As my husband and I walked across the pitch after watching our daughter play field hockey last weekend at her college, I checked my phone for emails. “I got another rejection,” I yelled out to him.
He laughed, knowing it’s the only way to deal with them. “For what?”
“Matt’s Scream.” It’s an essay I wrote about our dog delivering 10 puppies.
I walked on. My younger daughter, Ellie, put her arm around me. “I love you, Mummy.”
She’s a budding actress and knows that what I do — submitting my work over and over again and often getting rejected — isn’t that dissimilar to the world she’ll be entering: going on auditions to be told thanks, but you’re not right for the part.
It’s what our jobs are — to put ourselves and our work out there in the hopes that if we saturate the market enough, if we keep refining our work, making it better each time we send it out or stand on the stage, those rejections will turn into acceptances.
Twenty years ago, when my work was returned to me in self-addressed stamped envelopes, I was bummed. No way around it. I sent my work out full of hope, and when it was rejected, there were days I wondered what other career paths I could pursue.
You can’t be accepted until you’ve been rejected. It’s that simple. Sure, there are some rare cases where the first piece out is a winner, but I guarantee you, rejections will follow. It’s how the business works. Just like life.
I tell my students, if a piece or query letter gets rejected, don’t take it personally. Often, the work just wasn’t right for the publication for any number of reasons. Once that rejection comes in though, just as Ellie reassesses her monologue to see if she could do it better, I look at my essay or query letter again, with a more distanced eye, to see if I can improve upon what’s there.
If I see ways to strengthen the work, then I do so before I send it out again. If I think it’s as good as it’s going to get, out it goes — in a tiered manner — starting with a dream publication like The New York Times Magazine and working its way down the list. Much of the time, if I’m patient, I find a home for it.
I keep track of my submissions through Submittable, an online program tied into many of the literary journals I submit to, and also in a little red notebook. There, I write the date and place I send to and then if and when my pieces get accepted or rejected. I always have several projects out at once. Don’t focus all your energy on one endeavor at a time, I tell my students. As you edit one, send another out, while you query yet another. That’s how you get work.
No matter how stymied I am writing an essay or a feature article, it’s nothing compared to how frustrated I get when I have to submit my writing. Finding the right market for each piece is time consuming and distracts from my writing, but if I want my work to reach readers other than my husband, I research and submit my finished products.
Writers, whether they share their tales of it, get rejected. It’s part of the job. You know the stories—JK Rowling had 12 rejections before Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was accepted.
Most rejections are form letters that tell you nothing of why your work, not you, wasn’t the right fit for the magazine, journal, literary agent, or publishing house — sort of like being dumped by your most recent boyfriend or girlfriend.
But some rejection letters are more personal, and those are interesting. Some give a sliver of hope — there’s a handwritten note at the end of the page from an editor. Quick, I tell my students, come up with a new idea and send another query. Or, in some cases, the response is just snarky. There are websites dedicated to rejections like this to famous authors and their visibly published books.
I’d be lying if I said I don’t still get bummed when my pieces don’t make the cut; it’s definitely nicer when they’re accepted, but getting those rejections by emails and the self-addressed envelopes on our mail table acknowledges I’m doing the work. When a quiet period goes by, something’s not right. I need to write or submit more.
It takes time, patience, and stamina to send work out. While I have built up a Teflon coating to the rejections I get, I let the acceptances sink in and marinate for a while.
For now, I will continue to submit “Matt’s Scream.” I have faith it’ll find a home soon and when it does, I’ll scream for joy.