Jonnie Martin is a novelist and blogger who returned to her home state of Texas in 2012, settling into the Austin area, where she is exploring the notion of “place” and the western culture. She is seeking representation for her first novel, Wrangle, set on a quarter horse ranch in Hempstead, Texas. Jonnie regularly blogs about great literature, classic and modern, and the writers she follows (www.jonniemartin.com). She holds a BA in Literature and Creative Writing from Marylhurst University and an MFA in Fiction from Queens University of Charlotte.
HANDLING REJECTION OF YOUR WORK
Rejection – such an ugly word, and one that can send a writer into a deep blue funk for days. Or propel us into a slobbering rage. “How dare that [professor, workshop peer, agent, editor, reader] cast aspersions on my masterpiece [article, essay, short story, memoir, or great American novel]. Fortunately for me, I encountered rejection early in my writing career and came to terms with its contrary nature. It is indeed a bruise and a boon.
Although I had been an avid reader all my life, I was a gangly 14-year-old before I discovered I could write. All of the 9th grade “advanced English” students were placed in Goldie Ripper’s class and given the additional assignment of publishing our school newspaper. Writing came easy to me and I was energized by the chase, the hunt for good human interest stories, the battle of good v. evil through editorials, a journalism prize here and there.
I learned a great deal about writing from Mrs. Ripper, but absolutely nothing about rejection, and merrily went on my way to high school journalism (filled with petty jealousies and fights for power) and to a part-time position with the Arlington Citizen-Journal (with its professional standards and exacting ways). There I was introduced to rejection – and to my internal response to any form of criticism.
If writers are being candid, we must surely admit that our writing is an extension of self. Whether fiction or nonfiction, “we” are plastered all over the page. Our education, beliefs, preferences, loves, hates, and image of self are intricately entwined within the concepts and the words we use. And whenever someone dares to criticize that work, they are in effect attacking us. Personally.
I know – that sounds a little melodramatic – but it is very close to the truth. I used to wince every time the C-J managing editor Charles Hawkes changed a word; even a semi-colon. If he wanted a complete re-write, I felt I had been dealt a mortal blow.
Of course his editing of my work only made it better – tighter, to the point. Strong lead; details in reverse pyramid style so lesser data could be surgically removed. Fit the space allowed by the ever-important page advertising. Entertain, inform the reader. Marks of good journalism.
Benefits came with my acceptance of the process. I not only became a better writer, but I was invited into the fraternity. My initiation was a common one back in the late 1950’s. They told me an issue was running long and sent me to other newspapers and print shops looking for a “page stretcher.” Of course there is no such instrument; every print-guy in Arlington had a good laugh at another greenhorn; and I was now an insider!
It was a gentle introduction to this ugly process of rejection, and not every writer gets that opportunity. When we get to the rough-and-tumble world of agents and publishers, they are less interested in salving our wounds; the work is accepted or rejected; and even if accepted, may require a brutal revision of our manuscript.
Later I got a Bachelor’s in business and left journalism. More recently I returned to school and began to write novels. One would think that after 72 years of maturity that I had long ago mastered the emotional response to rejection – and one would be wrong. That deep connection of a writer to her product lasts forever. I dislike intensely any form of criticism of my writing – but I have learned to invite it inside and to listen carefully.
One of my good fortunes was in obtaining a second BA (this one in Literature and Creative Writing from Marylhurst) and an MFA in Fiction from Queens. Both of these schools used the workshop method, where team members exchange manuscripts and offer critiques, along with the professor.
I will tell you as I sat there awaiting feedback, what I hoped to hear was, “This is great stuff – you are ready to publish – get outta here.” What I heard was very different. Some encouraging thoughts to be certain – but also that I had a tendency to spool out my story at a slow pace. That I needed deeper character studies. More cause and effect. Ratchet up the drama. A villain or two. One pod member said, “It’s all too nice – kill somebody for God’s sake.”
Critiques feel just like any other form of rejection and a part of me resisted the onslaught. But I had learned as a journalist that my best work hid inside the draft, and that criticism was the opportunity to polish the work into greatness. Even today, I feel the pain, but now I walk right through it.
At this writing, I am through school. Have one book in research; one in revision; and one that I am taking out into the demanding world of publishing. I have begun the process to find an agent for Wrangle, a story of a woman managing her father’s quarter horse ranch in Texas in the 1970’s. I have sent queries, and as expected, received rejection notices.
I know the difficult stage is yet to come, where agents or editors will want me to change something in my absolutely-perfect-novel, and that will feel like a terrible rejection of my work. I already feel my resistance building at the very thought of it, and yet this is a trial I must undergo. I know to welcome this vetting process which pushes me to do my best writing and makes my books more marketable.
I am not sure that I have cogent advice for others on how to handle rejection in its many forms, but my own formula has worked something like this:
- Write my best work before submitting it for critique or publishing (revise, revise, revise).
- Force myself to listen to the feedback; particularly explore the areas of my greatest resistance.
- Use my negative response to criticism and rejection as energy to fuel improvement.
- In revision, stay true to my own writer’s voice; never lose the integrity and intention of my work.
- Never, ever let criticism or any other form of rejection become personal; they are only tools.