This year, I received 17 rejections. I’m not talking about sexual advances or job applications. This is about me sending submissions to a literary journal. My submissions might be short stories, essays or books reviews. But because I am a literary nobody, my only way into a journal is through its slush pile.
the slush pile
Never heard of the term? Lincoln Michels explains in The Ultimate Guide to Getting Published in a Literary Magazine.
When you submit to a literary magazine, your work gets thrown (either literally if submitted through the mail or figuratively if submitted electronically) into the “slush pile.” […] The slush pile is a mess. Great stories absolutely come out of the slush pile, but they are hidden among the typo-ridden rants, third-rate Raymond Carver imitations, and haikus handwritten on hotel napkins. A good portion of the slush is filled with work that doesn’t fit even the basic parameters of the journal: fantasy novellas sent to Postmodern Poetry Review and LOTR fan fiction sent to Quiet Realism Monthly.
I know all this. Of course, I send in only my very best work. Proofread it until my eyes cross and not a single stray comma remains. Work out as best I can what sorts of submissions will get the most traction. Still, I get rejections. Rarely does an editor offer an explanation. I receive instead a form letter that says my piece was not a good fit. Or, in some cases, no response at all. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.
I can’t really blame them. Most literary journals are staffed by volunteers. They were overworked back in the day when submissions arrived via postal mail. Now, with the advent of online portals, the flood gates are open. No one has time to explain a rejection. So should I give up or change my submissions strategy?
Every writer needs a submissions strategy. That is to say, an idea of who your audience is and how best to reach them. You need a submissions strategy whether you’re a poet or a writer of creative non-fiction. And if you write short stories, you really need a way to winnow through the enormous number of venues out there and distinguish yourself from an even larger mass of competition.
Sam Chang of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop once told me that I had two choices. If I want to make a living off of writing, then obviously I should focus my submissions on outlets that pay. But if the aim is to get my novels published, then I should try to get my work into the best journals I can. Because literary agents read literary journals to trawl for new talent.
I define best as a literary journal that makes it into Best American Short Stories. But I don’t watch submission windows as closely as I should. I’m easily swayed by a call for submissions on Twitter or Facebook, even if the journal doesn’t fit my selection criteria. And as for timing, I need a rejection to remind me to send out new submissions. In short, I have no strategy at all.
A while back, I read an article by an author who came to the same conclusion. Like me, she fired off submissions at any journal that moved. When that scattershot method failed to produce the desired result, this writer increased her submissions rate. The rejection letters continued to pile up so the writer decided to do the math.
I wish I could find that article. I’d like to thank Mystery Writer for inspiring me to geek out and make my own spreadsheet. It was an excellent form of procrastination. Here’s what I learned:
- I started sending submission in 2014. That year I submitted eight short stories, one of which was accepted. That’s a 12.5% success rate.
- In 2015, I increased my submissions to 39 and got zero acceptances.
- Last year, I scored 23 submissions and three acceptances for a 13.04% success rate.
- This year, I’m on track for a similar success rate with three acceptances already under my belt.
But what do these numbers really say? Mystery Author learned that she had more success pitching her stories to popular magazines than to elitist literary journals. So Mystery Author decided to focus exclusively on popular journals and presumably lived happily ever after.
If I were to follow Mystery Author’s lead, I should stop writing short stories. Instead, I should focus on essays, three of which were accepted in 2017 and one of those nominated for Best of the Net. In fact, my publication credits for 2018 will be an essay, a book review and a work of flash fiction.
I suppose I could satisfy my yen for short stories if I limit myself to flash fiction, i.e. 1,000 words or less. The genre fits the kind of spare prose I like to write. But I hate the idea of squishing my fiction into a form that the market can bear.
This is why Kim Liao‘s advice appeals so much to me. Liao says, forget about the number of acceptances you want. Go for 100 rejections.
First, it’s a lot easier to collect rejections than it is to amass acceptances. You can nail your rejection letters to the wall like Stephen King used to do. Or, you can go DIY like Liao did.
While procrastinating on writing my MFA thesis, I found an ancient wooden desk on the street, pulled it into my apartment, and started shellacking it with hard-earned rejection slips. It became my writing desk.
Second, rejections come in many shapes and sizes. The rarest of them all is the personal note, the encouraging words that
are almost better for the soul than acceptances. “The thrill of an acceptance eventually wears off, but the quiet solidarity of an encouraging rejection lasts forever,” one editor said.
Last year, Liao submitted work to literary magazines. She applied for residencies and fellowships. Her batting average?
I got rejected 43 times, but I also got five acceptances—one to a residency, one to a reading series, and three publications in literary journals. Additionally, to my delight, I received six encouraging rejections from really great journals, inviting me to send them something else.
Until I read Liao’s article, my submissions world was black and white. Acceptance was good and all the rest was not. I decided to take a good look at my rejections.
I’m astonished to say that six (!) editors took the trouble to write an encouraging note. One of those editors works at a journal I would kill to get into. That editor wrote
Your submission is great.
I’m thinking about shellacking that note to my body. In the meantime, I have work to do. 2018 isn’t over yet and I’m going for gold. 83 more rejections, here I come.