Rejection – What Can We Learn From it?

by Dora D’Agostino

I’ve been struggling with writing short stories for a while now.  After winning an honorable mention in a contest over a year ago, I was sure I knew the formula.  No more rejections for me.  Boy was I wrong.  I’ve since suffered one rejection after another until I had my Aha! moment – two as a matter of fact.  These two moments came courtesy of an editor who was kind enough to comment on why the piece I had submitted was rejected.  I have much to thank him for, for if it wasn’t for this rejection, I’d never have had my epiphany.

I wont kid you.  That rejection hurt: I had thought the story was perfect.  But after brushing myself off (it took a couple of days), I realized hey, I can’t just give up.  I’ve heard it said that a writer must be prepared to suffer through more than a couple of rejections before finally getting published, but that editor’s comment made me go back and look at the structure of the story I had submitted for clues to what I was doing wrong.  It was then that I had my first Aha! moment.  I discovered that I had been concentrating so much on character and setting that I had neglected a particularly crucial element of the story:  plot.  I realized that all of my rejected submissions were more character sketches than stories.   Sure they each had a plot, in my mind at least, but I was not utilizing that plot to show the character, nor was I magnifying the character’s conflicts.

Perhaps now is a good time to digress a moment and tell you a little bit about myself. I don’t have a postgraduate degree in Creative Writing: everything I know about writing short stories I’ve learned on my own.  Coupled with this is the fact that I haven’t been to school in over 30 years (I’m what you call a mature writer), so it’s no surprise that I would stumble with some of the technicalities of story writing.  A couple of years ago I studied with an established writer who gave me a much needed boost in confidence, but other than that I’ve been what you might call ‘lawless’ when it comes to my writing.  With a very ambitious full-time job I haven’t had time to take classes, but I have found a plethora of wonderful websites, such as THRESHOLDS, that have helped to enlighten and educated me about story writing and the state of the short story today.

I’ve always liked short stories, but during the 1980s and 90s something seemed to happen – to them or to me – and I found that I simply couldn’t understand the sort of stories being published anymore.  I more or less gave up reading modern short fiction altogether.  Every once in a while I’d buy an anthology to test the waters again, but invariably it would wind up on my shelf, largely unread, having nothing between the covers that spoke to me.  Contemporary short fiction had become mysterious, and I was baffled.

It seemed to me that the more obscure and convoluted a story was, the more it was lauded and looked upon as being literary.  Stories were no longer about plots or events.  In fact, in most of the stories I encountered, I could not find a plot if my life depended on it.  What conclusion could I make except that I just wasn’t smart enough to understand what the writers were saying?

But to get back to the matter at hand, I suddenly realized that the one story of mine that did pass muster, the story that won an honorable mention, was one which had a definite plot with a beginning, middle and end.  Here, then, was my clue – I felt like a regular Sherlock Holmes!  At this point, I started to brush up on plotting and found that even in a character-driven story, something has to happen to give the story purpose.  I can’t simply have a character ruminating on his or her life – I need to show that they have changed in some way as a result of what they have experienced.  This was the lesson of my first Aha! moment: in stories where not much seems to happen in terms of action or events, I must show that the character’s transition is a result of their experience of internal conflict.

The second Aha! moment came a couple of days later when I realized that for some reason my stories tended to start at their ending. That’s right.  It seems that, conceptually, my characters originate in my mind at the moment when they are experiencing their epiphany, the most emotionally charged part of their story.  The epiphany, however, is not the story. My task, and any writer’s task, is to show the journey the character takes to get to that point. It’s obvious, then, that I need to start working backwards, always mindful that my situations and characters will have to organically funnel into the story, driving it to the end.

Rejection has taught me that a writer must examine his or her own process, carefully. Sometimes, one little well thought-out comment can lead to a life-changing realization –  if the writer is open to it.  I’ve always thought that the short story writes itself and that the best writers have in some way been blessed by the gods.  I’m learning the hard way, though, that this is not the case – there’s a lot of hard work and self-examination that goes into it.  How or when I learned this lesson is not important – what is important is that everyday I continue to strive to become a better writer.   I will let you know if these lessons translate into more publishable stories. I hope so!

 

About the author

Dora D'Agostino has written 4 articles for THRESHOLDS

Dora loves to write and read about writing. Due to a twist of fate, a life in Academia was not to be. Joining Thresholds was the next best thing, allowing her to discover new writers and to participate in inspiring and lively discussions. She is currently working on a coming of age novel that takes place in Italy during the late 50's and a number of short stories. Her job keeps her busy so she writes mostly on weekends.

10 Responses to "Rejection – What Can We Learn From it?"

  • jennymilch 12:02 AM 07/2/2012

    How great that you were able to piece all that together! I too learned a great deal from the comments on my rejections. They made me a better writer…though as you say, they require a little dusting off first (sometimes a lot).

  • Dora D'Agostino 03:01 AM 08/2/2012

    Thank you for stopping by and commenting Jenny. As with everything in life, when something is not working it’s time to dispassionately examine it and be willing to change it – I say dispassionately – but we all know how enamored we are of our words! The first thing I did was read as many books as I could on story structure and something clicked. Wouldn’t it be nice though if, with every rejection, an editor would slip a little bit of advice, like the fortune in a fortune cookie? Sometimes we only need to be shown the way but that’s easier said than done.

  • lizardyoga 09:15 AM 08/2/2012

    Useful comments, and I think I’m coming from a lot of the same places. i too struggle with plot as I find it the least interesting aspect of story (I know that sounds like a contradiction but I really don’t think it is.) Publishers – and presumably readers – seem to want very strong plots nowadays, hence the success of Rowling and Ian Rankin and the continuing popularity of Dickens. I often feel that, like Proust, I should have been born in 19th Century France so that I could write 600 pages on that moment of consciousness between sleeping and waking; however it hasn’t done me any harm to get to grips with plot, provided I don’t lose what makes my writing unique in the process. Yes, rejection hurts and comments can hurt too, however helpful they may be – but they help us to grow and I think mutual support is important

  • Dora D'Agostino 09:20 AM 08/2/2012

    I so agree with you Lizardyoga! My first love was poetry so I tend to write lots of description and who cares about plot? But even poetry has to have a point of view and a story. I agree that mutual support is very important.

    Sarah: I can just see it now, a flashing widget following you on every web page you visit: “Get an advice cookie with your submission here.” It could catch on! Seriously though thanks for commenting. I’m a member of Writer’s Digest which has been very helpful. I am considering taking an online class but time is tight for me right now. Thanks for your good wishes!

  • Sarah Hegarty 02:48 PM 08/2/2012

    Love the idea of an advice cookie! Just think what a healthy diet that would be…

    Thanks for the piece Dora, and for your honesty – I could hear your relief at getting some feedback. I absolutely agree. I don’t mind rejection (well, not too much…!) It’s a chance to improve, re-work, re-consider – if only someone would give you a clue as to what’s needed. What I’ve found hugely helpful is advice from fellow writers – have you thought about joining a writing group? In my experience nothing beats it for encouragement and enforced deadlines. Good luck with your future competition entries!

  • Tania Hershman 07:07 PM 08/2/2012

    Hi Dora,
    this is a great and valuable piece, writers don’t often talk about rejection but it is – and always will, in my experience – but a huge part of the career of any writer, especially the short story writer. And acceptance is all the sweeter when it comes after many, many, many rejections.

    I do want to stress, though, that being rejected from one publication in no way means for certain that there is anything “wrong” with your story. It can – and often does, having been on the other side of the fence – mean no more than that the editor had 10 stories she loved more, or he was looking for certain pieces to fit together as a whole etc… A rejection should not be taken as implying that you need to rewrite, there as so so many reasons why a lit mag might not accept your story, reasons that even editors can’t always express. Just the way they feel that day, that hour, that minute. That the subject matter of your story isn’t something they fancy. Or – and this is one it took me a long time to learn – that you’ve submitted the “wrong” kind of story to the journal, i.e. a traditionally-written story to a lit mag that likes experimental fiction etc… I still somewhere deep down think I will “persuade” a publication with my brilliance to accept something they have clearly stated they don’t want! I think that we can only write what we want to write and the most important thing for me is if I feel my story works in the way I want it to. That’s easier said than done, but don’t let any external forces make you make changes that you’re not happy with! Happy writing!

  • Dora D'Agostino 02:13 PM 09/2/2012

    Dear Tania,

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting! It will take me a while to get used to rejection, but getting used to it I must. Like it or not, it is the reality of being a writer. It does shock me to hear your pieces get rejected because I think you’re writing is brilliant! Anyway, I like what you said about not assuming that a piece needs to be rewritten just because it was rejected. This is the first thing I think of and it’s something that I will have to learn to gauge. I’m sure this comes with experience. What I think I’ll do going forward is to let the piece sit for awhile before attempting any changes. Being true to who you are as a writer is very important in the long run and I’m assuming this comes with experience.

    Thanks again and good luck with your new collection of short stories.

  • Juliet West 09:46 AM 10/2/2012

    Hi Dora – thanks for this excellent piece. A writer friend told me quite early in my writing career (career? ‘experiment’, perhaps) that a hit rate of one in ten is about the best any writer can expect. Someone should do a survey and crunch the numbers!

  • Mike Smith 09:32 PM 10/2/2012

    I enjoyed this article. People rarely tell you why they have taken something… and if they tell you why they haven’t you’ve learned something, about the piece, or about them! Rejections always hurt though, especially when they’re for the pieces we like best!

  • Dora D'Agostino 11:03 PM 11/2/2012

    Thanks Juliet. Given those odds, we would have quit a long time ago If we didn’t love writing!

    Mike so glad you enjoyed the piece. I am a novice at this but with everyone’s encouragement I am starting to feel I am a ” writer”. I see what you mean: sometimes, our ego gets in the way and we refuse to see the truth. At other times, it’s what the other persons sees in your story that you don’t see. I guess the lesson is try and try again. Thanks!

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