Monday, July 5, 2021

Rejection, Discouragement, and How a Few Loyal Readers Can Save an Author

Being discouraged is part and parcel of a working writer's life. Negative reviews, ditto. Some of us are naturally more thick-skinned about them than others, and most of us develop coping strategies over the years. This is where networking with other writers can be very helpful.  We say things like:

  • If you're not accumulating rejection slips, you're not doing your job (taking risks, "pushing the envelope").
  • Just file the slip (or email) and send the story out 
  • Remember how many times A Wrinkle in Time was rejected.
  • Editors are human, too; they have bad days, and it's no one's fault if your hero has the same name as their ex.
  • Hey, I'm making progress from a form rejection to a personal note and invitation to submit again!

Even after many professional sales, a rejection can sting. The sting doesn't last as long as it might when we were first starting out, and we have tools (see above) and lots of writerly commiseration to help us. We know from experience that the sting will pass; we have acquired the habit of immediately diving back into the next project, so that we always have something fresh  and exciting in the pipeline.

Then there are the situations when a story or book is sold and the publisher goes out of business. The editor gets fired. I know authors this has happened to more than once. We find ourselves wondering if we killed the magazine. We didn't, but that laughter overlays the secret and utterly illogical fear that our writing careers are somehow jinxed. Then we sell something else and there are no thunderbolts from above. We carry on.

Reviews, ah reviews, and in this category I include feedback from critique groups and beta readers. So much has already been said about the power of a caustic review or harsh feedback of a work in progress that I won't belabor the point here. Suffice it to say that the natural human desire for praise (for our creative "children") leaves us vulnerable to interpreting criticism of the work with condemnation of ourselves. Or, having torn off our emotional armor to write from the heart, we've also ripped off any defenses against sarcasm, etc. I'm among those who, having received scathing feedback, went home, and cried. I never considered giving up (although on more than one occasion, I contemplated getting even and thankfully resisted the temptation). But some writers have.

Negative feedback, if consistent and prolonged, can have a devastating effect on a writer's self-confidence and ability to work. Support and encouragement from our fellow writers can be our greatest asset in setting aside the nasty things people have written about our stories. A hiatus from reading reviews is highly recommended.

Another form of discouragement arises when a novel gets published, gorgeous cover and all, and sales are abysmal. Sometimes this means you're dead at that publisher, but other times they'll take a longer view and be patient. Or they might want you to change your byline or genre to get a fresh start, so the poor sales figures don't haunt new releases.

Sooner or later, this will happen to most of us. We reach for the support and tools that have helped us through rejection letters, bad reviews, and writer's block. If it's a single book or a book now and again, we can usually get through the disappointment. But when it happens repeatedly, it can be even more catastrophic than those early rejections. We've enjoyed a period of success and self-confidence. We've sold a book or twelve. We know how to do this. Our fans love us. We're professionals. And then our next book flops. And the one after that. And we change our names and write something different. And the same thing happens. Our publisher dumps us. Maybe our agent dumps us. It would be a miracle if we did not feel discouraged.

This has happened to writers I know. Some of them have kept writing, and eventually hit their stride and connected with an enthusiastic readership again. Others gave up.

It's happened to me, too. I've written books that my editor loved and that those few readers who bought adored and wrote glowing reviews about...and that simply did not sell worth beans. Some days I'm sure I'll never amount to anything, I can't write my way out of a wet paper bag, and what's the use? Other days, I chalk it all up to practice. Sometimes I admit I have no idea why some books sell like wildfire and other, equally or more wonderful, fizzle. I tell myself I'm paying my dues as a professional, no matter how obnoxious and painful these particular dues are.

Then I remind myself of the question: If your work would never be published, would you still write? And my answer is yes. Because these stories are in my heart, and because when the words flow, there's nothing like that creative high. Maybe it's just the luck of the draw that some folks do want to read what I write. I treasure those few readers who have taken the time to let me know how much my work has meant to them. A readership of one (myself) is enough; a readership of that small community is the whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles and cherry on top.

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