I didn’t want to write this post. I really didn’t.
But the Million Words is about learning to write well and our collective journey as authors through the wilds of the publishing industry, and I just experienced a major milestone that most, if not all, of my fellow Million Word contributors have already encountered. A milestone we all must experience and that serves notice to writers that they’ve risen on their shaky toddler writer legs and taken their first teetering steps on the writer’s journey.
I received my first rejection note in November.
After submitting my story, I told myself my first attempt would never get published. It was unreasonable to even expect such a thing. The ending was weak. The hook didn’t grab my beta readers, although I liked it. The editors were swamped under a large number of submissions and I probably wasn’t a good enough writer to compete. I told myself all that repeatedly, and my brain believed every word.
My heart, that treacherous organ, had other ideas.
Deep inside me, a dream kindled, a fantasy that my little story would run the gauntlet and appear in print.
I worked hard on that story, researching and sweating the details. Members of my writer’s group read it, and I listened and responded to their criticisms, rewriting and at times even dreaming about my character. My technical skills still needed work and parts of the story could be better, but I loved what I’d written, and that little flicker of optimism continued, because I wanted my hard work to mean something, not be wasted time.
I hoped to be able to tell my friends I was a “real” writer, a published author, and not sound like someone waiting tables telling everyone they’re an actor whose big break is just around the corner. I wanted validation.
I didn’t get it.
Ten minutes after I read the rejection, I was a soggy, crying mess, wanting to chuck the entire idea of writing into the trash bin. Maybe concentrate on an endeavor that might actually make some money and that wasn’t such an emotional minefield.
But after the crying jag and a series of “you can do whatever you set your mind to” pep talks and hugs from my poor husband, I stuffed my irrational hopes back down to the bottom of my treacherous heart and turned my brain back on.
I could tell myself that too many stories competed for too many slots or that the editors needed to balance the anthology and other stories fit better. I could rationalize forever, but to get past this hurdle, to learn my lesson, I had to face the truth, which was that the best story I’d written so far wasn’t good enough.
A few days later after I finished navigating the emotional whirlwind and landed in the grim “I’ve come this far, I’m not going to quit” phase, one of my fellow Roaring Writers lent me a shoulder. She told me that the first rejection is the worst, a gut-wrenching body blow because apparently that little niggling hope that “I will beat the odds” is normal.
One thing my writing mentors have repeatedly said is that writers get rejected and if you can’t cope with those polite no thank you letters, do something else for sanity’s sake. I was shaken by how badly I’d reacted to news I expected to hear. But after talking with my friend, I didn’t feel quite so horrible. Maybe stomping out that little flame of “it can’t happen to me” is part of the process, and my armor will be somewhat thicker for the next rejection, because there will be another one and another. Coping with rejections and learning from them is a crucible all writers must pass through.
As my head cleared I realized something else. My hard work resulted in the finest story I’d written so far, not good enough to be included in the anthology, but certainly my best to date. Time spent on that story wasn’t “wasted,” and if I keep learning and practicing, I’ll create better stories that someday will appear in print, perhaps before my millionth word, perhaps not, but I’m a better writer today than I was four months ago and no one can take that from me.