A few months ago I wrote a post about rejection. It was my most sucessful post since I ranted about old punks wittering on about The Jubilee. Lots of people left insightful and encouraging comments and I was left with the sense that rejection is something we all have to cope with and writers take comfort from all being in it together.
In the six months since 2015 began I have submitted stories and poems to fifty journals and competitions. I didn’t intend it to be so many, in fact, in my last post I said that I wasn’t going to submit to competitions at all. The thing is I have a completed short story collection on the look out for a publisher and I know that a major competition win would help, I have been shortlisted for a few so I know this is not beyond the realms of reason. Of those fifty submissions ten are still out, I was asked to rewrite one (the piece that got me a distinction in my MA) by an American publisher, because it wasn’t satisfying enough, thirty-eight have been rejected out right and then a couple of weeks ago I got my first acceptance of the year.
Let me just say that on that morning I got two rejection emails and was ready to give up on submitting indefinitely. Constant rejection can accumulate into a heavy burden, weighing on your shoulders so much it restricts the movement of your hands over the keyboard. In short, self-doubt prevents creativity. It was either stop the rejection or stop writing. Fellow writer Jacqueline Paizis wrote a heartfelt blog about failing to list in a prestigious short story competition. I failed to list too so I recognised the words of the rejection email.
‘All short stories are about change and transformation’ and ‘need to kick into life immediately with a strong, vivid and involving first paragraph.’
Jacqueline wonders if this is the case for writing to be considered good or if it’s just a proviso of the competition. She also goes on to wonder about the historical writer’s relationship to rejection.
I know stamina is a vital ingredient of any writer’s recipe but I wonder if Dickens felt he could add nothing to the world because it had all been said before? Did George Elliot doubt she was writing something revolutionary about her sex? Answers anyone?
The thing is they probably did. Even established writers are only as good as their last book. Think of Keats toiling in obscurity, relying on his friends to pay the rent as the critics hold his masterpieces up for ridicule. More recently, think of Stephen King teaching high school and drowning out the volume of failure with buckets of bourbon. They didn’t compromise what they wrote for an easy route to publication.
My story, Miley Cyrus Fault, has no punctuation. I wrote it like this on purpose. It is about a suicidal Big Brother contestant and the form reflects the narrator’s state of mind. It was always going to be a hard sell. I didn’t expect it to win any competitions. People would either understand or they’d hate it and probably not even finish it. I know I polarize opinion with my writing. The first two reviews for Starlings were equally damning and gushing. One said the prose was turgid and over-ambitious; the other compared it to A Visit From The Goon Squad and The Wire. I have kept those two reviews because both, in their own way, confirm I am on the right track. I refuse to temper my writing to win a competition or get a good review. I am writing for me.
The rejections came in for Miley Cyrus Fault within a week. As a judge for The Brighton Prize and a co-director of Rattle Tales I regularly send out rejection emails. I was sending some out on the morning I got mine fom the competition Jaqueline and I had entered. It’s not personal, but quite often it does comes down to personal preference.
On Friday afternoon an email came in from The Manchester Review telling me they wanted to publish Miley Cyrus Fault. I almost filed it unread because I really wasn’t expecting anyone to publish it. I wrote back explaining my gratitude as I was about ready to give up. The editor, Valerie O’Riordan, wrote back, Keep subbing – it’s a numbers game, really. Persist! I think what she means is simply that the more you submit the more likely it is for something to get published. I would add to that, don’t compromise. If it’s good someone somewhere will like it.