Dealing With Rejection & Bad Reviews

I recently posted a new YouTube video called, “Dealing with rejection, bad reviews, and other fears that hold writers back”.

Here’s the transcript:

Hi everyone. I’m Ephiny Gale. Today, by request, I’m going to be talking about rejection, bad reviews, and other fears that can hold writers back.

Quick disclaimer: I’m primarily a short fiction writer, so when I talk about stories in the first part of this video I’m primarily talking about short fiction, but a lot of this discussion can apply to other formats as well. Got it? Okay.

Let’s start with rejection. I know a couple of people who are really serious about their writing careers and have written a huge amount of words, but they still haven’t submitted their writing because they don’t want to be rejected. I get it. My first couple of rejections really hurt. They felt like hearing, “Your writing isn’t good enough,” but genuinely, that’s not what they mean. At worst, they mean, “This particular story isn’t good enough.” It’s not a judgment on your writing overall and it’s certainly not a judgment on you as a person.

Beyond, “This story isn’t good enough,” which is sometimes but certainly not always the case, there are plenty of reasons why your story might be rejected. The first one is that it doesn’t quite match up with what the editor is looking for. They’re looking for something dark and gritty and your story is a little bit too light to match the tone that they’re after. Or you’ve submitted to a resistance call and the editors can’t understand how your story matches with that resistance theme, so they reject it. This may have happened to me.

My time as a theatre director really helped me with this concept. Sometimes an amazing actor would audition for me, but I just didn’t have the right role for them. Let’s say I was trying to cast Katniss Everdeen in a reboot of The Hunger Games and Angelina Jolie walks in. Angelina Jolie is a brilliant actress, I’d love to cast her in something, but I can’t realistically cast her as a teenage girl. So I would have to reject her, not because she doesn’t impress me, but because she doesn’t match the opportunity that I have.

Another reason your story might be rejected is the editor’s taste. We all have our own likes and dislikes. I’m a fantasy fan who doesn’t particularly care for Lord of the Rings – sacrilege, I know, but if you tried to sell me a story like that I wouldn’t buy it. Now, obviously, Lord of the Rings is enormously successful and hugely beloved, so rejection according to an editor’s taste doesn’t mean that your story isn’t good or that plenty of other people aren’t going to like it. It just means that it wasn’t for them.

Other reasons why your perfectly good story might be rejected:
You submitted a mermaid story and they’ve already accepted a mermaid story for the next issue.
They have a budget for 10 stories and yours is number 11. This also happened to me.
Your story was 5,000 words long and it was cheaper to buy the 3,000 word story that was equally as good.
Or they like your story eight out of ten, but they only buy stories that they like nine or ten out of ten.
I’m sure I’m forgetting lots of reasons that editors have for rejecting good stories, but I think you get the idea. You can have an excellent story on your hands and still get plenty of rejections for it.

The short story of mine that’s most well known, called ‘In the Beginning, All Our Hands are Cold’ was rejected 11 times over the course of about a year before it was picked up by Syntax & Salt. It then went on to win the 2018 Best of the Net award. When I was a teenager I used to submit my stories only once or twice, and if they hadn’t gotten an acceptance by then I’d give up on them. Don’t do this. I’ve sold stories to good markets after they’ve been rejected 20 or 30 or even 44 times. The 45th time was the charm. Once you’ve sold the story you won’t remember what markets have rejected it or how many times it’s been rejected. Or at least, I don’t. I had to look up those figures on my Duotrope account. The market that accepts it won’t know how many times it’s been rejected before, they just know that they love it and want to publish it. The readers who read it won’t know how many times it’s been rejected before it got that acceptance, they just know that it’s been published with care. Rejections are just stepping stones on your way to an acceptance.

It doesn’t always take so long to get an acceptance. I’ve sold plenty of stories with only two to three rejections each. However, I’ve only ever sold one story to the very first place that I submitted it to. Rejection is just a part of the game. Writers who never or only rarely receive rejections are unicorns who are either geniuses, already famous, or consistently submitting to markets beneath their skill level.

So please, if you believe in a piece that you’ve written, submit it. Start to get those rejections rolling in. They’ll hurt a lot less after the first dozen or so, believe me. I have received hundreds of rejections over my last eight years or so of professional writing and they don’t hurt at all anymore. They’re just a trigger to send that piece out to the next market. Maybe the next one will be a match.

If you’re having a lot of trouble selling a story, you could consider:
Is it worth revising that story? I’ve come back to a finished story many months later, cut a thousand words, and then sold that stronger version.
Are you submitting to the right markets? The first couple of stories that I tried to sell were fine, but nothing amazing. I sold them to token markets. They wouldn’t have sold to professional-rate markets.
Absolutely, aim high, but if you’re amassing a large number of rejections for a single story you might want to consider targeting markets that are a little less prestigious. Getting a couple of sales under your belt, even if they’re not to big name markets like The New Yorker, can do a lot to boost your confidence and early writing career. But if you really like your story, don’t give up on it. Don’t stop submitting until you’ve exhausted that list of markets that you’d be happy to submit to. You never know when you might get your yes.

Now let’s talk about bad reviews, which I think generally fall into one of two categories. I’ll start the first category with a quick anecdote. When I was 19, a play that I’d written called ‘How to Direct from Inside’ was performing at a lovely, famous little theatre called La Mama. One of the three biggest newspapers in my state gave it three and a half stars, which at the time felt like an arrow to the heart. All I could see were those empty one and a half stars. Someone a decade older than me said, “That’s a positive review from The Age. People would kill for that.” And of course, I couldn’t see that at the time, but I was indeed very lucky. I was lucky to have my play on at such a great venue. I was lucky to have a review in that newspaper, and I was especially lucky that it was a positive review. Three and a half stars is still a positive review. Three stars is still a positive review. Especially on Goodreads, where three stars on their rating system literally means, “I liked it.” I’d even go so far as to say a two star review, depending on the context, isn’t necessarily a bad review. Again, on Goodreads, two star means, “It was okay.” If I leave a two star review on a book it means it was fine. I don’t regret reading it. I didn’t dislike it.

So that’s category one: reviews that feel bad, but that aren’t actually bad reviews. You might still feel that arrow to the heart feeling sometimes, but it really does help to keep this in perspective. Most reviews are more positive than they will initially feel to you.

But what if they’re not positive reviews? What if someone gives you one star, or they flat out say they didn’t like it? Well, then we’re in category two, and my main message for category two is: nothing you make is going to be for everyone. Nothing anybody makes is going to be for everyone. If you navigate to your favorite book on Goodreads, unless very few people have read it there are going to be some one star reviews. That doesn’t mean that the book is bad. It also doesn’t mean that the people leaving those reviews are wrong. It just wasn’t for them. Maybe a book was written for 12 year old girls who like fantasy, but a sixty-year-old man who usually only reads westerns didn’t like it. One good thing that negative reviews CAN mean is that a book is successful enough that it’s being read outside of its target audience.

But okay, what if they ARE in your particular target audience and they don’t like it? There are still lots of reasons that they might not like it that isn’t, ‘it’s a bad story’. They might not like that particular writing style, or that sub-genre, or a particular trope that you’ve used. It could be something really petty, like you’ve used the word ‘moist’ a few times in the story and they really hate that word. There are a couple of foods where, if they were mentioned more than a couple of times throughout a text, that might negatively affect my feelings towards that story. It’s completely irrational, but I have a disgust reaction towards those foods and I don’t want to read about them. You cannot please everybody.

Most similar writing fears that I’m aware of relate to book sales. I had a friend in high school who was a terrific writer. She was much better than teenage me. Most of what she was writing was probably perfectly publishable, even at 17, but she had this real fear that her books were going to be sitting outside of bookstores in bargain bins, and that this would mean that her writing was awful and no-one wanted it. To me, having my books in bargain bins would have meant the opposite: it would mean that my books were successful enough to be in bookstores and in fact, that they were SO successful that bookstores had more of them than they knew what to do with. Now, neither of our outlooks were exactly right, but there is definitely a level of success achieved when bookstores are stocking multiple copies of your book, even if they don’t sell all of them. It means you probably have an agent. You have a good publisher. There’s a certain level of hype around your book that means that bookstores are acquiring multiple copies in the first place.

And disappointing book sales, like everything else that we’ve discussed in this video, are not an indication of a bad book. Particularly if you are with a good publisher, disappointing sales are more likely to be a result of marketing and publicity – that it’s hard to get the book into the right hands – than anything wrong with the book. Even if your book doesn’t reach the millions of readers that you’re hoping for, it will still probably reach hundreds of readers that love it dearly, and that counts for a lot.

So, the key takeaways from this video:
Don’t worry about rejections. You’re almost certainly going to get rejections. Write anyway. Submit anyway.
Don’t worry about bad reviews. Your writing isn’t going to be for everyone. Nobody’s writing is for everyone. Write anyway. Submit anyway.
Don’t worry about bad sales. It isn’t a reflection on the quality of your writing. Write anyway. Submit anyway.

If you enjoyed this video I’d love it if you could give me a like to let me know, and subscribe if you want to see similar videos in the future. I’ll discuss other aspects of writing and publishing short fiction, and probably some other mediums as well. If you have any questions or a particular topic that you want me to cover, please let me know in the comments.

Thanks so much for watching. Bye.

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