On Rejection

by Adam Reger

For anyone who writes and seeks to publish their work, rejection is just a fact of life. Many times I’ve started entries like this one decrying how hard it is to get anything published, from a short short story to a novel. Thankfully, I’ve deleted most of them.

Being in a sunnier mood at the moment, I thought I’d offer some more positive thoughts on rejection, trying to put it into perspective.

A reality check, though: being “positive” really just means better coming to grips with what is a very grim reality. Two object lessons that will quantify that grimness:

Screen Shot 2018-01-09 at 11.06.26 AM

This is a screen shot from my Duotrope account, which (among other things) tracks submissions. It indicates that of the 31 submissions I’ve sent out over the past 12 months, I have a 4.2% acceptance rate.

Terrible, right? My work must be pretty bad, right? Actually, if you check out the note at the very bottom of this image, you will see that that pathetic 4.2% represents a better than average response rate (from the journals to which I submitted). So much so, Duotrope is congratulating me!

That’s right. In the world of submitting to literary magazines, a 4% success rate is enviable. Forget baseball, where succeeding one-third of the time (i.e., batting .333) gets you a trip to the All-Star Game: in publishing, rejection is a near certainty.

(A brief aside: last spring, I had the pleasure of teaching two sections of fiction writing at a local university and in each of them I talked through the submission process. When I came to this part, I realized that the world needs a term for this kind of “bragging”: not quite “humble bragging,” boasting about an acceptance rate of 4.2% is the kind of bragging that requires the braggart to provide necessary context so the audience will understand that this accomplishment is actually quite impressive, pedestrian as it may appear. Pseudo-bragging? Quasi-bragging? Crypto-bragging? Any suggestions?)

I should note that sending out only 31 pieces in the last year is a really low figure, and something I hope to improve on in 2018. (I was tied up with writing one or other novel for most of last year and didn’t have a lot of short fiction in the pipeline.)

One useful piece cites 100 rejections a year as a worthy goal. I totally agree. Once you come to accept that rejection is the most likely outcome of any submission, you can move toward the logical conclusion of that thought: If I submit more, I’ll expedite the process of getting through all those rejections. In other words, I’ll take the 100 shots that (in theory) will lead to four scores.

(There are lots of problems with this logic, from the fact that one or more of these pieces just might not be very good to the possibility that one piece accounted for a large portion of the 100 submissions—meaning it could drive that submission total up (if it gets rejected tons of times) or down (if it’s taken quickly) and skewing the percentage as well—to the big differences in selectivity among literary magazines. Still, the basic idea holds: if it’s a numbers game, you’re best off approaching it that way and taking lots of chances. That’s especially true in the world of literary publishing, where all you see are the successes: a novel never includes a rundown of how many times it was turned down. Some writers—and I do this—fear embarrassment when we know, or have some connection to, an editor; the literary world can be very small. For that there’s really no cure but the usual: suck it up, take a chance, see what happens.)

The second object lesson is from fiction writer Jac Jemc, author of The Grip of It and several other books, who keeps a running tally of all her rejections on her blog. As I write this, the most recently updated figure is 374: she’s documented 374 rejections there.

If you want to simulate the feeling of sending work out, scroll through her blog. Although she records many successes, Jemc mostly documents rejection. It is a remarkably candid and brave process, and I find it inspiring and immensely valuable: when I found my way to it, it was after reading about The Grip of It, published by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux (a great press that I would love to publish my work). Seeing Jemc’s lengthy record of rejection underscored two things that I’ve often thought: 1) rejection doesn’t count against you in the least; and 2) you can endure rejection so much better if you take a long view of it and, if you’re capable, are philosophical and fair-minded about it. If you look through Jemc’s record, you’ll see her tone skews wildly toward the “Shucks! Well, I still love Black Warrior Review and I’m going to keep trying” and “I’m honored they even considered this story” end of the spectrum, as opposed to the “Who reads that dumb journal anyway?” and “They must not have understood the ending” side.

(I should add that Jemc’s even-keeled approach is an aspiration of mine; too often, I end up (if only for a few brief moments once I’ve gotten the rejection e-mail) on the “Who reads that dumb journal anyway?” side of things.)

As I continue with this post, it occurs to me that perspective is the key to approaching rejection—even more than that, it’s the only thing to worry about, and that you can control, once you’ve clicked “Submit.” There are lots of articles out there about getting your cover letter right, proofreading one last time, and certainly thousands of books, articles, interviews, courses, and MFA programs that will help you sharpen your work. Which, to all of that, yes: that is all important. But simply understanding the dynamics of the situation might just be the key to getting to a place of acceptance and even-temperedness with rejection.

Most writers have some sense of the numbers game on the other side of the submission—i.e., that literary magazines get way more submissions than they could possibly accept. (Literary magazines tell us this, frequently, in their rejection letters. (From teaching workplace writing for the last several years, I can tell you that this is part of what is known as the “indirect pattern” of correspondence, in which a “buffer” paragraph is used to mute the sting of bad news: “Unfortunately, we received over 1,000 submissions for just three slots,” etc.))

But many of us misinterpret this as meaning that—say if the journal you submitted your fiction to gets 1,000 submissions a year and publishes 10 stories—your odds are 1 in 100, or 1%.

While that’s literally true, it misunderstands what the situation is for the literary magazine editor. (And here I should insert advice many writers have probably heard, which is that gaining experience on the staff of a literary magazine is invaluable. The main things I’ve learned from working on lit mags at the undergraduate and graduate levels are 1) most writing that is submitted is some combination of terrible and inappropriate for the publication; and, paradoxically, 2) there is too much good stuff submitted for it all to be published.)

When I send a story to a literary magazine, what I think I’m asking is, “Do you love this story enough to want to publish it?” But the magazine’s editors aren’t looking through its submissions queue for, say, five stories they love, or the top five stories submitted. (Maybe some are, but in most places it’s not like that.) They’re looking for five pieces that work together, that work with the poetry in the issue, that fit with or complement the art planned for this issue. They may not be interested in a story about a man surviving a shipwreck on a deserted island, however strong, because last issue they published a story of a man marooned on an iceberg. Similarly, my story about a man trapped on a balcony might be the second story about men stuck on balconies that they’ve received this round. You’d better believe they’re not publishing both. (When I worked on the Beloit Fiction Journal as an undergraduate, the teacher, Clint McCown, said that the prior issue they’d received two strong stories that featured pregnant women falling into swimming pools.)

In other (and fewer) words: editors are considering your work as part of a whole. How does it work in that whole? What does it add? They’re also considering it among a sea of submissions, which also changes the calculus on their end dramatically. They’re asking themselves many more questions than “Is this good or not?”

It’s one of the hardest things to accept as a writer, especially if you’ve worked hard over your submission—gone through multiple drafts, solicited feedback, proofread endlessly—but once you click “Submit,” your piece is one manuscript among many. And here’s the key thing: it’s not getting assessed on the question of “Is this good or not?” Literary magazines may formulate the questions they ask differently, but they’re all going to be along the lines of “Do we want to publish this?” (I know this sounds obvious but if you can receive a form rejection and keep in mind that that rejection is not saying, “Your work sucks,” you’ll be way happier as a submitting writer.)