Writing Rejection: It’s What’s for Dinner

February 15, 2011

Readers, I’m here today to talk to you about rejection.  Because, you know, I’m sort of an expert on this topic.  I have enough rejections to wallpaper my small apartment.  I have enough rejections to line my cats’ litter box for years.  I have enough rejections to design a new paper airplane daily for the foreseeable future.  But that’s not what I’m doing with them.  In fact, all the paper rejections are gathered and organized into this shoebox:

Some writers don’t understand why I’ve kept my rejections.  (Even the email ones, which are probably triple the physical copies, are archived in my Gmail account.)  It seems masochistic — who wants to be face to face with their own failure?  But that’s not how I see it.  Rejection isn’t failure.  It’s an opportunity to learn.  Every time I get a rejection — and most of them were, in fact, form rejections, sometimes on a quarter-sheet of paper that many poets consider insulting (it’s not, it’s just economical) — I gain a little insight about the process of publishing. With each rejection I figure out something that isn’t working — and usually it’s not even about my writing.  It’s about my submissions.

Here’s the thing about publishing:  Whether you’re querying your first novel, submitting to publishers, or trying to get a piece into a lit mag, it can feel like you’re throwing spaghetti at a wall, just hoping something will stick.  And after the first batch or two of rejections, you start to think, hey, being picky isn’t working.  I researched the crap out of these magazines, and none of them wanted my work.  My work is genius, I just need to find a home for it, and the only way to do that is to send it everywhere.

Oh, yes, I made this mistake.  I had pages in my notebook where I wrote down every poem submitted and where I had sent it. I had poems out at twenty journals at a time, garnering rejections.  I collected paper for the shoebox and emails for the archives.  I am thankful for the strange quirk that lets this admitted clutter-bug be organized in one or two areas of her life (one is writing, I’ll let you know what the other area is if I can ever think of it), or else I would have pissed off a lot of editors, no doubt.  My point, however, is this: Throwing spaghetti at the wall does NOT work.  What works is patience.

Almost a year passed before I published anything.  And I knew the editor of the magazine.  It was their second issue.  And, yes, the magazine was wonderful and the editor was discerning.  This doesn’t change the fact that having a human face on my pieces definitely had an effect on my rising to the top of the slushpile.  Or the fact that it took another six months to land another “sale.” (I have quotation marks around the word “sale” because the most I’ve ever made on a poetry sale is $10 a poem, and 95% of the time the payment is in copies of the magazine.  This is a truth, even if my mother is convinced I am being taken advantage of.  No, Mom.  This is industry standard.   Every few months after that, as long as I continued submitting, I published poems.  I’ve been in about two dozen magazines now.  It feels great.  But, the key was knowing what to submit where.  Or, rather, knowing (and learning) which wall to throw my spaghetti at.

In my spaghetti-throwing heyday I sent my very-non-experimental work to experimental-themed magazines.  I was desperate to get in anywhere.  I submitted to mags like Tin House (now there’s a dream for a new kid) and mags that folded after one issue.  I was not thinking from the point of view of editors, with jillions of submissions to pick through, trying to figure out what would look best in their magazines.  I was not reading the magazines critically, and only sending work that fit on those pages.  I was trying to.  I convinced myself that I was a very careful poet who was choosing her poems with great discretion and reverence for the magazines to which she submitted.  I was a liar.

Anyway, back to my Box o’ Rejections.  I like my box.  I talk about it a lot with fellow poets, especially when said poets are looking to start submitting their work.  Because this business is like 99% no.  If you want to put your work out there, you’re going to hear “no” a lot from agents, publishers, and magazines.  If you get a magical yes and end up with your work in print, you’re going to hear more nos.  No from reviewers.  No from readers.  Let the rejections you get now serve as armor — both armor against the No Army, and an armor of knowledge in your submission process.  As someone who spent the beginning of her writing career publishing exclusively poetry, and exclusively in magazines, I was prepared by my Box o’ Rejections when I began querying agents with my first novel.  I was prepared for the Nos, and prepared to query not only widely but carefully.  The spaghetti-flinging method, while tempting, is kind of a mess waiting to happen.

So, I guess this post is to say this:

1. Do not fling spaghetti.

2. Get used to hearing no.

3. Let your rejections build you up.

4. The spaghetti thing again.

All Best,

EKA

PS: I’m sorry if my spaghetti metaphor made you hungry.  I’m very susceptible to this as well.  At least I didn’t use a Taco Bell metaphor.  Okay?


E. Kristin Anderson grew up in Westbrook, Maine and is a graduate of Connecticut College. She has a fancy diploma that says “B.A. in Classics,” which makes her sound smart but has not helped her get any jobs in Ancient Rome. Once upon a time she worked for The New Yorker magazine, but she decided being a grown up just wasn’t for her. Currently living in Austin, Texas, Ms. Anderson is active in her local chapter of SCBWI and blogs at ekristinanderson.com as well as the YA-5 while co-editing the popular blog Dear Teen Me. As a poet she has been published worldwide in around two dozen literary journals from the indie-queen Fuselit, to the prestigious Cimarron Review. She is in the process of querying her first young adult novel and keeps herself busy writing and revising other novel projects. She wrote her first trunk book at sixteen. It was about the band Hanson and may or may not still be in a notebook at her parents’ house. Look out for Ms. Anderson’s work the forthcoming anthology COIN OPERA II, a collection of poems about video games from Sidekick Books.

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