This question was posed at a course I attended recently. For me, it depends.
I am rejected approximately 90%* of the time–or, I should say, my short stories are. I keep a spreadsheet; I’ve reviewed the stats. The stats also tell me that, on average, I receive a rejection letter/email once a week. A quick google tells me I’m in good company, with many now-famous artists facing rejection in their careers.
Sometimes, yes, I do let this get me down. When I’ve received the third rejection in a stressful week, it affects me. I also feel pretty low when I have spent weeks polishing a story for its perfect match of a literary journal [according to my deluded perception], only to receive a form letter rejection a day later [yep, seriously misread that one…].
But. When my work is accepted, well, oh. Glorious day! Look at those millions and trillions of smiles in bud, stacked up on top of one other. Every flower is in burst just for me. The day is more vivid; food pops in my mouth. The world is my cradle and my heart is skipping on a glassy pond. I’m in bliss.
While I light up at emails that feature the words ‘delighted’, ‘accept’, and ‘publish’, in that order, I have learned that a detailed rejection makes for an excellent consolation prize. It means my writing is appreciated or, at the very least, respected. Editors of literary magazines are busy professionals who receive hundreds, if not thousands, of submissions in a month. A detailed rejection letter means that something about my writing touched a busy editor enough to inspire them to help me on my writing journey, and that is super cool.
Any brand of rejection can in itself be a valuable gift. Here’s why:
- A rejection can protect you. I may have, in the past, submitted the odd story on a rash wave of red wine and chilli chocolate within minutes of a deadline. Once your work is out in the public realm, it’s open to scrutiny from anyone who ever learned the alphabet. A rejection can save me from myself.
- A rejection is a chance to reset expectations. Is it really ready? Is this a publication that truly meshes with my voice and style?
- A rejection gives you time to reassess work. Did I make any silly errors? Was it really as wonderful as I thought it was? Did I meet the guidelines and thematic requirements? Could I do better?
- A rejection is a reminder to take life lighter. You are worth more than this piece or that piece of writing. A publisher/editor at last year’s Scarlet Stiletto Awards had another gem to offer on the subject of rejection: it’s nothing personal. Your story may be utterly wonderful–but it may be less suited than another to the theme, or there may already be a very similar story selected for that issue. After all, the reading public can take only so many stories on mutinous pot plants with telekinesis and a taste for human flesh.
All of this, of course, can be turned into learning and better results for your own writing. Here’s how:
- Target your submissions. Do your research on literary magazines. Create a database of journals/prizes you’re aiming for.
- Read–whole issues of the publications you are targetting, as well as books and stories in general. At first, I was fairly indiscriminate and a little indignant, especially after this interview with Island Magazine‘s Matthew Lamb. As a penniless writer with four paid-up subscriptions to legitimate print journals, why should I buy more? That was then. Now, I see that every publication is unique; they have to be, or they wouldn’t survive in this swamped market. You owe it to yourself, and the editors, to do your research before you submit. Buy a back-issue or two and you may even discover other writers you love in the research process.
- Follow the guidelines. The term ‘guidelines’ is erroneous when it comes to literary submissions: these be the unbreakable rules [yarr…]. Occasionally, you’ll come across a kind editor who will deidentify all the entries that didn’t pay attention to that rule, or overlook the fact that your story was submitted in Comic Sans MS, but most editors have too much on their plates. Don’t give them a reason to reject your work before they’ve even read it.
- Give yourself time between finishing and editing your story. A bit of distance will help you to see the holes in your plot, the repeated words, the fuzzy grammar that you thought was innovative at 3am.
- Draw a line, and send out your baby. While I see the point being made by Michael Nye, Managing Editor at The Missouri Review, when he says that constant submitters may not be sending out their best work, we are not always the best judges of our own work. In 2012, I entered three short stories in a national (Australian) literary contest because I had two stories to enter and there was a discount on payment for three entries. The third story I entered was there to make up the numbers; it hadn’t been thoroughly edited, and I didn’t feel super confident about it. That story garnered me third prize, and it has since been published in UK and US literary journals. My learning: just submit the darned thing. Your story won’t get anywhere if you don’t send it out, and there is such a thing as editing out the magic.
- Keep sending out your baby. Emily Lackey, via SheWrites.com, relays a fantastic story about a college professor who had a story rejected fifty times before it led to a fellowship opportunity. It’s good practice to revise your work once it’s been rejected, but there comes a time when you need to trust yourself and your voice. Sometimes you just need the right opportunity, the right editor/judge, or the right time, for your brilliant work to see the light of day.
I want to leave you on a high with two wildly different perspectives on rejection–an inspirational journey to a book from Annabel Smith, and a cathartic sketch, courtesy of Bernard Black.
My answer to the title question? I see rejection as a valuable resource. It has nothing to do with personal worth, and everything to do with building resilience and resolve. I am what I am and I do what I do regardless of what others think of me and my words–but it is awesome when other people like my words enough to share them.
How do you deal with professional rejection?
Yours in writing,
Addendum of 27 May 2016: Aerogramme Writers Studio published a wonderful article on why your rejection doesn’t mean anything by Dan Burgess of Firewords. Here it is, for your reading pleasure: http://www.aerogrammestudio.com/2016/05/27/why-your-rejection-letter-means-nothing/.
*That rejection rate is more like 95% for me now.