on getting a story published

unstuck2My short story “Family Mart” was published in Unstuck Vol. 2 back in December. And though I announced it on Facebook and Twitter, I just realized I never wrote about it here. Ack, social media. Anyway, this was exciting, exciting news for me. Encouraging progress just when it felt like my writing had stalled. Unstuck took a big chance on me – they liked “Family Mart” but wanted changes. I had been receiving a lot of “almost” responses to the story for over a year. That is, personal responses from lit mag editors who said they liked it, but… sorry, no. Some of the almost-but-nos may have had to do with the content – “Family Mart” is fantastical (a woman wakes up with a hoof instead of a hand) and a lot of magazines focused on literary fiction just aren’t quite willing to go there. The story ended up being named a finalist in a couple of contests, but never published. I knew it needed something but I didn’t know what. The editors at Unstuck had a lot of excellent suggestions and were patient as I worked through several revamps of the piece and I am so grateful for that. I hope “Family Mart” is the better for it.

I should back up and say that I began writing “Family Mart” in 2007. Yep, that’s right, from start to publication took five years. I suppose that is one of the biggest reasons I was so thrilled to see it in print. Finally! It’s a now-6,000 word finished, published story that over the past 5 years went through so many rewrites I lost count (50?) and had to create a separate folder on my computer to house them all so I could manage to find the most current one. I felt strongly about this story in a way that I don’t often feel about other pieces – that is, I wasn’t willing to let it go or to gather dust on my hard drive, forgotten, and thus the five years of rewriting, re-plotting, re-thinking, and submitting. I’m glad I stuck with it. I hope my next published story doesn’t take nearly so long.

Unstuck publishes literary fiction with elements of the fantastic, the futuristic, or the surreal, which is, of course, exactly what I was looking for. Its second issue includes work by Steve Almond, Kate Bernheimer, Jedediah Berry, Gabriel Blackwell, Edward Carey, Jonathan Lethem & John Hilgart and Paul Lisicky. I’m honored to be in such company and so impressed with the issue itself — more than 500 (print!) pages of some wonderful, inventive stories. Order yourself a copy! Or download the Kindle version.

How (not) to count rejections.

Someone — perhaps a professor or classmate in my MFA program, I can no longer remember — said that you have to get at least 100 rejections before you have any chance of getting an acceptance.
At the time I heard that advice/statistic I was in awe. And I was discouraged by it, since I had only a handful of rejections in my file.

These days I see a kind of truth to it, although the truth has less to do with the number 100 than it does with experience. It has been years since I heard the 100-rejection mantra, and since then I have written many new pieces, some that I actively send out, an some that I still deem Not Ready for Publication.

Last spring I created a document in which I listed all of the lit mags I would like to be published in. They are magazines I respect, that have good reputations. They are of the top-tier variety. Perhaps everyone else just goes immediately for these elite mags, but I had not. Did not.

However, I had started to feel overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of lit mags detailed on Duotrope and New Pages. I wanted to narrow the field. Also, I felt it was time to bring some self-confidence to the process: Instead of sending to mags that might publish me, I decided to go after mags in which I’d like to be published. I had been published in a couple of smaller, lesser-known mags, and I felt that it was time to go for it. Obviously, I knew there was greater potential for rejection with my new method, but I chose to ignore that voice in the back of my head that said failure was imminent. Instead, I sent out a few batches of targeted submissions in greater numbers than I ever have before.

And then the rejections began to roll in. At first this was (and still is, sometimes) extremely discouraging. It was easy, on days in which the rejections hit me hardest, to question my work, my burst of self-confidence that had led to me submitting to these mags in the first place, and, sometimes, the whole literary endeavor. But here’s the thing: I have received a lot of “nice” rejections. By “nice rejections” I mean, not your standard form letter. I mean a letter/email addressed to me, with personalized comments, some even with specific references to things they liked in my submission.  The other day I received the nicest, longest, most personal such letter in the mail that I have ever received, from a well-known magazine I highly respect, and it simultaneously gave me hope that I am so, so close and broke my heart with disappointment, because I was so, so close.

Things I have learned in the past year:

-It is not about how many rejections you receive, it is about how many submissions you send out. (Of course of your best, complete work, and of course to the appropriate magazine. Those are givens, in my mind.)

-The number 100 means little. Experience in the form of repeated action with new and different work that is improving all the time means a lot.

-Nice rejections, while they can be disappointing, can also buoy your confidence. They mean that someone, maybe even multiple people, read your work and liked it enough to personalize a response to you when it didn’t make the cut for publication. They mean that you need to keep sending that piece out. (Maybe you need to tweak it, maybe not.) Nice rejections sometimes include invitations to send other work to the same magazine, and that is an opportunity that should not be ignored.

In the future, when I have published extensively and am teaching some writing workshop somewhere, I do not plan to tell my students that they need to get 100 rejections. I am going to tell them to send out 100 submissions.*  Of their best, best piece that has been revised and put away and revised again and again and again. And to see how long it takes before the rejection streak is broken by an acceptance. I suspect well before 100, if you’re doing things right. I see it this way: If you have received 100 rejections FOR ONE PIECE OF WRITING, and not one of them is anything beyond a form letter, there’s something wrong with your piece or your judgment about the appropriate magazines for your piece.

If you google 100 rejections, you’ll see that a lot of people are subscribing to this philosophy (Who started this? Who came up with the number 100?) I’ve read a number of blog posts about attempts to garner 100 rejections and all seem to be fairly positive about the experience. They are, in general, referring to multiple pieces of writing being submitted to multiple magazines simultaneously. It’s not inconceivable or even unusual, I don’t think, to rack up 100 rejections while sending out 5 different pieces of writing — that’s 20 per story or essay. After the above blog post was making the rounds on Twitter, someone at the Hayden’s Ferry Review asked how many rejections most people get in a year, and the answers ranged from 50 to 250. I don’t think that’s the salient question, though.

I have been submitting both fiction and nonfiction pieces to literary magazines off and on since 2006. If I am counting anything, I’m counting rejections per piece, rather than how many rejections I’ve received in total. If I send out 20 submissions of the same essay or story and I don’t get a “nice” rejection (or an acceptance) from one of them, I suspect the piece of writing in question needs more work. And I tweak it before sending it out again, or I put it away until I am able to see its flaws more clearly. I think in many ways this is a numbers game, but I don’t think submitting a piece that needs work to more magazines makes it more likely to be published.

The numbers game should be your own, that is, how many rejections do you feel a single piece of writing can withstand before you feel need to revise it again? How many nice rejections should you rack up before you try to figure out what it is you need to tweak in that piece of writing to gain its publication somewhere? The answers may be different for different people, and probably, most successfully, are about each author’s intuitions about a piece of writing, where she’s sent it, and the results she’s gotten, more than any particular number.


*And I don’t mean 100 submissions at once. I think submitting in batches of 10-15 is a manageable and helpful way to go. When you’ve had responses from those, then send out the next batch, if necessary.

Women, rejection, and the VIDA numbers

I attended a panel at AWP a couple of weeks ago entitled: Women Writers and Rejection: How to Get Published and Avoid the Slush Pile. I was unsure about attending the panel; it wasn’t clear to me what could be said in such a discussion that was new or different with regards to submitting. What I was intrigued by, however, was this sentence in the panel’s description: “Women writers don’t submit enough; we’re too cautious and we take rejection too hard.” Though I secretly suspected these exact points about my own process of submitting, I had not considered that they were gender-related. I thought my hesitation about submitting simply reflected my own lack of confidence.

I decided to go to the panel. I suppose I wanted (perversely) to hear that these ideas were true, and that it wasn’t just me, in order to validate my own experiences with submitting and the feelings of inadequacy they produced. The five female editors of well-known lit mags and presses who led the panel discussion could only provide anecdotal commentary on whether women submitted less than their male counterparts to their magazines, and some of them didn’t really have any idea whether the magazines they represented published both genders equally. They all instead offered “I’ve been there” kinds of stories, in which they described moments when they were younger, or less immune to the pain of rejection, points at which they took rejection very personally. They encouraged the predominately female audience to get over it and toughen up. There was some very unscientific assertion that men succeed in getting published more because men are programmed not to give up — just look at a man in a bar! He’ll keep hitting on women until he succeeds! One editor noted that in her experience women in MFA programs tend to get more caught up in romantic entanglements than their male counterparts and it affects their writing/submitting output.

Oh yes she did.

Those comments aside, there were some helpful tidbits and a lot of encouragement. But the panel did not provide much actual evidence that: a) women are not as persistent at submitting as men are, b) that women take rejection more personally than men do, and thus c) submit less as a result.

By now you may have seen or read about the numbers released from VIDA: Women in Literary Arts on the ratio of men vs. women published in major literary magazines and the numbers of male vs. female authors’ books reviewed in said magazines. Hint: Men were published more than women in 2010. A lot more. And male authors had more books reviewed. There are some stark pie charts on VIDA’s web site, in which women get slivers of pie, about a quarter or third of possible publication space, and men get the rest.

Since the numbers came out a couple of weeks ago, many of the literary magazines mentioned have rushed to defend or augment these stats with more specific numbers of their own, and other voices have chimed in, from bloggers like Christine at 80,000 Words to Meghan O’Rourke at Slate. There have been pieces in the New Republic, the Guardian, the Awl, and even on PBS.

While most expressed their shock and horror at the disparity, some called into question the reliability of VIDA’s numbers, or wondered how scientific of a study this was. Some wondered whether the problem was deeper – that is, are fewer books by female authors being reviewed simply because there are fewer books by female authors?

So is the gap due to editorial bias or are women simply submitting less? Many of the editors of lit mags who have responded to the VIDA numbers seem baffled, as their submission numbers are not that skewed. But this caught my attention:

Rob Spillman, editor of Tin House, wrote on that magazine’s blog:

Of solicited writers, I see a distinct gender difference. When I solicit male authors, the only ones who do not submit are those contractually bound by other magazines. For female authors it is closer to 50% submit after being asked.
Male authors, in the face of rejection, are much more likely to submit more work, (and sooner) than their female peers. This is true even when the female author is explicitly requested to send more work.
Similarly, men whose work we accept are more likely to follow up publication with more submissions. Of the 28 female writers in Fantastic Women, 3 have voluntarily sent further submissions. In that same time period I have received at least 100 submissions from previously published male authors.

Wow. What’s going on here? An elite group of female writers being asked to submit to one of the top literary magazines, and they don’t? And, female writers actually getting published in said magazine — which, by the way, published nearly twice as many men as women in 2010, 55 to 29  — and then not attempting to leverage that connection to seek repeat publication later?

Continue reading

a Friday hodgepodge

Oh hello. I haven’t been avoiding you…it’s just that I’ve been neglecting my blog in favor of – gasp!— writing. I’m fairly bursting with short stories these days, and I find myself churning out drafts very quickly. I’m excited about these drafts. They are, of course, exactly that, unfinished drafts, but they exist all the same. Someday, a day hopefully not two years in the future as has been my recent M.O., they will become complete, finished stories. I’m proud of them in some strange way, and I can’t wait to reach that point.

The other day I managed to write ten pages of a story and half of a quite lengthy blog post (I adore days like that!) when my writing luck ran out and my computer ate my blog post. Sigh. I was too demoralized (and too out of time) to rewrite. So here we are. A brief hodgepodge of things I’ve been wanting to post about:

• I’ve had the good fortune of reading two books in a row that I want to read again. I just feel like there’s so much I missed the first time around. The first was Ron Carlson Writes a Story, which I posted about here recently. The second is Annie Dillard’s memoir, An American Childhood. It’s been a long time – far too long, actually – since I’ve read any of Dillard’s work and, wow. I’ve forgotten how wonderful her writing is. It’s the kind of writing that you learn from, that you read and think, how did she do that? Not to mention that nearly every passage seems flawless and beautiful. Gush, gush. I will probably devote an entire post to the book at some point, but a couple of quick bits: One of the things I admire about this memoir is the way that she conveys how various people impacted her life without saying, “I learned from my mother that…” or “My father taught me…” It’s implied, and it doesn’t have to be spelled out, such is Dillard’s ability to tell a story. It’s “show don’t tell” at its finest. Another thing I admire about this memoir is that it is not filled with the kind of tragedy or death or poverty or mental illness or alcoholism (and so on) that weigh down so many American memoirs. I’m not opposed to reading about those topics, nor do I think they don’t have a place in literature (nor am I afraid of double negatives!), but it’s refreshing to read about a childhood in which the wonder of being a child/growing up is central to the story, not the child’s alcoholic/abusive/crazy parents. I heard a lot of fiction writers in my grad program say, “Oh, I can’t write about myself, my childhood was too happy/normal/boring,” which I always thought was a bunch of hoo-ha and to which I will now say, read Annie Dillard’s memoir, and you’ll see it can be done, and done well.

• I received a rejection yesterday, my first real, form-letter rejection since I began sending out my work again. I’ve also received a nice email rejection, which didn’t feel like a rejection at all, since the editor of the mag wrote to tell me my story had been on their short list for the issue.  I don’t have to point out, I don’t think, that the latter is preferable to the former. Still, I prefer the resolution to the waiting, and so the form letter was not unwelcome. It just was.

• On a related note, I submitted the same story to a magazine that promised a response by a particular date. The date came and went, and so I visited their web site and discovered that they are suddenly and unexpectedly closed to new submissions, and had to cancel their spring fiction contest (and are returning entrants’ fees). Also on their web site: a “job” listing for fiction and nonfiction editors (I use quotes because the positions are volunteer – no pay). I had sent my story as a general submission, not for the contest, and so my assumption is that now the story is in indefinite limbo while the magazine finds new editors and solves whatever problems led to the departure of the previous editors. Has anyone encountered this kind of situation before? It reminds me of another strange lit mag interaction I had a while ago, when I received a letter from the (fairly prominent) magazine saying that one of their readers had run off with a batch of submissions and mine was among them. I used to get really demoralized by such things, but now I just feel like shrugging and submitting elsewhere.

• I read Joyce Carol Oates’ short story, “I.D.” (full text online) in a recent issue of the New Yorker, and it was not an enjoyable experience. I’m not saying the story was bad — on the contrary. But it was not enjoyable. Oates’ ability to inhabit the minds of teen girls in wretched situations blows my mind. But the resulting stories are always so, so unsettling. As in, not recommended before bedtime.

• I have two writing-related educational experiences coming up that I am very much looking forward to. I will say more about them when they happen. For now, I’ll just say that I feel very lucky to have an encouraging spouse who is willing to take on some extra hours (or days, as the case may be) with our son so that I can better my writing and be inspired by other writers.

Have a lovely weekend.

rejections, submissions, publications

cacti, San Diego, CAJade Park has a post up about waiting for responses to submissions that got me thinking of recent events in my attempts to publish. Even as I write that I realize that “events” sounds dramatic and as though there are just so many happenings when it comes to publishing my work I can’t keep track of them all.

Ha. Not true, not true.

One recent “event” was that two weeks ago or so, I received a rejection in the mail for a submission I mailed out almost exactly one year earlier. I had, in fact, long ago assumed that I had gotten the rejection already and just forgot to note it on my submission tracking spreadsheet. There’s a part of me that gets frustrated and annoyed when these letters take so long to arrive. But there’s a part of me that is hopeful and imagines the positive reason why it took so long to hear back.

At the literary magazine I worked for when I was in grad school, submissions that made the first cut, i.e were approved by an initial manuscript reader (usually a grad student or former grad student), were passed on to one of the editors on the staff. If the editor liked the manuscript it got passed on again, to another editor. And so on and on. Sometimes, because of the enormous backlog of manuscript reading everyone had, this process took a very long time. As much as a year. Sometimes, the manuscript might get through three or four people only to be rejected by a fifth. As far as I know, the responses to these almost-successful writers were not much different than the usual rejections we sent out. That is, unless you knew the inner workings of the magazine (or had a friend on staff, in which case you might get a phone call telling you of your near-miss), you, the recipient of the rejection letter, might simply think, “Great, another rejection. And it took them a year!” never once considering that your piece had been oh-so-close to being published.

This is what I think of when I get a rejection letter after a year has gone by. It’s possible the magazine that took so long to get back to me is just totally disorganized, or undergoing staff changes, or that they lost my manuscript and only just found it a month ago. But why think that when you can imagine that your piece was a near miss instead?

Despite my rah-rah “2008 Plan of Attack” I have made very little progress on polishing some essays and sending them out. Much of this lack of progress had to do with the tendinitis I was dealing with in my arm, which basically required me to rest for a couple of months. That few months of not writing really threw me off. It is much, much harder to try to build a writing routine out of nothing than it is to improve a mediocre one that is limping along (which is how I’d describe my writing routine pre-tendinitis). I am out of the habit and trying to get back into one. And that includes submitting work.

I have made some progress with writing, though much less progress with revising. I will, it seems, do anything (anything!) to avoid revising old work. I’ve begun several new essays, and completed a draft of another, but the work I really need to dive into is revising and sending out. It’s strange, I know the logic, i.e. that if I revise an essay, I can send it out, and if I send it out I’m more likely to get it published, and if I get it published I’m more likely to get other things published, etc. etc. But I still have a hard time making myself work on revisions instead of new work. (Or blogging, trying to build a freelance editing business, going to the gym, eating lunch, playing with my dog, cooking …..)

The other “event” in my publishing life was that an essay of mine that was accepted last summer by a small litmag arrived in the mail, finally, in print form. I am keeping the magazine near my desk to remind myself what can happen when a) I revise and polish, and b) I send out submissions.

How things turn out

It is, though I hate to admit it, reassuring to know (and more so to be reminded) that even successful writers get/got rejected at some point in their careers.

I’ve been thinking about Even Amy Tan Gets Rejected, a post over at Ghost Word. What’s so intriguing about this is that it includes some text of rejections from the New Yorker (regarding a story) and a publisher (regarding the future The Joy Luck Club).

What’s great is that we all know how that turned out. It’s a nice change to see a rejection from the reverse, after the author in question has been published. I can’t help thinking, Ha! See? It can be done.

They’re just as annoying as memos.

movie theater

Literary magazine staff and manuscript readers must have just come back from their summer vacations, all refreshed and sharp — everyone seems to be writing about rejections.


I got one yesterday too. And it’s not the first. It’s strange: Every day when I reach my mailbox I have a surge of hope. I flip through the mail to see if there’s something for me. Which is really kind of perverse, since any success would be known not by a letter in the mail delivered by the actual postal service, but via email. (Or, if I was really cool, you know, like New Yorker writer cool, by phone. I’m definitely not really cool.)
I should be eagerly checking my email everyday instead of rushing home to my mailbox.

And yet. There’s something thrilling about getting that letter in the mail, for the half-second that you hold it in your hand and slip your finger into that little opening at the corner of the envelope and tear. Most likely, you already know what’s inside. So why the surge of excitement? I suppose some weird part of me likes to know who is rejecting me. Or maybe it’s just a too-much-technology desire for old-fashioned, paper mail. Yeah, the slow kind. The kind that costs money.

I’m not saying rejections aren’t hard. Man, they sure are. But I’m learning to let go of them. Which is the same as learning to let go of your writing, in a way. It’s part of the process. That’s one of the reasons I went back to full-time work as a reporter. I wanted to learn to let go of my writing, to write quickly and feel no attachment to it. As a reporter you know your writing will be edited and packaged, and you know most of that is beyond your control.

I am always much too attached. It’s hard not to be, even with stories I write at work. But there’s no time to get emotional, attached, or upset when your story gets cut or buried. There’s always another story, for one. And also, they’re just words.

So I’ve starting to think about each rejection received as a reminder of sorts. A kind of Post-It note, maybe, that says, “Time to send this piece out again, somewhere else.”

The return of Friday night

As in, the end of the work week.

It’s Friday night after my first week of work. I’m tired, but in good spirits. Billy is out, and I’m in, with the dog. Our life has been one big whirlwind of activity since we returned from Europe, and I feel as though this is the first time I’ve had to myself in forever. Of course, when you’re used to having most of every day to yourself, working in an office is a bit of an adjustment. Suddenly my time is no longer (as much) my own. And I’m a constant craver of personal time.

In any case, I’ve parked myself on the couch. The dog has parked himself on the other couch, and has fallen asleep looking out the window for signs of Billy. Me, I’m catching up on blogs. I’m polishing off some chocolate I brought back from Germany. I’m eying the New Yorker fiction issue that just showed up in my mailbox. It’s been much-hyped, and I’m looking forward to reading some exquisite stories.

Speaking of which, I’ve been taking my time with Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists 2, and it is worth it. (Although I don’t really like the cover much.) I read a few of the stories on my flight home from Germany. A couple were so good I had to put the book away for a while to let them sink in, and to recover from their impact. Notably: Anthony Doerr’s “Procreate, Generate” and Kevin Brockmeier’s “Parakeets.” I am skipping around, and, like I said, going through these slowly. There are certain to be others that are as good.

I got a rejection in the mail today, from a magazine I had forgotten I had even submitted to. It wasn’t even that long ago. Ah, well. There was a hand-written note on the form letter, which is always a nice thing, when it comes to rejections. The rejection reminds me that I am due to send out more submissions. It’s been over a month, once again.

What else? Yesterday I read this post on Alexander Chee’s blog that got me thinking (again) about the whole writing vs. blogging thing.

… if someone had said, you’re going to write something as long as Anna Karenina, but it’ll be online, in a
fragmented narrative with constant references to current events, I would have said, What?

It is hard to justify blogging when time is short for writing. And yet. I can’t help it.

Seriously: Universe? What’s up?

As I mentioned, something very strange is going on. I got another almost-acceptance in the mail today….that’s two in one week! This one is even better than the last, as I am one of ten finalists in a contest hosted by a magazine someone might have heard of, based at a university that everyone has heard of. Alas, finalists don’t get published. But still, it’s something. I’m psyched. Blown away. Bowled over. Insert cliché here.

Lest you be concerned that the universe is indeed wrinkled, tilted, shrinking or whatever other misalignment you can think of, you should know that in my week of good news I have also received at least five rejections, including one very flippant one that began, “All hail, You Patient Contributor.” Really.

back in the saddle

It’s been two months since I sent out any of my work despite, um, being mostly unemployed and therefore having a little extra — ahem — time on my hands.

The thing is, a spate of rejections I got in February (and earlier) put me in a low mood. I know, I know, I should have a thicker skin than that. I have to to have a thicker skin than that, in order to be a writer! Didn’t I gain a tough hide being in workshops for two years? No. No I did not. I never had the brutal workshop leader who cut my writing (and ego) down to the appropriate size. I can be thankful for that, I suppose. (I knew someone who had a poetry prof who, in response to her poem, said: “This is shit! Come back when you have something worth reading.”)

Anyway, I got off my lazy, thin-skinned butt and put together some submissions this week. I’m thinking that sending a couple of submissions out a week would be a smarter plan than ignoring the process for a few months, spending hours researching dozens of publications in one day, hurriedly trying to revise several pieces at once, and then sending out ten-plus things at a time. Doing all that would put anyone off submitting on a regular basis. And so, I’m implementing the Send Out Three Envelopes A Week Plan.

I’m not very good at keeping to schedules or resolutions, which is why I don’t usually make them. But submitting regularly a) forces you to keep revising regularly b) forces you to keep tabs on lit mags you might like to submit to c) increases your odds, theoretically, of getting published.

If anyone wants to join me in this endeavor, I’d be psyched for the co-conspirators, support, motivation and competition.

And now, I’m off to the post office.