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 I 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.