It’s just us lab rats–has the humiliating submissions process reduced us to this?



It said, "Dear Writer, enclosed are two rejections, one for the book you sent us, and one for the next book you send us."

 …by Janet Lane

     L. M. May wrote in her blog yesterday about fiction writers and learned helplessness.  In it, she discussed the theory of learned helplessness which was developed by American psychologist Martin Seligman in the sixties. 

     May presented a powerful visual in which we hold our query letters, partials or entire manuscripts in our hands and place them in a large red box.  (Imagine a shoe box only larger—a boot box, perhaps.) 

     We begin our submissions career by shoving the precious bundle of our work in this “box” for an agent or editor, and one of three things happens:  a) It’s rejected and we get a painful electrical shock; b) We receive no response and nothing happens or c) We get a request for more or a contract and we’re injected with an opiate.

     Like lab rats, the process is repeated over and over again over the course of an author’s career.  The pattern is burned in our brains.

     Enter the new publishing world, with independent publishing as a viable option, and what happens? 

Like Pavlov’s dog with a twist, we’re stuck in the brain pattern of timidity and fear learned over time, and we fear the very gift we’ve been given as writers:  a new option in which we have more control over how and when our beloved novels are shared with the world.

     That we’ve suffered through a market that’s grossly out of balance with supply and demand is not news.  What May has offered us, is the power of knowledge, the chance to break free from this pattern of learned helplessness.

     May posits that writers have developed coping mechanisms to counteract the learned helpless.  Mechanisms like contests to see who can send out the most submissions in a week, for example, or how many rejections one can accumulate in a month. “The games help writers keep writing and also provide a way tocope with the pain of “No” until a thicker emotional skin develops,” says May.

     This is all good to know as we consider the Brave New World of e-books, Kindle, and new contract options when marketing our novels.

     A hearty “Huzzah!” to L. M. May for blogging about this, and a big “Thank you!” to my RMFW friend, Lynda Hilburn, for sharing this link.  You may learn more at May’s blog,  

How do you cope with rejection?  Have a fun contest or game you can share with us?  Please comment!



Filed under The Writing Life

8 responses to “It’s just us lab rats–has the humiliating submissions process reduced us to this?

  1. Boy, I wish I could dispute the similarity between rejection and electroshock, but it’s a pretty good comparison. I haven’t suffered it that often (yet) myself, but I think I’m probably guilty of the flinch syndrome – you submit a couple times and get rejected and the published articles (albeit in another genre) mean less and the rejection slows down your willingness to submit again. You start to question yourself rather than focusing on perseverance and moving ahead….yeah, all the good stuff.

    Hope your writing is going well. I’m heading to Colorado Gold in September (as a presenter this year, actually) and hope to see you there!

    • redplume

      That’s great news, Susan! I’ve been working out of town on petroleum land projects, so I couldn’t commit to a workshop. I know I can *attend* RMFW’s conference, though — it’s so good, I have not missed one in over a dozen years! What are you presenting?

  2. It will be great to see you at the conference! I’m presenting a Friday Master’s Class on publishing contracts (I don’t advertise it much on my blog, but my day job is actually about 75% publishing law – I’m a transactional attorney specializing in that area) and a class in the Saturday-Sunday portion of the conference about copyrights and copyright infringement (and how to avoid it!). I noticed last year that there were no attorneys speaking and decided to offer a class if there was interest – and apparently there was! I’m really looking forward to it, as much for the conference itself as for the presentation. The people I met there last year were so encouraging – it’s a fantastic group and I can’t wait to get back and see everyone again!

    • redplume

      Wow, and I do mean wow! In this market, where we’re diving into new waters with Kindle and other e-book avenues, this is both timely and needed. I think it’ll be SRO! See you there!

      • Thanks! I’m looking forward to it. A lot of my small publisher clients use electronic publishing methods, and have for some time, so it’s an area I work with a lot. It’s definitely seeing unprecedented growth at the moment, and I’m definitely going to make it a focus in the Master’s class. The idea is to make sure people understand how to read and understand a contract, along with some of the big issues that often get missed. I’m hoping people find it interesting and entertaining as well as informative, and I definitely hope it gets good attendance!

      • redplume

        I’ll spread the word, Susan. 🙂

  3. jgavinallan

    I think you’re equating rejection to electric shock is a bit overboard. I equate it to a “kick to every vital organ.”—May is a big month for my not so hot career. Anyone want to check out my work. You can be brutal if you wish.


    • redplume

      I understand. “Hope in the Mail” (outstanding queries) always fill me with hope, though, and, as the saying goes, “You can’t win if you don’t play.” I’m wishing you success with your query efforts!

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