Vol. 110 (2021)

On Rejection

By Kathy Flann 

Baltimore, MD, USA


It’s a cliché about writing that rejection is part of the process. In the movies, writers submit 1,000-page novels to publishers and become comically distraught when these books are not snapped up. They wail and throw the manuscript pages out the window of a moving car. The situation seems like a caricature because it is, except that the thing exaggerated for narrative effect isn’t the rejection. It’s the premise that a major publisher even agreed to look at the book in the first place.


Knowing intellectually that rejection is common doesn’t prepare new writers for the reality of the situation. They aren’t prepared for just how much rejection is intrinsic to the writing life. They also aren’t prepared for the emotional toll rejection can take. One of the reasons for the lack of preparation is that published writers don’t love to talk about the rejections they’ve endured (and are still enduring). It’s painful.


So, here goes with five Frequently Asked Questions about rejection:



1. Is my work really going to be rejected?


Yes. Make no mistake. It won’t just be rejected. It’ll be rejected all over town. Failure will be an option. The day won’t be “darkest before the dawn” if you’re actually in a tomb. The hardest part is that you won’t know you’re in a tomb. You’ll just sit there waiting for dawn, looking at your watch, feeling more and more like you might have made a wrong turn?


On my bio, it says that I’m an award-winning short story writer, which is true. I’ve won a number of contests for my short fiction, including two that involved book publication as the prizes. What my bio doesn’t say is that some of the stories in my two award-winning collections were rejected as many as 60 times by various journals along the way.


Sometimes, I sent out the stories too early. I thought they were done, but something about them wasn’t quite cooked. I had to send them out and get them rejected 20 times or whatever to begin to understand what was missing. The good news was that sending them out gave me some time away from them. When I came back to them months later, I did so with a fresh discernment about what worked and what didn’t. In some cases, I even did this whole process twice. I’d send it out another 20 times with no luck. I’d think, Huh. Something still isn’t right. Then, I’d go back to the drawing board and overhaul the story again.

Kathy Flann

2. How do you cope with rejection?


The way I’ve described rejection so far makes the process sound pretty clinical. Let me be clear – I have experienced emotions. I sometimes doubt my abilities. I have railed against my younger self, like Why did you decide to be a writer? That was a terrible decision! On occasion, I have tried to cultivate other passions, like dog training and painting – inexplicably gravitating to activities that are just as hard as writing. I have always known writing is my thing. I just get mad at it sometimes and mad at myself. Over time, I started to see the pattern. These moments of despair were simply that – moments in time. They pass.


Again, to be clear, coping with one’s feelings is a very different animal than not having any feelings. If there is a way to avoid having any feelings about rejection, I don’t know anyone who has found it. For me, the main advantage of experience is that I have the ability to zoom back a little and see the pain of rejection from a greater remove. It doesn’t mean I don’t feel it acutely. It just means I can say, Ah, this again. I understand that I’ll be okay. In time.



3. How do you know if you’re on the right track then?


I cannot stress enough the importance of having other people read the work before sending it out. This can help your work move forward by leaps and bounds. Looking back, there’s not a single published piece of mine that wasn’t supported by a number of trusted readers during the drafting process.


Secondly, if I’m on the right track with a piece, I start to receive good rejections. A good rejection is one that contains a few sentences of feedback from an actual human being, while a bad rejection is a form letter.


The first time I got a good rejection, I didn’t understand what had happened. I was gutted by what I perceived as an attack from an editor. Not only was the work rejected, but the editor had handwritten a few sentences about what didn’t work in the story. I was like Geez, this person not only rejected me, but stomped on me with a steel-toed boot. What I grew to understand later, most especially when I became an editor myself, was that editors don’t take the time to provide feedback unless they liked the story at least a little bit.


Once I receive some good rejections, it might be numbers game – a case of simply trying more places. It also could be that I need to research a bit better where I’m sending the work. Sometimes, a person has a strong piece but isn’t sending it to magazines that are a good fit for that piece.

4. What if an editor requests changes?


If an editor likes a manuscript enough to request changes, you are very lucky indeed. A publisher will not invest time in a manuscript unless there’s an openness there to moving forward with it. Perhaps, the editor feels as though the stakes aren’t quite high enough or the character’s motivations aren’t clear enough. Although, it can be painful to accept that the draft falls a little short, this is an incredible opportunity to take the story to new heights. 


Much like I misunderstood the feedback on the rejection from the magazine editor, new writers sometimes misunderstand these kinds of editorial queries or requests. The writer may perceive a request for a rewrite as a rejection of sorts. However, the opposite is actually true. The editor cares enough about the story to spend time trying to help it reach its potential.



5. Do all stories find homes?


Nope.  All writers have stories (and even novels) that never get published, myself included. And you know what? Years later, I’m always glad. I can perceive reasons for the rejections that I couldn’t see at the time. Every now and then, I go back to a piece a long time later, able only then to see what the story needed all along.


Sometimes, maybe I needed to write that failed story simply in order to get to the next story. The writing process is mysterious that way. Sometimes, it is the art of letting go.




Kathy Flann     


Kathy Flann is an award-winning author and lecturer whose latest 
book, Write On, was released in August of 2020.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.