Rejection. Nobody likes it. Whether it’s for a job, on a date, or of a more…literary nature. Nobody likes it. But like death and taxes—it’s one of life’s unfortunate guarantees. Stick around long enough and you’re sure to experience it, whoever you are.
Today, I want to talk about literary rejection since I’m a writer. How do I react to it? And how do I move on and keep submitting?
First off: I generally haven’t reacted well. But now, I am trying to change and am having some success. Perhaps most importantly my stories and poems been rejected over 100 times. So, they don’t hurt as much as they used to.
Recently, I decided my “rejection tolerance” wasn’t high enough. That is, my ability to deal with rejections was far too low. I thought I had a lot of rejections (who doesn’t?), but then I talked to writers who have received hundreds of rejections, how had sent stories out dozens of times before getting accepted. And I realized, I needed to do a better job at accepting rejections as a natural part of the writing process and not take it so personally. (A big help with this, BTW, have been a couple of steely-eyed writers whose favorite stories got rejected dozens of times and then went on to win awards or become popular…showing that no one knows what will make a story a winner, so stick with what you feel in your gut!). Today, I’m sending out more pieces (and getting more rejections) than ever! On balance, that’s a great thing!
Of course, they still sting every time. But I keep going. And that’s the most important piece of advice I can give you…the one thing you should remember from this post if you take away nothing else:
Keep going despite rejection, keep going despite negative interactions with a “bad apple” editor, keep going if your story doesn’t get a lot of attention once it’s published. Just keep going.
But how do you do that? And how do you get your piece (story or poem) into a magazine or journal? While maintaining your mental health? Well, here are the best tips I have for dealing with rejection, something I’m calling “rejecting threading.”
The image I have is of a salmon trying to reach its home. It will have to deal with fishermen, bears, low-running creeks, dams, etc. But with enough power and cunning it will find its way home, just like a good story.
Step One: Finish, polish and PROOF your work.
This should be obvious, but it’s important. If you want your work in a “professional” magazine then it should be…well…professional. That means doing multiple drafts, (maybe sharing with a critique group or person), and PROOFING the piece. Enough said.
Pick a submission tracker to tally your submissions
A good idea is to pick a submission tracker to record your submissions. I use Duotrope, which is fine, but comes with a fee (well worth it to me for the underlying data it gives you access to). Some use The Submission Grinder. Some use an Excel spreadsheet. Bottom line: choose something and stick with it. Because you’re going to get rejected a lot and you want something to keep track of it all.
Follow, follow, follow the writer guidelines
You don’t want to get rejected just for not paying attention to the writer’s submission guidelines, those handy rules that every publication has for what they want to see, and sometime, what they don’t! Getting rejected because of this sucks. Don’t do it!
Pick a backup market (or two)
Here’s a little cheat I picked up to lessen the psychological blow. BEFORE you send out a story, assume it has already been rejected. Where are you going to send it next? Who’s next in line? And once it DOES get rejected and you’re about to send along AGAIN, you’ll want to think about who gets it next.
Are there any neat tie-ins with existing markets?
Sometimes, the first market(s) to try are just a natural fit. Do you have a nice second-world fantasy? Think about sending it to Beneath Ceaseless Skies (they love that stuff!). Is death the theme of your story? Send it to Deadlands. They love death. 😊
Point is, don’t forget: Some markets are just natural fits for some stories based on their themes or content.
Start with the Pro Markets
So, you’ve proofed your piece, followed guidelines and you’re ready to submit. Great. Now, it’s time to pick a market. So…what to do?
Start off with the highest-paying, most well-known markets. What have you got to lose? Send stuff to Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, or any other market you deem to be the “top” in our world. Who knows, if you hit the right editor on the right day—maybe your piece will get in…
But chances are…it won’t!
As a rule of thumb, I count these as markets which accept less than 1% of their submissions—they’re a very exclusive lot. I (and perhaps you should, too?) consider an acceptance by ANY Pro Magazine as a career highlight, a once-in-a-lifetime event!
I usually submit to 2-5 Pro Markets before moving onto the next step…but first there’s one thing to keep in mind…
As rejections come in…read between the lines
As the rejections start popping in your Inbox, you should be reading them closely. Most importantly, you want to determine if they’re sending what are called “personal” rejections or just plain, old rejections. A personal rejection reads something like:
“This piece didn’t quite work for us, but please keep us in mind for future stories.”
That last bit is golden. It’s an indication that your story got very close. In other words, you should keep submitting it: it’s chances of finding a home sooner or later are very good.
If you don’t get the “we’d like to see more” tagline, it MIGHT be a sign that the story is not quite ready for prime time. At the very least, it indicates it’s time to move onto the next step…
Move onto Semi-Pro Markets
These Semi-Pro magazines are great. They have pretty high notoriety (especially among other writers and editors which should really matter to you at this point) and will pay you for your work. Now, they won’t pay as much or give you as much notoriety as the big magazines—but hey! It isn’t bad!
There are tons I could list here, but again, a great way to find them is in your submission tracker. Again, as a rule of thumb, I consider Semi-Pro magazines as those which PAY for your work and generally have an acceptance rate greater than 1% and lower than about 10% (or between 1% and 5%…haven’t really decided yet). Point is: they’re easier to get into than the Pros and great places to build your reputation as a writer.
After Semi-Pro mags, I might consider…
Sending to Amateur/Non-paying Markets
After 10-15 rejections you might want to consider sending your piece to Non-paying Markets.
I have gone back and forth on this throughout my fiction writing career. Sometimes, I think: “Writers work hard and we should get paid, no matter what.” Other times, I think: “This is a great story, I want it out there. It’s short and I just want someone to see it now that’s done.” On those days, I start sending to non-paying markets.
I have had good experiences with these market and not-so-good experiences. So, you should carefully weigh the decision before sending it out to them. And always remember this important point: ONCE A STORY HAS BEEN PUBLISHED, ANYWHERE, ITS RESALE VALUE SHARPLY PLUMMETS. That means you will have a much harder time selling it in the future. So, Writer beware!
If I go this route, I will submit the story another 10-15 times until…
Consider trunking (retiring) or reworking a story once it gets 25 rejections
After 25 rejections, it becomes pretty clear that a piece is not going to make it. At least, that’s my rule of thumb. If submission 25 comes in, it’s a sign. A sign that this story has some serious issues.
That leaves it with one of two options. First, you can just trunk/retire the piece, transfer it to the Great Hard Drive in the Sky, and forget about it. Or, you can take a shot at deeply reworking the piece. But honestly, I’d just rather start something new at that point and forget about it.
That said, I have never had a piece reach the 25 rejection point. One got “saved” on its 25th rejection, my story “Pacha-Mama” (which personally I felt should have got accepted WAY before that). Most of my stories don’t “make it” in the writing or outlining phase when they just don’t come together on the page.
At any rate, to me, 25 rejections seems a good point to reassess and move on.
Don’t forget to resell your story to Audio markets
Another final point is: Don’t forget to sell your story to Podcasts. This is a great “newish” option for stories. Furthermore, most Podcasts are looking for AUDIO ORIGINALS. That means, that they don’t care whether some print or online magazine has already published it. They only care that another Podcast hasn’t covered it.
So, these days, I find myself selling old stories to Podcasts. Or even selling stories to Podcasts AS I’m submitting them to magazines.
This is one situation where double-dipping is definitely allowed and I encourage you to do so!
For more on rejection see…
I have long been a fan of Rejectomancy, Aeryn Rudel’s blog on all things dealing with writerly rejection. It’s great resource and, heck, a great place to commiserate over being “literally” rejected! Get thee hence!
That’s it! That’s what I’ve got on rejection. Hope you remembered the most important thing: Keep Going! … on that note…
A recent story of mine, “Go Ask Alice” went through all the steps listed here. And guess what? Great news! It was accepted and will be published by Carmina Magazine early next year. Watch this space for final release details. (And yes, it’s still pending with audio markets!)
All for now. See you next time!
2 thoughts on “The Craft: How One Writer Thinks about Literary Rejection”
Congrats on the acceptance! I’m in a bit of an acceptance dry spell myself and will have to live vicariously through your success.
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I’m learning that dry spells (and hot streaks) come and go. Come and go. The most important thing is, like I said, to keep going!
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