Ah, the rattle of the postbox, the flutter of letters on the door mat, the soft thud of disappointment: another rejection received. Even if knock-backs arrive by email these days, I still hear them old-school style. After all, it’s the unchanging soundtrack of a writer’s life writes Jo Furniss.
The ever-inspiring JK Rowling popped her head up recently to say ‘it’s all good: I got rejected plenty of times and then sold 450 million books’. So there. But I do wonder if she ever had the same manuscript rejected by the same agent twice, as happened to me recently. They hated it so much, they wrote to me twice. Just to be sure.
Happily, I trotted down to Joo Chiat to meet Shasta Grant, the award-winning short story writer who shared her advice on dealing with the big ‘no’.
Shasta: I do experience rejection; it doesn’t seem to end. Winning a competition or getting a couple of nice publications doesn’t mean you don’t get rejected any more.
SWAG: It’s almost like a rite of passage for writers, I think we enjoy it in some ways!
Shasta: I think we enjoy talking about it, even though we don’t enjoy getting the rejection. It’s something you have to go through and it makes your work stronger, if you keep looking at [the work] as the rejections come in, and you keep revising. You also learn to not submit your stories too early, and I think that if you learn to hold your stories back for longer and to keep working on them, you’ll experience less rejection.
SWAG: I was reading that rejection triggers activity in the region of the brain that registers physical pain, so it does literally hurt. This is an evolutionary process and it seems to me that rejection is so much a part of the evolutionary process of a writer as well.
Shasta: It hurts your soul, so I think it is like a physical pain. It does make you a better writer so it’s something we all have to go through. I’ve developed ways of coping with rejection and I’m better now than I used to be a couple of years ago when I took it really personally. I’ve created a separate folder on my email so I drag any rejections over to that folder so I don’t have to look at them all the time. I’m also part of a Facebook group where we share rejections – and acceptances as well. It’s really just a place you can go where people support and encourage you.
SWAG: That sense of community is so important, having someone to cheer you on.
Shasta: When we write, we’re usually in a vacuum. If the submission process is also in a vacuum it can be really hard. So if you find some writers and go through the ups and downs together, it really helps.
SWAG: I was interested in something you said in another interview about the concept of a “writing life of abundance”. What’s that all about?
Shasta: It was something that [the author] Caitlin Horrocks said – my summer workshop tutor at Kenyon Review – that resonated with me. It’s just the idea that there’s enough success to go around. If you’re leading a writing life of abundance instead of scarcity, you have faith in yourself and you can be genuinely happy for friends who get deals, get published because there’s enough success for everyone, there’s plenty.
SWAG: It reminds me of trying to get pregnant – when everyone else is suddenly pregnant and there’s a strange fear that there are only so many babies and everyone else has got all the babies. It’s a cruel irony that writers are inherently sensitive and yet we have to go through all this rejection – we have to have a thin skin and a thick skin all at the same time.
Shasta: We are the worst people to be putting ourselves up for rejection. You have to separate the writing process from the submission process. Try not to take it personally. Just because an editor has rejected one story, it just means that it wasn’t right for them at that moment in time.
SWAG: You’re now dealing with submissions, so you can see it from the other side, from the editor’s perspective.
Shasta: I was a prose editor at Storyscape Literary Journal for two years and I recently moved into a Managing Editor role there. I also read submissions for SmokeLong Quarterly as part of the Kathy Fish Fellowship. It’s really a great education, a learning experience, and I would encourage anyone to work for a journal, as you’ll see that it really is just about the work, it’s not personal. Even when we like stories and essays, we can’t always accept everything that comes in, and it’s not just one person [who makes that decision].
SWAG: Talking of editors, have you ever had any particularly useful feedback from an editor, notes that have helped you?
Shasta: I haven’t had a lot of feedback, usually its just a yes or no, because editors don’t have time to write notes. Some have been encouraging, such as ‘this is close’ or ‘this isn’t quite right, but I like your style’. Writers have to learn to take those close calls as little victories. It means you’re getting one step closer and then you can start establishing a relationship with an editor if they ask you to submit work again. Take those higher-tier rejections seriously.
SWAG: What do you mean by higher-tier rejections?
Shasta: Journals usually have different levels of rejection. There’s just a regular rejection, then there is the higher tier where they might give some feedback, or they’ll ask you to resubmit – you should really take a resubmit request seriously. You should keep trying.
SWAG: They’re not just being kind…
Shasta: No! Statistically, apparently, women don’t resubmit as much as men. It probably comes to a confidence issue, so women in particular should take it seriously when an editor asks you to resubmit.
SWAG: Is it worth following up on a rejection? Trying to convince an editor that a rejected story is actually fabulous…
Shasta: No, I wouldn’t recommend doing that. Most editors are working on a volunteer basis. I think you’re just setting yourself up to look unprofessional – just let it go.
Shasta Grant is the 2016 SmokeLong Quarterly Kathy Fish Fellow. She is also the winner of the 2015 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest. Her story, “Most Likely To,” was selected by final judge, Ann Patchett.
She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and her stories and essays have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Epiphany, Gargoyle, cream city review, Jelly Bucket, Wigleaf, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, WhiskeyPaper, and elsewhere. She is Managing Editor of Storyscape Journal.
Shasta Grant divides her time between Indianapolis and Singapore. Her award-winning short story “Most Likely To” can be found here.