The Five Stages of Rejection

Another submission, another rejection, another turn of the rejectomancy ferris wheel.

I’m in limbo right now – having checked the online submission website to find the status changed from “received” to “rejected”. It’s a change in three letters – I hate those three letters. They bring about similar bouts of hope and dejection when they appear in my Scrabble tray. However, I’m waiting for the e-mail to appear in my inbox with the announcement. The wheel comes to a stop.

Yes, Mr. Barker, I think I’ll take another spin.

While I wait for the e-mail, I would like to introduce anyone who hasn’t had the distinctive pleasure of experiencing a rejection a brief overview of the five stages of rejection grief.

I’m sure there are many out there who’ve done a better job writing about this than I could ever hope to, but I can’t recall any posts off the top of my head.

Statements like the preceding one are part of the first stage, by the way, which is Denial of One’s Abilities. I do have to admit that the more it happens, the faster it is to cycle through, but that sting never goes away completely. You still feel that moment when your heart pulls the breath from your lungs and your mind temporarily loses the ability to decipher written language, which is also a part of Denial, but a subtler shade of it that takes form as a Denial of the Nature of Reality.

This pity-party continues throughout the rest of the stages and acts as a push/pull factor that will eventually bring you, a bit more tempered, out the other side. My best advice is to not ignore it or deny it – go with it and embrace the humility that comes with it. Just don’t curl up with it. Let it light a fire under your ass.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Denial of both sorts inflates to the point where it completely engulfs the writer’s ego and gives root to the interesting second stage reversal of ANGER. (Note: ANGER is always written in all caps. It’s an internet rule. It would be different if I were writing this on paper.) The degree of ANGER tends to correlate with the size of the ego and/or the length of time the submission spent in the slush pile.

Smaller/formerly crushed egos tend to direct the anger towards themselves. For example: “WHY did I send that out to the market I most wanted to get published in FIRST?! I KNEW it wasn’t ready and now I’ve burned that bridge – I’m so STUPID.” Take notice of ANGER in that sentence (easily identifiable by the caps lock). Shorter stints in the pile helps to avoid the perilous Getting-Up-Of-Hopes, too.

Newer writers (with intact or indestructible egos) and folks who have a story somewhere for a longer period of time tend to get a more extroverted kind of ANGER. For example: “Is the lead editor and IDIOT? If I had only gotten to the head editor THEY would have SEEN THE GENIUS IN MY WORDS?” (This is the kind of anger that perpetuates the existence of the caps lock button on keyboards). I have to give it credit, though. It is incredibly ego-protective. The only problem is that it can overwhelm the nagging doubt leftover from the denial phase – and doubt is what convinces you to grow.

Eventually, the warring between the doubt and the ANGER results in Bargaining – you decide that maybe if the editor would specifically tell you what turned them off, you might not send them as big a piece of crap next time. It appeals to the Denial in that it confirms what the weaknesses were, so that you might fix them. It also appeals to the ANGER in wanting to find out what DID work or understanding if the reader really didn’t get it (and really, if that’s the case, it’s not their fault – it’s yours).

The Bargaining stage is where Rejectomancy comes in, which is the art of over-analyzing. The tempered writer knows to expect a rejection, but they secretly hope for a PERSONALIZED rejection. This is where the editor tells you WHY they didn’t take it. These take time to write, so they usually mean you came closer than most (depending on the magazine), and sometimes they can give you a good idea how to fix it.

But the fun comes with the FORM rejections. These are, by-and-large, the most prominent ones. The first thing done is that the exact phrasing on the rejection is immediately punched into Google. Any hits that arise, you analyze the writing on the site of that author and size yourself up against them (this is where Denial and ANGER make another cameo). You try to discover if there are levels of form rejections, to give you an idea of what it all might mean.

It’s one of the reason’s I’m grateful for sites like Duotrope’s Digest, which helps to give you a realistic idea of your odds (and shortcuts through a lot of the rejectomancy aftermath), and insight into what might just be happening with your manuscript. It takes away a bit of the sting.

The penultimate phase that comes out of this is Depression. This is the hopelessness stage that happens after ANGER has stopped being self-sustaining and Bargaining peters out after spending six hours online scrolling through 4000 google results in the hopes of coming across, “Sorry we couldn’t use the story at this time means that you’re the greatest writer ever but they were sorry because they couldn’t use your story at this time,” which you’re secretly hoping to find. This is also the stage where the creeping doubts about why you’re doing this in the first place pop up.

WARNING: these thoughts are dangerous. Sure, people who’ve been writing for a while and collecting rejections tend to pass through the first few stages pretty quickly, but it’s THIS is the stage that wears on you. This is when the rational part of the mind takes over from the limbic system. This is the one that weighs the past evidence and does a complete inventory of your entire self worth. This is the one that knows it must exclude judging you as a person, but keeps drawing the line from the failure of the story to the failure of the writer to the failure of your very personality. THIS is the stage you must pull yourself out of as quickly as possible. The rational mind is working so use it to your advantage. Send the story out again without even thinking, or make the changes that occurred to you five minutes after submitting the story to the slush, or go for a walk, watch a movie, be with friends. ANYTHING to keep the pity-party from becoming a morose-marathon. (Apologies: terrible wordplay)

The final stage is the ironically named Acceptance. This one comes with the most wonderful shrug that leads to the collapse of the preceding stages. This is the one you exist in between submissions, the one where you may even write something new rather than repolishing the old. This is the one where you print out the rejection and stick it on the fridge and pat yourself on the back because so many other people are too scared to ever risk going through what you just went through.

In the course of writing this entry, I received my rejection e-mail. It was the standard form rejection (with the checklist of possible reasons for the rejection and everything). So now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some googling to do.


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2 Responses to The Five Stages of Rejection

  1. Mike says:

    So how did the googling go?

  2. Kelly says:

    Meh – unfulfilling, as I expected it to be. The form rejections from Analog are a combination of encouraging and infuriating.

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