Dealing With Rejection

by Alex Keegan
The Internet Writing Journal, October 1998
You're Ugly, I Won't Go Out With You is a rejection, (probably)... although s/he might be playing hard to get...

But getting a form letter, a "no, thank-you" from a publisher is not a rejection; it's a purple heart, it's acknowledgement that you are a real writer, that you are submitting, that you are in there fighting, that you recognise that hard-work and persistence will counterbalance bad luck and choosing the wrong moment, the wrong editor.

It is a pre-requisite for eligibility for The Pushcart Prize, for The O'Henry Award, for the British Booker Prize, the Canadian Governor General's Prize, for the National Book Award and for the Nobel Prize for Literature that the author must have been, at one time an unpublished author.

Now take that paragraph (or write your own) print it large and pin it above your computer. Every author, each and every single published author, as well as going to the bathroom every day, was once an unpublished hopeful, a wannabee, unrecognised, nowhere, zip, in the wilderness, out in the cold, depressed, probably poor, right on the brink of becoming an engineer (or working as an engineer and learning to go without sleep). If it was easy everybody would be doing it...

Publishers not taking your work are simply publishers not taking your work. It may be and often is because your work is not yet good enough, but it may be because your piece is too long, too short, too good, too tough, not tough enough, too similar to a recent story, not similar enough to the publisher's typical story, too sexy (or not sexy enough) too fantastic (or too realistic). There are many, many reasons (and excuses) for a publisher not taking your work, which is why you must write, write, write, submit, submit, submit.

It goes without saying that you should know your markets and research your targets, read the literary journals, take note of the authors and titles being published, find out about editors, but that's another article. This one is about dealing with the "not for us at this time's".

The Writer's Book of Checklists (ISBN 0-89879-454-4) by Scott Edelstein lists 21 excellent points on how to live with rejection and rather than simply reiterate those, I'd suggest you get a copy and take a look. But the essence of Edelstein's article is that the piece, not you is being rejected, don't let rejection shake your faith in your work, listen and consider every comment on a rejection, and keep submitting and keep polishing.

From here on, I will be talking about shorter works, short stories and articles or poems. In a previous article in the Internet Writing Journal, I argued for an extended apprenticeship writing shorter works of a year, two years, even three years. I argued, isn't becoming a writer, a serious, consistent writer at least as tough as a degree? A university degree takes three or four years full time. Why should we expect to become writers in a shorter space of time than that?

But there are other benefits to writing and submitting short stories. If one fails to find a publisher you can write another one! And while the stories #1-34 are out there circulating you have hope, emotional support for writing your latest story.

Once a man had a tragic life, debts kept mounting. He was a religious man so he prayed to God that he could win the lottery. The next day even greater misfortune befell the man, a tax demand; he was sued. He prayed to God, "Please let me win the lottery!" The next day, and the next, and the next, he prayed to God, he pleaded, he begged, he prostrated himself before the Lord, "Please, please, please, Father. I need the money..."

Finally God answered, "OK, I'll go half-way. First you buy a ticket..."

If you're not in, you can't win. Unless you're a celebrity, publishers will not come looking for you. You are not Mohammed -- you must go to the mountain. You must submit. The opposite of give up is submit.



It's true, it's a fact, that the more you submit, the more you will be rejected, but the amazing fact is, I can prove, prove that anyone reading this article can get published.

When I run motivation seminars at writing conferences, ("Sex Lies and Publishers Hype: Please Wear Something Pink") I ask everyone to stand up and then to sit down in order of optimism. Those who think themselves optimists are seated and then we work our way through the pessimists until we agree that Sam or Sheila here is the most miserable, the most painful, the most mind-numbingly pessimistic person in the room. She's the Queen of Angst or he's the King of Bad Luck.

And I ask, in straight submissions, story after story, what do you, the most miserable person here, pessimist of the month, Prince of Darkness, what string on noes can you imagine before a yes? 50? 75? A hundred? We have had one guy (he was fixing a noose to the ceiling as we talked) who said 250, two hundred and fifty straight in a line rejections.

OK, misery, send out one submission a week and within five years you'll be accepted. Wanna be even more pessimistic, wanna shoot for 1,000 straight rejections? OK send out two stories a week and you'll still make it in ten years. Meanwhile, you'll be famous anyway, in the Guinness Book of Records and publishers will be beating a path to your door.

You cannot fail if you work at your art, if you read, read, read, write, write, write, submit, submit, submit. If you are capable of reading this article you can write well enough to get published.

But you gotta work. You have to seriously work, consistently work, you have to produce your best, present it well, buy the ticket, be in the draw.

On January 1st 1997, I had a number of publications, not a lot, but I had some. I started "Boot Camp" a small group of mostly unpublished writers working together in a rigid, no-excuses writing group which insisted on (then) a short story per fortnight, written, critiqued, rewritten. In the year prior to the workshop being set up, the eleven founding members (three of them already published) had written surprisingly little and submitted even less. One of the most talented authors there had written three stories in the year and submitted none.

The deal was all or nothing, no exceptions, and by the end of 1997 the Boot Campers had amassed 85 publications on paper, on the Net, on radio. One member won the BBC World Service's Short Story of the Year and a trip to New Orleans for a writers conference there. My own turn-around from steady plodder, slowly building a publications list was just as dramatic and in 1997 as well as selling my fifth novel I had a further 40 sales. But what about rejections? In 1997 I had more rejections than in the previous 49 years of my life.

But rejections are side effects, meaningless. I had made myself a target, to publish everything I wrote. Sure I began with Paris Review and Atlantic, sent stuff to New Yorker and Story, but when they rejected me (overlooked my obvious future fame, I mean) I aimed a tad lower, then, if I had to, lower again. But I kept my belief in myself, my work.

Every time I received an overlooked-my-obvious-talent-note I sent the story out again, immediately, (always immediately), and I tried to send something new to the editor who had just said no. What this meant was that the volume of my work circulating grew and grew until at one point I had more than seventy items circulating.

I keep a spreadsheet of my submissions and can see at a glance what stories are where, which journals are currently lucky enough to have a chance to read my work. But what results from this volume of work, this persistent, consistent attack on the market is a "hit-rate" and a hit-rate that is amazingly stable. Boot Camp's hit-rate is 4.5 and mine is 3.5.

Now presume your hit rate is terrible. It's 1 in 35 or 45. That is you have to get 44 rejections before your first sale (I had about 30, way back)... Great! Like the man who took a bomb on board an airliner because there had never been two.. your future is in your hands. Every rejection takes you closer to your next sale; see them as confirmation, stepping stones.

Incidentally, hit-rates do stabilise because when you begin to succeed more often at one level you aim a little higher, and each one of us has a psychological optimum hit/miss ratio. For example, I have yet to sell to Atlantic or Paris Review (but I will). Had I only submitted there I might still be unpublished! Instead I've published on the Internet, in small presses, on radio, in good anthologies, placed in competitions and so on. I've built a body of work, enough for two or three collections and a reputation for consistent production and quality.

But rejections?

In 1997, the one stricture Boot Camp had not laid down was submissions. Sure, everyone was encouraged, needled to submit, but we had no formal submission goals. This year we set a goal of one submission a week. Five Boot Camp members are on or ahead of this schedule and between them, this year, have so far accumulated 191 rejections, but folks, they've also had 67 hits!

This year I've made 168 submissions, had 107 rejections, and right this minute I have a total of 49 items out there. But I've also had 43 hits. What I have is regular feedback, good and bad, but I work, I write, I submit. I know that the key to success is hard work and determination, a single-minded focused determination. I can count. I know that three rejections mean a sale. I welcome rejections, every rejection takes me nearer my next sale, every hit in Blue Moon Review or a competition in Ireland takes me nearer the letter from Atlantic, the yes from Paris Review, that check from The New Yorker.

I eat rejections like Popeye eats spinach. You can too.

Alex Keegan British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture, Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books) which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.

His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.



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