Vlog: Failing Better

1 Feb

This week Savannah J. Foley discusses failure and rejection as a writer, and what to do about it:


And for those who can’t watch the vlog at this moment, or just plain don’t like to watch vlogs, here’s a quick and dirty transcript of what I say:

Failing Better:

Failure is the constant companion of writers, whether it’s failure from agents, editors, publishers, reviewers, your friends, or the muse itself.

Rejection has a negative connotation, but today I’m going to challenge you to think about rejection in a new light. Rejection is like the game Battleship. You throw out your shots, and maybe you won’t hit anything. But that’s good. That shows you where your target isn’t.

It’s the same with submissions. Whether you’re submitting to a literary magazine, an agent, or a publisher, all a rejection means it that your target isn’t here. Now, the choices are narrowed and there’s one less possibility of where your success is residing.

“This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address’. Just keep looking for the right address.”
-Barbara Kingsolver

Also, just because you get a rejection doesn’t mean that the writing itself is bad. Perhaps it wasn’t to the editors taste, or perhaps your writing was good, but it wasn’t the right fit for the place you submitted it to.

A few years ago I decided that I wanted to get published in a literary magazine because I had heard that you should build up your writing credits for when you start to query agents so that you’ll be taken more seriously. So, I had this short story that I thought was pretty awesome, so I sent it to the Paris Review. And I got a form rejection.

It wasn’t that my story was bad. My story was -and is- kind of kickass, but it wasn’t right for the Paris Review. It was a dark, coming-of-age horror story and I think the editors at the Paris Review decided it wasn’t a tone or topic that fit with their magazine.

Almost the same thing happened to me again last week. For those of you who didn’t know, my first novel, Antebellum, which was published at Fictionpress under the name of Woman’s World, has been out on submissions with editors for a few months now. And last Friday my agent emailed me to tell me that we had gotten a rejection letter. And the only reason she wrote to tell me this is that it was an awesome rejection letter.

The editor who read my book adored it and the characters, and said she couldn’t wait to come to work in the morning and read it, but she felt that perhaps the issues dealt with in that book were a bit mature for it’s targeted audience of Young Adults, and while she loved the book, ultimately it wasn’t right for her YA publishing house.

Now, my question to you is… did I fail? Yes, I failed. I got a rejection. But that rejection is the closest I’ve come to being published ever in my life! So, you might say that while I’m failing, I’m failing better than I ever have before.

And that’s the way to deal with rejection and failure. I was thrilled to receive that rejection letter. It made my weekend. It told me I was doing something right, even if I wasn’t going to be published right at that moment. And you know what? I was thrilled to even receive the form rejection letter from the Paris Review. It told me that I was doing something right. I was already writing, already submitting, and that rejection letter told me that I had come farther along in the publishing process than I ever had before at that time.

To all you young writers out there, keep your rejection letters. Cherish them! They show that you’re already doing something amazing! You are a young, talented writer who’s clued in and already beginning the process of getting published! Some people don’t start that process until after they’re thirty, and lots more start even later!

As Stephen King wrote in his autobiography/instruction book On Writing, when he began the submissions process he nailed a giant nail into his bedroom wall, and every time he got a rejection letter he pushed it through the nail so pretty soon he had this huge stack of rejection letters coming out of the side of his wall. And they inspired him. They showed him how much he’d already done, and gave him the inspiration to keep going until he finally got an acceptance letter.

And while I may not advocate hammering a hole into your wall, I do advocate using your rejections as inspiration. They show you how far you’ve come, and how far you have left to go. Remember, rejection is like the game battleship. It shows you where your success isn’t, and creates sort of an outline over where your success is and will be.

So, my challenge to you is to not think of failure as this one big, end all pit of despair. Failure isn’t always bad. Failure is like a ladder. You get a form rejection, form rejection, do a re-edit, form rejection, then a form rejection with a comment. Then a page of comments. Then an acceptance. It’s a process.

In conclusion, you can’t take rejection personally. Publishing is a business. It’s not like you asked the Publishing Industry out on a date and they looked you up and down and said no way. They’re trying to find the best fit for their publication. Remember, it may not be that your writing is bad, it could be that the editor was in a bad mood that day, or has bad taste, or just wasn’t feeling it, or they were full up on stories that month. There are a million reasons why your story could be rejection that are unrelelated to anything you’ve done.

Rejection doesn’t necessarily mean you are a bad writer, or you made a bad story. It simply means you got a rejection. And that’s it.

Rejection happens to the best of us. Not nearly enough to the worst of us (I could name some names), but definitely to the best of us. Consider the following  (List came from InkyGirl.com):

  • John Kennedy Toole was told that his novel “isn’t really about anything.” He won a Pulitzer
  • John Le Carre was told that “he hasn’t got any future.”
  • Yasmine Galenorn was rejected 600 times before her first sale!
  • James Patterson was rejected 26 times.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin was told that her novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, was ‘unreadable.’
  • William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, was rejected 20 times.
  • James Patterson was rejected 26 times.
  • Let’s not forget J. K. Rowling, who wrote Harry Potter and was rejected over 100 times before HP sold.
  • And finally, Ray Bradbury and C. S. Lewis were rejected 800 times before his first sale!

So you know what? Until you’ve been rejected 800 times, I don’t want to hear about it! After that 800th rejection we can talk, but until then you are on the hook to keep trying!

“Defeat is not the worst of failures. Not to have tried is the worst failure.” -George E. Woodberry.

If you’re a young writer who’s already submitting, then you’re already a winner in my book. Maybe it’ll take you a couple of years more to get published. Maybe your book needs a couple more revisions, or maybe there’s not an agent out there who’s a good fit for you, or maybe there’s not a publisher revolutionary enough to take your work.

But, success will happen, IF you’re dedicated to being a writer. I don’t know how many times I can keep saying this: It will happen! It will happen!

Failing is okay. We all fail. But today I challenge you to fail better than you ever have before.


Savannah J. Foley is the author of the Antebellum (originally known as Woman’s World) series on Fictionpress. She has written five novels, owns her own freelance writing company, and is signed with the Bradford Literary Agency. Antebellum is currently out on submissions. Her website is www.savannahjfoley.com, but she updates more frequently on her livejournal.

4 Responses to “Vlog: Failing Better”

  1. A. Laska February 1, 2010 at 4:35 PM #

    This was one of the most inspiring and heartening thing I’ve ever heard!! You’ve completely converted me – I will forever welcome rejection and failure 😀

    “So you know what? Until you’ve been rejected 800 times, I don’t want to hear about it! After that 800th rejection we can talk, but until then you are on the hook to keep trying!”

    thank you thank you thank you!

    • svonnah February 3, 2010 at 8:33 PM #

      Haha, you’re welcome. Glad to help.

  2. Alexandra Shostak February 1, 2010 at 6:35 PM #

    I adore this vlog, as you already know. It’s such a fantastic perspective on rejection, and a really unique one. I’ve never had it explained to me quite the way you did. Very effective.

    And hopefully I find 800 places to submit to, so that I can whine at you and you’ll have to talk to me 😉

  3. Helena November 8, 2010 at 8:58 AM #

    What an excellent post, this really lifted my spirits on this grey, cold November day in London. I’ve linked it to my latest blog post – hope you don’t mind.

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