This week, J. K Rowling’s Harry Potter series celebrated its twentieth anniversary, which also makes it the perfect week to talk about the most dispiriting part of writing: rejection. As many fans know, the manuscript for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was famously rejected by twelve publishers before being picked up by Bloomsbury. It’s a factoid to keep all struggling writers sane; and J. K. Rowling herself has spoken candidly about the struggle she faced at this time, as well as encouraging other young writers to keep trying. Given that the Harry Potter series is worth an estimated 15 billion, has sold more than 450 million copies worldwide, been published in 73 languages, and inspired a film saga that takes 19.6 hours to watch from start to finish, it’s pretty obvious that publishers don’t always know a good thing when they see it. Unfortunately, however, they are the undisputed gatekeepers to recognition, and whether you are sending your manuscript for publication, or submitting your work to a magazine/journal, they have the final say. Which is usually more often ‘no’ than ‘yes.’ Stephen King once said he could repaper his entire house with the amount of rejection letters he received. Ouch.
Every writer has been rejected, that is the most integral writer’s truth; rejection is not an if but a when. Behind every Waterstone’s bestseller, there is a legacy of refusal an infinite number of publishers long; a million repetitions of the questions: ‘Am I good enough?’ ‘Does my work have worth?’; and a savage refusal to take no for an answer. Rejection can feel so irrationally personal that it isn’t even funny. Or, antithetically, it can also feel so impersonal as well. The phrase: ‘Your piece isn’t for us,’ has got to be one of the most confusing and infuriating modes of refusal I have ever encountered. Unsurprisingly, rejection can inspire powerful feelings of failure, worthlessness, and hatred towards the declined work. It can convince writers to give up what they love, or even feel like an attack. It’s so hard to have self-belief in a piece that has been consistently knocked back, and yet that’s the precise requirement writing demands. Persistence, sometimes even obstinate resistance; J. K. Rowling had twelve separate opportunities to decide her work wasn’t good enough. The fact that she didn’t, meant that I grew up with Harry, Ron and Hermione in my life, grew up loving stories and writing. With that in mind, there is only one single thing I can say about rejection:
Always Keep it in Perspective …
Rejection is only one person or one organization’s opinion. There are literally a limitless number of publishers/magazines/journals/platforms you can submit your work to. When one declines tell them thank you very much, and try somewhere else.
Often publishers/magazines/journals/platforms have a very specific kind of work they are looking for which you just might not meet, regardless of the standard of your work. In which case, instant rejection. Some organizations make it explicit what they are looking for, so always read their guidelines, others don’t and there it may just be luck of the draw. Either way, research is your friend. Know who you are approaching.
Keep your rejection letters/emails. Put them in a ring binder, or, maybe even do Stephen King one better and actually paper your house with them (in which case, I want to see). Take heed of what they say, some will offer you thoughtful constructive criticism, some will even offer you encouragement. If a number of them are pointing out the same issue, maybe its something you need to work on. Use them as a motivator to improve.
Rejection is not the end of the world. It is not the end of anything, much as it might feel like it sometimes. Remind yourself that what you are trying to do is hard, it is hard. And, if you love it enough, keep doing it until someone recognises the talent you have. [If Fifty Shades of Grey can get published and become a bestseller, there is literally hope for anything.] Refuse to take no for an answer.
And if none of this has made you feel any better about rejection, then take it from the writers who know it better than anyone else:
Can you honestly believe the amount of times some of these got rejected?!