On Facebook a couple of weeks ago, a friend had something to say about acceptances and rejections – a good news/bad news post; not exactly an infrequent topic among writers toiling in the upside down world of literary submissions, occasional publication, and hope.
This writer noted that she'd received a third place finish in a literary journal contest, from a publication near the top of her wish list -- after she'd already received 51 rejections from other journals, some of which she admitted she might have been less than enthusiastic about appearing in anyway.
I understood this too well. You begin with a small list of places you'd love your work to appear; a few might be a reach, but you're not insane, you don't over-reach and chuck every single thing you write at all the top tier publications. You build a list that makes sense, but still represents places you'd be humbled and honored to get an acceptance from. Then you wait. Rejections arrive. You add to your list, this time dipping further down the coveted top tier. More rejections come your way. The list grows, and submissions go out, again.
But once you reach double digit rejections, you begin to doubt a piece's substance and chances and adjust your submission list yet again, scanning a bit lower. You still keep sending to those near the top of your list but you're realistic and send to second and third tier places too.
Then the acceptance comes from a venue near the top, one you had submitted to with hope but also pragmatism, and you wonder once again: Were all those other editors wrong? Is it a matter of taste? Was Mom right (about jobs, spouses, everything), that it only takes one, and sooner or later it will happen?
Sometimes, I think so.
When I saw that writer's post, it was just one day after I'd received an acceptance for a nonfiction narrative essay from a journal I consider desirable (at least to my own idiosyncratic, individual system of ranking)—after having received, over the previous year of submissions, rejections from 26 other publications, a mix of those less stellar, more stellar, and roughly equal to the one that said yes.
After virtually high-fiving that other writer, I got curious. I pulled up my Excel spreadsheet that I use to track submitting activity and did a quick, calculator-less analysis. Just how often did this happen, I wanted to know? How often does it take hearing a lot of No, before I hear Yes? I had a sense that the answer was, pretty often. But suddenly I wanted proof, numbers, stats.
Not only was I curious in light of that writer's post and my own almost simultaneous experience, but I wanted to know because I am known to encourage fellow writers thus: "Don't be discouraged, keep sending it out, this is how it works." Was I right? And how often? So I pulled up my personal Excel spreadsheet stats, along with my Duotrope tracker.
Here's what I found: Over the past 18 months or so, I had submitted 15 different pieces of creative nonfiction (all kinds of essays and nonfiction narrative), to a total of 47 different venues (a mix of print and online literary journals and mainstream media markets that publish CNF). That amounted to 116 total individual submissions, resulting in: 10 acceptances, 19 personal rejections, 52 form rejections, 21 withdrawals by me, and 14 never-heard-back-might-as-well-have-pitched-it-into-the-ocean. [Not included in this count are submissions associated with the book-length memoir manuscript, my smattering of poetry subs, and other hard-to-classify stuff.]
I'm neither surprised nor upset by these stats. (Not as upset as this poet who describes a sometimes zero-sum game of poetry chapbook/contest submissions.) Duotrope, for example, tells me (not that I asked, but there is it displayed on my Submission Tracker page): Your acceptance rate is higher than average. Okay, then. Then again, Duotrope doesn't know the whole picture, only the journals I've submitted to which are in their database. Still, I'll take the praise/encouragement, as there's precious little of it around.
In a very odd sense, I have come to the idea that the only way to stay in this particular system is to think of the submitting-rejection-submitting-acceptance game as just that, a game. Do I hope to "win"? Sure, whatever that means. Publication? Certainly. More frequent, reliable acceptances? I hope so. CV-building? Yes, that's necessary after all. Platform building? Meh. And also, colleague-making, affirmation, participation, a dollop of validation!
But unlike the Scrabble, gin rummy, and shouting-at-the-TV Jeopardy games I play frequently (and rather expect to actually win), I have to think of the submitting game the way I do the tennis, shuffleboard, and other outdoor games I play with my competitive husband and strong teenage sons while on vacation: nice (though rare) if I win, enjoyable (mostly) when I tie or lose by a little, and fun enough (usually) that I will play again the next day. I know that while every game is about skill, I'm always aware there are other dominant players on the field and that field is not always precisely level. My son's legs will always hold up better than mine, my husband's killer instinct will forever surpass mine. But they forget: they're playing against someone who, on a daily basis, often before breakfast, sloughs off rejection, has learned to study but then ignore the competition, and who knows, perhaps even enjoys, the underdog position.
They're dealing with a writer who, at the present moment, has five different pieces of work in the submission pipeline, awaiting their fate at 25 different venues. And I haven't even checked my email yet today.
Game (still) on.