There’s no point embarking on a writing career if you’re not prepared to handle rejection. The aspiring writer (for that matter, any creative artist) has to start somewhere, and for the majority of us who are not prodigies, this means setting out on the creative journey before we have any clear idea where we want to go. An obvious fact about most things in life is that you have to do something badly before you can do it well. It may be a cliché to say that we learn from our mistakes, but it’s a cliché for a reason: it holds a kernel of truth. For anyone writing fiction or poetry, the apprenticeship is long and arduous; some argue that it never ends. The creative process follows no logic or formula. Writing is exploration, and exploration is by definition messy and chaotic and leaves a trail of detritus in its wake. Eventually we gain confidence and master aspects of the craft, taking lessons learned from one project and applying them to the next. We recognize where we’ve gone wrong and learn how to avoid making the same mistakes in the future. But even when we finish a story or novel and feel satisfied with the result, it doesn’t mean that everyone is going to like it.
Writing may be exploration, but it is also communication, and I’ve said before that anyone who claims to write for no other reason than personal satisfaction is probably lying. People who commit themselves to a craft and spend years refining their skills want affirmation that the time has not been wasted. When we complete a new work—a poem or short story or novel, say—the only rational thing to do is to show it to someone and ask what they think. Placing your work in another person’s hands involves risk, but if the person is a friend, a lover, a spouse, a mentor, a teacher, a writing group, or some other trusted individual or collective whose function is to provide support and encouragement, the risk is likely to be small. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that feedback from someone who doesn’t want to hurt your feelings is of limited value.
Once your friends and relatives have had their say and you’ve smoothed out the rough edges at a workshop or maybe in a mentorship program, the next logical step in your journey is to try to get published by sending your story or poem to a journal that publishes stories or poems, or your novel to a book publisher. This involves risk of a different sort: when you unleash your work on the world at large, you expose yourself to the opinions of complete strangers who don’t give a damn about your feelings.
An inescapable fact about publishing is that 99% of the material that’s submitted is rejected, and rejection happens for any number of reasons, many of which the hopeful author could never anticipate. That being said, there are lots of things an author can do to make sure his submission gets a fair shot.
One important but frequently unobserved rule of the submission game can be stated this way: never place needless barriers between your work and your reader. In this context, reader means the editor at the journal where you’ve submitted your story, or the publishing house where you’ve sent your manuscript. When you’re preparing your submission, keep in mind that editors are busy people with many and various demands on their time. To gain perspective, imagine a desk buried beneath piles of unread manuscripts and a phone that never stops ringing. Often they’re working for peanuts (or for nothing at all), and would rather spend their afternoon or evening doing something other than reading your short story. In fact, what they are looking for is a reason NOT to read your short story, and if you’ve decided to make your manuscript stand out from the crowd by printing it in orange ink on purple paper, then you might as well toss it in the recycle bin yourself because that’s where it’s going to end up.
That’s an extreme example, but wherever you send your work, read the submission guidelines and follow them. When you do that, then at the very least your manuscript arrives on an equal footing with the hundreds of others with which it is in competition.
If you’re submitting to journals, it pays to look at copies to see what they’ve accepted in the past. This can be helpful. It can also be daunting (if you let yourself believe that the quality of what they’ve published is beyond your capabilities), and even misleading. If you notice that a journal has published cat poems recently, that journal is probably not the right place to send all those cat poems you’ve been working on: they’ve done their cat poems and won’t want more for the foreseeable future. If your strength is realism, submitting to a journal that leans toward speculative fiction is probably a waste of time. What you’re looking for when you study a journal to see if they’ll be receptive to your work is broad thematic and stylistic compatibility. Admittedly this is subjective, and there are always exceptions. In this instance, let common sense be your guide.
By now, you’ve taken care of the preliminary grunt work. You know which journals are going to treat your submission seriously, you format the copy in a clear and readable fashion, you formulate a brief but reasonably informative cover letter (brief is more important than informative: if they want to know more they can google you), and you make the submission online or by snail mail according to the journal’s guidelines. You are absolutely prepared to wait an appropriate period before making any kind of inquiry about the status of your submission (3 months minimum for a journal submission, 6 months for a manuscript sent to a publisher). And you understand that 99% of all submissions are rejected. You have armed yourself well for disappointment.
Still, when they come, the rejections can be heartbreaking. They will seem cruel, mean-spirited and relentless, especially if the work you submitted is the result of weeks or months or years of painstaking effort and incorporates the wise advice of mentors and workshop leaders and fellow writers who want and expect to see you succeed. Not only have you failed yourself, you’ve failed them. It’s tempting to become discouraged. It’s easy to fly into a rage. If it goes on long enough you might even become paranoid and imagine that editors everywhere are communicating with each other in an organized conspiracy to keep your work and only your work out of the pages of their journals. What’s more, since editors and staff readers rarely have time to make comments on rejected manuscripts, what you receive back comes in the form of a frustratingly uninformative standard rejection notice that tells you nothing about why the decision went against your submission. You feel stymied and helpless as you ask How can I make my story publishable if they won’t tell me what’s wrong with it? Looking for answers, you return to the journal and say, My story’s better than that one. Why won’t they publish mine? Reaching for an explanation, you might think, That author’s probably sleeping with someone on the editorial board. When your work is being rejected over and over again, everything seems unfair. The advantage is never in your court. You’ve hit a brick wall and there’s nowhere to go.
During these dark days, it’s helpful to keep a few things in mind. For one, though it might not seem like it, you’re not alone. For another, there are a lot of good writers out there and journals have limited space. For another, no piece of writing has universal appeal; even the most seasoned editors make his or her selections on a basis that’s at least partially subjective. Where editorial decisions are concerned, any number of factors can come into play, and one of those is personal preference. Editors are readers. They like what they like. Don’t expect them to apologize for it.
You can also derive hope from this: there may, in fact, be nothing wrong you’re your story. For example, it could be that your timing is off: the journal where you’ve sent your submission has just committed the last open pages of their upcoming two or three issues and they don’t want to hold up your work. Or you were simply unlucky: the story you submitted is a comic piece about a breast cancer survivor who divorces her selfish husband, abandons her selfish children, and rides her Harley cross country, and the editor whose desk it landed on was unable to make the imaginative leap necessary to appreciate it because her own mother’s struggle with breast cancer ended badly and she sees nothing funny about it.
The lesson here is that it’s pointless to worry about things that are beyond your control. Worry about the things you can control: your ideas, the quality of your writing, the appearance of your submission.
Believe it or not, rejection is a vital step in the creative process. It’s a chance to review, revise, and re-evaluate. If your submission comes back with recommendations from the editor, so much the better. Those words are gold. Consider any suggestions seriously and treat them with respect, but do not let them prevail over your own editorial instincts, unless you don’t care that the story you’re writing will no longer be your own. If an editor says he will reconsider or even publish your submission if you do this or that to it, act with caution and don’t get your hopes up. Don’t be fooled into thinking that a promise has been made. Don’t be disappointed if you resubmit your story and find that the editor who communicated with you is no longer associated with the journal. Perseverance in the face of rejection is what separates the dilettante from the serious artist. Some writers stop writing and let their voices go silent. Chances are they weren’t real writers to begin with. A lot of famous writers endured years of rejection and didn’t give up because they had faith in their work. The annals of modern literary publishing abound with stories of manuscripts that were rejected over and over again only to become blockbusters or classics when they finally found their audience (Harry Potter, The Lord of the Flies), proving once and for all that editors are not infallible. It’s also okay to give up on a story, or poem, or novel, to admit that some ideas simply don’t work. Don’t obsess over the fact that bad writing gets published and good writing doesn’t. If what you’ve written deserves to be published, it probably will be. If you’ve served your apprenticeship and mastered your craft, it won’t matter that your work is rejected far more often than it’s accepted. That’s just the odds. Like the rest of us you’ll dust it off and send it back out. Then you’ll do it again. And then do it again …