Guest post by Ian McHugh

If you’re writing for publication, you’re going to encounter rejection a lot. As a short story writer, and even now that I’m selling most of my stories to professionally paying markets, my submissions still get rejected about nine times in every ten. So for my thirty-odd original sales, I have somewhere upwards of three hundred rejections. And it’s harder to sell novels than short stories.

So how do you cope with riding the all-stops bus to Rejection Central? A lot of people try to pretend that rejection doesn’t bother them, or play mental games with themselves to try and avoid the sting. I think that’s a mistake. Rejection feels awful and the prospect of failure is frightening. I think it’s better to be honest with yourself about that. I’ve touched on some of this before, and the basic mechanics of Step 2 for getting published (submit the damn thing), but here’s my rules for surviving as a writer:

  • Embrace insanity: In submitting, do like Einstein said – the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. Unless you get feedback that inspires you, send your manuscript straight back out somewhere else.
  • Set yourself up for rejection: Shoot high and ride the rejections down. If you don’t start at the top, how will you know if your work is good enough to sell at the top of the market?
  • Set yourself up for disappointment: Always assume that your story will sell where you send it. Don’t let yourself think that you have no chance. Otherwise you might find you’re avoiding publishers that you think are beyond you.
  • Embrace the disappointment: You sent your story to the place that just rejected it because you want your work published there. That’s why you’ll send your next story there, too, and the one after that.
  • But know when enough is enough: There isn’t a home for every story. Or at least, the best home for some stories is your Trunk (from which they will likely never again emerge except in the form of harvested body parts). You’ll know for any given story only when you run out of potential homes for it that are better than your Trunk.
  • Be clinical: Keep track of whether each submission got a form rejection or a personal response (especially a ‘please send us something else’) so you know whether to persist with the story or trunk it, and whether to persist at that publisher.
  • Have doubts: When an editor or agent rejects your story, act as if they’re wrong (and send it out again, I mean – don’t ever argue with them). But remember that they might be right, and this story might be rubbish. Doubt is healthy if it makes you strive to do better next time.
  • Ignore your doubts: Don’t re-read and re-edit your story after every time it gets rejected. That way lies darkness, rejectomancy and despair. Don’t try to glean insights from the one-line form dismissal from a busy slush reader. They aren’t there.
  • Keep plenty of irons in the fire: Acceptance is the prize. Lots of rejections are an indicator that you’re failing often enough to be giving yourself the best chance of success. Have as much work as you can out to market at once.
  • Show off: Writing for publication is all about showing off. Take every chance you get to do so. Just don’t be a jerk about it.
  • Be afraid: Failure is a very real prospect and you may die wondering. In the words of Carrie Fisher: “Be afraid. But do it anyway.”

I have one more rule but, before I get to it, I’ll pause for a couple of brief anecdotes:

First anecdote: When my daughter was small, I was her primary carer and used to take her to a weekly playgroup. She’d generally fall asleep in the pram walking home. On this one particular day, I got her out of the pram at home and discovered that her nappy had leaked and she was soaked through. Not even her socks had survived. So I stripped off the wet things, sat her by the patio doors and went to get a change of clothes. I was gone for maybe a minute.

When I came back, I discovered she’d pooed on the carpet, and she smiles up at me with poo on her hands and face and chest. There’s poo prints on the glass in front of her and she’s wiped her legs through it like windscreen wipers to make poo angels across the carpet. And I immediately realised that there was no way I could pick this kid up without getting poo on myself, because picking little kids up triggers their flap reflex and there was poo at the end of everything flappable.

So I stripped off my clothes and took her into the shower to clean her up. When my kids were little, I used to lie them face-down along my forearm to shower them, with their arms and legs hanging over the sides. So I held her that way and cleaned her off, then cleaned the poo off myself, got us dressed and went to deal with the mess in the lounge room. My daughter was as happy as Larry throughout the whole thing and, as poo-related mishaps go, it’s a very warm memory.

Second anecdote: When I was a kid, I lived in the far north-west of Canberra and my mates and I would cycle across town to the Police Boys Club in the city centre to mess about in the gym. Going into the city, we’d often go the longer way, over the ridge to the west of Black Mountain and down to Lake Burley Griffin, because from the top of the ridge to the lake was a three kilometre downhill run.

We’d belt down it as fast as we could, way beyond the point where our crappy old ten-speeds got the death rattles. About halfway down, there was a right-angle turn and, if you missed it, you were off down a short slope and into the middle of the freeway. At the bottom were a series of narrow underpasses under the freeway interchange at the foot of Black Mountain, most with sharp turns at each end. We came off, at speed, a lot. It was awesome.

These days I live near the city centre and mostly work in the city, so I have to ride about twenty kilometres out of my way to go down the same hill. I usually do it at least once a week.

And the point is this:

  • Keep things in perspective: Trying to get your work published can drag you down. You write stories because you love them, you want to share them with people, entertain them, show off. It sucks if it seems like no-one wants to pay attention. Keep things in perspective. There’s more important things in life than your writing, like cleaning up your children’s poo, and going really fast down hills.

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This post is a write-up of Ian’s plenary speech at the inaugural Conflux Writer’s Day, at University House, Canberra on 5 April 2014.