Some Thoughts on Rejection

I’m going to start this blog with a post on literary journal rejections because it’s something I think a lot about, both as a writer who submits to journals and as a teacher who encourages students to submit. I’ve had students who’ve submitted to one journal, gotten rejected, and gotten discouraged. I think it’s important to keep in mind that while rejection certainly is discouraging, there are lots of reasons work gets rejected. Sure, sometimes you get rejected because your work isn’t good enough, but other times there are other reasons.

Sometimes work gets turned down because it’s not ready yet. I had never considered submitting work until I got to graduate school and talked to classmates who were sending their work out. I thought that if others were sending work out, I should too. I felt panicked that I hadn’t submitted yet. So I chose a handful of stories that I considered finished and sent them out haphazardly. All of these stories were rejected, and now I’m glad they were. They weren’t finished. They weren’t ready to be out in the world. Yes, maybe they had endings, but having an ending doesn’t mean a story is finished. (I won't get into the idea that a story is never finished here.) I think there’s a certain amount of energy that comes with completing a story (note that I didn’t say “finishing a story”) and sometimes that energy carries over into wanting to get the story out into the world immediately, but I think it’s worth holding back a while, letting the story sit, and going back and looking at it with fresh eyes. In general, stories benefit from several—or, in most cases, many—rounds of serious revision.

Sometimes work gets turned down because it’s just not a match for the magazine to which it’s been submitted. If you look at the websites of most literary journals, they’ll urge you to read an issue to see if your work would fit in well with what they publish. This is good advice, and I think it’s advice that would save a lot of writers a lot of time if they heeded it. Most of the stories I write are fairly traditional realist stories. For years, I submitted to a handful journals that publish experimental work. My writing was never going to fit into those journals. I only understood this when I actually got my hands on copies of these journals and read them. It took me a long time to figure out that fit was an important thing with literary journals. I’ll be honest and say it wasn’t until after I’d been submitting for years that I began to subscribe to journals. When I was a student living on a TA’s stipend, the idea of spending twenty or thirty dollars on a subscription felt extravagant, but as soon as I had a job after I graduated, I started subscribing to and reading journals and realizing which journals my work might fit well with and which ones it wouldn’t. When I first started submitting, many journals didn’t have much content on the web. Now, most journals have some content from each issue online, which can be read for free. And if you’re a student, you can read journals that your school subscribes to, either the paper versions or through online databases.

There are other reasons work gets turned down that editors can elaborate on more than I can. But here are some I’ve heard: a piece is too similar to a piece that was recently published, a piece is too long and would take up too much “real estate” in a journal, a piece—for whatever reason—didn’t resonate with an editor, the piece was sloppy on the sentence level, the piece didn’t follow the guidelines that were outlined by the journal. Or, say, maybe your piece about a character breaking his leg came across an editor’s desk on the same afternoon she got back from the hospital after getting her broken leg set, and she didn’t want to think about broken bones—real or fictional—right then. As you can see, some of these reasons for rejection are the writer’s fault, but others are not. And sometimes work that doesn’t fall into these categories gets rejected too. I’d like to think that I’ve learned to avoid the pitfalls of submitting too early and submitting to the wrong places, but I still get rejected regularly. And, to me, that’s okay. It’s part of the process, and getting rejections means that I’ve tried, that I’ve sent work out into the world, and that I’m giving myself a shot at getting published.

Sometimes, though, I think it just takes a while to get a piece published, and I think there’s a good amount of luck involved in the whole process. The story has to get into the right editor’s hands at exactly the right time. And how does a writer maximize the chances of that happening? Once a story is actually finished, submit it to a lot of places. Now, I’m not saying that a writer should send out work to every journal that’s accepting submissions, but you give yourself a better chance of getting published if you submit to ten journals than to one. Even if a story is publishable, there’s still that luck factor: you need to give yourself a good chance of getting your story in front of an editor who will be an advocate for your work.

Here’s some information about my story “Lobsterama,” my most rejected story ever. This is a photo of my submission charts for "Lobsterama," where I kept track of the name of each journal I sent the story to, the date I submitted, the reply I got, and any comments I received from the editors:

Total number of submissions: 114

Number of major revisions during the submission process: 4. On the first page of my chart, I’ve written, “Round 2 – revision focusing on ending; decision put in Olive’s hands, returns story to her.” I’d submitted the story to nine places at that point, and one editor had written me a note about how the ending wasn’t working. She was right, and it was generous of her to take the time to write down her thoughts. My story was about Olive, the protagonist, but then the original ending shifted to another character. This may have been something that I would have figured out myself if I’d held onto the story for a little longer.

Number of years I spent submitting this story: 8. I began submitting it in 2004. I finally got an acceptance from South Dakota Review in 2011. (Thank you, kind people at South Dakota Review.)

And here are the statistics for my story “Prized Possessions,” the most rejected story in Faulty Predictions. It was published in Epoch in 2010:

Total number of submissions: 66

Number of major revisions during the submission process: 3

Once again, this was a case of my sending out work before it was truly finished. I just hadn’t really figured out the plot in the early drafts, and I shouldn’t have submitted it before I sorted things out. I sent out the too-early version to many journals, and then once it was revised, I couldn’t send the story back to these same journals, so I narrowed the field for myself.

Number of title changes: 1

The story started out as “Appraisals.” Is “Prized Possessions” a better title? I’m not sure. Maybe. “Appraisals” is pretty vague. “Prized Possessions” implies that there’s a character who has something that he or she cherishes, and that at least indicates more about the story than "Appraisals" does.

Time it took to get the story accepted: 4 years

A photo of my rejection slips for "Prized Possessions" (keep in mind that some of my rejections were electronic, so they’re not included in this picture):

And, finally, some outtakes from my rejection photo shoot. I think the correct attitude toward rejections is demonstrated here: give yourself a few seconds to contemplate each rejection, keep your head up, and move on: