The Zen of Rejection

By Magdalena Ball

It couldn’t have happened at a worse moment.  My car had just been hit by a truck and I was standing amidst the wreckage of glass and metal when my post lady pulled up.  After ascertaining that I wasn’t hurt, she handed me a package: the obviously thick SASE that went along with my novel manuscript.  I was being rejected again, and this time by the small local publishing house I thought would definitely take the novel.  I’m not sure which hurt more: the loss of my lovely wine-colored people mover or the final rejection of the novel.

Cover of Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection PileBoth hurt, but crying that afternoon, I’m sure it was my manuscript I was primarily thinking of.  After all, I had won a mentorship for this work, and my mentor, a multi-published novelist, told me that the work was publishable and ready for submission.  I’m not naïve about the difficulties of getting a first novel published, but I did begin the submission process in a very hopeful state of mind.  It wasn’t all bad news though. Although I did receive a few form letters (“due to the volume of submissions, we regret that we are unable to provide feedback, etc.”), many of my rejections, including those from large houses, were very positive, and cited the quality of the writing, the strength of the characterization, and the powerful nature of the plot, using words like “heart-wrenching,” “complex,” and “rich.” Many also suggested that the sluggish market for fiction, especially literary fiction, meant that to be accepted, a novel had to be startlingly well written, need no editing, and possess a strong commercial angle. Mine was apparently good, but just not good enough.

The criticism received was very thorough in some cases, and provided specific examples where the work could be strengthened, and once I was over the sting, I began to feel grateful to those professional readers, who had taken such trouble over my manuscript, and who were unwilling to accept a novel which hadn’t reached its complete potential.  I am after all, the author, and this book will set a benchmark that my readers will judge me by.  The quality of the work is really all that counts.  Everything else is just ego and transition.

I have heard many people, authors and publishers alike, bemoan the state of publishing, and criticize the overtly commercial world that seems to be focused solely on profit.  It’s a natural defense mechanism and one that I have been tempted to participate in.  After all, it’s so much easier to blame my rejection on the state of “publishing today” than on the work.  However, looking back over my novel, and reading through the criticisms, I have come to believe that the comments are both generous and valid, and that however close it may be to being publishable, the work does indeed need a rewrite before it is ready for another round of submissions.  I am heartened by the full scale and thoughtful reading that even the most commercial of publishers have given my work, taking it seriously and taking the time to provide real feedback.  I rarely encountered the dreaded slush pile and was taken seriously, without an agent, by almost all the publishers I submitted to.  I also now appreciate, and this is certainly part of the tremendous learning curve that goes along with writing a full length novel, just how much hard work—not inspiration, just work—is involved in taking a novel from sketchy draft to full scale polished work of art.

I’ve always loved fiction, perhaps even more as a reader than as a writer, but writing my own novel and seeing just how much crafting is involved in the books I love, read, and re-read, has made me appreciate even more what a wonderful and powerful art fiction writing is.  There’s no point in sobbing, or putting the work away in a drawer forever, shunning further rejection.  It’s all part of the game; the very reason why great literature exists.  Good novels take time and a tremendous amount of work, and in the end, the speed and ease of publication is the one thing that readers and critics will ignore. This is no easy lesson for an impatient writer used to fairly instant gratification.  But it’s a lesson worth learning.  Every rejection is another part of the process, and to be welcomed and embraced.

So what can you do if, like me, you receive your twentieth rejection and begin to wonder if you’ll just print up an e-book as is and sell it from your website, or leave the work sitting in the dark, unread caverns of your computer’s hard disk for the rest of your life?  The answer is simple and almost too obvious.  Ask for help from a clued-in editor, gather in the criticism, and get back to work.  At the end of the day, you’ll be grateful that you took the time to make the work shine.  And so will your readers.  It’s all part of becoming an overnight success story.  A true Zen exercise.

Magdalena Ball was born and grew up in New York City. After earning an honours degree in English Literature from the City University of New York (CCNY), she moved to  Oxford to study English Literature at a postgraduate level. She then migrated to NSW Australia, where she now resides on a rural property with her husband and three children. She runs the Compulsive Reader review site. You can find her books and poetry collections on You can also find Magdalena Ball on Twitter