Last New Year I posted a piece about my plans to submit writing to every possible publishing opportunity. I said I was going to organise my submission records, keep track of everything and just go for it. Of course the re-organisation and record keeping lasted about a month, it remains as haphazard as ever. I’m sure I must submit things twice over or not at all; in fact just this morning I got a message saying I’d already submitted the same story twice to a magazine. This year I really do resolve to sort this out. I’ve set up a spreadsheet and everything, and those of you who know me will realise the effort this will have taken!
However, my experiment, inspired by a New Year’s Eve winning at roulette, didn’t really pay off. I did spend the first half of the year flinging work out to anyone foolish enough to call for submissions but success was limited. The spread betting didn’t pay off quite as I’d hoped. Acceptances, when they did come, were very welcome. Metaphor Magazine saw fit to publish my poetry, the first time anyone had seen anything worthwhile in the tens of poems I had sent out into the world. I had flash fictions accepted by Paragraph Planet and Visual Verse and Threshold’s Short Story Forum published my essay on Sarah Hall’s BBCNSSA winner Mrs Fox. A very old short story, submitted on deadline day to Riptide’s The Suburbs issue, also made the cut. These last two provided a very satisfying experience as both journals made editing suggestions that greatly enhanced the pieces submitted. That’s it though; these few are the extent of my success in 2014. I’ve had better years.
The trouble with sending out hundreds of submissions is that you open yourself up to rejection. Rejection emails clogged my inbox from February onwards. The first few months were tough but by May it wasn’t so bad. Opening a rejection hurt for about a minute and then it was filed under experience. A couple of rejections were particularly cruel. One journal said my story (in my opinion the best thing I had written at that point) wasn’t quite good enough for their journal but perhaps I would like to try such and such magazine (which presumably has lower standards). What does this even mean? Not quite good enough for them is a bit of a wishy-washy statement. If you are going to say this much at least qualify it. Luckily I have complete conviction in this particular story. I have read it at a couple of spoken word events and people I trust completely to tell it how it is have told me it is my best work. My writing doesn’t work for the editor of this particular journal, it doesn’t mean it’s not quite good enough, it means they have no taste! While we’re on this, well established English literary journals do seem prone to this sort of discouraging dismissal, whereas their American equivalents (even the massively influential ones) are the polar opposite. Editorial rejections from US journals are generally so encouraging they spur you on to work on your writing so you might be of a standard they feel they can publish. No American journals appear on my NEVER AGAIN list but several British journals are and they are frankly so fucking rude and dismissive in their rejections that I wouldn’t sully my email again by association. One US journal rejected a story after months of deliberation because, though they loved the writing, my homeless character had nothing to lose. They missed the point of my story but I wasn’t discouraged, they didn’t tell me I wasn’t good enough only that the story wasn’t for them, they encouraged me to re-submit. I probably won’t because if they think that a starving homeless man has nothing to lose we’re clearly not on the same wavelength and it would be a waste of everyone’s time. Submitting to the old established British literary journals can sometimes feel like taking on the establishment and being laughed off the floor because you didn’t go to Eton. But there are plenty of new kids on the block, looking to take advantage of new formats and new ways of publishing and these innovators are mightily more grateful that you consider them worthy of your work, even if they can’t publish it at this time.
My year was filled with rejection but by September it didn’t really get to me anymore. I thought about it a lot. I started to look at the way rejection makes you feel. I read articles about it. We discussed it in a class I taught. I looked at websites that listed famous literary rejections and the persistence of the eventually successful recipients. One writer suggested that rejection made you feel like a child again, that the rejected experiences the same feelings as the kid who has spent hours on a painting, maths paper or poem and feels extremely proud of their work only to get a C from the teacher or a ‘that’s nice’ from a disinterested parent. Rejection seems particularly hard in a society that thinks it is advantageous to praise absolutely everything. As a child of the seventies my parents didn’t universally praise everything I did but when they did I knew it was good. Somewhere along the way the child has become the focus of everything, every word they utter, every drawing they scrawl is better than anything ever done before. For a few decades now children have been made to feel invincible by their parents, they are singled out as special. The shock hits them in the face when they first become aware that they are just like everyone else. It’s not just the young though, there are also a sections of the older generation who believe that can do nothing wrong. I recently talked to my father-in law about this, he told me a woman had submitted a non-fiction book to a society he is on the board of, and several members read the book and offered to print it with substantial editorial changes. The woman self-published, taking no heed of their suggestions.
Working with Rattle Tales I have come across people who react extremely badly to rejection, even when it is qualified. We have had people ask for feedback who then continue the conversation by arguing with the feedback. Having seen the world from both sides now, this strikes me as a particularly churlish and pointless reaction. If someone is willing to give you detailed feedback, consider what they are saying. Do they have a point? If they do, edit accordingly, if they don’t, or if you think it’s subjective, let it go. Of course it is very hard to learn this. Even very successful individuals find this beyond their capabilities. I recently watched Bono on Graham Norton completely eaten up by the fact that some Apple customers objected to being given a free album, he wasn’t interested in the millions that wanted the music only in the ones that didn’t. Why should he care; a multi-millionaire, best-selling, prize-winning musician? Surely it shouldn’t bother him but you could tell that it did – a lot. Look at Russell Brand’s reaction to the Parklife giff, a churlish answer that suggested everyone was laughing at him because of his estuary accent rather than the fact that a lot of what he says is as nonsensical as the original Phil Daniels commentary. I like Brand, I think what he does is valuable, but I’ve read as much of that book as I could and his verbosity is monstrous and definitely worthy of a piss take. Again, why should he care enough to even answer? Some people just can’t take it.
#vote Bob & Roberta Smith
I was impressed by Hilary Mantel’s reaction to being dropped by The Daily Telegraph. Her story about the fictional assassination of Margaret Thatcher was never going to fly there really was it? She didn’t attack the fusty old newspaper for its commitment to the sacred memory of the deceased prime minister; instead she placed it with a newspaper whose reader would appreciate it. She transcended the hysterical furore that blew up around it on social media by simply stating that it was fiction and that freedom of expression was something to be cherished. It became less an issue of mud-slinging and more an issue about art in general and she probably sold a few more copies of her collection than she would have done if the Telegraph had published in the first place. This is how to deal with rejection.
On the last weekend of September, I suffered a catastrophic fall and broke my femur in 4 places. I had 5 hours of surgery and 6 weeks of bed rest, addled on opiates and unable to write a thing. My usual trick of soothing the sting of rejection by sending out a submission wasn’t open to me. All the submissions I had made in the previous months came back to me in my convalescence with a big fat NO. One even landed in my in-box on my birthday. In truth I didn’t give a hoot. If the way we react to rejection makes us feel like we did as children, my injuries had already taken me back to helpless infancy. I needed help with everything. If you have real problems, problems that require all of your energies (in this case extreme pain and learning to walk again) the opinion of some far flung editor really isn’t that big a deal.
My experiment is over. This year I’m not sending stuff out everywhere. I need to get physically well. I have 3 months of intensive therapy ahead. When I’m not doing this I may have time to polish up my finished short story collection and try and get it published. I’m going to focus on these two goals and each rejection will be shrugged off for what it is – one person’s opinion.