I received another rejection over the weekend. It was from Clarkesworld, which is an incredibly tough market, and part of me was kinda gearing up for a rejection. Except it never hurts any less. Don’t get me wrong, the whole submission process was as slick and as painless as it possibly could be. But just like dental surgery, it’s always gonna hurt a little.
I think the big problem with rejection (in general) for any writer is that it undermines you. There’s a part of you that tries to remain stoic, says that it’s “just one of those things”. But whispering, deep amongst your fears, is that little voice that asks “perhaps you’re just not any good?”
It’s a cancer that eats away at you, it’s termites chewing through your foundations, it’s poison in your blood. Well, … you get the idea.
I’ve come to the conclusion that always re-evaluating myself and pushing myself to do better is a good thing, even if at times I push myself so hard I turn into a gibbering wreck. In my saner moments I know I’m a decent writer, but when that little voice gets going, sometimes I just listen to it a little too much.
As someone with a Maths and IT background, I’m used to the idea of metrics. I might hate how some managers can spew out graphs for just about everything, but metrics have their place in the world. Except that none exist for writing and there have been times when I’ve found that infuriating. How do I know how well I’m doing, if there’s no yard stick to measure myself against? I need metrics to silence that little voice, goddammit!
And this is where I think the real danger for any writer really comes in: professional envy. Because if there are no metrics to measure how good your work is, the next logical thing is to compare yourself to other writers. We’re all going through this together, aren’t we? So surely we’re all the same?
But that’s the problem. For the record I don’t think there’s anything with looking at another writer’s work and seeing what their strengths and weaknesses are compared to your own. The problem comes when you make the mistake of thinking that everyone’s career is identical. Because if a writer you consider “an equal” got a sale after 8 rejections and you got one after 30, logic then dictates that they are somehow a cheat, that they didn’t deserve that sale.
It’s so, so easy to fall into it. “They’re younger”, “I’m a better writer than them”, “They’re friends with the editor”.
Again I don’t think it’s wrong to look at another’s work with critical eye, providing you look at both sides of the coin. Consequently, I might personally hate Dan Brown, but I respect that he’s sold a lot of books and have spent time trying to understand what his strengths are (short chapters, pacey almost episodic story).
I was lucky in that someone warned me about the dangers of professional envy very early in my career and as a result, I’ve been able to catch myself whenever I start to slip down that treacherous slope. I made a point of making myself congratulate everyone in those early days when I occassionally felt “it should have been me not them”, such that now I’m happy when most people achieve any form of success big or small. Seriously, you have to be a major douche for me not to feel genuinely happy for you.
Everyone’s career is different, as a result, so are the metrics. This can be a difficult lesson to learn, especially when you’ll grasp onto anything as some form of validation to silence that little voice. It sucks, it truly does. But getting envious of others’ success will just feed that voice so that you’ll end up trying chasing another writer’s tail instead of working on your own talent.
So by all means, have sucky days when rejections come through, but don’t let it consume you so much that you try and invalidate others’ success. Loads of popular authors got rejected before they made it. That doesn’t make the process any easier but it does give you an inkling of hope.