Saturday, April 9, 2011

Day 21 - Inspiration from Despair: Using rejection as a positive force

I said in an earlier entry that I would write about my first rejection. I think rejection is an important conversation to be had, and anyone who writes with any kind of seriousness has to deal with it. Even big shot writers get rejected. Granted, they can usually get picked up somewhere else, but they still have to deal with it.

The trick to dealing with rejection is, well, dealing with it.

My first rejection came when I finished my first novel way back in 1995. It was a novel written in large part thanks to the writer R. A. Salvatore. I’d been a fan of Fantasy literature ever since reading the Hobbit when I was a kid. I read everything after that: Edgar Rice Burroughs, C.S. Lewis, Phillip Jose Farmer, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Piers Anthony, Terry Brooks and many more. But R. A. Salvatore’s dark elf trilogy (books: Homeland, Exile and Sojourn) was the one that put me over the top. They were so good. The world Salvatore made was so amazing, such a palpable place, so real, it was a universe so wondrously escapist that when I finished reading I was charged with energy to write, with an overwhelming need to write a novel like those. There was just nothing I had ever wanted to do more.

The problem was, I didn’t know how. I mean, sure, I knew how to write stuff. And I’d written lots of short stories and things. But how do you write a NOVEL? That’s not just something you sit down and crank out, right? Even if you want to, you write yourself into corners, get lost, or lose your drive after a week or two. So I was just burning with the need to do it, but really didn’t know what to do with all that inspiration.  

A typical Franklin Covey store
As chance would have it, the company I was working for sent me to a time management seminar put on by the folks at Franklin Covey right after I finished reading that trilogy. You’ve probably seen their stores at the mall. If you walk into one of those Franklin Covey stores, it looks like it’s just a day-timer store, a calendar store, an organizer store. And, on the surface, it is.

However, what I really learned at that seminar was how to get big, intimidating, even impossible-seeming things done. They taught the art and the mechanics of how to manage projects. As a retail store manager, it was great. As a would-be novelist, it was beyond great. They taught me how to put down a dream on paper, formulate it as a goal—even as a personal value—then break down that dream’s constituent parts, chopping up each of those parts into actual, achievable tasks. Big, scary things like writing an entire novel become little daily tasks like: write for twenty minutes.  If you tell yourself to write a novel, you’ll never do it. It’s too much to ask. However, if you tell yourself to…

Day 1:      Work on my outline for 15 minutes
Day 2:      Work on my outline for 15 minutes
Day 3:      Start writing – 20 minutes a day
Day 4:      Write for 20 minutes
Day 5:      Write for 20 minutes
Day 6:     Etc. five days a week for 6 months (or 4 months or 12… whatever)

BAM, you have a novel (or at least a first draft).

My Franklin planner
Each item was a “to do” on my day-timer (those calendars they sell at the Franklin Covey in the mall). The calendar was just a way to chart your dreams. It was part of a system that I still use almost twenty-years later. I can’t imagine not having it.

So, that’s what I learned from Franklin Covey. I left the seminar with energy and the ability to plan. One of my main excuses for not writing was that I didn’t have a computer back then. I was too broke. So, too inspired not to start, I began writing by hand. It took me the course of a summer. My “bite-sized-pieces” to use the Franklin Covey trainer’s words, was a plan of twenty minutes writing a day, but I rarely stopped at that. Most days it was an hour, three hours, sometimes more. It turned out the hard part of writing was getting started, not the actual writing. Getting started is hard when you don’t know what it is you are starting. But it wasn’t hard to start twenty minutes, and it wasn’t hard to commit to doing it. I confess, there were some days in the middle of that novel, when it was really becoming a drag and I didn’t know where the story was going, that I was watching the clock and checking out immediately at the 19:59 minute mark. But I didn’t quit, and by the end of summer I finished it. Then I finally got a computer, typed it up, and sent it off to TSR (that’s the company that invented Dungeons and Dragons).

I wrote a cover letter to go with the manuscript I sent, one that, looking back, was really, really sappy: it was all, “This is my first novel and, because you guys brought so much fun into my world as a kid, I am letting you have first crack at this amazing fantasy work which is sure to make millions for us all.”

The first one got a position of honor and a frame...
Fortunately for me, they were kind. More than kind. I actually got the single kindest rejection letter from them that I’ve gotten from anyone to date. A kind editor saw the cover letter and must have thought, “We can’t kill this idiot’s dream, even if he is obviously clueless and sent us the most unpolished and horrific manuscript of all time.”
Because that’s what I sent. In retrospect, just, wow. It was so bad. I mean, I think I spent two weeks proofreading it one time through and sent off. Man, was I naive. Oh well, live and learn. And I am grateful to this day for such a kind rejection letter. It was typed out actually to me (not the standard form letter I usually see), and it acknowledged my book by name, so I knew (or felt like) they had given my manuscript the care I was so sure it deserved—even though it was actually total crap.

... the rest of them get stabbed with tacks.
Not that I wasn’t let down when it came. I was. I was totally bummed. But I didn’t give up. I hung it on my wall because I read once somewhere about Piers Anthony, one of the all time great Fantasy writers, having filled up a room with rejection letters pinned to the wall. So, encouraged by that, I pinned up my first rejection proudly and commenced to collect more. I wrote other things, children’s stories, and eventually another novel, and now another. I have a pretty good collection of rejection letters going. Not a room full, but I’m working on it. Give me time.

Rejection letters don’t bother me anymore, not deeply. They used to, but the more you get, the less it pisses you off. It’s sort of a frustration bell curve. You start out okay with it, because you braced yourself logically when you began, then you begin to get frustrated as they mount in quantity, and then finally you resign yourself to them. It’s just how the system works.

Or worked.

Perhaps self-publishing will change everything. Open up the possibilities. I’m hoping so. Like I said in my bio: I am tired of being rejected for a book that has never been read. So, we shall see. But, for anyone out there struggling through, dreaming of a book or story in print, but dreading rejection: don’t. Don’t dread it. Each rejection letter is a badge of honor, like a purple heart medal for a dream that keeps getting shot. Shot, but not shot down.

And the world is changing.


  1. I think the better you are at dealing with rejection in general, the easier it is to deal with rejection as a writer. That said, eventually someone sees the treasure for what it is and snaps it up before some other wise soul tries to do it.

    Good luck, and keep moving. I have no doubt you'll find success.

  2. Thanks Michele. I will, and believe you are right. Pretty much every interview with any established writer has the same exchange:

    Interviewer: So what do you credit for your success?

    Writer: I just kept going and didn't give up.

    I will say, however, that having people like you, Michele, who show up and keep being so supportive is really cool. It helps. So thanks. :)

  3. Hi, John,

    You manage to inject so much personality into your writing I'm really enjoying this blog of yours.

    And you're so right about approaching writing a novel in little chunks. I've figured out much the same thing, only I set daily production goals instead of time goals.

    If I used time goals I'd frequently spend that time playing Solitaire instead of writing. With production goals, there's no cheating ...

    This blog is instructive and inspirational for writers of every stripe. What a terrific concept. Thanks.


  4. Sweet! Hi, L.T. Having you comment is a real celebrity appearance! As far as the time goals go, now days, I do. The novel I'm working on now, I drafted on an 1850 word daily goal, but with a minimum of 30 minutes every day. I know 1850 probably seems like a random number, but for whatever reason, when I'm on a good clip, that seems to be where I get before I am tired and starting to "tell" rather than "show."

    I'm glad you're enjoying this. I imagine that even a writer with your credentials has felt at least a few times the way my drawing/letter suggests. (I'd LOVE to have you guest blog about stuff like that sometime if you get bored and want to kill some time). :)

  5. Eh, I'm not a big believer in platitudes. If I thought you sucked, I'd say so - albeit in a very diplomatic way. ;-) But, I've seen some of your stuff (not your novel) and I know you've got a gift. It takes time for quality to be recognized sometimes.