Thursday, March 19, 2009

Writers, Make Peace With Submissions

Submissions are fun, right? Okay, not exactly. But does the whole process of submitting one's work have to be such an angst-ridden, anxiety-producing activity for writers? Or is there a way to transform the experience -- the submitting, waiting, interpreting the feedback, and yes even the rejections – into a more creative part of the writing life?

I think there is.

During my workshops, I mention this from time to time when the subject of publication comes up, but tonight I'm making a presentation entirely on this topic.

So I found it quite fitting that when I sat down a few hours ago to get my final notes in order, I took a quick detour to my email inbox -- where I found a rejection from a magazine editor in response to an article idea I'd queried about.

I don't know this editor and have never written for her magazine before, but I'm pretty sure the first paragraph of her note was pretty standard; that is, short on specifics, one of those mixed efforts at tact and firmness. But the second paragraph, in which she talks about my idea in specifics, and includes a piece of personal information which tells me she not only read and carefully considered the pitch, but also has some personal understanding of the topic, seemed to me an encouraging sign. If my query made her think, caused her to deliberate, and to call up her personal connection to the idea, then perhaps I'd gotten in the vicinity of her (and hence her magazine's) editorial radar. In other words, as rejections go, a pretty good one.

Not more than an hour later, I retrieved my postal mail. You know what's coming, right? Another rejection, this one from a literary journal to which I had submitted an essay a few months back. Again, the standard preprinted thanks-but-no-thanks two-sentence form, but at the bottom, a hand written note from the nonfiction editor (whom I met once at a conference), explaining exactly what he felt this particular essay lacked, suggesting how I might revise it, and inviting me to send it again if I choose to rewrite.

Now, as rejections go, a fabulous one.

Don't worry, I get plenty of the normal "bad" rejections, too. I especially growl at the emailed one-liners: "We're going to pass. Regards, The Editors." Okay then.

Over the years, I have developed coping mechanisms for what otherwise might be considered the drudgery of dealing with rejections, with never hearing back from publications at all (my favorite), with the stalled inertia of a submissions drought, and the (rare but occasional) acceptance flurry.

These include mental gymnastics such as understanding that although one may amass a dozen or more NO responses, it only takes one YES to get published, and that theoretically the more rejections one accumulates, the closer one gets to that singular yes. (Math and statistical wizards -- in case I’m a bit off base here -- please don't disabuse me of this notion; it keeps me sane.)

Then there's the old-fashioned physical pleasure of crossing a publication off the scribbled list I keep in the front flap of the file folder for each essay, and also the fun of strolling over to the shredder and inserting the rejection into its sharp teeth. On a bad day, I've even been known to print out an emailed rejection just so I can put it in the shredder and hear that grinding whir. Listen, on some days, we writers need these small acts: take that, editor!

On a more serious note, I am adamant in my opinion that a robust submissions strategy can complement the craft side of the work. Marketing is not evil; it's a must for every writer. Rather than avoiding it, or only tolerating it, why not integrate the submissions process into the writing life in a welcoming way?

One important shift is to create a highly personalized submission plan that takes into account not only which piece to send to which publication, but also addresses the nuances of why. For example, Why this publication? Not in general terms that apply to any writer -- "because this journal has a great reputation and would look good on my CV"; but Why this publication for my (current and future) writing career? Why for this piece at this time? Those answers will vary for each writer.

For example, the answer might be, because this piece is set in the southwest and this particular journal is published by an Arizona university and often publishes material with regional themes. Or, because this journal pays well and right now I need to generate more income from my writing. Or, because I respect the editors of this journal and want to see how they react to my work. Or, because right now I need more publishing credits and even though this publication is not as prestigious as I'd like, it seems like exactly the right home for this particular piece, so my odds are good.

In other words, if a writer can integrate the goals of their submission plan with the goals and needs of their writing career (current and future), then the odds of having a submission practice that feels like a creative aspect of one's writing life -- instead of a pain-in-the-neck part -- greatly increases.

There's a lot more to it, of course. I'll be coming back to this topic again. Because there is one thing I hate more than a bad rejection, and that is hearing a writer say, "Oh I hate sending my stuff out. It's all just sitting in my computer (or desk)."

Because guess what? If that's where your work is, you've already rejected it before anyone else can.


Michelle O'Neil said...

Killer ending to a great post!

P.S. I love your shredder system.

Jenny said...

Love this post. I used to hate rejections, but now see them as a good thing. Like you said, the editor may give you pointers (my writer friends and I joke that a "no" is the new "yes"). Also, I like getting an answer - it frees me up to move to the next step.

P.S. The whole "sitting on my computer" thing...someone told me that the other day and I said, sending it out is over half the battle. Your chances of publication skyrocket :-)

2KoP said...

I've made peace with the idea of rejection letters, but here's my pet peeve about submission. I've found it in a number of submission guidelines from both agents and publishers. I goes something like this:

"We accept only exclusive submission. If we are interested, we will contact you. If you have not heard from us in X weeks (months, years), please assume that we are not interested."

What is that all about? Please, I'd rather have a "bad" rejection than this "if you haven't heard from us" nonsense. How hard is it to send a boilerplate email? At least then I would know.