I've been getting rejections for many years. They started with form letter rejections that came via snailmail. Even after I started making money with nonfiction sales, I still continued to receive rejections....not just for some of my nonfiction, but also for my fiction.
Fast forward to SCBWI-LA in 2010, when a rejection made it possible for me to get my first children's book contract. I'll always be grateful to Justin Chanda and Simon & Schuster Children and Michael Ian Black for giving me a chance (see my post in defense of "celebrity books"). Illustrating I'm Bored has opened up so many opportunities for me, both as a writer and an illustrator.
It drives me a little crazy when people call me an overnight success, partly because of my many years of rejections but mostly because it sends the wrong message to others who are still struggling to get published. I believe there is no such thing as an overnight success. Whether it's through working hard on your craft, investing money and time to meet people in the industry, building up life experiences and your ability to convey the essence in writing and/or illustration...it's a gradual process.
There are so many things I wish I could tell my younger self about what I've learned (and will be sharing some of these in my keynote at SCBWI-Montreal this October), but here's my positive take on rejections.
Why I'm grateful for rejections:
I may not have been grateful at the time but in retrospect, I'm glad for those earlier rejections. And while rejections still hurt when I get them, I have a better understanding of why they can be useful. Some of the reasons:
- Rejections help make me more resilient and better able to handle criticism and feedback. The more rejections I received (and I've received MANY), the thicker my "sensitive and insecure creative type" skin became over the years. It hurt like crazy, of course, and there were times I felt like giving up. I took some breaks. In order to have a successful longterm career, however, I needed to learn how to get past the immediate ego-hurt/defensiveness and take an objective look at the criticism and feedback. Plus one of the editors was kind enough to take the time to give me detailed feedback on how to make my mss stronger...although she still ended up rejecting it, I learned so much that I can use for my other writing projects.
- Looking back, I realize that if those rejected pieces/works had been published, it would not have been good for my longterm career. I am a much better writer now. I've also learned how important a debut book can be. It's not enough to just get published (at least not for me); I want to make a longterm career from writing and illustrating books for young people. This means ONLY sending out projects that I believe in 100%, that I'd be proud to see on the bookshelves, that I'd be excited to promote.
- Rejections make me better appreciate any successes that come my way. Yes, it would have been cool to have my first MG novel published by the first publisher that my agent and I chose for submission. Or my second. I've actually written a third but never ended up sending it out because I realized it just wasn't strong enough. When I eventually start getting my novels published (yes, I said when), I will not only be a stronger writer but I'll also be soooo much more appreciative.
ADVICE ON WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU GET A REJECTION:
Give yourself one day to wallow in self-pity, max. But then put it behind you and move on.
ADVICE ON WHAT *NOT* TO DO WHEN YOU GET A REJECTION:
Be wary about how you post about your rejections online. If you want to post about it publicly, do so with grace. Posting in anger or whining self-pity helps no one, makes you look unprofessional and is self-destructive. Rejection is part of the business, before AND after you're published. Work on developing a thicker skin if your goal is a longterm career as a writer.
A better idea: to find a small group of writers you trust (like the MiGwriters!) and commiserate with them privately instead.
Rejections suck. Instead of letting them beat you down, make them work to your advantage. Think longterm, always look ahead.
Debbie Ridpath Ohi writes and illustrates for young people. Her illustrations appear in I'M BORED (NYTimes Notable Children's Book 2012, Simon & Schuster BFYR) and NAKED! (Simon & Schuster BFYR, 2014) written by Michael Ian Black. Other upcoming projects include books with Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and Random House. Her blog for children's book writers/illustrators: http://Inkygirl.com. Twitter: @inkyelbows.