How to Fail, Part 5: Rejections, Rejections, Rejections

I’ve talked about why failing so hard, why we aren’t failing enough, talent vs. hard work, and success.

Not that I get a huge number of comments on a post or anything, but I got a lot fewer comments on the success post than I did on anything else.  People like to talk smack about their least favorite writers.  I did.  I’ve been thinking about it lately, though, and I’m starting to see it as an ugly thing.  Honest assessment and criticism are one thing, but making fun of someone who can’t fight back is another, and I’m trying to do be done with it.  I hope I got some other people thinking about it, anyway.  You don’t create success in your own work by being jealous of someone else’s.

But on to rejections!

I hope it’s pretty obvious where I’m leading here:  send out your work and get it rejected already.

The benefits of being accepted are pretty obvious.  There are pitfalls to being accepted, too, like signing a bad contract, but those pitfalls are outside of the scope of what I want to talk about here.  Just know that success leads to money, and there are always problems with money, and you should take those as seriously as a newlywed couple should but so rarely do take their money problems.

But let’s say you get rejected.

I mean, what are the chances?

I could guesstimate here, but I’m not going to:  I’m going to direct you to the excellent website Duotrope’s Digest.  It’s a website that helps authors–especially short fiction and poetry authors–track different markets, that is, places to get your stuff published.  It tells you what markets apply to your genre of work, what the pay rates are, whether the markets are taking submissions, how long your submission has been at a given market, and a lot of other data, like each market’s acceptance rate.

For example, I’m looking at an online market for science fiction that pays pro rates, that is, over five cents a word.  It’s called Lightspeed.  As of today, their acceptance rate is .18%.

That means the average writer would have to send at least 500 stories to Lightspeed before getting accepted.

Before I send you running for the tequila, keep in mind that’s still a lot better than your chances at winning a major prize at the lottery, and getting published in a pro-level market is a major prize.

On the other hand, there’s another online market listed for science fiction called Spectra Magazine.  They don’t pay anything.  As of today, their acceptance rate is 10%.  The average writer would have to send ten stories before getting accepted.

Again, a lot better than the lottery.

Two things to note here:

1)  Even non-paying markets don’t take most of the work that is sent to them.  Even if you’re only sending work to non-paying markets, you better have ten pieces out in the mail if you want to  succeed at all.  If you’re a new writer, you should probably bump that up by at least 20%, to twelve or so for markets with the same acceptance rate as Spectra–and if you’re going to hit the pro markets, I recommend having a lot more pieces out than that.

2)  It’s probably a good idea to become a better-than-average writer.

How do you do that?


How on earth do rejections make you a better-than-average writer?

Remember that discussion we had about talent vs. hard work?  That’s right.  If pure talent isn’t going to take you where you want to go, it has to be something else.  You’ll be doing the writing–steadily working toward your 10 million words–but you also need to learn a few other things.

Here’s what you’re going to learn from rejections:

  • How to survive rejections. Your first rejections are going to just kill you. But then you’ll have days when you get two rejections in one day and it’ll just kill you–but those one-rejections days are just part of the business. (I’ve had five-rejection days; they still just kill me.)
  • The importance of professionalism. You’ll get a rejection, and it’ll just kill you, and you’ll go back and read your cover letter and opening of your story and realize that it’s formatted wrong, has a ton of typos, and you put the wrong market’s name on the cover letter…and it’ll kill you, because you realize, “No wonder they think I’m an idiot.”
  • The sky is the limit. You’ll send your work to places you’re sure you’ll get accepted at–and you won’t, and it’ll just kill you. Then you’ll send something else to the same market and get accepted, and you’ll start thinking, “What if I’d sent it somewhere tougher?” and it’ll kill you:  you can always get rejected at your dream market and then move on to other markets.
  • How to take (and treasure) criticism. You’ll get form rejections and it’ll just kill you because you just want to know what they didn’t like, okay?!? Then you’ll get a personal rejection, and it’ll kill you because they’re wrong, they’re just wrong about your and your story. Then you’ll get to the point that when people send you personal rejection, it’ll kill you because they’re right, so right. And you’ll rewrite the story and send it to the next market–and it’ll get accepted.
  • What the right markets for you are. You’ll get a rejection and it’ll kill you, because nobody appreciates your talent. And then you’ll get a rejection and it’ll kill you, because you go back and read some of the work that market publishes, and their pieces are all worse than yours. And then you’ll get another rejection and go back and read some more of the work they’re publishing so you can sneer at it, and it just kills you because you realize that that market, even though it doesn’t say so in their guidelines, would never, never publish the piece you sent them, because they are looking for a specialized subset of what they say they want in their guidelines, and you realize that you wasted their times as well as yours.
  • How to have perspective on that “perfect” story. You’ll get a rejection, and it’ll kill you, because it’s the best story you’ve ever written.  And then you’ll write another story, send it out, and it’ll get rejected, and it’ll kill you, because it’s even better than that other story.  And then you’ll keep on writing, and you’ll realize both those stories were crap, and it’ll kill you, because the stuff you’re writing now is even better, and it’s still getting rejected.  And then one of your earlier stories will get accepted, and you’ll break down in tears, because it’s just too ironic, damn it.

Editors bitch about unprofessional submissions all the time, but you can’t, as a writer, know everything you need to know before you start submitting.  It’s just not possible–no matter how many writing books you read, no matter how much you write, no matter how closely you study the markets and guidelines, there are things you can’t really know until you’ve been rejected more than a few times.

So make those mistakes, learn from them, and move on.

People sometimes talk about “paying dues” with regards to writing.  I hate that.  What dues?  Who’s charging them?  Why do some people get a half-off coupon and not me?

When you’re getting rejected, you’re not paying dues, you’re learning the business.  Writing for publication isn’t just about writing well; you also have to learn how to sell your work, or you’re going to get screwed.  Collecting rejections is a good way to start.

I love my critique group, and I couldn’t survive without them.  They help me get better every time I see them.  I think contests are very cool, very inspiring, and a good way to get feedback.  But a critique group or a non-publishing contest (or, in fact, your mom or spouse or kids or whoever) doesn’t have the same constraints that a publisher does.  Their praise and compliments and even awards aren’t the same thing as a publisher’s acceptances, and they never will be.  Not even a published writer can really tell you for sure whether your stuff is good enough to publish and where–we all judge pieces by our own standards, and our standards aren’t the same as a publisher’s.

If you’re a writer and you want to get published, the only way to know whether you’re making mistakes that will keep you from getting published is to try, and keep trying, to get published.  That means you’re going to get rejected more often than not–but that’s the business.  If you’re not getting rejected, you’re not really doing your job.

Next time:  How to manage your rejections.


How to Fail, Part 4: You Can’t Control Success


A Tale of 100-year-old Scotch

1 Comment

  1. You’re brilliant and right on target. If you don’t get a rejection a day, are you really doing your job? Great post. Your workshop is going to be amazing.

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