One Thing You Need to Get Traditionally Published: A Hearty Dose of Rejection

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by Marlo Garner

I teach an eight-week course in writing picture books, and on week eight, our final class, it’s Rejection Night. That’s right: this is the evening I bring in my teetering pile of rejection letters (and that doesn’t count the email rejections) and my students look aghast for a little while. We talk about what different kinds of rejection letters mean and how soon we’re all likely to be getting one. A depressing way to end? I don’t think so at all.

They’re going to get rejection letters. I do. Everyone does. The more rejection letters we get, the closer we are to an acceptance. And it’s not too hard to judge your forward progress by the kind of rejections you get, which is a topic for another blog post. Each kind of rejection letter is a necessary step. Each a rite of passage. Each an opportunity to revise and try again. And rejection letters do tend, after a while, to evolve.

There’s always a student who, eyeing the pile, with horror says, “You actually keep them?!”

Of course I do. Sometimes I sift through the pile and find multiple “positive” rejections for a picture book I shelved some time before. Then I thinking it might be time to get that text out and revise it. Take a good hard look after letting it ferment and see what I can do to make it viable. Apparently there’s something there to work with, which I wouldn’t have considered without the letters. And as I’ve indicated, they’re an excellent record of your progress as a writer or illustrator.

I talk about some author rejection statistics, and while searching for those, I came across a great little interview with the wonderful Kate diCamillo, named National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress, and who—apparently—was rejected 397 times (sources vary a bit on the number, and I saw as many as 500 times) before she found a home for the 2001 Newbery Honor book Because of Winn Dixie.

So, I want to talk to you about rejection.

Rejection is whatever you make of it.

My first form rejection made me cry. But I really don’t remember it that well, though at the time I felt I’d never forget the sting. In the eighteen years since then, I’ve had so many rejections. Somewhere along the way, ‘positive rejections’ began to outnumber form rejections, and after a time I gathered a few non-rejections—um, I mean, “acceptances.” Form letter induced tears have given way to forced laughter, then grim-but-determined smiles, frustrated shrugs, and now resigned, wry smiles (…mostly, though there’s the odd great heaving sigh).

All of this is par for the course. And it’s a challenging course. It’s not for the faint of heart. And it isn’t always easy to keep a stiff upper lip and a smile when you’re still not quite there after some time trying. This path will:

  • bamboozle the uninitiated
  • overwhelm the lazy
  • shrivel up the gutless
  • stymie the passive aggressive faster than they can wail, “It’s not my fault, it’s theirs!”
  • quickly teach you whether or not you’re a quitter

Achieving publication requires:

  • guts
  • stamina
  • passion
  • hard work
  • vision
  • professionalism
  • a profound, deep, and enduring like and love of children’s books and—hopefully—of children
  • a hearty dose of mindless, blind faith that success is just around the corner… or the next… or the next…
  • the belief that the journey, the lovely people met along the way, and the countless hours spent learning, creating, crafting, revising, and editing are worth the struggle. (They are… if they are for you.)
  • niceness. Being a jerk will get you nowhere fast.

Glorious and bountiful form rejections:

  • force you to be a better writer
  • show your developmental arc as a writer
  • usually come with a long line of lovely, like-minded Kid-Lit friends
  • teach you to accept rejection (any kind of rejection in *Life!*) with dignity, learn from it, shrug off any residual pain, and just get on with it
  • tell you you’re gutsy, strong, passionate, hard-working, accepting, professional, and if you’re not already, at least on the way to being very nice. And super cool. Yet dignified. You’re following your dream! You’re a writer! And it’s the very best decision you ever made.

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