rejections came in.

But now that I’ve seen things from the other side, I feel very differently. They are people and they do care, just like I do. I don’t want to reject stories, but I have to — sometimes I even have to reject ones that I really, really like. And I’ve had rejections like that, too: ‘I loved the story, but ultimately I felt I wouldn’t be able to sell it in the current market.

And just like the busy agents who don’t have time to give personalised rejections, I can’t give feedback either. I can’t explain my decision. Even if I wanted to hunt the writers down, follow them into a dark alleyway, and stuff pages of notes into their pockets before running away like the stealthy vigilante I am, I couldn’t. I’d burn myself out.

With Mash and novel submissions and even picking out a new shade of lipstick at the shops, it comes down to subjectivity. What one judge or agent or lipstick-wearer might enjoy is wholly different from what another judge or agent or lipstick-wearer might be looking for. My pale skin won’t ever suit brown lipstick, but on darker girls? Gorgeous!

When it comes to flash fiction, I’m open to any genre, any style, any content — but I have my preferences. I love plot, I love things that happen, even if they’re abstract and the action is just a conversation or a single meeting between characters. Just make something happen. And I have to have a good last line, something that resonates with the rest of the story. Something that validates it, underlines it. I’m not looking for waffling purple prose or ‘show-off’ writing.

But other judges are different. They’ve rejected stories I loved and put through ones where nothing ever seemed to happen. Typos I couldn’t overlook were glossed over and ignored. Killer plot twists and stories with hidden significance were misunderstood, turned down, rejected.

So sometimes I — the fussiest of fussy readers — have said ‘yes’ and the writer has still been told ‘no’.

Some novelists are very lucky and they end up with multiple agents offering them representation, fighting over them. But, more often, it comes down to one agent — the right agent the author was looking for all along — seeing the promise and talent and brilliance of the book, where so many others dismissed it. Sure, you can tweak your query and opening pages all you want or add in a marketable romance or subplot but, unless you’ve created the next bestselling phenomenon by chance, at some point you’re going to be rejected. Overlooked. Thrown aside.

But it isn’t personal. It doesn’t mean your writing is totally wrong or worthless or will never find a home anywhere. It doesn’t mean give up. There are so many factors at play on the other side of a rejection that can benefit or hinder you: the judge/agent’s mood; number of submissions; originality of the story’s topic; interest in the subject; their writing/reading preferences…

And guess what? You can’t control any of that. All you can do is deliver a story (or novel) written to the very best of your ability, and hope.

Maybe I’m the judge who will love your story, or maybe I’m the one who will loathe it. Whatever happens, I’ll have read your story from beginning to end — often several times — and, for those few minutes, it was all I was thinking about. I’ll have evaluated it. Considered it. And, ultimately, pressed thumbs up or thumbs down.

While the writers I judge can only be either shortlisted or rejected, there’s a whole scale of merit between the two that can never be expressed. It is very rarely an easy decision for me — and, I hope, literary agents — to make. But it’s a competition. We can’t shortlist everyone. So, as much as it hurts, don’t take rejection personally. Don’t give up. By all means be angry with me, with the rejection, but don’t give up. Ever.

Submit elsewhere. Revise. Write something new.

Go on, writer. Prove that rejection wrong.

PS. If you’re a flash fiction writer looking for tips, keep an eye out for next week’s post! I’ll be running through my personal checklist of what makes me say “yes” instead of “no” while judging.

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9 thoughts on “The Other Side of Rejection

    • I know Bean, I’m sorry about that. 😦 If you send me the most recent version of it I can give you a critique/feedback if you’d like? But you’re right, all stories are great practice and you never know when you might be able to use one again and possibly win with it! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Just seen your reply, Lucy! Thank you, i’m happy to send it over if you fancy a read… but no pressure! I’m sure I can use it somewhere else 😉 Have taken on-board your great advice for the next Mash entry!

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Thanks for this article, Lucy. I, too, read slush (in my case it’s a small online journal). I, too, must press that ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down.’ I feel your pain. Our journal used to offer a few lines of feedback to authors of declined submissions, but stopped after only six months. Some writers just aren’t ready to hear the ‘why.’

    For those of us who are… can I gush for a moment about how much I appreciated the feedback I received (as a paid subscriber) for my recent MashStories submission? It came from a different Mash judge, but can I also offer *you* a virtual pat on the back for the work you do for Mash? Sure, rejection stings a bit, but knowing why is a big, golden ticket to craft growth. Plus, I got an awful lot of encouragement and validation out of that feedback. Kudos to you and your fellow judges!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Elizabeth.

      It’s lovely to hear from someone who understands the difficulty of being the bad guy. It’s a privilege to be trusted with submissions — but it’s certainly not an easy job. And you’re right, not everyone is ready to hear the ‘why’. A quick explanation or critique can do a lot of damage when the person isn’t prepared to hear it, and their disappointment — or rage — can boil over and spoil things for the rest of us. I see it a fair bit on Twitter with literary agents: writers driven mad by rejection until they snap and tweet vitriol at the people they’ve been trying so hard to impress.

      It’s horrible to be told you’re not quite good enough when you thought you were. 😦

      But I’m thrilled so many writers are interested in the Mash Club and benefiting from it. I’m joining the feedback team for the next quarter and I’m very excited about it! No more biting my tongue or seeing an opportunity for improvement slip by with the click of a button. And it’s lovely to know that our comments mean so much to our writers. We’re volunteers, many of us unpublished enthusiasts, and in my everyday life I’m the one being told ‘no’. So I cannot thank you — and the rest of our writers — enough for not only allowing me to read your stories, but for respecting my opinions on them, too.

      I imagine the best feeling in the world would be to critique a writer’s a story and, because of that critique, send their next one straight to the shortlist. And I guess that would be a pretty good feeling on the writer’s side, too. 😉

      Good luck with your next submission, and thank you so much for supporting Mash!

      Like

  2. It’s great that you can see the two sides of rejection. Although I really loathe getting rejections, I’d hate even more to be the one giving them. I’d feel like a soul-crushing cyborg if I did 😉 which is probably why I wouldn’t be a good agent!

    Best of luck on your MS though. Like you mentioned, it only takes that one person to see the potential, that one person to say yes. I hope you get your ‘yes’ soon!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Michelle. 🙂 I think it’ll be a long time before I’m anywhere near a ‘yes’ (I shelved my Pitch Wars novel and my WIP is only at the start of its second draft), but I’m hopeful for the future. For now, I’m happy being a soul-crushing cyborg!

      Like

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