When I was fifteen, I was pretty sure I would be the next great horror writer. I wrote my first short story and boy-oh-boy did my teenage brain think that it was the best: An abused woman vomits up her heart, cooks it, feeds it to her asshole husband, and he explodes all over the dining room. Blood everywhere. Brains everywhere. A triumphant ending with a film-like “shot” of her standing ankle deep in pulsing entrails. Nice. Those were the good old days when I thought writing was easy and getting published was inevitable. Oh, and my ego was as fragile as a newborn kitten.
Eighteen years later and I know that writing is hard (duh), getting published is some combination of intense talent/schmoozing/luck, and my ego has the raw brute strength of at least seventeen newborn kittens.
I never tried to get anything published until early in 2016. And my first attempt was distressing. Over the space of two months, I crippled my way through the horrifying process of submitting my first story (it’s about a cannibal…I ain’t changed that much). It was roundly rejected. And it was awesome. I was super happy, confident and excited, and…oh, no wait, it actually cut to the core of me and I thought I might low-key die.
Even though I knew my story didn’t match the tone of the magazine, and even though I knew that the editors were sifting through hundreds of other submissions, and even though I had carefully counseled myself not to care, it still stung. A lot.
I looked deep and found that the fifteen-year-old me was the one who was hurt. She had believed that this one story would be the one. Her little ego was all wrinkled and crushed. So, I put her in the corner and gave her a sippy-cup of apple juice.
“Listen here, dumbass,” I said to her. “You are one of many. You are one of millions. You are a file on a computer. The only person who saw your shit had a soggy tuna fish sandwich for lunch and they gave your story exactly 3.25 seconds of semi-serious thought.”*
She may or may not have understood me. Now, I keep her around for momentary bursts of unbridled enthusiasm and optimism, but otherwise she gets nothing but a wary eye from me.
After my first rejection I attended a Submission Party (wow, that name really brings up a different image than ten grad students sitting in a fluorescent classroom, right?). The editor of a top literary magazine had a Q&A with us about submissions from both ends (again, not what it sounds like) and he blew my mind (lol).
In all seriousness, here was his advice: make a spreadsheet of one hundred magazines and submit to them. Have at least fifteen stories out at a time.
Say what? That seemed insane! As a person who spent two months submitting one story to one magazine I hard-core balked at this. I didn’t know how to start, I was afraid, that one rejection really hurt, etc., etc.
But then I girded up my loins (see here how to gird up your loins) and got it done.
I’ll fast forward through the painful formatting process, (see here) and the exhausting and initially confusing search for the “right” lit mags for me (here’s a fine starting point), and the deep depression brought on by the realization that my work doesn’t fit horror or literature markets. Let’s just ignore all of that because that’s a story for a different day. Now, in 2017, I have a spreadsheet of one hundred (and seven!) magazines, ninety-eight submissions, sixty-two rejections, and four small publications.
The first rejections hurt a little. The next ones hurt a little less. It ebbs and flows. Some days and some magazines hurt more than others. Early on, I read a series of articles about collecting rejections instead of acceptances and decided to gamify the whole thing. Now, when I get rejected, I yell “Ding ding ding” and shake an (imaginary) silver bell. I text “Ding ding ding!” to my friends and my husband and my mom and they text me back “Ding ding ding!” along with little party-time emoji’s. Congratulations! Good job! Rejection party! Ding ding ding!
It’s all very upbeat.
Nice people and moms pat me on the head and say “Oh, honey, all that focus on rejection doesn’t seem right,” because they are worried that I will feel bad. And I do. But! There is a (slightly depressing) acceptance now rather than a cut-to-the-core feeling of personal rejection. There is that small satisfaction of getting closer to an imaginary goal. Sure, I sniffle into my tea/beer/wine/kombucha sometimes, but it doesn’t hurt as bad. And there’s always that little hidden possibility that someday, maybe someone will have a tasty lunch (a fresh tuna melt on a toasted sourdough roll with the perfect amount of red onion and tomato) and see something in my work that they like…and they’ll send me a rejection letter that is friendly and encouraging instead of form.
Har har. We all know what the real goal is…but shhhhh, don’t wake the baby.
So, if you want to join me in this golden utopia of rejection, come on down. Set yourself a goal. Get your favorite stories edited, triple proofread, and formatted. Write a simple cover letter and third person bio. Make a submission spreadsheet. And get it done, dudes.
Ding ding ding!
*This is an overstatement for the dubious purpose of humor. Literary magazines employ incredibly thoughtful, careful, and hardworking folk. I know, I’ve met some of them.
Image source MyLSB.com.
Bron Treanor is a contributing writer at Café Américain and a third-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.