"Well, I Don’t Care What You Think Anyway!"—Effectively Handling Rejection and Criticism

by Erin Brown

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009

It’s never an easy thing to face rejection. Whether it’s a kind, but ultimately big fat “No!” letter from an agent, a scathing review in Romantic Times for your debut suspense novel, a boss who fires you, or that stupid Chase Peterson in middle school who called you Olive Oyl for three years straight because you were too tall and skinny. I mean, who does he think he is? I hope that jerk is living in a van and selling fireworks without any friends...oh, ahem, back to the matter at hand. As you can tell, rejection can really affect a person, if he or she lets it. And publishing is one of those businesses in which an author has to develop a thick skin in order to make it to the other side. It’s the dark aspect of the biz. So how does one emerge through all of the negativity as a better and stronger writer? 

Bottom line is that the business is extremely subjective. One agent may hate your novel and another might adore it. One editor could use it as a doorstop and another might be fighting to pay six or seven figures for it. One reviewer could compare your literary debut to Steinbeck and another might say you’re on par with the writer of cereal box copy (although I actually enjoy a nice Wheat Chex read in the morning). So whom do you take to heart and who has obviously just gotten up on the wrong side of bed? Well, there’s no easy answer, but here are a few tips.

If you send out a query letter and you get a form letter rejection, don’t take it too hard. The agent is no doubt swamped, probably didn’t take enough time to really read the letter and/or pages, and simply isn’t interested in your book for whatever reason. The agent doesn’t know you or your writing, so although it’s disappointing not to get interest right away, it’s just how it goes. Now, if you’ve gotten fifty agent rejections resulting from your query letter, you should consider rewriting it. It’s obviously not getting the attention you want from many professionals, not just a few who are too busy to take the time or who are having a bad day.           

The same goes for those agents (and editors) who request manuscript pages. If you get a form letter back, the agent simply didn’t like it for some subjective reason—they didn’t like the writing, they have something similar on their list, it’s too short, too long, too boring, too entertaining, whatever. They’ll usually say something such as, “It’s just not right for me at this time.” Take that nice rejection and move on.  

However, you really should pay attention to the rejection letters that get very specific—you can actually use those words of criticism to improve your chances for future publication. Now, that’s not to say that if one agent suggests that you change everything about your story, you should do it. Don’t immediately rework your novel so that the heroine goes from a sassy FBI agent in a commercial suspense novel to a crack-addicted single mother working at the Dairy Queen in the literary genre because that might sell better in this agent’s world.

But if you are getting consistent responses from several agents about strengthening characters, improving pacing, working on the writing itself, etc., don’t just discount those rejections so that you can keep a clueless smile on your face. Those agents and editors have taken the time out of their extremely busy schedules to actually read your work and are giving you priceless feedback! Use those specific comments to revisit your work and improve it. You don’t want to become complete Teflon and simply ignore everyone’s comments thinking that you always know best. Take the advice (yes, constructive criticism) to heart when you hear it more than a few times and use it to your advantage. Now, if an agent or editor is just being nasty and mean, then you can cuss them as much as you want in the privacy of your living room. But for the others, who have taken the time to give you feedback—take it and run with it. Remember that half of writing is rewriting. You must also pay attention when you get hundreds of rejections. It might be time to set aside your current work for a while and get started on Book 2 (or 3 or 4!). At least consider some substantial revisions. 

And how about if your work is already published and you get a derisive review? Well, that goes with the territory. As everyone knows, even classic literary greats were often told to dry out their fountain pens and find a new line of work. So if it’s just a few biting remarks here and there, take them with a grain of salt. However, discuss with your editor the finer points to see if there really is room for improvement the next go round. It’s important to take constructive criticism. And for those critics who have launched a full out war against your little ol’ novel, I remember the following quote by Kurt Vonnegut: “Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.”

Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her website at www.erinedits.com

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