On Rejections, Rejections, and Rejections

In my last newsletter, I wrote about the importance of persistence in writing:

I might go so far as to say that persistence is the most important trait for an author. Many poems are published after dozens of rejections. Many novels are bought after dozens of rejections. Many authors have abandoned books in their drawers (or rather files in their hard drive) before their debut. Keep going. Never stop. Persist, persist, persist.

One of the hard parts about writing is that it’s simultaneously personal and impersonal. As writers we pour our souls on the page / “sit down at the typewriter and bleed” / reach into our chests and pull out our little demons to show the world / [insert other over-the-top metaphor here]… and yet we also know the world tends to treat our work with the interest an elephant has to a gnat. Not even worth shooing away.

Even in the realm of publishing, where people do care about literature, submission reading can be very impersonal. It has to be. The flood of submissions and queries is often overwhelming. When I co-edited a small literary magazine with no funding and minimal clout, we still got hundreds or thousands of submissions an issue. Bigger magazines like the New Yorker are drowning in the work of desperate writers. The harsh reality is most prestigious places publish 1% or less of the work they receive. But certainly more than 1% is good enough to publish.

That’s the math. You can’t really change it. But at the risk of sounding like a self-help guru, you can change your attitude. You can look at the math and realize that the rejections aren’t really personal. It’s unlikely the editors will even remember you the next time you submit. Hell, they might not even be the same editors given the turnover at literary magazines (especially ones attached to universities and staffed by students). So you have to decide to just keep knocking (politely and following the guidelines) at the gates until they let you in.

One thing that helped me when I was starting out was reading an issue of Best American Short Stories in which an author mentioned their included story was rejected 30 times before being published (IIRC) in Tin House. (If you don’t know, Tin House was one of the leading literary magazines until they closed down a few years ago.) I drew two lessons from this. First, writing is filled with rejection and getting published is very hard. But secondly, tons of rejection doesn’t preclude success. This author got not only accepted into one of the best journals, the story was also republished in the prestigious B.A.S.S. anthology. The 29 other magazines who passed did not have the final word on the work’s quality by any means.

Another example of this dual lesson was provided today by Ayşe Papatya Bucak, author of the highly acclaimed story collection The Trojan War Museum.

Bucak goes on to mention how many agents rejected the book (15) and how many magazines rejected the stories (a dozen or more per story).

So all you can do is not take it personally and keep trying.

A last note about submissions, the writer Kelly Link had a good addendum to my advice craft letter:

I agree with both of these, especially the first. Many authors probably dismiss a nice rejection as just an editor being polite, but nice and/or personal rejections are rare and editors do put thought into them.

So if you do notice your rejection has very positive language or any kind of personal note, take that as a good sign. Then finish a new story, and send again.


In personal news, I had a talk with Brian Evenson for Third Place Books that is now up on YouTube if you’d like to watch. We talk about horror fiction, Lishian sentences, and other fun things.

I also have an upcoming talk with the legend Kim Stanley Robison on September 9th:

This event is for my novel The Body Scout, which, yes, was rejected by quite a few publishers before it found a home...