March 8, 2011

When Is Rejection a Good Thing?

Runner at starting block

I get a brief reprieve from the deadline cave this week while I wait for feedback from my awesome readers.  When I first sent my work out to them, I felt great.  This work was as good as I could make it.

But going back to last week’s perfection posts (here and here), I’m now second-guessing myself.  Did I really do everything I could?  Did I develop that idea enough?  Did I emphasize that concept too much?

*ugh*  It’s endless, isn’t it?

To some extent, that worry is human nature.  Let’s face it, unless we’re stuck-up, arrogant jerks, of course we think we’re lacking in some way.  But we can’t let that feeling paralyze us.  So while I accept that I might not ever be 100% satisfied with my work, the one thing I don’t let myself do is regret the attempt.

Schools today often praise students for trying.  And yes, that’s a feel-good approach, but it can help people want to try.  The best scientists and inventors make hundreds of attempts before succeeding.  Their failures before their eventual success aren’t looked down on.

Does anybody say, “Well, the Wright brothers weren’t that special because they didn’t get an airplane to fly their first time out”?  No.  History sees their years of development and hundreds of tests as a sign of their determination, not as a sign of their failure.

Continuing to try is a good thing.  It means we haven’t given up.

What constitutes “trying” in the writing world?  Is it just endless revisions?  Or does it mean we have to try to capture a reader’s appreciation for our work?  Or maybe it means that we have to hit send even though we know it’s not perfect.  Like agent Rachelle Gardner wrote:

Don’t wait for perfection. You want your work to be as strong as possible, yet you can’t just wait forever, always saying, “I can do better.”

Learning the craft and improving our skills are an important part of our journey.  But the real test is putting our work out there.  Maybe we start with our family or friends, then we move on to beta readers and critique partners, then we might submit to agents and editors, and finally our story ends up in the hands of the end reader—the Amazon customer.

Yes, we’re going to fail.  We’re going to be rejected.  Someone, probably lots of someones, won’t like our work.  But that’s better than not trying at all.  Rejection is our proof that we’re trying.

And as long as we’re trying, our failures won’t matter once we reach success.  The only thing that will make those failures “count” is if we give up.  Aren’t there dozens of sayings along the lines of: We’re guaranteed to never win the race if we never leave the starting block?  The real failure is letting our fear of failure paralyze us into not trying at all.

How strong is your fear of failure?  How do you keep it from holding you back?  Have you given yourself permission to fail and be rejected?

Comments — What do you think?

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Laura Pauling

Yes, I’ve given myself permission to get rejections! If I go in with low expectations and high hopes, any R is a bit easier. And, like Rachelle said, it’s proof I’m moving forward!


How strong is my fear of failure? Hmm.. considering my philosophy is: failure is not an option – I’d say not very strong. 🙂 And if the only way to finally succeed is to fail a whole bunch of times first? Then so be it.

Brenda Chin, from Harlequin said at a workshop (RWA 2010) That she sometimes feels sorry for the author who finds success first time out-of-the -gate. Her philosophy is (and I’m paraphrasing here) : If initial success of a writer comes without previous failures – that writer will oftentimes not have had the opportunity to grow into her writing chops – which in turn would not prepare her for the bumpy and often difficult road ahead after her first sale.

The way I boiled down Brenda’s insightful concern? I thought of it as winning the lottery. Okay, so you won a bunch of money without really working for it – then you spend all that money – now you’re tapped out – how are you going to live?

Just my .02

Murphy 🙂

PW Creighton

I think the defining moment when you know you’re ready is when you can take a look at your original work compare it to the revised edition and see all of your mistakes in the original.

As for publication, I think the defining moment is when you look at how much you know about the process and accept that you will get rejections. There’s a sort of maturity that comes with that.

Lisa Gail Green

I finally just pressed send myself this morning, and you know what helped? A shiny new idea fighting for attention. I spent yesterday staring at the same paragraph alternating between loving and hating it. So I kind of knew at some level it was time to let go. But that’s what pushed me over the edge. And if we get feedback we’ll dive back in, right? So that’s the process. I’ve embraced it, and I kind of love it. Even the staring part.

Clay Morgan
Clay Morgan

I am okey-dokey with failure as a means to success, and I have finally hit a part of life where I manage to succeed more than I used to, but this post is a great reminder. The history teaching part of me lives the Wright brothers example. Tx!

Kerry Meacham
Kerry Meacham

I’ve been in sales for the past 20 years, so rejection is a part of the gig. It’s very similar to baseball, because if you bat .300+ you’re a superstar in most companies. Now having said that, I’m a noveling newbie and cringe every time I have to kill off (reject) a “little darling.” I can only imagine what it will be like when I have a finished manuscript, send it out and the rejections start rolling in. I think one of the things that may help is the community of writers I’ve gotten to know locally and online. I see their struggles and understand that this won’t be an easy road. Should we expect it to be? We write about the hero’s journey, and we think our journey will be any easier? I don’t think so.

One of my favorite stories is about Thomas Edison’s response to a reporter when he was asked what pushed him forward after 1,000 failed attempts (rejections) at making an incandescent light bulb. “I have not failed 1,000 times. I have not failed once. I have
succeeded in proving that those 1,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will

Pam Parker

Rejections are necessary steps on the publishing climb. Bummer steps sometimes, but still necessary. 🙂 Thanks for the post.

Gene Lempp
Gene Lempp

Failure…well, thinking as a perfectionist, I’m not fond of failure and to be honest it has paralyzed me at times. However, it was that paralysis that drove me to find great teachers, like Jami and Kristen Lamb and especially Bob Mayer, all of whom have given me something I’m even less fond of than failure. That thing would be “unknown”. After years of effort, I’d rather be rejected, because at least then I did something to be rejected for, and you know what, I know I’ll learn from that and come back stronger the next time, because the perfectionist will never let it go. Thanks for another thoughtful and insightful post Jami, you’re one of the very best. Hearts!

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

It’s taken a while, but I’ve finally grown enough to accept rejection. Don’t get me wrong, it still hurts like Hell, but I don’t fold myself into a corner and cry like a baby anymore.
Your post was an excellent motivator. i’m so glad I stopped by today, because I’ve decided (reading @KwanaWrites Tweet gave me the idea) to give up not writing daily for lent.
I have this issue with sitting in the chair. I wouldn’t call it writer’s block exactly, because every time I sit, I can write. But I suppose fear of writing crap keeps me from sitting my butt in the chair initially. And some times days or even weeks fly by without a single word…because I’m so darn scared of writing crap.
But lent, and blogs like yours will help me conquer the fear.
Thanks so much for your wisdom.
Have a productive day!!

Suzanne Johnson

Rejection hurts. No way around it. But once the initial pain goes away, sometimes we glean something useful from it. And as far as getting published goes…it only takes ONE believer among all the agents and editors out there to start the ball rolling downhill instead of uphill.

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