What we talk about when we talk about rejection

Anyone who has submitted fiction or poetry to lit journals for any length of time knows that a rejection letter is never just a rejection letter. There are varying degrees of meaning involved. Or, maybe we writers are just desperate to find hope in the deepest crevices.Back when submissions were mostly done by snail-mail there were three kinds of rejection you could count on:

1) The form letter. The most common and impossible to decipher. It could mean “Please don’t send us any more handwritten stream of consciousness ramblings” or it could mean that your submission was close but not a good fit. Hope meter: Low

2) The form letter with a brief note. Much better than your standard form letter, usually because it contained a few words from the editor or reader about how much they enjoyed it or an invitation to submit again. Hope meter: Higher.

3) The personal note, the holy grail of rejections. A sometimes hand written, sometimes typed (but referencing your name and your story) note from the editor, usually saying how darn close the submission came and asking you to send something again soon. The only thing better than this note is an acceptance, so for some of us, this is as good as it gets. Hope meter: Through the roof.

I’ve been lucky enough to get three of these last kind of rejections over the years and each time I was ecstatic. Someone liked what I read! Not enough to publish it, but still…

I don’t write short fiction or submit to magazines much anymore, but a few months ago I saw an opportunity to place a story. I logged in, uploaded the story, and waited about six weeks until an email showed up in my inbox. The story wasn’t a good fit, but they liked my writing, so send more.


Everyone says that tone gets lost in electronic communication and that is never more true than in the case of rejection letters. What did this mean? I was encouraged by the invitation to send more, but is this a form letter? It’s a new mag, maybe they want everyone to send more. How much hope should I ascribe to this?

I could spend hours wondering how much meaning to read in between the lines of the rejection letter, but something even more crazymaking occurred to me. What if this is as close as I ever come? People like my stuff, or they say they do, but they never publish it. It always needs just a little more work. It could always be just a little better. It’s always “good, but not good enough” and what if that never changes?

Excuse me while I go have a panic attack now.

Other writers have a lot to say about self-doubt. They seem to have a lot more to say once they’ve been published. Who hasn’t heard that Alice Munro finishes each book with the fear that she’ll never write another one? *side-eyes shelf of Alice Munro books*

I’d say the self-doubt experience is different when you’re an unpublished author. I’m sure getting published brings on it’s own special forms of self-doubt, but for me, right now, when all I want is to see something of mine in print, the scariest part of rejection is feeling like I’ll never achieve my goal.

I also think talking about these things – rejection, doubt – is less easy for us unpublished types. Oh, we talk about it, but we talk about strategies for breaking through or remind one another how all those Famous Writers got a gazillion rejections before they became Famous Writers. It’s rare that I hear someone express honest, raw emotions about how rejection really feels. Even on my ultra-supportive writer’s message board, concerns about rejection and self-doubt get hidden behind an anonymous alter-ego. Positivity is great and valuable, but sometimes I just want to know that I’m not the only one out there that gets that throat-closing feeling of fear.

Why is that? In this business, rejection is a certainty and with it comes anxiety and self-doubt. The least we could do for ourselves is talk about it.

So yeah, that happened. I’ll be fine. I’ll have other things to worry about soon enough – namely, finishing the query letter and last four chapters of my novel. When that’s done I’m moving on to the other revision that’s in progress. I have an accountability partner waiting for pages and a deadline in a few weeks, so dwelling on my fear isn’t an option.

Hope meter: Improving.

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