How I Really Feel About Rejection and Persistence

Yesterday’s post was just a bit of fun, mostly inspired by the number of markets I’ve seen close up and the number of editors I’ve seen quit editing at the very moment one of my stories was under consideration or even on the short list. It’s been quite a year.

I’m really grateful to have seen my fiction published for the first time (thanks again, Electric Spec). I’ve signed up for “writing intensives” and workshops. I’ve joined and quit three different online critique groups. I even hired an editor to give me one-on-one critique. I’ve started getting up earlier and earlier every weekday morning to give myself more time to write.

This last thing, making more time to write, doing it more consistently and very nearly every day, has had a greater effect on what I’m doing than any of the rest of it. I think critique groups and workshops can be useful, but I’ve become skeptical of them. They’re most useful at drumming into the beginner’s mind a lot of “thou shalt not” rules, which can be great for the beginner so clueless he or she really has no idea where to start. The closer your writing gets to being publishable, though, the less useful such groups really are. If you want to make that transition from competent fiction-writing technician to confident literary artist, it’s probably more useful to shrug off the “thou shalt not” list. Push yourself to color outside the lines a little.

Yes, getting published is hard. It’s absurdly hard, really. There are few endeavors I’ve encountered in life that require such hard work for such uncertain feedback and such distant rewards. If you set a goal of running a marathon, or becoming a great copier salesman or learning to cook desserts, you’re likely to find easier ways to measure your success and fewer frustrations between commencement of diligent work and the achievement of your goals, than if you set the goal of getting your stories out there into the world. This is a goal more like aspiring to become an astronaut, or an Olympic decathlete, or an actor in motion pictures.

Far, far more applicants than available positions.

But once your heart and mind are fixed, even knowing the difficult odds, you just keep pushing forward. Another rejection doesn’t make you think “Maybe I’m not cut out for this.” You just file it away, and you don’t stop. You do what you have to do.

Another Running-Related Quote

At least once before I’ve posted interesting or inspirational quotes related to long distance running, partly because I’ve been a runner for about thirty years (with a few short breaks in there), and partly because I receive a “quote of the day” email from Runner’s World (annoying mass-market running magazine I used to subscribe to). One of the most recent comes from perhaps my all-time favorite runner, Steve Prefontaine, who was not only one of America’s all-time great runners, but also an inspiring personality. Not only that, but he went to University of Oregon, and you’ve got to love the Ducks!

“A man can fail many times, but he isn’t a failure until he begins to blame somebody else.”
–Steve Prefontaine, American middle and long-distance runner

I’ve been fighting through a period of self-questioning with regard to my writing lately. I’m still working as hard as ever, and producing what I consider to be increasingly strong work, but just lately I’ve been feeling the sting of rejection a bit more than usual. Really just feeling a bit fatigued, though no less determined.

Prefontaine’s quote reminds me that at times when you feel bogged down in the accumulated mire of rejection or failure, it can be tempting to blame your circumstances on others. I could convince myself I’m not finding receptive editors because they’re only looking for big names anyway, or that magazines aren’t looking for the kind of thing I’m doing because the SF community only wants to see the same Heinlein and Gibson tributes over and over. I don’t really believe those things are true, but I could blame others as a way of deflecting the pain of the struggle.

Like Prefontaine, though, I believe pointing the finger at others is the beginning of failure. A writer who blames everyone outside himself won’t look hard enough at what he needs to improve, or consider what new approach to his craft might get him where he wants to be. I think looking at your own work with honest appraisal, and consistently putting in the labor, are requirements of improvement and eventual success. It’s also perfectly healthy to admit your own disappointment, so you can deal with it and move on.