by Carolyn Martin
Thank you for allowing us to read your poems. We received an exceptional number of very strong submissions … we’re sorry to say we decided not to publish your work. We wish you the best of luck placing it elsewhere.
Sound familiar? I receive dozens of emails like this and still feel an initial punch in the stomach whenever another hits my inbox. When you’ve put your heart and soul into your work, it’s easy to take impersonal words like these personally. However, I’ve finally recognized that rejection is not failure. It’s a part of the publishing game that can teach us a lot about ourselves and our work and can even be a blessing in disguise.
I was curious to know how other VoiceCatcher authors handle rejection, so I asked several to share their experiences. Their answers are as unique as they are.
Elizabeth Stoessl says,
How do I handle rejection? Short answer: poorly. I’ve gotten better at it. It’s particularly hard when one of my darlings is repeatedly declined. But, as form rejections often say, it is NOT a reflection on the work, but on the needs of the publication at the time. And I try to keep that foremost in my mind.
Elizabeth makes an important point: Sometimes our work just doesn’t fit a publication. For instance, several years ago, VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions received a short story we loved – except for the ending. The plot was intriguing, the writing polished; however, the final scene – something out of a Stephen King novel – seemed incongruous. We worked with the author on minor revisions, but she didn’t want to change the final scene. So, we parted company; the author happy with the minor edits we suggested throughout her story, the editors happy, too. A year later, she wrote to tell us that a horror magazine had accepted her story. That publication was the perfect home for her piece.
Linda Strever views rejection as a way to better understand herself. She explains:
I’ve dug deeply into my psyche to explore the emotional cycles that can get triggered in me when I receive a rejection, and I’ve connected with the little girl and the adolescent girl … [who] awaken when a rejection arrives. That inner work has given me many revelations about old stuff that I carry and that I can let go of as an adult … Dealing with rejection head-on instead of sidestepping it or suffering with it has fostered my growth as a writer and as a human being.
Annie Lighthart admits that rejection dredges up a number of feelings for her, but she doesn’t wallow in them:
… I really do allow myself to feel all the disappointment, chagrin, resentment, self-pity, and serious doubts about my poems that set in – but just for the rest of that day. Then I sit down with the poem and take another look at it.
Do any authors go as far as being grateful for rejections?
M, a VoiceCatcher5 and 6 managing editor and former board secretary/treasurer, told me her poem “Salt” was rejected 17 times before it was accepted by Rattle, a publication she highly respects. As she says, “I get down on my knees and sincerely thank those 17 editors. Each rejection forced me to improve the poem, and took me a step closer to what I really wanted.”
Elizabeth admits that she is grateful for rejections once in a while, for example when she’s missed a glaring typo or realizes she could have made the poem better. “The opportunity to take another look,” she says, “often results in positive revisions.”
Annie has a different perspective on gratitude. She says she wishes she could feel grateful for rejections, but that’s not the case. Having her work rejected has “caused an increase in gratitude elsewhere in my life: gratitude for the readers who believed in the poems and encouraged me to send them out in the world, and a doubled gratitude for the journals that have, in the end, accepted some of those rejected poems. So maybe it really goes full circle.”
Since I send out so many simultaneous submissions, I’ve developed the attitude that rejection by one publication frees a poem for acceptance by another. When a rejection comes in, I now sing to myself, “Free at last, free at last, my poem is free at last!” to be considered elsewhere. In some instances, an acceptance finally comes from a publication I’m delighted to be in.
But how do you ease the initial pain of rejection? By understanding the common reasons why editors decline work. Here are five:
- 1. The publication is not a good fit for the style, form or topic of your writing.
If you search through sites like Duotrope® or Poets & Writers, you’ll discover editors define certain styles or forms they prefer. If you send a narrative poem to a journal in love with lyric poetry, you’ve set yourself up for rejection.
Since so many publications now appear on line, the classic suggestion to read an issue before you submit is not difficult. By doing so, you can also determine if you want to be in this publication. Would you be proud to be in a journal that looks like this? Or that publishes these authors with this quality of work? You need to be as discriminating in selecting where to send your work as publications are in deciding what they accept.
- 2. Your piece hasn’t decided what it wants to be when it grows up.
The editors of VoiceCatcher often receive prose pieces that end before they’ve begun – or haven’t quite figured out what they’re really about. The writing might be wonderful, but when there’s no tension or nothing at stake, the work doesn’t deliver.
Likewise, a poem is sometimes over- or under-written. It’s still a draft that needs to be crafted. Submitting a poem before it has matured – in content, language and form – invites a rejection. But the good news is that you have the opportunity to work on it and send it out – again and again.
- 3. You didn’t follow submission guidelines.
Editors say outright, “If you don’t follow our guidelines, we won’t read your work.”
And they mean it! Impress editors by paying careful attention to their requirements – every one of them! That’s your first foot in their door.
- 4. You haven’t sufficiently edited or proofed your work.
Most editors don’t have the time to engage authors in the editorial process, so find someone to edit your work whose literary judgment you trust, and someone who’s an expert at grammar and punctuation to proof your work. These are two different skill sets that need to be applied before you send submissions out.
If you’re in a writing group, make sure your work has been sufficiently vetted through the workshop process. Then, read it aloud to your group. Often, the ear will pick up mistakes the eye misses. If you’re not in a group, read it aloud to a friend, significant other or your cat. You will catch mistakes!
- 5. Editors have their own biases – and your aesthetic doesn’t match theirs.
What one editor rejects, another accepts – happily. That means finding the right editor is as important as finding the right publication – and that’s often out of your control.
Darlene Pagán offers this story:
I once sent two separate editors the same batch of finished poems. When I received a rejection from one, the editor had added a note by hand, which is usually a good sign. The note said, “You have a keen eye for detail but these poems are emotionally overwrought.” The second batch also came back to me with a handwritten note, albeit a rejection. This note said, “Interesting poems but they lack emotion.” Years later, I’m still writing like a madwoman.
Darlene’s madwoman attitude has earned her many acceptances, including one by the prestigious local publisher, Airlie Press. The editors have offered her poetry collection Setting the Fire a home and a 2015 release date.
So the next time you receive a rejection – or to use Submittable’s slightly less abrasive word, a “decline” – look at it with new eyes. What can you do to make your work more powerful? Is it the best version it can possibly be? Where is its real home? What kind of blessing might an initial ”no thanks” bring you down the line? And, remember, no successful writer has ever not been rejected. Welcome to the club!