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Dealing with Rejection January 22, 2022

Writers seem to be more prone to depression than people in other occupations. We might just be more likely to talk about having depression, since talking to the world is our whole thing. Or the personality traits that make people effective writers also make them vulnerable to depression. We tend to be over-analytical perfectionists who critically deconstruct everything and everyone. We ruminate. We mine our most painful memories for dramatic material. We assume it's therapeutic to write about our traumas, but reliving them and obsessing over every detail is the exact opposite of moving on.

Even for people with stellar mental health, the process of publication in the 2020s will wear them down until they're exhausted and disillusioned. Breaking into the industry is incredibly hard. Literary agents can receive a hundred or more queries a month, but they sign only a few new clients a year. Statistically, that's a less than 0.5% chance of any one submission resulting in an offer of representation. The other 99.5% get rejected.

Rejection is demoralizing for everyone, regardless of profession. In one series of psychology experiments in the early 2000s, researchers put college students in groups for structured conversation, and then they asked participants to name the people they'd like to work with in pairs for further activities. Their answers were irrelevant; instead half of the participants were told that everyone in the group wanted to be their partner, and the other half were told nobody did.

The students who were told nobody wanted them were significantly more likely to agree with the statement, "Life is meaningless." They were more lethargic and expressed less emotion than the participants who thought they were accepted by the group. They also perceived time as moving more slowly, they unconsciously avoided looking at themselves in a mirror, and they were more likely to say they wanted to enjoy the present and not think about the future.1 I think anyone who's been socially isolated since March 2020 can relate.

Writers aren't told we're unwanted merely once, but countless times, year after year, in dozens of impersonal form letters. Depression is the natural result. If anyone says you're being oversensitive or illogical, because "it's just business" and you "need to grow a thicker skin," they're essentially telling you to stop being a human being.

Humans aren't built to live in isolation, even the introverts among us. We're built to form cooperative groups that work towards common goals. Repeated rejections from agents and editors aren't upsetting only because they feel like unfair personal slights. They feel like a denial of the purpose we've chosen for ourselves. "There's no place for you in our group," they seem to be saying. "You're worthless to us. All the hard work you've done was pointless because nobody likes you."

These feelings are natural, but we need to deal with them in healthy ways. Some deal with them in destructive ways, like those people on Twitter who respond to every #amquerying post with angry rants about lazy and mediocre agents. Don't be those people.

1) Find other goals and sources of meaning.

In her video "Breaking Down Book Advances," Alexa Donne explains why it's impossible for most writers to make a living solely through traditional publishing. If you get a $25K advance for one book, that works out to about $4K in annual earnings over three years. I've seen bestselling romance authors report eye-popping advances of $60K, which nets them a whopping $10.5K annually. To match my current day-job salary and pay my bills, I'd theoretically need to land 8 of those $60K deals every single year. And in reality, I'd be lucky to get one contract for $5K.

Writers should have a different primary career not just for financial stability, but for our sanity. We can control the books we write, but we can't control whether other people buy them. So if you believe your reason for living is to become a published author, and that doesn't happen, you're going to end up like Joe in Pixar's Soul: despairing, resentful, and missing out on the best parts of life because you're obsessed with fulfilling your "purpose."

2) Reframe rejections.

By "reframe rejections," I don't mean gloss over them with toxic positivity. I mean stop equating a "no" from an agent or editor with "nobody likes me and I'm useless," but instead think of it like a declined invitation for other reasons, with regrets.

To illustrate: an extended metaphor about gardening.

I started gardening in the first spring of the pandemic, and I quickly learned three things: it's surprisingly expensive, it takes a lot of advanced planning and patience, and I live in one of the worst places in this country to grow a garden.

Flowers don't pop up after three days of watering like in Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing. You need to budget for your purchases a season in advance. A rose from a reputable company is $60 with shipping. An order of tulip and daffodil bulbs for fall planting can easily top $100. Each little sprig of a perennial in a 4-inch container costs $10+ and might not live long.

I didn't realize how hostile the climate of Central Oregon is until I started trying to keep plants alive in it. It's like trying to garden in Death Valley. If it's not freezing, it's scorching hot. Hydrangeas fry up in days. Agastaches flourish in the summer sun but rot in the winter ground. I planted some expensive lilies in October 2020 and checked eagerly for sprouts in June, then July, then August...and they never came.

While I'd love to surround myself with jasmine and osmanthus and rhododendrons, I can't afford to waste my money and efforts on plants that can't survive in a south-facing front yard in the high desert. As a practical matter, I have to select the same drought- and frost-tolerant species as every other Central Oregonian: catmints and sages, cinquefoils and feather reed grasses, and fast-growing annuals like zinnias and sunflowers. My garden has a few stand-out stars I love—roses, phlox, and late-summer gladioluses—but most of it consists of not-too-bad plants whose best quality is that they probably won't die.

Agents and editors are like gardeners in Central Oregon. They're trying to fill their lists with beautiful stories in an absurdly hostile environment. They might think a manuscript is lovely and wish they could have it, but they're not confident it would survive, and they can't afford to invest months of work and care into little book seedlings that are just going to shrivel in the sun.

So like the yards in my neighborhood, the landscape of books is made up of tropes that are unoriginal but safe. Another serial killer in suburbia, another middle-aged mom who rediscovers her pluck after divorcing her cheating husband, another cocky handsome man and quirky voluptuous woman who hate each other but also want to bang. These are the books that get published, not really because they're better than every other story in the slush pile, but because they probably won't die.

Of course there's a big difference between me thumbing through the Breck's catalog and the publishing industry evaluating submissions. It's a botanical fact that a hydrangea, whose name means "water pitcher," will not survive in a low-water desert garden. When publishers decide a book won't survive, it's based largely on snap judgements, gut feelings, and fuzzy comparisons, not on science. Trying to predict the commercial viability of a novel from a new author with a release date two years down the line is like trying to guess whether a plant will thrive in an unknown location based solely on a sketch by the grower. The blooms look kind of like the ones on this other plant that did well? But maybe the shape of the leaves is more like that one plant that froze? And we're in zone 7 now, but next spring we might wake up in a totally different biome. Who knows!

Agents have to love a project to take it on, not because they think anything they don't personally enjoy is unworthy of publication, but because publishing is unpredictable and often unfair. The industry also depends on the labor of thousands of people who are passionate enough about books to tolerate being compensated more in personal fulfillment tokens than in livable wages.

If you cling to the belief that publishing is a meritocracy, and agents choose "the best books by the best authors," every rejection will feel like a judgement. I prefer to believe my books are beautiful lilies agents would love to grow, but the environment is just too harsh.

  1. Twenge, J. M., Catanese, K. R., & Baumeister, R. F. (2003). Social exclusion and the deconstructed state: time perception, meaninglessness, lethargy, lack of emotion, and self-awareness. Journal of personality and social psychology, 85(3), 409.


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