Nearly every book about getting published lists the same advice: research your market, follow submission guidelines, and don’t get discouraged. Naturally, there’s a hitch in each one of these small wisdoms. A person simply can’t research every possible market that publishes the kind of work they write. This is especially true of “literary” writing and poetry, neither of which has significantly clear delineations of content like “genre fiction” has. Following submission guidelines can be tricky when a market lists nothing more than “short story, double-spaced” (how many words? what kind of story? page numbers go where?) or “poems in the body of an email” (how many poems? what about formatting? which editor do I send it to?). But the hardest advice to follow is, “Don’t get discouraged.”
The more I study the market, place it within context of my own experience with the submission process, and listen to the experiences of other writers, the more I want to topple this simplistic advice or at minimum, add to it. It could read, for example, “You’ll get discouraged, but keep submitting anyway.” Or more simply, “Ignore the feeling of discouragement.” Or better yet, “This is why we are relatively certain that 99% of all writers feel discouragement at some point in time and here are a few ways you can cope with it.” Instead, these wonderful writer’s reference books give us the one-in-a-million inspirational stories of the writers who were rejected 47 times before becoming best selling authors as though we aren’t smart enough to realize that isn’t likely to happen to us.
So I divide this article into three sections: why discouragement is a normal part of the writing life (for those of us with smaller egos, at least), small things we can do to set our minds at ease and revitalize our interest in submitting (notably the more sarcastic, but somehow true part of the article), and my own journey through the submission process (mostly to get it off my chest—feel free to ignore this section).
Why Discouragement is Normal
- The truth is that there are literally thousands of publishing opportunities and most of us know that. There are mainstream magazines, literary journals, genre journals, small presses and independent newsletters, e-zines, university publications, local and national newspapers, and literary web sites that feature different writers each month or week. The list goes on and on. The simple knowledge of the sheer availability of opportunity and the lack of our own publication credits is enough to really make us wonder if we are quality writers.
- There are so many truly awful books, poems, stories, and articles published that while we once looked at these and said, “I can write better than that!” with a sense of excitement and purpose, after our 112th form rejection letter, we now look at them and think, “Editors are just idiots to publish that and reject my work, so why bother submitting at all? I don’t want my poem next to that one anyway!”
- Most editors do very little to encourage quality writers to continue submitting. Form letters are the norm (in some cases with good reason, in some cases without) and response times compile the effect of these letters. Waiting six months for a form rejection is definitely on my list of “Top Five Most Discouraging Moments.”
- While we learn in most professional fields to seek out experts and learn from them, seeking out editors and/or published writers for advice generally adds to the discouragement. In most careers, for example, persistence is a virtue, but we learn when we speak to editors that it could very well be the opposite in the publishing world with the establishment of “kill lists” where your name is flagged for an automatic rejection after two or three rejected pieces.
- Along with reason #4, the knowledge that many journals use interns (usually graduate students of MFA programs who may or may not actually know what the hell they’re doing) to screen submissions and therefore, your work stands a pretty good chance of never making it to the desk of the editor based on personal preferences and/or biases against content or style rather than the quality of the work, also adds to discouragement.
- Bad publicity for contest policies and procedures confirm what we have known all along: publishing isn’t about the writing but about how many friends you can make. Considering that most of our literary legends had notoriously poor social skills, this seems to be the antithesis of progress in publishing.
- On the flip side of all this, there are more would-be writers in the world today than ever before and the ease of submitting (particularly by email) has substantially increased the number of submissions to any given market and created an environment where prescreening, quick-pick by name, and form rejections are necessary. This is especially true for the rare “paying market.”
What Can We Do to Cope?
- As writers, we often hear this advice for good writing, “Don’t show your work to family, friends, or other people who will only praise it.” I take issue with this advice. For one thing, I’ve gotten some of my best criticism from family and friends who maybe are supposed to only praise my work, but rarely do. Additionally, these people tend to be the most encouraging of my work even when telling me how bad it is.
- Start a blog. For one thing, you can appear to be marketing your work even if no one is reading it (although WordPress gives you pretty statistics to tell you that people really are). For another thing, you can rant like I am right now without fearing that some editor is going to tell you it sounds too much like a rant.
- Participate in critiquing forums. Now I’ll give you, there is a shortage of really good, constructive prose forums out there, but the multitude of poetry forums is staggering (something for everyone) and most of these have good discussions about publishing, including some pretty decent discussions about rejections.
- Cuss out loud when you get a new rejection. It helps. Really.
- Dress up as your favorite character in one of your rejected books/stories/poems, start a bonfire, and dance around it while throwing rejection letters one by one into the flames. Be sure you’ve purchased the proper permit and alert your neighbors to a costume party prior to doing this.
- If it gets really bad and your goal is simply to see yourself in print, there is no shortage of vanity presses out there that will make you a contest finalist AND publish your poem free of charge. For the small (temporarily discounted) price of $59.95, you can even own your own copy. (Don’t laugh—a lot of people do this and call themselves published! I wouldn’t recommend using these as publishing credits to an editor, though).
- If you have the money and some extra time on your hands, you can always self-publish. There are some reputable companies to go through in order to do this and you can get some exposure through self-marketing. Hey, it worked for Christopher Paolini.
My Adventures in Submitting
My personal writing journey has been similar to many other writers I’ve spoken to. Elementary school was marked by two and three page short stories about a young girl’s adventures with her pet rabbit that was quaintly named “Easter.” By middle school, I was writing angst-ridden confessional poetry (as confessional as a teenager can get at least, which in my case was pretty damn confessional). I started my first novel at age thirteen (I’d rather not remember it, thank you). I wrote obsessively. Some of it was pretty good, or had the potential to be pretty good.
At thirteen, I received my first “publication credit” from the even-then-known-as-a-scam-but-I-didn’t-know vanity press, The National Library of Poetry (now known primarily as poetry.com and probably still hosting some of my early work). At fourteen, it was the more honorable feature in the school yearbook and the occasional poem in student “lit mags.” But the one I remember most during the early, obsessive period of my life came at sixteen.
I bought two books of stamps and sent out a flurry of submissions to twenty different journals that I had never read, but instead had gleaned guidelines from the most recent edition of Writer’s Market (which I still purchase annually though I’ve averaged one submission per year over the last ten years). Of those submissions, one came back with an acceptance—a short rhyming piece titled The Clock was to appear in a magazine called Night Roses.
My poem did appear in Night Roses, issue #17. When I got my contributor copy, it didn’t matter to me at all that it was printed on 24lb colored paper, bound with staples. It didn’t matter that the circulation was approximately 300. My poem was in print, and I was paid for it (yes, a contributor copy counts as payment), and this…was….it, the start of my burgeoning literary career!
And like every one else, I grew up.
Life laid out its hand: boys took the place of pen and paper, making a living took the place of big dreams, and my writing became a hobby that was always sporadic and sometimes therapeutic. During this time, my self-confidence waned. When I went back to high school after dropping out (two months before graduating in the top 5% of my class—a story for another time), the English teacher at Payette
Alternative High School took an interest in my writing ability. First, she set me on an independent curriculum that led to my first critical essay (on John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany). Then she brought an advertisement for a contest anthology in progress by a small press in Arizona whose name escapes me now. More out of boredom and curiosity than anything else, I sent a poem titled Daddy Didn’t Like to Dance (which has also been lost to time). It was accepted and I imagine appeared in the anthology-I-can’t-name.
This sparked an interest in contests. Not the poetry.com contests, but the real ones that charged an entry fee and assured us that every contest entry was also considered for publication, and that the work would be judged by real writers and poets. There was no Jorie Graham rule back then and truth be told, I’m thankful that every submission I sent with the requisite $20 fee was declined, not only because of the quality of judging, but because of the rather poor quality of the work I was turning out once every three months or so “when the mood took me.”
Still, I found myself writing more often and submitting more often. Of the rejections I received over the following three years, only one was a standard form letter without any comment at all (to The Sun: A Magazine of Ideas, to whom I still submit partly out of a deep admiration for the journal and partly because I really want to know what Sy Safransky’s handwriting looks like). Of the comments I received, some were very simple. “Sorry” is scrawled across one of them. I have no idea if that means “Sorry we had to turn this down” or “Sorry we had to read this,” but the editor took the time to write it and for that I’m thankful.
Glimmer Train used to have a great rejection system. They sent out a brochure-style note with the bottom quarter folded and check-boxes that said basically “We want this,” “We don’t want this, but we liked it and would like to see more,” and “No thanks.” (That isn’t the exact wording, but at the moment I’m too lazy to go upstairs and retrieve it for a more precise quote—you get the idea). This was incredibly helpful to writers who might find the center checkmark somewhat encouraging (I know I did).
Other comments were also simple, but encouraging. Across the top of a rejection from The Boston Review are written the words “Best of luck placing this piece elsewhere.” A personal note from the editor at The Boston Review is cause for joy, right? Of course it is!
My favorite editor (yes, we’re allowed to have favorite editors as unpublished writers) will always be the editor of Space & Time who took the time to write my rejection letters by hand and tell me exactly what he found fault with so that I could improve. I believe I’m not alone in saying he is my favorite as Space & Time has been closed to submissions for quite a while (and not for the first time). I once thought I received kindly comments from the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but since I recently received an almost identical letter from the assistant editor, I now believe these are form letters in disguise. (By the way, I’ve since determined that science fiction is not my niche).
Despite some fairly consistent encouragement (I didn’t realize how big of a deal this was until recently), life again laid out its hand and my writing again became sporadic until I entered a three-year period in which I did not write at all. Nothing. Not a poem. Not a story. Not an essay. Not even a rant for Letters to the Editor. When I returned to writing, I received encouragement from someone whose work I admire and respect and began submitting again.
About six months ago, I received one of the most amusing (insert sarcasm smiley here) rejection letters of all time. “This is not a reflection of your work…blah blah blah…we only accept 1% of the submissions we receive…blah blah blah…” What was so funny about this particular rejection letter was the subscription card enclosed with it—using my stamp no less—that read in huge letters across the top, “YES, I am hurt that my manuscript was rejected, but I will subscribe because thisjournal is so great.” I should name the journal this came from, but I won’t, because if everyone else has the reaction I did when they read this subscription card, at least someone nearby will get a good laugh.
Most of the recent rejections have come as standard form letters and after the one I received a few days ago, I don’t mind them so much. This one (again by an unnamed journal) was particularly informative as to why editors get a bad name when they respond personally. After acknowledging the title of my submission and the quality of writing, the letter read, “…but our fiction editor felt this piece was too sentimental for their tastes.” Not bad, right? Informative, right? Helpful and encouraging even.
I glance at the subject header of the email. Yes, I sent it to the correct department. I scroll down to read my cover letter (I’m notoriously horrible at writing cover letters, by the way, although I once received kind comments from an editor regarding the humorous quality of one). My cover letter began, “Please find herein a creative nonfiction essay for your consideration.” Yes, I appropriately acknowledged the genre in both the subject header and the cover letter. Needless to say, I won’t be submitting to that particular journal again, although they have published some quality work (thus, my refusal to name them).
So of course, that got me thinking about how unbelievable some nonfiction is—enough that we might mistake it for fiction—and why those who have never experienced certain things continue to assume that their inexperience translates to an inability for anyone else to have such experiences. But that, naturally, is a discussion for another time.