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  • Writer's pictureSofiya Pasternack

Getting Schooled | My Hardest Learned Lesson in Publishing

Take the L, Sofiya


I like to tell my kids, and my patients, that you never lose. You either win or you learn.

 

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If you're wondering whether I'm aware of how annoying that is, the answer is Yes! I am aware! But it's an annoying mantra that is nevertheless accurate. There are several studies out there that demonstrate the power of positive thinking. Not any "The Secret" kind of thing, but priming brains to expect a certain outcome, and then interpreting events as congruent with that outcome.


Brains are neat!


So if you approach life with an "I don't lose; I win or I learn" attitude, then you will begin to interpret events in that way. I didn't win? Okay, well what did I learn? It can be "I learned how to play chess better" or it can be "I learned that Dave cheats at chess." Either way, you're turning that loss into a learn.


(For the record, you don't have to lose in order to learn! You can win and learn, too!)


In this post, we'll go through these things:

 

Rejection

We've all experienced our fair share of rejection in publishing, haven't we? There are even clubs of people who will celebrate when they get 50, 100, 500, etc, rejections! Because getting 50 rejections means that you tried 50 times! And if you come at this with a "win or learn" mentality, that means you've had 50 opportunities to learn something.


What can we learn from rejection?

  1. Is your manuscript marketable right now?

  2. Is your writing at the level you need it to be?

  3. Do you need to workshop more?

  4. Does your query letter need tweaking?

  5. Did you submit to the right agents?

And so on! Learn, learn, learn.


Stephen King's adage of "get a bigger nail" is spot-on. He used to pin his rejections to the wall with a nail. Then one day the rejections got too much for the poor little nail, and it fell off the wall. So what did he do? He got a bigger nail. And kept going. Kept collecting rejections.


Wayne Gretzky said, "You miss 100% of the shots you didn't take."


Albert Einstein said, "Failure is success in progress."


Thomas Edison said, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."


Winston Churchill said, "Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm."


Blah blah blah.


But here's a secret: this works for publishing. The people who get published are the ones who don't give up, not necessarily the ones who wrote the best book. Ask any published author how many manuscripts they wrote before the one that was their debut, and the answer is almost always a lot! Ask how many rejections they got from agents. Ask how long their book was on submission.


Many authors who are big names didn't make it big with their first book, or even first few books. They had a middling debut and kept writing, and their fourth or fifth book was the one that exploded. If they'd stopped after a mediocre debut, they never would have published the book(s) that made them huge.


I know authors who, years ago, were convinced their first queried novel was the best book ever. But now, looking back, they're like, "Ugh, I'm so glad no agent picked that book up. It's terrible." They were rejected, they learned, and they succeeded.


So friends, rejection can be a good thing. It's hard, for sure, and for someone like me with Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, rejection can feel like physically being punched in the heart. But it won't actually kill you, even if it feels like it might.


Speaking of things that feel like they might kill you...

 

Critical Reviews


Hoooo boy, if you thought being rejected by agents is hard, just wait until your book comes out and someone rips it a new butthole on Goodreads! But even worse than the really mean and bad reviews are the ones that are... well...


Here are some samplings from my own reviews on certain reviewing sites (please do not go find these and comment or downvote them; I'm using them here just to illustrate a point about reviews! 😊).


This review is on a middle grade novel:

text that says "doesn't even bother to hide the fact that it's intended for middle grade"

When asked if the book was too scary for the younger end of the MG audience, this was the answer from a children's librarian:

text which says "it has some young characteristics but I thought it could actually be quite scary for a young reader"

And this was a critical review of that same book. The (adult) reviewer was complaining about the lack of grit or scariness in the book.

text that says "it doesn't hurt to make characters nuanced and worlds scary"

Making assumptions about why the book being reviewed received an award:

While, hilariously, this book is left off LGBTQ+ reading lists because the protagonist is not the LGBTQ+ one; the deuteragonist is.


And finally, my favorite kind of critical review:

At least spell my name right. Jeez.


I ONLY SUBMIT ROUGH DRAFTS.


Just kidding. Every published book has been through months--MONTHS!--of revisions by at least 2 and often up to 5 people other than the author. And that doesn't count the author's own beta readers and CPs. And doing all that work means you get really attached to your manuscript, your story, your characters... so when some yokel on Goodreads says, "You didn't even try to hide the fact that this is for children," your knee-jerk answer is often, "Yeah, no shit! It's obviously for children! Why is it a bad thing to be openly for children??"


But don't.


Don't do that.


Don't respond. I haven't interacted with or responded to any of the negative reviews on any review site (except for taking screenshots just now lol), because honestly? Look at those reviews again. What am I supposed to say to them? What would you say to something like that? They're written by someone for whom the book was not intended. And that's okay. Not every book is for every reader.


I write my MG books for my own children. My son is a gremlin and he won't read anything other than the I Survived series and Captain Underpants, so I'm still waiting for his opinion on my books. But my daughter is a voracious reader who will steal the signed copies off my bookshelves to read under her covers at night. And when I'm drafting a new MG novel, she'll set aside her latest Wings of Fire novel (which is a BIG DEAL) to read it and give me feedback. She hand sells my book to her classmates at school and kids at her karate class. She made a TikTok (which I deleted, and then she made another one) where all the videos are our dog, Wings of Fire, and my books.


My ideal reader is my daughter, and she loves my books. So, for me, bad reviews on Goodreads are nothing. Gnats on my elephant hide. Annoying at worst. I have a handful of trusted author friends that I can message and be like, "Hey did you know my book only got an award because of the LGBTQ+ characters?" And we can laugh about it.

 

Priming


I talked earlier about priming your brain for positivity, so I'll revisit that here.


This is a great TEDx Talk by researcher Vanessa Van Edwards about confidence and charisma. But she talks in here as well about brain priming. The link for this video starts it more toward the end (14:40), but the whole thing is worth watching.

This part is significant because of what she says about the brain looking for hits, not misses. When you're in a small-talk situation, if you ask someone, "Been busy lately?" their brain will access everything it catalogued under "busy," which generally isn't positive. But if you ask, "Working on anything exciting?" the brain will access things filed under "exciting." So just by rephrasing a question in a more positive way, you're directing the brain toward a more positive emotional state.


In this interview (which begins at 7:50), she talks about priming for flavor. Watch it before reading on!

That's pretty nuts, huh? Just by telling someone that the yogurt is strawberry, you've primed their brain to expect and taste strawberry, so they do... even when the yogurt is an entirely different flavor.


Vanessa says in this video, "The words we use are incredibly powerful." And she's so right!


If your brain is so powerful that it can actually make you taste something that isn't there, it stands to reason that it's also powerful enough to look for learns instead of losses, right?


My hardest lesson learned in publishing was how to deal with rejection and criticism.


And it was a hard lesson learned. Like I said, rejection for me is a physical hurt, and the fear of pain is what kept me self-rejecting for so, so long. It took me seven years of belonging to a wonderful, supportive, but honest critique group before I had built up to the level of being able to handle honest criticism.


There have been some authors in the pillory lately for responding to negative reviews, and all I see when authors attack reviewers is that the author was hurt, and they never learned how to deal with rejection and criticism. So they're lashing out, all out of hurt. Then they're dragged down further, hurt even more, and they respond with more anger and pain, and it's a spiral down into the mud for everyone involved.


So my advice, new and old authors alike, is to get a good, trusted support network where you can vent privately. Build up your ability to laugh at the truly frustrating criticism. And develop the ability to assess valid criticism and learn from it. When you get a rejection, don't frame it in your mind as a rejection. Frame it as a learning opportunity, and the chance to improve and try again. ❤️

 

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meet sofiya!
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Sofiya Pasternack is a mental health professional, the highly-distractible author of Jewish MG and YA fantasy, and prone to oversharing gross medical stories.

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