Accepting Rejection: The Process of Submission

‘Tis the season of submission!

I am writing letters that all begin “Dear Editors, Please accept my submission” and my students are making flyers that encourage authors and artists to SUBMIT to SCRIBENDI!*

It’s a special time of the year, when I gather pieces determined to be “finished” into a folder and start selecting who I will ask to please consider my submission. This time of the year coincides with the migration of hummingbirds, the bowing heads of sunflowers, and an onslaught of rejection. It is the death of summer.

I remember long ago, before CLMP Submission Manager and Submishmash and Submittable, back when we were a snail mail culture, casting our hope at the post office with slim stack of SASEs. Just before the recession, a rejection cost only 32 cents. I carried a nice rejection from Alaska Quarterly Review next to a four-leaf clover in my wallet. I remember someone had a rabble of rejection letters taped to their bathroom wall, and I thought that was a cool decorating move–way better than caution tape.

Someone, maybe my father, encouraged me to keep my rejections, and I have ever since, in the vague hope that my collection would make sense later.

Ploughshares recently had a blog post to gear up enthusiasm for our autumnal submission. It was filled with tips on process. One read:

5. Keep your rejection slips. This is the life, brothers and sisters. It ain’t pretty, and those rejection slips are your battle scars. Put them in a folder or envelope or drawer or that little box where you used to stash your reefer. Sending your work out is hard. By that I don’t mean that it’s labor-intensive (especially now that more and more outlets are accepting online submissions), but that it’s emotionally draining. You have worked on that story/essay/poem for what? Two months? A year? More? And now you are putting it out there to be judged. Hold on to these little notes as reminders that you are doing your job.

I like the idea of keeping those notes to remind myself that I am doing part of my job, though I know that many writers are into rejection fantasy–the ability to say “My manuscript was rejected 47 times before it was finally picked up and now look how successful it is!” a la The Help.

Those writers, I assume, keep rejection letters for a good laugh later in life:

“I kept the rejection letters I got when I was applying for jobs as a recent graduate. One investment bank that had turned me down was our lead underwriter when we went public. The company was host for a party to celebrate the closing. Everyone was toasting one another and giving speeches.

When my turn came, I told everyone to read what was under their plates. They found a laminated copy of the rejection letter their bank had sent me 17 years earlier. We had a good laugh.” – HAMID MOGHADAM; as told to PATRICIA R. OLSEN

In On Writing, Stephen King says that at fourteen, “The nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing.”

That sounds like a metaphor, but still, I bet King has a good laugh when tells that story over cocktails at haunted house slumber parties.

Others say that the pile of “not for us” is some kind of red badge–you’re brave and this wilting spike of rejections symbolizes your courage, determination, and discipline.

When I look at my Gmail folder of rejections (let’s quit pretending they’re physical), I don’t see some rejection fantasy or symbol of my commitment to trudge along. I suppose it’s more record-keeping–who I haven’t heard from yet, who I already sent a version of that piece to–so I’m not sure how to best own my “thanks for the opportunity to read your work, but,” how to let the submission process fill me with pride, how best to be vain in my rejections.

What’s your take on stockpiling no’s?

Also, out of curiosity, does anyone know how the “keep your rejection letters” started?

* We had to talk about an unfortunate visual pairing. In graphic design as well as lit mag management, the language of dominance and hierarchy controls our vocabulary. And I’ve been desperately trying to catch the typos before they go out: “Scribendi is now accepting student submission.”

14 Comments

  • Brett says:

    I once covered an entire wall with rejections. I still have all of them, though I often prefer to send subs online, as it saves the plain damn hassle of doing envelopes and SASEs, etc.

    I do miss the Post Office, though, and it’s always fun to open the mailbox and see an envelope and immediately judge your chances of acceptance by how thick/thin it is. Perhaps my favorite piece of mail I’ve ever received was a SASE I received that had “acceptance” on the cover.

    • Amaris Amaris says:

      I would have loved getting that letter in the mail. Someone was just talking to me about getting a personalized “thank you” card from their work and how nice it was that they took the time. Writing “acceptance” on the SASE seems like the same kind of personal, human gesture.

  • Kathryn says:

    I, too, keep my rejections in a gmail folder, and I rarely look at them (though I do open up the folder in my editing and publishing class and we look at some of them when we talk about communicating with authors). I don’t know. I’m getting better at letting the rejections slide off, but if often depends on the mood I’m in when I get one—and how well my writing has gone lately. I do keep track of how many rejections each piece has, but only as part of a spreadsheet to make sure I’m not sending a piece out to the same place twice. I’m much more interested in knowing how long it’s been since I’ve had something picked up (and I find this number infinitely more depressing most of the time).

    • Amaris Amaris says:

      It all depends on my day, my week, how long it’s been since I’ve been outside, the moon and the tide, whether my cat still loves me when I get home, and if I’m currently working on something that I’m more excited about and think has more energy.

  • Laura says:

    Last time I moved, I threw out all but my nice rejections. I don’t need them physically–I have a list of all the places that have rejected each story in my computer. I’m always interested to see how long the list will get before the piece is accepted. I think the most places to reject one of my stories before acceptance so far is about fifteen. This is not to say that I don’t have stories that have been passed over (in various forms) twenty or thirty times. Every ten rejections or so I tend to revise.

  • Melissa says:

    My very first submission was a nice reject, and I kept that. I don’t think I’ll keep any others, unless it has an encouraging word from an editor I really admire or something. It seems like keeping them or not would totally depend on the writers’ personality. I already obsess enough about being an absolute failure at everything without having to stare more failures in the face every time I pee.

    “I bet King has a good laugh when tells that story over cocktails at haunted house slumber parties.” HA!

  • I don’t know who started the keeping of rejections trend, but I do keep mine. Because I’m completely anal about data, I actually have a spreadsheet with title, names, dates, and rejection comments. This way I can search to see which piece went where and what was said about it. It’s easy to spot trends if the comments are constructive.

    This may seem extreme, but I recently got to use my spreadsheet in a great way. Someone at a higher level recommended I submit to a specific person in their team. I’d already had a conversation with that person two years earlier and could reference what was said, especially the “we invite you to submit again” part. Still waiting to hear back. 

  • Cathie Smathie says:

    Love this post!
    As a 15-year-old I submitted my poorly crafted romance novel to Bantam Dell. I was so excited for my first rejection letter I didn’t even research where/how to submit. I framed my “dear sir or madam” rejection letter right when it came in the mail…it confirmed that I was part of the world of writers haha.

    • My girl-crush on you just intensified…. :-)

    • Amaris says:

      A whole romance novel, wow!

      When I was kid, I wrote letters to the presidents about our need to save the Amazon rainforest. I liked writing Clinton better than Bush Sr., until one of Clinton’s people wrote me back with tips on how to construct a better argument. But I saved many of their letters. I bet I still have one from Clinton somewhere, come to think of it…

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