The first time I got punched in the face, I cried.
To be fair, the day was kind of rough to begin with. I’d lost everything—my family, my livelihood, my freedom, my name—and my opponent knocked my contact lens straight out of my eye. On top of being reduced to the gangling, cluelessly flustered #150600, I was now half-blind.
I remember turning to the boxing coach in that moment. He must have looked back at the sniveling, watery-eyed newb and seen everything I was thinking.
This is a mistake. I’m not cut out for this. This hurts too bad. Can I go back to my summer job?
The old man leaned over the ropes and squinted beneath the brim of his ballcap. “Well,” he said, “aren’t you gonna hit back?”
The first time I received a query rejection, I cried.
I remember that day just as fondly, and if I could collage every gut-wrenching, whiplash moment of my young adult life, I might glue those two gems right beside one another. You pour your heart and soul into a manuscript, spent hours meticulously crafting of the perfect query, then nibble your fingernails down to bloody stumps as you wait for those polite “no’s,” form rejections, or maybe even nothing at all.
Honestly, I prefer getting punched in the face.
I wish someone would have told me how awful rejections are—how much they hurt, grate, and grind you over months of breathlessly refreshing your inbox. Maybe a sagacious writing wizard could have warned me, prepared me, or figured out how to soften the blow. But once the rejections start, they don’t end anytime soon. If you’re anything like me, telling yourself you can only stand one more hit, you’re in for a rough fight.
The only way to categorize my boxing is amateur. I’m freakishly tall, hopelessly uncoordinated, and tragically unathletic. No matter how good I get at blocking, dodging, screaming, or wincing, I keep getting hit in the face.
If you’re waiting for the sports analogy, this is it: Hit back.
I remember the first day I actually listened to the Naval Academy boxing coach. It was in the middle of being pulverized, pummeled to a pulp by a lacrosse player. (And, let me tell you, if you’ve never fought a female lacrosse player, beware. They have deceptively powerful thighs.)
I remember being angry and frazzled. Panicked, and slightly woozy after that last punch to the jugular.
Why am I doing this? This hurts so bad.
The pain would end if I quit. I could flee the ring whenever I wanted and banish this nonsense from my life. Maybe if I bellowed like a whale, sank to the mat, then curled myself into a ball…
But then I hit back. It wasn’t a very good hit, but it did surprise her. Even more than that, it surprised me.
Hitting back felt good.
I lost the fight, but I went down swinging. The next time, I came out swinging, and I still lost—though not as quickly as previous fights. Every new opponent socked, battered, and bruised me, but every opponent who beat me taught me something about strategy, technique, and my own physical limitations.
Sometimes, I’d win. More often than that, I’d lose. But the more I fought, the better I boxed. The better I boxed, the more often I’d win. (Not often often—just often enough to show things were getting better.)
Now, don’t get me wrong. Being hit in the face hurt just as much as it did the first time it happened. The pain didn’t change. I became more skillful at handling it.
If you step into a boxing ring, you’re going to get hit. If you query a book, you’re going to get rejections. As much as it hurts, that’s the game we’ve chosen to play. It’s very easy for me to look at authors more advanced in their careers—agented, published, renowned authors—and assume that hurt stops. But the farther I toddle along, the more I realize this just isn’t so.
I’ve written nine novels, sent hundreds of query letters, and received just as many rejections. My mentor has written nineteen novels. She’s still receiving them, too. After signing with an agent and going on submission for the first time, I thought the sting would ease, but now I’m getting rejections from publishers.
What happens after publication? What if you get a nasty review? What if the public response isn’t what you hoped for? Just where does this vicious cycle of hope, rejection, and rejuvenation end?
If you’re still in the ring, I think you can assume the answer.
As a young, starry-eyed author, I’m constantly searching for that magic bullet. (Maybe this contest, this program, this agent, this manuscript…) I’ve met many of my goals and improved my skill exponentially, but the rejections haven’t stopped. The recruit #150600 in me wants to cower, run away—do anything to shield myself from disappointment—but I just can’t help but think of that weathered old man in the boxing loft.
What can you do when you’re being pummeled?
My first publishing deal fell through months before its debut. We had a cover, illustrations—the whole wazoo. In the midst of grieving that book, I hit back. I signed up for #WriteMentor, where a kindhearted, acutely experienced author helped me whip up another manuscript to take to the fall showcase.
A big part of me wanted to see #WriteMentor as my silver bullet. This was the place where dreams came true. I saw my friends, peers, and contemporaries celebrating great success. My fairy tale ending had to be somewhere in the stack of rejections…
I wasn’t agented during the showcase, and, if I’m going to be completely honest, something about that crushed me. It had nothing to do with entitlement or a sense of obligation. I’d just always been told if I hoped enough, worked hard, and got myself in the right place and the right time with a good product, things would turn out splendidly.
But that’s not how publishing works. I was in a fantastic place with fantastic agents and a fantastic manuscript, but it didn’t come together. No matter how good you are, if you enter the ring, you’re going to get hit.
There’s only one thing to do when that happens.
I drafted up a new book in a month. In another month, I was getting full agent requisitions. Fast-forward a month, I was taking multiple calls from agents.
Was it a better manuscript? Maybe. Was it being in the right place at the right time? I honestly couldn’t tell you.
To try to giftwrap an anomaly—a stroke of fortune, a lucky break, a hard-earned milestone, or whatever you want to call it—is difficult, so let’s run the boxing analogy just a tad bit further: If you keep hitting, something’s going to land.
If you keep hitting stronger, faster, and a little better each day—if you keep learning, reaching out to other authors, diving into materials, and connecting with the community, you’re going to get there. If you keep pushing, muscling through the heartbreak, disappointment, and mountains of rejections, you will reach your goal.
I can’t say how. I can’t say when. But you will. The question is whether or not you can persevere until it happens.
A large part of this business is being kind to yourself. I tend to self-depreciate with every new “no” in my inbox, but if I keep beating myself up like this, the other guy won’t have to throw a single punch. Rejections are inevitable. Learn to see them as the single step they are. Feel free to sit with the disappointment as long as you’d like, knowing it’s there for as long as you keep it.
Then get up and hit back.
Resiliency is the name of the game. Knowing how to take a hit is just as important as knowing how to dish one out.
For the record, you don’t need to churn out a new novel every month or put yourself on a crazy deadline. I’m a fast writer. It’s just what I do. Working on a new project during my querying/submissions process has been vital for me because it allows me to see beyond a temporal moment of sadness and disappointment.
One project didn’t work out? You can write another. One person said no? There are many, many people to ask.
I haven’t been at this for a long time, but I have learned this. Whether you’re rejected, chosen, selected, answered, telephoned, dropped, signed, agented—
Keep swinging. Connect. Get involved. Write. Read. Expand. Explore.
The next time I step into a boxing ring as a contender, I’m likely going to be punched in the face. The next time you and I send a query, it’s even more likely we’ll receive some form of rejection. All we can do is stay in the ring.
Maybe we’ll lose…
But maybe we won’t.
You’ve got to stick around long enough to see.