How to Embrace Rejection and Keep Writing

Rejection is inevitable if you want to be published, so thicken your skin, baby. 

On September 14, 2017, I crossed a big-ticket item off my bucket list. Not only had I completed a 75,000 word romance novel, a bucket list feat in itself, I submitted it to Harlequin Historical Romance for consideration. Pressing the submit button gave me the most amazing sense of joy, accomplishment, and lightness. I had poured my heart and soul into that story and its characters on and off for years. Now I had let it go and the results, mercifully, were out of my hands.

Evolution of a novel
A few years ago, I sent the manuscript in novella form to Harlequin’s Undone line, an eBook division. Two years later, I received an apologetic email from an editor stating that they had shut down the line and only recently realized the email account linked to it was still active. They encouraged me to submit to another line, which meant I needed to expand my story by about 50,000 words.

Inspired that an editor had emailed me for any reason, I lengthened the manuscript and submitted it, this time to Avon Romance. They never got back to me, which serves me right for betraying Harlequin! In retrospect, my query letter and synopsis were pretty awful and I should not have sent a sex scene as the sample of the best scene in the manuscript. I still cringe (and giggle) when I imagine the horror the editor must have felt when she read that scene, if she bothered to read it at all.

Learning from those mistakes, I revised the story rather extensively, wrote a new query and synopsis, and submitted them along with the first three chapters, as requested, to Harlequin. Three months later, I received the best rejection ever, which was a rather detailed and constructive critique of my story. I was so grateful that someone had actually read what I’d written and taken the time to respond! (See rejection letter below if you want.)

Using that critique as a guide, I am back to work on a new historical romance novel. A colleague who has been published suggested that I work with the original manuscript. He read Harlequin’s critique as saying that they thought the piece had promise with some changes. I read it as I should start all over. Regardless of one’s interpretation, it feels right to start fresh with a new story line and characters.

Embracing rejection
I have learned so much from the experience and process of writing and submitting that novel and I want to share it with you.

  1. It takes an incredible amount of time, energy, and perseverance to complete a 75,000 word story. Passion alone will not see you through to the end, though it helps. Kudos to those of us who actually do it, regardless of whether the piece is published.
  2. Be willing to be vulnerable and put yourself and your story out there for the world to see. Some of the feedback will be helpful and encouraging, some will not. We have no control over that, so let it go. Develop an open mind and thick skin. The former will help you sift through the criticism and use it to grow and improve; the latter you will need to keep from wallowing in anger or self-pity and giving up.
  3. You will fail, be rejected, make mistakes, and want to give up. DON’T!  Listen to the criticism, embrace the rejections, and use them to make you a better writer!
  4. The more you write, the more you read, and the more open-minded you are to constructive feedback, the better you’ll get at  writing. Even your worst writing is not wasted! All is practice for what comes next.
  5. Try to assess your writing objectively, especially when revising, editing, and taking in feedback. Don’t become so attached to a word, phrase, scene or character that you can’t see reason. Killing your darlings is a skill set in itself. Get comfortable with it.
  6. Fear not rejection! Fear never having tried in the first place. Enjoy the writing process, look forward to submitting your work, and consider your rejection letters to be badges of honor! They mean that you have written something you care deeply about, submitted it, and taken another step toward your dream. How many people can say they’ve done that?

If you have any words of wisdom you would like share about writing and publishing, please leave them in the comments section!

For those of you interested, here is the rejection I received from Harlequin (a huge thank you to that editor!):

Dear Kim,

Thank you for submitting Sweet Irish Kisses for our consideration. The story has interesting characters and you have a lively way with words. However, regretfully it is unsuitable for publication on the Harlequin Historical list at the current time.

Here are some areas for you to think about, should you choose to submit again.

Character Motivations: 
This story has lots of very exciting, dramatic plot points that we thoroughly enjoyed. However, while they are dramatic, it’s unclear why your characters are choosing to behave in this way, on an internal, emotional level. For instance, your heroine chooses to engage with your hero very quickly, when she might, perhaps, be naturally more suspicious, and in particular the kiss does feel a bit out-of-the-blue. Equally, your hero does not seem to question this. You might like to think about layering in your characters thought processes further, so that we can see why they are acting in this way. Establishing layered, deep-seated, internal motivations for this will make your characters more believable and engaging.

The Alpha Male: 
Perhaps tying in with the above, and indeed the matter of emotional conflict, it’s crucial that a Historical hero is powerful and commanding, regardless of his economic background. While your hero is very likeable, he doesn’t quite fulfil the fantasy of the above traits. It’s important than in his interactions with every other character, he feels thoroughly in charge; it’s also important that he feels motivated by his emotional conflicts, rather than external situations. We would suggest that in future, you focus your hero on his more commanding traits, who embodies that aspirational alpha male which readers look for in the series.

Emotional conflict driving the twists and turns of the story:
The main area to work on would be the emotional conflict between your hero and heroine. With this submission, there is a lot of focus on your characters immediate, dramatic behaviour, and as mentioned above, without much motivation. This is preventing the reader getting straight to the heart and the emotional impact of their backstories and conflicts. We’re sure there is a wealth of potential emotional conflict that prevent these two from coming together, however, it is the external intrusion of external circumstances that forces the twists and turns in their relationship. Emotional conflict is vital to any romance as it is this that pushes characters through their story and provides the grounding for their emotional turning points so that they can evolve and develop as their relationship does.
Digging really deep into their past hurts and using this to creating that ‘will they, won’t they’ tension throughout the story will keep readers turning the pages. To develop this there needs to be an almost insurmountable emotional obstacle within both characters that stops them being together. It is then important for your reader to see both your hero and heroine overcome their emotional concerns through their relationship and come to a happy and emotionally satisfying resolution at the end of the story.

If you are interested in pursuing Historical as a series to write for, we would recommend exploring the series guidelines and reading as many books from the Cherish series to be able to deliver on our series promise. A few excellent recent examples are Lord Hunter’s Cinderella Heiress by Lara Temple, A Pregnant Courtesan for the Rake by Diane Gaston, and The Wallflower’s Mistletoe Wedding by Amanda McCabe.

We are sorry to disappoint you on this occasion but hope you find this feedback helpful.
Thank you for your continuing interest in Harlequin Mills & Boon.

Yours sincerely,
Editorial.

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Behind Closed Doors – A Short Story

Note: This 1800 word short story evolved from a Writer’s Digest prompt. The challenge was to begin and end it with the very first and last sentences of the story, which WD provided. This is the first time I’m sharing it with anyone, which is kind of scary. It’s rough and flawed, but it’s mine.

It was on a bright and starry night that I visited the traveling circus that had rolled into town. Mama and me had moved to Shelby four months ago, after she left Daddy and took me with her. I hated it here, but not as much as I hated the new boyfriend she’d already shacked up with. She’d known Brett back when he was a football star at Shelby High School. Now he was a loser handyman who drank too much and couldn’t stop looking at my chest whenever mama’s back was turned.

Mama waitressed nights at a local diner, where she’d “reconnected” with Brett. In an effort to avoid his creepy glances, I started hanging at the town library after school. The former one-room schoolhouse was home to Shelby’s misfits; homeless people, nerds and geeks who actually liked to study, dregs who lived on the margins of society. Me.

It was a geek named Devin, my only real friend since moving to Shelby, who suggested we go to the circus.

“Don’t you know that circus people mistreat animals?” I said. “They, like, keep them locked up and whip them into submission.”

“Yeah, so?” said Devin.

“So, don’t you think we’re contributing to animal cruelty if we go?”

He shrugged.

“You’re heartless,” I said. “Anyway, I don’t have money for a ticket. It’s impossible to get a job in this God forsaken town.”

He grinned. “Who says we’re gonna pay to get in?”

I was fascinated. “What do you mean?”

“You’ll see.”

It was a twenty minute walk to where the circus had set up in the parking lot of an abandoned shopping plaza. The dirty imprint of a former Save A Lot sign towered over the rundown buildings. The tent, bright and white, looked out of place in its sorry surroundings.

Circus Tent Two

Families were lined up near the entrance, waiting to get in. A large sign stated, Workers needed to assist with animals. No experience required. Good pay. Must be willing to travel. I felt a pang of guilt, but tried to ignore the fact that we were aiding and abetting the exploitation of circus animals just by being here.

“This way,” said Devin, taking my hand and guiding me away from the crowd.

I was sixteen years old, but it was the first time a boy had ever held my hand.

We weaved through dozens of trailers and people who could only be part of the circus. A man in a bright colored costume walked by on stilts. In the doorway of a trailer, a morbidly obese women wearing a tutu smoked a cigarette. A boy who didn’t look much older than us led a white horse, adorned with pink plumes and a silver saddle, through a slit in the tent. No one seemed to notice us.

“See that,” said Devin, pulling me behind a trailer and pointing at the slit. “That’s the back entrance. We’ll sneak in.”

“Are you crazy? Someone might see us. We could get arrested. Or worse.”

He laughed. “Don’t be such a chicken.”

I glared at him. “I’m not chicken, but I’m not stupid either. How do you know about this place anyway?”

“I came last night.”

“You did?” I was more than a little amazed. Devin seemed like such a geek. Too geeky to do something so daring.

“Come on,” he said. “We’re wasting time.”

He looked to the left, then to the right, and in an instant I was pulled inside the tent.

“Just act normal. Like you belong here.”

We continued to hold hands as we made our way through the hustle and bustle of animals and entertainers. I followed Devin’s lead, holding my back straight and head high, my gaze directly ahead. In a moment, we reached the entrance to the show.

“This way,” he said.

He led me around the arena and on to the bleachers. We climbed halfway up and sat down. Only when I let out a long sigh did I realize I’d been holding my breath.

“I can’t believe we did it,” I said. “You are so amazing.”

He looked at me and smiled. I noticed his chest puff up a bit.

We stayed for the entire show, and not once did I think of the poor, exploited animals. I was too busy basking in the glory of holding a boy’s hand, of feeling alive and invincible as I never had before. When the show ended, we left through the main entrance. Devin walked me home.

We stopped when we reached the sidewalk in front of my house. The lights were off inside, except for the blue glare of the TV flickering through the windows.

“Going to the library tomorrow?” Devin said.

“Yeah.”

“See you there.”

He hesitated a moment, and I wondered if he might kiss me. He didn’t. Instead, he squeezed my hand before walking away. I went into the house, taking care not to let the screen door slam behind me.

Brett was asleep on the couch. Empty beer cans were piled on the coffee table. A show about Sasquatch sightings played on the TV.

I crept past him as quietly as I could, hoping to make it to my bedroom without being noticed. I’d nearly reached the hallway when I heard him say, “That you, Mae?”

I froze.

“Where you been, girl? Come here and sit down.”

I turned and made my way to the couch, sitting as far from him as possible. He lit a cigarette, took a long drag, and looked at me through glassy eyes, before turning his head away to blow out the smoke.

“Where you been?” he said again.

He leaned back against the couch and stretched his left arm out along its back. His hand was almost touching my shoulder.

“At the circus.”

“That so.”

He took another drag of the cigarette, this time exhaling the smoke toward me. I waved it away, sickened by it, and by the smell of his breath, which reeked of alcohol. Everything in me screamed to get up, now, run to my room, and lock the door. Against my will, I stayed put.

“Who’d you go with? A boy?”

“No, just some friends from school.”

He reached out and tugged on my hair. “Your hair looks pretty down. You should wear it like that more.”

I jerked my head away. “When is mom coming home?”

My words had the impact I’d hoped for. He scowled and moved his hand away, though not before his fingertips lightly brushed my right breast. I shivered with revulsion and something else, shame maybe.

“Soon. You’d best get to bed. She’d be pissed she knew you was out so late.”

He cracked open a beer and turned his attention to the TV.

Safe in my room with the door locked, I sat on the bed and hugged my knees to my chest, fighting back tears. Why had mama brought this scum into our house?  Daddy might be a little rough around the edges, but truckers had to be to survive long hours on the road. At least he had a real job and was decent. I knew with all my heart he’d never look at a sixteen year old girl the way Brett looked at me.

“Where are you, Daddy?” I whispered. “I need you.”

I had to pee, but there was no way I was going back out there until my mama came home. I laid back on the bed and watched the streams of moonlight coming in through the window cast shadows across my bare legs. Images from the circus floated through my mind.

There was the beautiful blonde horsewoman, dressed in a pink sequined leotard, who stood on the back of the white horse as it galloped around the ring. The husband and wife team who made their flying trapeze act look like a lovers’ dance. The sound of the crowd gasping in unison as a tightrope walker started to lose his balance, then the clapping when he regained it. The strong sense of belonging and comradery among the performers and their animals, which I longed to be a part of.

The sound of voices raised in anger roused me. Mama was yelling at Brett, calling him a drunken bum, a loser, a phony ass former football star. He was saying vial things to her, things Daddy would never say to any woman, let alone one he lived and shared a bed with.

A loud crash brought the argument to an abrupt end. I was afraid for my mother’s safety, but fear of what might happen to me if I left my room kept me frozen in place. After a short silence, I heard someone creep past my door. In a moment a door shut, and then I heard mama crying. Brett turned up the volume on the TV.

I wondered if her tears held regret. To this day, I didn’t understand why she’d left Daddy. They hardly ever argued. He almost never drank. He always remembered to bring her flowers on their anniversary. True, his job took him away from us a lot, but that was a sacrifice we all had to make for a decent roof over our heads, food in our bellies, and a two week vacation at the beach every summer.

Once, when I asked why she’d left him, she told me not to judge, that people couldn’t know what happened between a man and wife behind closed doors. Her explanation sounded lame to me. I loved my mother, but she was stupid. She didn’t know how good we’d had it with Daddy, closed doors or not. For no good reason that I could see, she’d ruined her life, and was about to ruin mine if I didn’t do something to stop it.

The solution came to me suddenly, but I knew in an instant that it was the right one. I stood up in the dark, hugging myself and smiling. Tonight was the last I would spend in this crummy little house with that creepy bum. Devin would be surprised when I didn’t show up at the library tomorrow. My parents would be mad at first, but I didn’t care.

I didn’t know what my future held, but I knew one thing for sure. Brett would never lay a creepy eye or hand on me again. First thing tomorrow, I was joining the circus.
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Want to give your own story a go? Begin it with, It was on a bright and starry night that I visited the traveling circus that had rolled into town., and end it with, First thing tomorrow, I was joining the circus. See where the story takes you, and please feel free to share a link to it in the comments!