The Writers Circle

creative writing community, craft and inspiration

On Rejection: An Honest Assessment and Some Ways to Survive It

by Christina Kapp

rejectionIn book publishing, editors and agents will often refer to a book “finding it’s home” at the right publishing “house.” These are good analogies, because they imply that your fledgling novel, story, or poem will need to do some work looking for the right publication, and, just as with people, the right match is not always easily found. All publishers, from book publishers to literary magazines and e-zines, have their own aesthetic. Submitting is like sending your work on dates. It may need to meet a lot of editors before it finds a match that works, and you, the author, can do little more than sit at the window and wait for it to come home again. (No matter how much you might like to interfere, remember that neither teenage kids nor unpublished stories are aided by having overbearing parents.) Therefore, when you seek potential outlets for your work, you must be as critical as the editors will be, both of your work and of the publication, because the two are going to be married for life.

Unfortunately, it is necessary to accept the reality that, as a writer, you will be rejected over and over again. Google “literary rejections.” At the top of the list you will find, a website entirely devoted to the sad lot of the as-yet-unpublished work, followed by a whole host of information and commiseration about the difficulty of finding a publisher for your work.

Does this mean that it is hopeless? Of course not. It just means that you need to know what you’re up against.

Let’s look at an actual rejection, shall we? I have removed the name of the publication under the assumption that they really don’t need to spread around more rejection than absolutely necessary, but I like this one because it’s gentle and makes a few helpful points:

Dear __________,

We are honored that you considered our publication worthy to receive your writing, we thank you for the opportunity to read your work, and we regret that we are unable to publish it at this time. Please consider the numerical reality: that for the current issue, we were able to publish much less than one percent of the submissions we received.

We wish you the very best of luck with your work and we hope that we may continue to read each other.

Ever yours,

The Editors

This is what is known as a “form rejection.” (If you submit to literary magazines, you will receive a lot of these.) It is not written for you in particular, but is a stock letter that is sent to the vast majority of writers who submit to this publication. It is kind but unequivocal, and points out one of the realities writers would like to forget: There are simply too many submissions for them to accept every good, or even really good, or quite possibly great submission they receive. A submission has to transcend those kinds of qualifications, and speak to an editor on a visceral, emotional, or personal level while aligning very precisely with that editor’s taste. If it can do that, then it will make the final cut, but at this point it still might be rejected. Even if a story meets an editor’s very individual standard of awesomeness, it also has to fit in properly with the collected awesomeness of that particular issue, season, or list. (i.e., if an editor has already accepted a story about sea turtles, his or her hands are going to be tied on a second one, because, really, how many stories about sea turtles can an editor reasonably publish if they don’t want to become Sea Turtle Magazine?)

Also, as noted in the letter, numbers are very important. Submission numbers are always going to be high. Acceptance rates typically run from a fraction of a percent to about five percent. A publication that accepts ten percent has a fairly high acceptance rate. Does this make you want to take up pottery or synchronized swimming instead?  Maybe. But, if you love to write and want to publish, thick skin is a requirement.

So what’s the trick? In On Writing, Steven King recalls receiving his first rejection. He “poked it onto a nail” in the wall over his desk. Later, the nail “would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it.” What did he do? He replaced the nail with a spike and “went on writing.” This is the lead you should follow. Don’t let the rejections get you down. File them away, and write something new.

In The Long Hello, one of my favorite essays on publishing short fiction, Jacob M. Appel expands on this idea. While a story may need to try many publications before it finds a “home,” just submitting the same story over and over again isn’t enough to conquer the odds. He writes, “The key to perseverance is figuring out how to obtain the original goal through a different means: a different story, a revised resume, getting down on the other knee. And sometimes the target itself must be moved, if ever so slightly: once the goal becomes ‘romantic happiness,’ rather than ‘romantic happiness with Ethel,’ then Fred Mertz poses less of an obstacle.”

The other issue my form rejection raises is the importance of research and immersion in the genre you write in. This rejection closes with, “We hope that we may continue to read each other,” which is a lovely way of pointing out that if you expect editors to read you, you really ought to spend some time reading them, too. If you plan to submit to literary magazines, subscribe to a few. Many have sample stories online, if not full issues. Also, many writing contests run by literary magazines offer each entrant a sample copy with their entry fee, which is a great way to submit work while supporting and enjoying publications you might not otherwise have read.

So, if you feel ready to send your work out into the world, there are a few guidelines you must follow:

  1. Make sure your work is the best it can be. Find a reader you trust to give you honest feedback and take the time to revise, edit and polish. When you are finished, do it again. Make that story the very best it can be.
  2. Read your manuscript aloud. This is a good proofreading technique as well as a helpful way to pick up minor word repetitions and tangled sentence constructions. Does the story or poem sound good? If not, rework it and read it aloud again. Make sure your manuscript is completely free of errors.
  3. Research potential publications. Good sites with listings of literary magazines and small publishers are Duotrope and NewPages. Duotrope is a paid site, but it maintains acceptance statistics and has a very useful submissions tracker. NewPages is free and publishes reviews of literary magazines, which can be helpful for research purposes.
  4. Keep track of your submissions. Because you are going to get rejected quite a bit and responses can take time (generally two to six months per submission), it is in your best interest to submit to multiple publications at once. This is a blessing, in that it speeds up the process, but it also means you must be extremely vigilant about keeping track of where you have sent your work. If your work is accepted for publication, you must withdraw other submissions immediately, thanking those editors for their time and informing them that your work has been accepted elsewhere.

If there is one thing you should remember about rejection it is that the most important part of writing is writing. The more you write, the better your work will be. Stay focused. Move forward. If you start to feel like it’s all a bit too much, click on this link for a little pick me up. I promise it will help.

Christina Kapp teaches Poetry,  Just Prompts, Short Story Writing and Where Do I Begin for The Writers Circle.

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