Dealing With the Shock of All Those “No”s

Fiction writers and salespeople have more in common than they realize. Just like doing cold-calling in sales, the journey to the first sale by a fiction writer goes like this:

“No, no, no, no, no, no, …” (typically this part in parenthesis has about 40 to 500 entries of No) “…, no, yes, no, …”  (more “No”s) “…, no, yes,  no, …” and on and on and on until the writer either 1) stops submitting work to editors, 2) quits, or 3) dies.

Every once in a while, fiction writers will encounter another writer who got a “Yes” the first time a story was ever submitted to an editor.  Rare, but it happens.  For a few seconds there’s a strong temptation by everyone else to hurl their pens at that person.  However, the profession of fiction writing is so rough and tumble that at some point that writer will get a long streak of “No”s that will balance out that easy “Yes” earlier on.

In last week’s blog post on “Fiction Writers and Learned Helplessness,” I did a thought experiment where I compared the submissions process to sticking your hand into a box where one of three things happened: 1) you got an electric shock for “No,” 2) nothing happened for the situation of no response, or 3) you got injected with an opiate for “Yes.”

I mentioned some of the mind games–such as setting up a scoring points system for submissions, or having a friendly competition with other writers to gather the most rejections–that fiction writers play to keep writing and submitting despite the frustration of getting a heavy flow of “No”s.

In this post, I want to explore some of the mental techniques that can be used to keep going.   These techniques are based on ones covered in Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman’s book Learned Optimism that were developed by studying groups that had to deal with a high flow of “No”s, like salespeople.

A writer who has a pessimistic mindset that sees each rejection as permanent (“I’ll never sell a story”), personal (“My writing always sucks”), and pervasive (“I’m a loser”) is going to have a hard time of it on the journey to that first “yes” from an editor.  I ought to know, since I’m a pessimist by nature, and had to teach myself not to talk to myself constantly in a defeatist manner.

The good news is, one can change how one reacts to rejection.  Let’s take the above three thoughts in order and explore how to do that.

Seeing rejection as permanent (i.e. “I’ll never sell a story.”)

Whenever the word “never” or “always” shows up in a negative thought, consider it a red flag.  Sure, the negative thought might be accurate, but the operative word is “might,” not “is.”  Too often, negative self-talk turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If I’m constantly telling myself “I’ll never sell a story,” I’ll lose the motivation to keep writing and submitting my stories, and this negative thought will in time become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Also, another fallacy in this negative thought is the assumption that one’s writing cannot improve.  When I had doubts about my craft, one of the best decisions I ever made was to find teachers whose writing I admired and go study with them as a student.

Seeing rejection as personal (“My writing always sucks.”)

Here’s another case of leaping to a negative conclusion when a “No” is encountered.  Here’s the ugly truth about the slush pile–the editor may have been in a bad mood or exhausted that day, and decided to do automatic form rejections for everyone in the slush pile regardless of merit. 

Beware of the usage of “my” and “I” in a negative thought about rejections.  There’s a big difference between saying, “This story sucks” vs. “My writing sucks.”  The second is much nastier in the self-inflicted attack.  The first will keep you calm enough to be able to look over your writing and learn from mistakes.

Seeing rejection as pervasive (“I’m a loser.”)

This is where the negative self-talk gets really ugly.  A writer gets a rejection, and immediately jumps to treating the rejection as a commentary on everything that the writer does (including non-writing activities) and who the writer is as a human being.   Please don’t do this–repetition of the “I am a loser” mantra will sabotage morale and motivation.  Again, it’s an attitude that turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy and makes it impossible to learn from mistakes.

So, that covers the problem of the three p’s (permanent, personal, pervasive) in dealing with rejections.  Also, finding ways to laugh at the whole submissions process helps a great deal–whether it’s writing a story that makes fun of it all, telling jokes, or throwing darts at rejection letters.  Try different tactics, and see what works.


I find I have more to say, and next Monday I will talk about some of our perceptions as writers of what we can and cannot control in publishing.  We often see things as “Yes or no,” “Open or shut,” and such, when the reality is more complicated than that.   There are mental techniques that can be used to brainstorm ways to try and gain more control of  a situation.

I will be on business travel, but will do my best to get internet access to post next Monday.

P.S.  If you would like to make a comment and have a Facebook account, you can go to my author page to write one. I completely forgot about it as an option for readers last week.

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