Lately, I’ve been racking up rejections. It’s nothing new (I’ve been in the publishing game for about two decades now), but it never gets any easier. Partly this new long-list of (often kind and encouraging) rejections is because this year I made the decision to only submit to paying markets.* And, I think, partly it’s due to my writing style having changed a little bit—and I’m submitting to literary magazines I’m less familiar with, which makes targeting the right publications that much harder.
Regardless of how or why or when rejection arrives, it pretty much always sucks. A rejection letter, even the kindest, sweetest, handwritten, “we-loved-it-BUT” can sour a good day.
Writing is a personal venture, one that requires emotional investment, mental clarity, and time. To send a piece of writing out into the world for consideration is an incredibly brave act.
There are so many reasons why a piece of writing will be rejected: personal taste, space, theme, etc. Just as writing is personal, reading is too. What an editor likes or loves depends on who they are, what kind of day their having, whether or not they’ve recently accepted a story about a clowder of black cats.
Objectively, we’d all like to believe that a well-crafted story will be accepted based on its obvious merits. But the process is far more subjective than that. I know all this because I edited a literary magazine for four years. I’ve been on the other side of the rejection handouts.
And yet, it still stings me when a rejection comes through: each and every one I received makes me doubt my purpose as a writer. Sometimes, depending on my mood, a rejection might have me selling my laptop and applying for work at McDonald’s. Lately, rejections have kept me from updating my Duotrope account.
Dealing with Rejection
The point of this post, however, is not to dwell on my own insecurities. It’s to talk about rejection in a non-stigmatizing way. As writers, we all receive rejections. And usually, counterintuitively, the most successful writers have received the most rejections. There’s been a movement lately, by a number of writers that I admire, to talk about rejection—how many “Thanks, but no thanks” letters beloved books received before somebody recognized their brilliance. I appreciate this transparency, and wish the literary world contained more of it.
John McNally, by my sights a successful author, has written a book called The Promise of Failure: One Writer’s Perspective on Not Succeeding (which I’ll be reviewing next month). In it, he lists his projects, both those that have ended in a published book, and those that haven’t. It’s a long list, full of rejected novels, stories, and more—and it’s refreshing. Failure is a constant in the creative world. Instead of treating it as the be-all-end-all (as pesky low self-esteem is wont to do), it can be treated as fertile ground. What went wrong here? you might ask. How can I do better next time?
Rejection doesn’t mean you’re a failure. Rejection means you’re playing the game, and as a creative person, that’s the best you can do.
One of the things I keep in mind as I submit to literary magazines and residencies is this article by Kim Liao on LitHub: “Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year.” I often share it with my students and clients. The point is, the more rejections you receive, the more acceptances you receive. It may sound like a game of chance. But, more than that, it’s a game of persistence.
Persistence is Key
Persistence is the key to anything and everything you want in the world, but it’s especially key if you’re a creative person.
Persistence can look like 100 rejections this year. (I’m up to 8 so far, though it seems like hundreds!). Persistence can look like contacting editors and getting to know them. Persistence can look like showing up at conferences, residencies, local writing groups and readings despite your shyness. Persistence can mean rewriting that book 10 times till you get it right.
There are things you can do, beyond endless submitting, to increase your odds of acceptance:
- Write often.
- Revise often and well.
- Know your craft.
- Be part of the community.
Number 3 is intimately tied to numbers 1 and 2. And it might be obvious when I say you should be sending out only your best work—but are you being honest with yourself about your best work? I often ask myself this when a piece has been rejected a number of times. I revisit it. If it feels clunky or wobbly, I revise more. If the piece still stands up (and sometimes it does), I keep sending it out.
Numbers 4 and 5 might seem… jaded. But I don’t meant them to be. The writing world, despite how daunting it can seem, is actually very small. Writers read other writers; we drink together, laugh together, swear together, promote each other’s work, buy each other’s books. Obviously you don’t have to be a socialite to be a good writer. But connecting with others, and being part of the literary conversation, goes a long way.
A Word on Social Media
Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook have been a boon for introverted writers: they’re great platforms to connect and share and meet people you might not otherwise.
But they can also be disheartening. We tend to glamourize our lives for social media, and why wouldn’t we? We post about our successes, because they feel good and we want to celebrate them. There’s nothing wrong with that. But if you’re in a dry patch, it can be dispiriting to read about your friends’ successes. You click like, and you feel happy for them, but there’s that little churn of envy in your belly. How can there not be?
I’m not advocating for a movement to announce every rejection that comes our way (because that’d be equally depressing). But I would love to see more transparency in the writing community about what it truly takes to succeed, and an acknowledgment that success is more intimately tied to failure than we often let on.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m off to submit some stories.
I’ll be writing more about rejection in my forthcoming e-book, The No-Nonsense Guide to Submitting to Literary Magazines, which will be out in June! It’ll also include helpful hints to make your submissions stand out, how to understand guidelines, interviews with various lit mag editors, and more! Stay tuned!