by Pj Holliday
When I submitted my first set of poems in 2014, the rejection letter I received devastated me. It’s not like they ripped my work apart; it was simply not wanted. Rejection stings in every area of life to which we give ourselves, and there’s almost always a long recovery process. I didn't submit my work again for another three years after that initial rejection. I became apathetic, which was easier than feeling the pain of rejection. And when I finally did start submitting again, I remained apathetic — I submitted to just one publication at a time, in six-month intervals, and I received one rejection letter after another.
But being timid about submitting your work is not how you see that glorious word — Accepted — on the other end of your email.
One of my writing mentors talked with me about the publishing process, which helped me let go of the fear of rejection from literary journals. She said, “Ninety percent of the time when you’re just getting started, you will be rejected. After a while, you’ll begin to see the percentage change in your favor, and journals will appreciate seeing the growth of your new work.” I felt released by her words. No one had informed me so honestly about rejection before. I finally realized that accepting rejection was like a muscle I needed to strengthen, and that it would help be to break out of my apathy. It was going to take all my energy to push against this fear and create a habit of acceptance when there was great resistance within myself.
“But if you want to get published, vulnerability is terrifying, but necessary. And you have to build that muscle and make yourself do it.”
Eventually, a writer builds so much “muscle” around submitting that they can easily disregard the thoughts that create submission lethargy. Before we build that muscle, we might have thoughts that devalue our work, perhaps due to a history of harsh criticism or not believing in ourselves enough to begin with. These thoughts can create an apathetic response to putting our work, as we allow ourselves to be pushed back by our fears. Vulnerability is terrifying, but necessary if you want to get published. And you have to build that muscle and make yourself do it.
I find the submission process to be similar to exercise. When I get up in the morning to run, everything in my body is screaming at me not to. But I’ve become like a machine, ignoring the fear and intimidation that hinders the success I know I want. I quiet my mind and put my body in submission to get myself on the treadmill. I visualize the person I desire to look and feel like, which has enabled me to maintain a running habit. I don’t let myself quit and I literally speak to my body out loud saying, "No. You are going running. You love it." That wasn’t true at one point — I hated running. But I spoke what didn't yet exist until it became real. As weird as that sounds, it really works. I also set myself up for success by dressing the part and having workout clothes on long before I’ve scheduled a run. I call a friend to go with me and don't rely on myself alone, or not much exercise will get done.
I’ve finally realized that I can use the same methods in which I conquered physical exercise to create a habit of writing new material and submitting to journals. This is exactly this frame of mind needed to pursue publication of your work: if we anticipate the rejection, and push against resistance, we can build immunity to its sting.
I built my immunity by accepting rejection. It's a given for writers that most will experience it with the majority of inquiries and submissions. Expecting rejection has helped me get over my resistance to it and avoid becoming apathetic for another lengthy amount of time.
In her Netflix special, Brene Brown talks about accepting the fact that “failure is inevitable.” Rejection may be failure, but it’s beneficial as a practice. When we embrace our failures and rejections they don’t remain as painful and scary to experience, and eventually the scale will tip toward us and success becomes a more common theme.
Another thing that helped me build immunity to rejection was knowing I wasn’t alone, and that every other writer shared the rejection experience. I’m a part of a community who aches in the same way and celebrates one another when we finally gain ground in the publishing world. Sometimes, our work just isn’t ready. And that’s a good thing. It means we get to keep reading and writing and evolving as people. Staying in conversation with other writers helps me remember these things.
Finally, during those times when I have a strong sense of completion in my submission piece, I build immunity to rejection by trusting my intuition and knowing that the piece will be received by the right person at the right time. Muriel Spark reflects in her essay “Emerging from Under Your Rejection Slips” on how, in her early writing years, “rejection slips, if they fell out of the envelopes at a rate of more than two a day, depressed me greatly.”* Eventually, because of her great tenacity and love of her work, she saw almost all of the “once-rejected pieces...subsequently published.”
If someone doesn’t think your work is right for their journal, release it by moving on to your next hopeful submission, like moving on to the next push up at the gym. The right time will come. Keep submitting, learning your craft and creating new drafts. Apathy only hinders your hopes for publication. Consider rejection letters to be something to celebrate as you know eventually, someone, somewhere, will recognize your hard work and believe in you as a writer.
*Spark, Muriel. “Emerging from Under Your Rejection Slips.” The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work, edited by Marie Arana, The Washington Post, 2003, pages 53-57.
About the Art: “Barbed” by Pj Holliday, 12”x 12”, Acrylic on canvas, 2016
“The painting represents the way I centered myself in a solidified circle as rejections and insecurities grew around me, acting as barbed wires would encircling us in desperate times. The art speaks to how we need to work through difficulties because these painful entanglements are inevitable and the trick is centering ourselves.”
By Ginny Short
Submitting work for publication is a daunting process for many writers, and one that each writer must find their own way around. In this post, poet Ginny Short shares the process she went through when she first started submitting during her time as an MFA candidate at the Mile High MFA program at Regis University, and offers guidelines for how writers can make submitting a part of their own writing practice.
For me, overcoming my fears of submitting my work to journals meant starting small. l started by looking at journals that I liked, ones that published nature or ecological themes, which I often wrote about, and journals that published the work of poets that I like. I found The Avocet, a small nature poetry magazine that I decided to submit to. It had the advantage of having published, at one point, the work of Mary Oliver, one of my favorite poets. I decided not to aim big at first: no New Yorker — in fact, no big-name magazines at all. I went for smaller, cozier, lesser-known journals, both in print and online. I did get some rejections, but I was also accepted into two! Those acceptances were enough to give me the courage to keep trying, and led me to one of my first important “lessons learned”: how to own my work.
In my first summer in the Mile-High MFA, I decided to try submitting some of my tanka poems. Sometimes defined as “five phrases on five lines,” tanka is a Japanese form that has a strong imagistic approach connecting human emotions with nature imagery. In particular, I like a form called tanka prose – essentially a prose poem accompanied by a tanka. I submitted several of my favorites to Ribbons, the journal of the Tanka Society of America. A while later, I got a lovely rejection letter --not a form letter, but a personal one, where the editor made comments and gave me advice about the poems, then thanked me and said “not this time”. Her suggestions seemed reasonable (although I was a bit unsure), so as part of my poetry semester I rewrote and submitted the poems as part of one of my assignments. I told my faculty mentor what the editor had suggested, and he read them. His advice back to me was essentially that he disagreed with the editors; he felt that by making the suggested revisions, I had taken the heart out of the pieces. After a long talk with him, I realized that it wasn’t about whether my poems were good or bad, but whether this journal was the right home for these pieces. There was nothing wrong with what the editor asked, but it did not reflect what I was trying to do.
I learned that the trick in publishing is finding the right home for my work, and realizing that, in the end, it is my artistic decisions that matter. This makes rejection less painful; after all why would I want my heart to be laid open for someone who doesn’t want to see it, or wants me to change it substantially for them to like it? It is not always easy to discern what should stay and what should go, but following my voice has never set me wrong.
Between fears of rejection and the challenge of staying true to your work, submitting can be daunting. But we don’t need to let it be. Instead, we can see it as part of our writing practice. Bring to it the same attention and awareness that you do writing the piece.
There are a few guidelines I have found that help in the submitting aspect of my writing practice:
First: read widely. By perusing the many journals and websites that offer a platform for your work, you will have the pleasure of being exposed to dozens of writers, and many, many pieces of work you might not have encountered otherwise. I find that this enriches my own writing; exposure to other writers’ works is critical.
Second: peruse the website of a potential journal. There will be clues within its pages, both subtle and overt, that might help you determine if your work would be a good fit. Read any sample pieces you can find. Do you like what you read? Can you see your piece sitting next to that one you just read? Most journals have some samples available on their website. Some tell you authors that they like. Pay attention. Browse through them. Enjoy. Savor.
Third: follow their guidelines. They will tell you how many words or pages to submit, the subject matter they are interested in (sometimes they have a theme) and what, exactly, they want. Do follow directions. It may not get your work in, but it will prevent your manuscript from being thrown on the editing floor before even being considered. So, read, pay attention, follow directions. Simple but important.
Fourth: keep track of what and where you are submitting. Some journals ask that you do not submit to another journal while they are considering your work (although I find this is rare), others don’t care (but you should let them know if a piece you submitted is accepted elsewhere). Start a regular submissions log using Excel or Word or a lovely handmade ledger.
However you do it, keep track of both rejections and acceptances. You are in good company; own them with pride. Golding's The Lord of the Flies was rejected 20 times before being accepted. Gertrude Stein submitted poems for 22 years before having one published. (YIKES!) Beatrix Potter self-published The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Rudyard Kipling was told he did not know how to use the English language. Who knew?
The poet Andrea Rexilius (1) used transfer paper to print all of her rejection letters on a slip…and she wore her rejection slip! Check out this post for more other famous people who experienced rejections for their writing. It will make you feel better, guaranteed: you are in good company.
Getting published takes persistence. Don’t give up.
Fifth: don’t be discouraged. (See paragraph above.) It is a matter of luck, being in the right place at the right time, and submitting often. Having good work is only a part of it. Remember that all rejections – and for that matter comments or critique – are subjective. I have several pieces that were reviewed by three or more people and got three very different responses. You have to keep submitting. It is not a reflection of your work that you get rejections. Fiction writer Rachel Weaver (2) offered advice early on in the MFA program that I always remember: if more than one person gives you the same advice, pay attention. Go back. Revise. But in the end, you are your own creative director.
Sixth: set yourself a goal. Set aside one evening (or morning if you are a morning person) and plan to submit at least one piece on that day. My goal is to submit at least once a week. You can set your goal according to your time. For novel or memoir writers, there are also places that accept excerpts of novels, novellas or longer bodies of work, like A Public Space, Missouri Review or Literary Mama. Or maybe you have some shorter pieces, short stories or flash fiction you can submit. Whatever you have ready to submit, just set yourself a goal and do it. Learn to see submitting as part of your writing practice.
I’ve followed these guidelines, and this is what it looks like for me: My goal is to submit at least one piece a week (I make it a rule to submit two pieces for every rejection). I am trying out all sorts of journals, even ones I know are a long shot because, well, you just never know. The process of submitting is educational. You discover artists that you never knew you loved, and you begin to see yourself as a contender.
There are a plethora of journals out there and discovering where to submit can be daunting. I used Duotrope which is a searchable subscription service that catalogs dozens of journals for all genres. Access is $5 a month and it has been worth it to me. My submission log keeps me hopeful: I currently have 35 rejections, 17 acceptances, and one poem republished in the “best of 2017” category for that journal as well. I have four essays and 15 poems being reviewed. It isn’t going to happen by magic, getting published that is. It’s going to happen by submitting work.
This week I received two letters: one was a form rejection, the other wrote that they “adored” three of my poems, which will be published in the November issue of Mojave River Review. I couldn’t be happier. Well, getting my first book published might make me happier. It’ll only happen if I submit it. I am working on that. Not that long ago, I had nothing being rejected, reviewed, or accepted, because I wasn’t submitting anything at all. You cannot predict if your work will be accepted or rejected but know that, either way, it is about taking a chance and submitting, because you never know what that journal needs at that moment. So, take heart. At times it may seem that no matter how much you think your piece might fit in, they will disagree. Then sometimes when you least expect it, they love it. The point is, if you arrive at a place where you can own your work, you’ll always feel motivated to submit.
1. Dr. Andrea Rexilius is the program coordination and Poetry faculty mentor at the Mile-High MFA program at Regis University. She is the author of five books of poetry.
2. Rachel Weaver is the author of Point of Direction and a faculty mentor for fiction at the Mile-High MFA program at Regis University.