In the first 17 days of this year, 12 different publishers rejected my poems and essays. That’s a lot, more than I have ever received in a bunch before. I belong to an online group that tries to get 100 rejections a year, reasoning that the more we send out, the better our chances of getting published. So far, I’m winning, but it’s a dubious honor, a contest I’d rather lose. Last year, I made it to 68 rejections, but I also had several individual poems, two essays, and two chapbooks accepted for publication. I thought I was on a roll.
Twelve rejections. After number 10, I prayed to God to not send anymore. Number 11 arrived that day. The next day looked like it would be rejection-free, but when I checked my email at bedtime, there was number 12. I cried.
In the olden days, rejections came in the mail. The “rejection slips” came in all different sizes and colors, and writers told each other that if the editor added a handwritten note, that meant they were on the verge of success. Now, most rejections come by email and they look pretty much the same. Thank you for letting us see your work. We regret to inform you that we will not be able to use it. Good luck with your writing. The chart on Submittable, the online app that most publishers use for submissions these days, changes the listing for your piece from “in progress” to “declined.” There’s nothing to hang on the wall and no break from rejection between mail deliveries.
It’s hard not to doubt your ability in the face of so much rejection. About half of my current rejections came from contests in which I did not win or place, including one I thought was a sure thing. I was a finalist in that one twice before. Ah, humility, one of the virtues. Practically speaking, I’m aware that the editors have just come back from the holidays and are clearing their desks for new rounds of submissions. It’s just a matter of timing.
It’s tempting to say my writing sucks and give up, in spite of the people who have told me they like my writing. My essay in Creative Nonfiction last year was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. My writing does not suck, and I am not quitting. I know all the reasons for rejections, including the sheer volume of submissions that make the odds very tough. Sometimes it’s just not the right flavor. They want lemon and I sent strawberry. Sometimes they just have way too much strawberry already. Sometimes they prefer rhubarb.
We like to think of our stories and poems as art, but once we start submitting them to editors, they become products. We know from our own shopping experiences that we don’t buy everything presented to us. I once published an article comparing this writing biz to shoe shopping. Sometimes the customer doesn’t really need shoes; they’re just looking. Sometimes they want shoes but not that style or that color or that size. The shoe salesman doesn’t take it personally when they walk out without buying anything. Thus it is with our writing. If one customer says no, we try another.
Think about selling vacuum cleaners door to door. If the first person says no, we knock on another door. Sometimes we have to knock on an awful lot of doors before someone says yes. But sometimes that one person who says yes tells all her friends, who also want to buy what you’re selling. Suddenly you’re selling lots and lots of vacuum cleaners. That’s what we want.
An article in the current issue of Poets and Writers magazine suggests that rejection is a good thing. It forces us to present our very best work and to keep trying harder. And I do. After decades of writing and publishing, I know the drill. Record the rejection and find somewhere else to send the work. Take another look to make sure it’s still as good as you thought it was. Tweak as needed to fit the new market, and send it out again. Meanwhile, keep the word factory going because the writing is more important than the selling.
There will be days you wish you took up a different trade. Plumbing, for example. Who would reject a plumber?
On the happy side of the biz, I have a poetry chapbook, Gravel Road Ahead, out now. You can order it at Amazon or through your favorite local bookseller, as well as at the publisher, Finishing Line Press. My next chapbook, due out March 15, is The Widow at the Piano: Confessions of a Distracted Catholic. You can preorder it now from The Poetry Box.
Whatever God has given you to do, keep at it. If you haven’t earned 100 rejections, keep trying.