Coping with rejection

By Caitlin Kelly

What will you do if that door stays closed?


It happens.

It stinks.

It hurts.


You want(ed): a job, a friendship, a sweetie, a fellowship, a grant, a book or film or music deal.

When you or your idea face (repeated) rejection, it can feel annihilating.

It shouldn’t.

I grew up in a family of freelance creatives, who wrote television shows and directed films and series and wrote and shot magazine articles. I saw, firsthand, what it’s like — emotionally, intellectually and financially — to put in a lot of hard work and hope only to discover that your ideas won’t receive funding.

Rejection is a powerful sorting process, quickly winnowing out those who really want it — and may still not get it! — from those who don’t. Maybe they’re ambivalent or don’t work hard or missed the deadline, again.

When you “fail”, (which to me is only temporary; if chronic, that’s not good), what’s your back-up plan?

Aircraft manufacturers plan for failure, creating planes that can still fly and land safely if an engine malfunctions.

Football coaches have a playbook, and everyone, everyone, needs a Plan B, C and D.


If we’re not thinking ahead to the next step, and the one after that, defeat can feel permanent.


How badly do you want it?


Here’s a wise blog post on what to do next…


I spent the past six weeks working on a book proposal.

Thanks to referrals from generous colleagues, I found top New York agents who replied to my email within hours. I worked with one for several weeks, but we quickly saw — to our mutual regret — this wasn’t a project he felt invested in, and I did. With the best humor and grace we could each muster, we parted ways.

The next agent replied to my email within half an hour — with tart, tough analysis of my idea’s weaknesses (yes, plural) and the intense competition it would face.

To say that — in British terms — these two men were  chalk and cheese, is an understatement. Whew. One was lovely, kind and gentle and encouraging, even if I could tell this wasn’t probably going to work out.

The second was brash, abrasive and cutting.

But neither was a fit.

So, for now, I’m putting that goal on hold; both taught me about the current marketplace (useful) and, essentially, reminded me of the kind of person I want to do business with.


None of this, sorry to say, is unusual within the cruelly competitive world of journalism and publishing.

Pretty much every creative field I know — art, music, dance, design, film, theater — is equally filled with smart, talented, well-trained, determined thousands who want the same things we do: money, attention, a job, a gig, a contract.


In my decades in this business, I’ve been rejected so much it just feels normal — I tried for eight years before I was hired as a reporter at the Globe & Mail, Canada’s best newspaper.

I tried multiple times, never successfully, for the Alicia Patterson fellowship, (one of 14 finalists among 387 applicants that year.) The latest winners of the McGraw Prize, awarded to seasoned business writers  — all three of them — beat out the 77 others who sent in their ideas.

Both of my previous books were rejected 25 times before finding a major publisher.


My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsessions



malled cover HIGH
My second book, published in 2011



Whether we welcome it or not, rejection offers us information we have to process.

Simply stamping your foot, shouting”It’s not fair!” or pouting in a corner won’t get it done:

What did you fail to include?

What skills do you need to strengthen?

Could you have prepared more thoroughly?

Would additional training or education help you succeed?

Is your network powerful enough to guide, mentor and promote you?


I would never dissuade anyone from following their dreams.


I would strongly suggest having a thick, strong coat of armor — for your bank balance and ego — if you do.

22 thoughts on “Coping with rejection

  1. You clearly have great resilience and grit. it’s so important to take things in stride, or you’ll never last at whatever you undertake. I kept a rejection letter from when I applied to be a cross-country writer for Amtrak. I love that letter.

  2. This is a comment that could be written by a lot of people my age, but bear with. As a type A kid who never really failed at anything major, transitioning to the real world after university held a lot of surprises. I’ve learned how common failure and rejection are, even in the face of hard work, good intentions, huge amounts of effort, and even genuine skill and talent. Having friends like yourself who have more experience and are willing to share it and speak about it publicly was immeasurably valuable in my maturation process. We need to talk more about failure, paused projects, managing and moving past disappointments, and when things don’t work out–we do not seem to be good at any of that as a society. I’ve got a post in mind on an adjacent topic that I’ve been mulling on for a while, but I think you’ve inspired me to actually sit down and write it out.

    1. I’m curious to read it!

      One of the most powerful moments of my life was years ago at nationals for fencing – I met a guy who had spent years preparing to try out for the Olympics epee team, a NJ schoolteacher. He missed his spot by one position. Imagine! All that time and money and energy wasted…or not?

      Without frank conversations about this, we’re all screwed — because “success” looks automatic (hah) and “failure” looks shameful. Success is such a mix of luck, timing, skill, personality — as is failure!

      No matter how hard you work at something, certainly in the hopes of earning $$$ and promotions and fame and…whatever…it might not happen. Until we are more honest with one another, we’re not going to be able to forgive ourselves when we “fail”? I’ve been really touched this week, when I’ve admitted to friends that this project has gone to shit, have stepped up to offer help and introductions to their agents, etc.

      We have to be able to ask for help — or others will never know we need it.

  3. Yeah, rejection sucks. I’ve gotten rejected plenty of times with my stories. But I keep trying, keep writing. I think some of what I’ve written lately has a good chance, so I keep my fingers crossed. With a bit of luck, who knows what 2018 will bring?

      1. And it did! One of my friends who writes vampire fiction went through my novel with a fine-toothed comb and pointed out so many things that could be improved. Now not only is my novel better, but I think I got a bit better too.

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  5. Rejection I can deal with. What I personally find much harder is being ignored. As a writer who is currently seeking an agent for my memoir, I am getting to used to both (mostly the latter). Whenever I get a reply from an agent, no matter how succinct, it feels good. Some, although not many, really do go to the trouble to send a personalized rejection and there are valuable learnings in these. It helps to understand the business behind books, and to appreciate the importance of ‘fit’ on a project. Which is the point you raise so well in this post!

    1. It is not easy to find an agent or sell a book, esp. memoir. I imagine (?) what some have told you is the insistence on the word “platform” — if you have 1m Insta followers, and can’t even produce a single sentence worth reading, you’ll get a deal in minutes because you’ve already done their marketing for them and offer a large, semi-guaranteed audience of buyers.

      It is a long field full of obstacles.

  6. As you say, rejection’s normal in writing, even for long-established authors – with magazines, particularly, I’ve found it can be as simple as a change of editor, who naturally has their own stable of writers. My favourite rejection remains Auckland University Press, who I approached with a proposal some years ago. I was extremely well established as a historian/writer in New Zealand at the time with a long list of publications with Penguin Random House, among other places. As you know, usually if an editor’s indifferent they’ll let the proposal sit and have to be prodded to say no. But from AUP, I got an outright rejection in (wait for it!) nine minutes. Minutes. When I asked why, and enquired whether they’d consider anything else, I got told that they would never consider anything ever wrote, no matter what it was. The end. I didn’t know the publisher there personally, and he didn’t know me, so I can only suppose the hostile abuse circus with which academics receive my work here had found fertile ground and damaged my repute. Not sure. But nine minutes – with a total ‘never contact us again’ style rejection – is something of a record and I have to say I am quite proud of it, because I must have made a real impact on them in some manner still unknown to me. I still subsidise their publications, of course, through my taxes.

    1. OUCH!

      I have had one or two like that. People are weird.

      I have now tried seven (!!!!???) agents, each of which had some sort of fatal flaw; when I told the last one this (and he was SO rude) and he questioned me on that, I said (not in polite language) that there are as many shitty and incompetent agents out there as writers.

      It’s exhausting to experience this.

      1. Yes it is! New Zealand doesn’t have an agency system – it’s so tiny that publishers receive approaches direct, and most of the managing editors know the professional authors either directly or by repute. I’ve tried tackling US agents from time to time, it’s not an easy row to hoe for sure.

      2. That’s really interesting.

        Here you barely stand a chance without an agent — the first one I met told me (!) he received (wait for it), 10,000 unsolicited submissions in 2017 and accepted one. ONE. That doesn’t count referrals like me, who get answered (if lucky) within a day or so.

  7. Pingback: Coping with rejection — Broadside – kaylabyrinths

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