When thinking about roadblocks to success in writing for this week’s meta post, I nearly succumbed to analysis paralysis. There are so many. It made sense to cover it in a series, because what ties me in knots may not be a consideration for someone else. Our challenges are as unique as we are. However, one challenge that every writer faces in taking the leap from writing for themselves, friends, and family to writing for pay and a wider audience is rejection. Fear of rejection stops some people from ever submitting at all. The first taste of it is enough to discourage others from continuing. I’ve discovered that I fear something else entirely, but that’s a subject for another time.
Let’s demystify the process for clarity. Editors, whether they own their own publication or work for a larger company, are seeking the best content they can find to make sales. Without demand for what they offer, they make no money. It’s that simple. A writer who has successfully sold a story is not leaps and bounds above the unwashed masses. That writer is merely someone who researched the market, submitted within the deadline for submissions, used the proper format, followed the guidelines, and wrote a strong story in a distinctive voice with a very solid grasp of grammar. If you have it in your head that, “That’s what editors are for!” I want you to toss it out right now. A submission editor is not there to sweep up your sloppy, lazy mess. They are not going to view your comma splices and spelling errors as endearing stylistic choices. They’re going to pass you over for the person who isn’t promising to add hours of what should be unnecessary work to an already slammed schedule.
I imagine some of you right now are thinking of a well known work with crap for plot, crap for grammar, and a crappy movie licensed from the story. My answer to your silent challenge is do you want a work you find to be subpar to be your excuse for not submitting your very best effort in your bid for success? For every lightning strike of mediocrity finding success, there are hundreds of thousands of failures using that same formula. There are also thousands of successes that are solid in every way. Why? See sentence two of my second paragraph.
An editor is not a monster seeking to crush the hopes and dreams of aspiring writers. An editor is an extremely busy person whose main job isn’t reading slush. Reading submissions is what they do on the side in addition to challenging jobs. In the short story market, they read literally thousands of stories every year. If they’ve been successfully in business for any length of time, they have learned what sells and what doesn’t. Knowing that you are in competition for a tiny handful of spots in any given publication against thousands, why would you ever make the following careless mistakes?
- Submitting to the wrong market (They publish romance; you submit horror.)
- Not spell checking or carefully proofreading for grammar errors
- Not using the format they ask for or following their guidelines
- Not paying attention to their deadlines for submissions
- Not including a cover letter, if required
- Not taking as much care in crafting your cover letter as your story
Or make more egregious mistakes that have nothing to do with not paying attention?
- Being nasty about a rejection
- Being impatient with how much time it takes for them to get back to you
- Not practicing your craft
- Not educating yourself about the technical aspects of writing
- Not educating yourself about story and narrative
- Not reading enough
Most of these go without further need of comment, but I’m going to address a couple of them further. You don’t live in a vacuum. You don’t write in a vacuum. It’s not enough not to send a strongly worded e-mail to the editor who rejected your story. You should also avoid public temper tantrums on social media. Editors are social media savvy people. They’re not likely to forget running across unprofessional communication either about themselves or their publications. You are dealing with professionals. Conduct yourself professionally, and save your tantrums for your personal, private support group. (And really, try to limit that, too, because complaining won’t change whatever is getting you rejected or endear you to your friends and family.)
Most publications will give you a loose window of how long it will take for them to get back to you. Most will also specify when it is OK to send a query about your manuscript. Poking or prodding them won’t make them get to you any faster, and angry queries also won’t help your case. Keep in mind that some markets really do get thousands of submissions per month. The best way to wait for a status report on your manuscript is by staying busy, writing more, and submitting other projects elsewhere. By all means query if they are well past the window. Do it politely and professionally, the same way you’d want to be approached if you had been reading enough to make your eyes bleed.
Following every guideline, having perfect copy, and even sometimes having a good story still isn’t enough. It’s also timing, personal taste of the slush reader, and what direction they’re taking their publication. This is where persistence is key. Take your “no” graciously and go look for someone else to tell you “yes.” Keep looking. If you get that rare and wonderful rejection letter that isn’t a form letter, take the advice. You’re being given professional advice for free. Use it. Improve.
I was told recently for a professional, non-fiction blogging job that the reason I landed the assignment was because I was polite, persistent and didn’t take their “not right now” earlier this year as a “no.” I approached them again with something specific and solid that I had to offer, and because I did my homework, I knew they were looking for it. In the fiction market, if they reject a story, they don’t want it reworked and resubmitted. That doesn’t mean there aren’t dozens if not hundreds of other publications that haven’t seen it yet. Be persistent! That is the main difference between a writer who hasn’t yet been published and one who has.
Now I’m going to contradict myself a little bit, because I’m nothing if not contrary. Be realistic. Writing hundreds of thousands of words isn’t going to automatically make you a good writer. It takes more than volume and a stubborn refusal to take no for an answer. It also takes an understanding of narrative and what drives a successful story versus an unsatisfying one. The best way to cultivate that sense is to read. Read what you love. Discover new genres. Try to read a little every day in addition to writing. It will improve you more than any writing course ever could (although those aren’t a bad idea, either.)
Lastly, learn to depersonalize rejection. Keep a solid awareness in your head– repeat it like a mantra if you have to– that a rejection of your manuscript is just that and only that. It’s not a commentary on your value as a person, your intelligence, your purpose in life. It’s not always an indictment of your skill, although it can be if you’ve made some of the more careless mistakes mentioned above. It doesn’t automatically mean your story is bad, although it can mean that, too. Take it as a challenge to improve. View every rejection letter you receive as an affirmation of something extremely important. You are making efforts and taking steps toward getting paid for something you love. In writing as with most things in life, the process is every bit as important as the end result.