Posted in Writing

Why Personalized Rejections are So Damn Important

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In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

My first helpful note was from Algis Budrys, who read a story of mine and wrote, ‘This is good. Not for us, but good. You have talent. Submit again.’ Those four brief sentences, scribbled by a fountain pen that left big ragged blotches in its way, brightened the dismal winter of my sixteenth year.

I’ve been actively writing fiction for eight years now, and still to this day, I am humbled, even excited, when I receive a personalized rejection.

Part of the reason why is that since 2014 I have been actively submitting my short fiction like crazy. I joined Duotrope in October of that year and within a few weeks I decided to submit onr creative piece a day, every day. It could be a short story or a poem or creative non-fiction. It could be the SAME creative piece for thirty days straight. But for every day on the calendar, I wanted to send one piece to one publishing outlet, and now that nearly four years have passed since I started into this forever cycle of submitting my work, I’ve learned a few things.

First, most of the time, you won’t hear a word about your piece. Not an acceptance of course. And not a rejection. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve submitted a short story to 20 or 30 magazines, only in the next six months to hear back from maybe 10.

The same way that many literary agents won’t respond to your query if they’re not interested, the editor (or intern) at a literary magazine doesn’t necessarily give you the official No. Usually submittable.com is helpful because at the very least someone will mark your submission Declined, so you at least know someone looked at it. But don’t be surprised if you send your piece to 20 magazines and you only hear back from half of them.

Second, you will be rejected 99% of the time. And if you send out so many pieces like I do, rejection will become a part of your daily life. Since I started actively sending out my creative writing in 2014, I probably receive a rejection about every other day, week after week, month after month. I can honestly say I’ve become dumb to rejection. It fazed me a little in the beginning of my writing career, when I was pitching my first few novels, but now rejection is so much part of the daily norm that I don’t let it affect me one bit. I continue on. I write something new.

I have so much work I’ve written I adore that’s still unpublished — probably a dozen short stories, about five poems, and two works of creative non-fiction — and yet I still never let rejection get me down. Rejection is an excuse to send that piece you love to five new outlets. Rejection is an excuse to take another short story you haven’t looked at in two years, spend a week doing a heavy revision, then send it out again.

Third, when you’re rejected a lot, an acceptance will feel like an out-of-body experience. Even if the magazine isn’t Tin House or Prairie Schooner, even if it’s a tiny online press that was just launched six months ago, your acceptance is validation. It’s someone saying, hey, this is really good, I want this, this writer has talent. One acceptance is enough to keep me going for weeks. Months, really. Anybody who accepts your work gives you validation that you’re on the right track.

And it happens so rarely, at least for me. Of the 1300 or so submissions I’ve sent out since October 2014, I’ve had about ten acceptances. Maybe twelve? Not too many. Two, maybe three a year. My Submittable.com page shows exactly four acceptances. And 322 rejections.

That’s right. I took the time to submit my work to 322 places that all said no, but also four that said yes. It’s a toss-up, really. You write your best work. And you have no idea what editor might go for it. I’m a big believer in not sending your short story to one place, then waiting 6 months until you hear back.

Don’t send it to 100 places, but start with 15 or 20. Then wait. If you’re rejected across the board by all 20 magazines, then take a week, go back, do another revision. Have someone look at it. Read through it again. Then send it to 15 to 20 more. That’s always been my process. And sometimes, even if it takes 2–3 years, your writing might find a home! I wrote a creative non-fiction piece in 2011 that was published in a reputable literary magazine in 2016. Five years I sent that thing out off and on, and it finally found a home five years after I wrote its first draft. Don’t give up.

To read the fourth thing I learned, click here.

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