What Rejection Feels Like


My oldest daughter is a senior in college and my youngest is a senior in high school. One is applying for her first-ever real job and the other is applying to college. There's a lot of anxiety in my house because both kids are aiming very high—and why not, right?

Shoot for the moon, you might land on a star. You might even make it to the moon. I am the queen of encouraging people to take big risks, whether those people are my children or my clients. Nothing risked, nothing gained. You miss 100% of the shots you don't take. I could go on and on— and I do. But here's the thing: It's pretty easy to sit back and cheer other people to put their neck on the line. It's even easy, once they fail to say, "No big deal! Get back up! Try, try again!" I said this just a few days ago to the college senior whose first-ever interview resulted in a "No, thank you."

But I would be a fraud if all I ever did was cheer, if all I ever did was sit back and encourage risk without ever risking anything myself. My cheerleading would be empty words. And so, about six months ago, I entered my self-published novel, Perfect Red, in a contest for self-published books. I picked theWriters' Digest contest because it's prestigious and because Iiked some of the editors doing the judging and because the winners get some pretty great stuff.

I thought I would win. I mean I actually really did think I would win. And once I won, and my book went on to be a giant seller and I went on to become a spokesperson for not giving up and for not taking no for an answer, I would get to sweetly and humbly stand before the editors and publishing houses who rejected my novel in the first place, and say, "SEE? You were all wrong about me! You were wrong about my book! I am awesome and you are stupid for not having seen it." I'm not proud that this is what I imagined, but this is exactly what I imagined.

The winners were supposed to have been notified by Monday. I was not notified. I imagined that there had been a tiny glitch in the system, that they were late getting the notice out to the winners. But on Tuesday, all entrants got an email saying that they winners had been notified and that they appreciated our having entered, blah blah blah. I actually did not win. Anything. Not even runner up. Not even honorable mention. I was, needless to say, shocked. Perfect Red is my seventh book. The first six were published by major New York houses. I'm not some newbie. I've put in my 10,000 hours and then some. What were these judges thinking?

Well, today, I got the official judges report and I know exactly what they were thinking. On a scale of 5, here is what my book was rated:

  • Structure and Organization: 3
  • Grammar: 4
  • Production Quality and Cover Design: 4
  • Plot (if applicable): 4
  • Character Development (if applicable): 3

And here is a sample of the words that went along with that report card:

"This is an intriguing concept for a novel. The protagonist, central conflict, and setting all work together in compelling ways, and the plot is carefully paced. However, there are some issues with structure and language that impede the reader's full immersion into the world of the story..."

I had to laugh when I read these words. They sound exactly like the words I might say to one of my clients—one of you—on any given day. The truth is that Perfect Red is a good book but it is not a great book. I see that now. I get it. I think I might have known it a year or so ago when the auction date my agent set for the book ended up with a flurry of interest, and then nothing but the sound of silence. I just didn't want to admit it. Admitting it is embarrassing. I mean, I spent four years working on that book. I poured my heart and soul into it. I loved it.

Even before I got the news about the contest, I decided to take a sabbatical from my own writing. Some of the students in my 30-Day Book Start-Up best test, which just finished last week—and which was, I think, a huge success—got to hear me talk about this. I need time to stop, and breathe, and let the soil replenish. And now, I realize, I also need time to lick my wounds and wrap my mind around the reality that my last book was good but not great.

Is there a danger that, because of this knowledge, I won't write again? None whatsoever. I think we know when we are done. Alice Munro, the awesome short story writer who just so thrillingly won the Nobel prize, recently declared that she is done. Phillip Roth, too. But not me. I may never write another book that the world deems great, but that's not why I do it.

What about you? Are you done? Are you ready to call it a day on your writing—perhaps before you even got a chance to see how it might be received by the world? My guess is no.

And so press on, regardless. Doing what we do. Because, for whatever reason, we are called to do it.