Writing Fiction: Fear of Rejection Toolkit


The first job I had when I left school included cleaning people who were doubly incontinent.  I asked one of the experienced members of staff if she ever got used to the smell.  ‘Not really,’ she said.

So it is with rejection.  My current novel has been rejected by thirty agents.  Each time a stinker.  But the problem is not so much the experience of rejection but rather the fear of it that prevents very talented people from submitting their work to competitions, agents, or publishers.

Let me start with an example of how I failed to do that very thing.  Some years ago I attended a writing day knowing that a publisher would be speaking.  I had printed out the usual first-three-chapters-and-a-synopsis, and bagged it up in an envelope with my contact details – just in case.  I even made a connection with her during a discussion, (we both liked Under the Skin).  At the end of the day she was chatting with another attendee.  If I had waited, that conversation would have finished.  Instead, I waved and left.  Why?  I think I was afraid of that socially awkward moment when I would have to say, ‘I have a copy of some chapters here, would you mind…?’  Being in agreement with her was all very well, but asking for something was too much.  Afterwards, I just felt baffled.  As did my friends when I described it to them.  The most likely outcome was that she would have accepted it.  Then either disposed of it later or read it.  But the risk felt too personal.

Austin Kleon has written a book called Show Your Work! 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered.  It has a chapter called, Learn to Take a Punch in which he suggests:

  1. Relax and breathe.  What you imagine is rarely as bad as what happens.  Criticism is not the end of the world.
  2. Strengthen your neck.  Get practice in getting hit a lot by sending out lots of your work.  The more criticism you get, the more you realise it can’t hurt you.
  3. Roll with the punches.  You can’t control what sort of criticism you receive, but you can control how you react to it.  Every piece of criticism is an opportunity for new work.
  4. Protect your vulnerable areas.  If you have work that is too sensitive or too close to you to be exposed to criticism, keep it hidden.  However, if you spend your life avoiding vulnerability you and your work will never truly connect with people.
  5. Keep your balance.  Your work is what you do, not who you are.  Keep close to your family, friends, and the people who love you for you, not the work.

For me, I think what gets me through is the belief that the brief pain of rejection is infinitely preferable to the prolonged sense of failure that I did not take the risk of submitting in the first place.  At the risk of repetition, I would add the following:

  • Enter competitions, come last.  The Beatles never won a single talent contest they ever entered.  It gives you practice in sending things out.
  • Close your eyes and press send.
  • So far no agent has hired a hitman to deal with the sender of a substandard submission.  (Or perhaps, be the first!)
  • There is an area of your life where you take risks, and occasionally they work out eg getting a job, starting a relationship.  Extend the principle.
  • Rejection is a badge of honour.  When my first manuscript was returned, a writing friend of mine said, ‘Now you’re a writer.’
  • We are generally useless at predicting the future.  Both my competition wins were a surprise to me.  But the ones where I was convinced I had a chance, I didn’t even place.  Give fate a chance.

Having said all of this, I have yet to find a way to avoid the initial feeling of rejection.  Nor fear of the prospect.  I’ve just learnt to accept them.  Often cringing as I hit ‘send’ and then wishing I hadn’t.  I did this last week.  Sending my rewritten manuscript to an agent who had already turned down a previous version.  The next day I got an email saying she’d be happy to read it.  Who knew?  And now I sit on the sofa trying to imagine the various ways in which she will say no again.

As for the job, I stayed on for another year, and learned to breathe through my mouth.




One thought on “Writing Fiction: Fear of Rejection Toolkit

  1. On Paul’s point about the ‘initial feeling of rejection’, in his penultimate paragraph, perhaps there is no full cure, BUT I found the following helpful, probably so obvious to everyone else.
    Always have at least two copies out, so that if or when a rejection comes, there is still hope in one’s heart; then get another copy out straight away. I did give up with agents, too grand for me, but with my thirty-somethingth publisher, I got accepted. The only real rule is NEVER GIVE UP….

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