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Rejection is Part of the Process

By Rukhsana Khan

It's hard to believe ten years have passed since my first book was published. The lessons have been many. I've watched people whom I thought had more talent than myself fall by the wayside in their quest to get their work published because they lacked perseverance.

I used to believe the old adage that genius is ninety per cent perspiration and ten percent inspiration, and that perseverance was worth more than talent. I still believe that perseverance is important, but I think it's talent that ultimately gets you noticed.

And how do you build talent? Isn't it innate?

Sadly no. The potential may be innate. But potential on its own doesn't produce results. It has to be nurtured, it has to be developed. Creativity and imagination cannot be taught in a class on writing for children. You have to dig deep within to find that.

You have to try your hand at all kinds of artistic endeavours, rather like throwing mud at a wall and seeing what sticks.

When I first began writing for children, like many newbies, I decided I'd write picture books. They were short--they should be easy, or so I thought. I thought of all the picture books I'd loved growing up--The Story of Ping, Harry the Dirty Dog, Curious George--and basically rewrote them with different characters.

When that only bred more rejection I tried my hand at magazine articles. I've got a scientific background so the research came easy. I even wrote quite an interesting piece on fireflies and submitted it to one of the best children's magazines out there, Owl.

And then I went to a writing conference here in Toronto and happened to meet the chief editor of Owl during one of the sessions. When the editor learned that I had submitted a story several months earlier and still hadn't received a reply, she very kindly went to the office, searched through the slush pile, found it and sat down with me the next day to explain what was wrong with it. She called it text-bookish. Preachy. Didactic. And then she showed me a piece that began with drama and fine prose.

I wish I could say that I took her criticism graciously.

I wish I could say that I appreciated the incredible amount of time and effort she put into sitting me down one-to-one and giving me her professional opinion.

Basically I wish I could say I acted with even a speck of professional decorum, but alas, I did what so many other struggling wannabes do, I took her comments as a personal insult. I chided her for thinking she was so almighty, and I stomped off in a huff.

Thinking of my actions makes me cringe. But I did learn something from that. I learned what I can't write. I can't write non-fiction for children's magazines. My brain isn't wired that way.

I gave up on picture books for a while too, and turned to novels and short stories, eventually coming back to picture books when I received inspiration. And in the process I accumulated stacks of rejection letters.

In the ten years I've been writing, I've learned to see rejection a lot more objectively. The publisher is in the business of making money. When they reject your piece their opinion is really no reflection of what they think of you. They don't know you. And this might seem callous, but maybe they don't even care to know you.

The work has to stand on its own merit.

Their rejection is based on what they think of what you wrote and especially whether they think they can make some money off of it.

That sounds so intuitive. So self-explanatory. And yet so many newbies take this kind of rejection personally.

I worked eight years to get my first book published. Eight years of slogging, false starts, dead ends, and digging down deep into myself to pull out a good story.

And when my first book was published maybe in some ways I thought the whole world would stop what they were doing for a sec and notice. I rushed to the bookstores to turn it face out, I read every review, and I parsed every line in every review looking for even the slightest hint of a negative comment, not realizing that even the fact that it got reviewed was an accomplishment.

And then one day, when I went to the bookstore, and my book was no longer in stock, the next crop of books were occupying the shelves, it hit me what I was up against. There was a whole wall full of picture books, many of them old classics, why would mine get noticed among all of those?

When you've been struggling for so long just trying to get published, you think the struggle will be over once you've got your book out there, when in reality a different struggle begins. The struggle to get your book noticed.

If this all sounds very negative, I don't mean it that way at all. Basically it was an adjustment. A reminder that books may be super important to me, but in the grand scheme of things, many people seem to live their lives in blissful ignorance of them.

And I also learned over the years, to separate my feelings of self-worth from how well or how poorly my books were selling.

It wasn't easy. At first when a book didn't do particularly well, I started to think worse of the book. I started to look at it with a critical eye thinking I had done something wrong.

Focusing on presentations in the classroom is what saved me and gave me new insight into the process. Reading the books to an audience of kids, seeing them laugh at all the right places, renewed my faith in my work.

And as a result I started thinking in terms of my body of work. I thought if I just keep going, producing the best stories I can, sooner or later the 'public' is bound to notice. And even if they don't, I'll still be doing what I love--and getting paid for it.

And so I turned inward. I no longer wrote for any kind of recognition. I wrote to please myself, to discover the truth behind certain conundrums that I was curious about. What would it feel like to be abandoned by your father in a marketplace? What would it feel like to be a toad who longs to be extraordinary? What would it feel like to be a bully coming to an idealist community?

Would I have done this if my first book had been a runaway bestseller? I rather doubt it.

Some might say that the lack of success my first book experienced was also a form of rejection.

It's funny but after ten years of being the in the business, I no longer think of it that way. I think rejection spurs you on to work harder. Your imagination is a lazy beast. There's a reason why 'starving' artists can produce some amazing art. Necessity is the mother of invention, if you are relying on your art then you'll do what needs to be done to make it work.

I've been fortunate. I've had just enough acceptance for me to keep going and just enough rejection to keep my writing and imaginative instincts sharp. I'm still waiting for that breakout book. But I feel seasoned now. And slowly my profile has been building.

I am busier than I've ever been before in my life, I make good money at what I do, and I love what I do. I honestly feel that it contributes to society.

The best thing is that even now, when I receive rejections (and of course I still receive rejections!) I can learn from them or brush them off and continue on with an eye to where I'm heading, and along the way I'm really enjoying the journey!

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