Coping with rejections, criticisms and bad reviews

Unless they are either outstandingly good or remarkably thick-skinned, most writers will find themselves disappointed by rejection or hurt by adverse criticism from time to time. The challenge is to learn from these experiences without being overwhelmed by their emotional impact.

It can be helpful to realise that negative responses are seldom just about you or your book. Rejection from traditional publishers does not always reflect badly on the quality of your work, because firms only have the capacity to take on a limited number of new books each year and will tend to select the ones considered most likely to be a commercial success. So they have to reject the majority of submissions they receive, including ones which are well written as well as those which are not. Occasionally they get it wrong – Gone with the Wind, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Catch 22 and Moby Dick are examples of books which were rejected many times before becoming classic best-sellers, perhaps because they did not fit into a standard genre or were ‘before their time’. Now that self-publishing has become so much easier, cheaper and more acceptable than in the past, many writers are going straight for this option rather than risk the rejections and delays which are so often encountered on the traditional route.

Similarly, negative criticisms and reviews should not necessarily be taken too much to heart. Some critics base their judgements largely on their own personal taste, so the same book will be praised by one but reviled by another. Some do not take the trouble to phrase their comments in a sympathetic and constructive way, and perhaps a few of them gain sadistic pleasure from condemning a book they dislike. If you have faith in your own judgement you do not have to accept an outside verdict which does not ring true, especially if finding personal satisfaction through writing is more important to you than rapid publication and high sales.

On the other hand there is usually something worthwhile to be learned from rejections, criticisms and bad reviews, however unfair and unkind they first seem. If you can swallow your pride, and try to take a detached look at your work from the reader’s point of view, you may realise that your critics had some valid points. If you are feeling so upset that you cannot move forward, perhaps consider a course of Bach flower remedies; there’s a forthcoming post on my other blog about how these can help with ‘life event stress’.

I remember from years ago how dispiriting it was to have my first novel repeatedly rejected, and feeling devastated when one assessor described its heroine as ‘not a very nice girl’. Nowadays I am more philosophical; after all, you can’t please all of the readers all of the time. And, if a book gets thoroughly slated following its publication, some people may actually buy it to see just how awful it is. Any review, whether favourable or not, will make your book more likely to be noticed than those many others which are not reviewed at all.

Bach flowers for finishing a novel

Browsing through the search terms which have been used to find this blog, I recently noticed the unusual one ‘Bach flowers for finishing a novel’.  The person who wrote it probably didn’t find much help from the information which was here at the time, but I was intrigued by the question and will have a go at answering it now. A large number of different remedies, only some of which are mentioned below, could be indicated; please visit the Bach Centre website for further details. Up to six flowers can be combined in one course of treatment and, as always, the choice depends on the personality and current emotional state of the individual concerned.

After months or years of working on your manuscript, becoming deeply involved with the characters and their story, the prospect of finishing the actual writing and moving on to the publication stage can seem quite daunting. The final product, which whether you realise it or not is bound to reveal some personal aspects of your self, is soon going to be launched into to the outside world. It may be met with criticism and rejection. You will have to tackle the practical demands of publishing and marketing, which may be unfamiliar or uncongenial. Are you anxious and fearful about certain aspects of the process (Mimulus)? Lacking confidence in your abilities (Larch)? Do you set yourself such high standards that you are continually revising your manuscript in a quest for perfection (Rock water)? Or do you keep making revisions because you are being over-influenced by others’ opinions rather than staying true to your own ‘inner voice’ (Cerato, Walnut)? Perhaps, rather like a devoted mother whose young adult child is preparing to leave home, you have anticipatory feelings of grief and loss (Star of Bethlehem), want to hold on to the former pattern of life (Honeysuckle) or do not know what to do next after finishing your novel (Wild Oat).

Many states of mind would tend to hinder progress on a personal project of any kind besides finishing a novel. For example: feeling overwhelmed by other responsibilities (Elm), being so willing to help other people that you do not have enough time for yourself (Centaury), mental lethargy in relation to getting started on a task (Hornbeam), the tendency to daydream about your ideas rather than taking practical action (Clematis), being distracted by outside influences (Walnut), feeling negative and discouraged after a setback (Gentian) or generally laid-back and apathetic (Wild Rose).

Or perhaps you are simply feeling tired of the book on which you have spent so much time and effort, and the best plan is to take a break from it before completing the final draft.

Whether a book ever can be considered perfectly finished is another question ….

A perfectly finished book?

WH Auden said: “A poem is never finished; it is only abandoned,” and the same applies to a book. Writers often get so closely involved with their manuscripts that they fail to notice imperfections which are only too obvious to other readers.

Novels are sometimes submitted with fatal flaws in the plot, or characters who have different names or different eye colours in various parts of the text. Nonfiction books may contain inaccurate or ambiguous factual statements, and those dealing with knowledge in a rapidly-advancing field will be out of date by the time they are published; this problem is largely unavoidable and may necessitate frequent revisions.

On the technical side, typos and formatting errors can creep in at any stage of the book production process, so it is important to check the text carefully several times. I should know all this by now, but being impatient to publish my latest book Persons not diseases on Amazon I missed a couple of tiny but important errors – a date printed as 19919 instead of 1919, one wrong digit in the ISBN – and had to resubmit the files.

It is a good idea to ask at least one other person to read through the penultimate draft of your manuscript, and leave it aside yourself while this is happening, so that you can check through later with fresh eyes before submitting it for publication. Even if you choose to ignore some of their criticisms or suggestions, they may well pick up important shortcomings which you have missed because of your own over-familiarity with the text.

As with most things, balance is important and is possible to make too many changes in the attempt to make your manuscript perfect, or to get it accepted by a publisher. The faded typescript of my own first completed novel has languished in a box file for 30 years – after getting a series of rejections, coupled with just enough encouragement to make me persevere, I carried out multiple revisions but eventually got so tired of the whole thing that I gave it up. Although there was certainly plenty of scope for improving the first version, I think that by being swayed too much by others’ opinions and trying to make it conform with a standard formula, I lost the freshness and originality of the first draft.

After all, many wise men and women have pointed out that nothing in this world is completely perfect, and that sometimes this does not matter or may even be for the best. From Leonard Cohen:

“There is a crack in everything, That’s how the light gets in.”


Writing with multiple identities

Over the years I have published under various names, as well as acquiring several blogs, websites and email addresses. For a writer, what are the pros and cons of having such multiple identities? I’ve been considering this question recently because I’m in the process of trying to streamline my internet presence, and deciding what material to update, archive or delete.

True multiple personality disorder (dissociative identity disorder) is very rare. But most people do display different sub-personalities for different aspects of their life and work, and keep them apart whether by default or design. There are potential advantages to this. If your day job is in a field such as law or accountancy which requires a fairly conventional image, you may not want your clients and colleagues to know that you write steamy romances in your spare time. If you feel your novel reveals more about you than you want anyone else to know, you may prefer to publish it under a pen name. If you write both fiction and non-fiction you may choose separate identities for each; I recently met a man who writes one of his blogs under the alias of the female protagonist of his series of novels.  And if you do not like your real name, or think it is unsuitable for the genre of your book, you may decide to choose a ‘nom de plume’.  According to numerology, names have great metaphysical significance and exert an effect on personal destiny.

But maintaining multiple identities comes at a price. It takes time to run two or more blogs or websites. Using more than one name can have social, financial or legal complications. Most writers find it enough of a challenge to market their books under a single name, let alone more, and the commercial success of a book sometimes depends more on its author’s reputation than on the quality of its content. In one famous recent case, the crime novel The cuckoo’s calling by Robert Galbraith attracted excellent reviews when first published, but did not achieve best-seller status until ‘Robert Galbraith’ was unmasked as J K Rowling.

Because of being married twice I have had three different surnames over the years,  a choice which probably did not prove helpful for my career. I sometimes feel tempted to use yet another name for the novel I am writing … however I think it would be better to stay with my real one from now on.

Setting personal boundaries: or, writers who never say no


I had several writers as clients in my life coaching practice. They often raised questions about how to find enough time and energy for writing amid the other demands and distractions of life. They might have agreed to take on extra responsibilities and activities, whether work- or family-related, because they felt obliged to accept or did not know how to refuse without causing offence or risking disapproval. Many were women working from home,  and I could empathise when they described feeling tense and frustrated about having their creative flow interrupted when husband or children wanted something, a visitor came to call or it was time to get the dinner ready. Writing, more than most other activities, requires sustained periods of solitary concentration.

The answers sound simple in theory:  Reserve a dedicated space to write in, preferably a room which is not shared with anyone else. Close the door when you are working. Switch off the phone. Reserve set times for writing each day. If there is too much else happening during normal waking hours, consider getting up earlier or staying up later, though without losing too much sleep. Say no to unwelcome requests.

Before putting such new strategies into practice it is advisable to have a friendly conversation explaining them to other household members, and asking them to respect your privacy by not interrupting unnecessarily or making a lot of noise. If all goes well they may even suggest helping in other ways, perhaps by taking over some of your usual tasks at times.

Many people find it difficult to follow these recommendations because they have been taught always to put others before themselves, and never to refuse when asked to do something however unreasonable or inconvenient it may be.  As a result they may become overworked, tired and resentful, and are unable to pursue their own wishes or develop their full potential.  If they ever do decline a request, they feel guilty about it. But:

If you never say No, what is your Yes worth? Tony Neate

Overcoming this ‘people-pleasing’ mindset is not about going to the opposite extreme of ruthless selfishness, but finding a balance between the best interests of others and yourself.

Many of the Bach flower remedies, selected alone or in combination on an individual basis, can be helpful here. For example Centaury is for those who are over-eager to serve others, and Walnut for those who are being distracted from their chosen path by outside influences.  For details about these and other remedies please visit the Bach centre website.

Not all distractions from writing are external ones. If you are finding it hard to focus because of intrusive worries or wandering thoughts, or are continually being tempted to check your emails or get another cup of coffee, you need to set firmer boundaries for yourself.

Personality and writing

Do you write primarily for yourself, or for your readers? The answer may depend on your personality type. Of the many different personality classifications which have been proposed, almost all recognise the introvert-extravert dimension.

Introverts tend to write for personal fulfilment and satisfaction. They choose the subjects which interest them, rather than those which might appeal to the market. They are reserved and solitary by nature and, in extreme cases, may have little or no desire to have their writing published or read by other people.

Extraverts, in contrast, continually seek contact with the outside world and relationships with their readers are of prime importance. They want to broadcast their message, to be noticed and liked, or achieve good sales in a specified market. They love doing media presentations.

This is of course an oversimplification, because personality traits exist on a continuum. Introverts and extraverts are not distinct categories; most people display elements of both at different times and in different situations. Some tend towards one or other end of the spectrum, others lie in the middle (ambiversion).  And this combination is probably what works best in relation to developing a writing carer, as my own experience may illustrate.

Like most writers I naturally tend towards introversion, but have learned to develop my extravert side. As a child my favourite pastime was writing stories just for my own amusement. My first published book was written much later on, while I was studying for a postgraduate exam in medicine, and I started it as a way of understanding and memorising the material from my lecture notes. But then I showed the manuscript to a couple of colleagues, who suggested submitting it for publication, and it was accepted second time round. I had no idea that it would become established as a textbook for medical students and psychiatric trainees and, in commercial terms, prove more successful than anything I have written since.

My next few books were about psycho-oncology and, though again I began writing them mainly for my own interest and education, I was very mindful of their potential impact on others because they dealt with some sensitive issues and would be read by some patients and relatives, as well as by staff.  Authors only ever hear feedback from a small minority of their readers, but I had favourable responses and reviews (except from one oncologist vehemently opposed to complementary therapies) and I hope these books have helped with the prevention and management of the distress often associated with cancer, and highlighted the fact that there can be something positive in the experience of this and other illnesses.

Since I retired from academic and clinical medicine, and started writing self-help books for general readers, I have aimed to develop this theme of seeking the silver lining in sickness and adversity. When I was asked by an interviewer for three key words I chose ‘balance’, ‘positivity’ and ‘self-responsibility’.

I am now going back to what I most enjoyed doing as a child – writing fiction – and my new novella is almost finished. Although I do intend to publish it, I am not expecting high sales because I have ignored the golden rules of targeting a market niche and staying within a defined genre. It’s a mixture of mystery and romance with a paranormal flavour and I wrote it because I wanted to, in response to one of those vague inspirations which come from an unknown source.

So long as you write what you wish to write,
That is all that matters …

Virginia Woolf