In honor of March Madness—which is currently taking over my household—I want to talk about a key skill that even couch potato writers can learn from sports: resilience. As an athlete, you work long and hard for your chance at glory on the court—just as you toil away for years as a writer—and it’s devastating to have a big moment slip through your fingers. In both cases, the time you show your mettle is after the tough loss. Do you give up? Or do you get right back in it? Okay, maybe you cry into a beer in your tennis uniform first and then you get back in it.
As a seasoned rejection-getter, here’s a look at my playbook:
The more you send your work out, the easier it will become to take that step and make yourself vulnerable to rejection. When I queried agents for my first novel years ago, I cried every single time I got a rejection letter. I was so nervous awaiting their responses that when I got a negative one, it sent me into a mini tailspin.
When I was looking for a new agent this past summer, it struck me how much easier it had become. When I got a rejection letter, I felt a small stab of disappointment and thought “Okay, they’re not the one. Moving on.” Partly this was because I felt better about my work than I ever had before—just as in sports, nothing beats preparation—but partly it was just because, after reading dozens and dozens of rejections letters, I was inured to it. It’s never easy to put yourself out there, but it gets easier the more you do it.
Don’t Take it Personally
This is, perhaps, the biggest challenge. Your writing is likely deeply personal. But your writing is not you, so don’t tie your self-worth up in it. Book deal or no book deal, bestseller or flop: you will still be you. Writing is art; trying to sell it is business. Don’t confuse the two. Wait until you feel your art is ready to stand on its own, then do your best to let it go. When an agent, a publisher, or a reviewer doesn’t like your work, it’s not because they’re against you or because you’re a failure. If you’re able to let feedback guide you rather than destroy your confidence, you’re much more likely to benefit from it. Don’t let rejection define you. Just as with athletes, if you keep showing up, if you’re back next season, you’ve got an edge over most.
Remember it Only Takes One
That moment of hearing yes? Of talking to a publishing professional who has fallen in love with your work and wants to support it? Trust me, it will overshadow everything that came before it. Writing is not about creating something everyone will love. You don’t want to just find an audience, you want to find your audience, and it all starts with a yes from the right person.
Modulate the Highs and Lows
When my agent was submitting my first novel to publishers, I was on an anxious high the whole time. Every day I would wake up and think “this could be the day my life changes!” And every time we got some positive feedback, my expectations would ramp up another notch. So it’s no wonder that I crashed hard when I ultimately didn’t get a deal. It’s important to celebrate your successes, of course, but the flip side of not letting failure define you is that you can’t let success define you either. I saw this all the time when I was working at Doubleday, authors would set themselves up for disappointment by setting their expectations so high, there was nowhere to go but down. For the truly resilient, it’s never over until you decide it is. So just decide you’re not quitting and chill out.
Treasure the Process
Being a successful writer takes many things: some measure of innate talent, lots of hard work and discipline, certainly, and a bit of luck. But resilience is the hallmark of what it means to have a lifelong writing career. This is why we love origin stories of famous writers papering their offices with rejection letters. Getting rejected many times over and living to fight another day? That ardent self-belief and that passion that fuels you to keep going? That’s what makes you the real thing.