How to cope with rejection; choosing reputable poetry contests
ONLINE COLUMN: Writing Q&A
Published: May 12, 2009
|Q: As a young writer who's been at it for four years, I'm wondering how to cope with rejection. Although I have had one short story accepted at a respected literary magazine, I find the relentless rejection—especially to my novel—very discouraging. Do you have any tips on how to not let it get you down? |
A: The writer's life is riddled with rejection. It comes from editors and agents, contest administrators, granting institutions, and arts organizations. With enough rejection, your eyes can glaze over at the form letter addressed simply "dear writer," and the sight of a stuffed-full mailbox can sink an otherwise bright day. Even writers with naturally tough skin can get down after the hundredth "thank you, but this just isn't right for us." If you're in this for the long haul, you need to find a way keep those feelings in check.
It may help to expect rejection. This may sound pessimistic, but it's not. Rejection is realistic. Look at the numbers: Let's say a journal receives a hundred submissions a month during their nine month reading period and they publish eight short stories in each issue, with two issues each year. Sixteen writers get good news from that journal, while 884 receive rejections. Many popular journals receive a thousand submissions a month with only a slight increase in the number of publications. You can see how the ratio quickly skews in favor of rejection. If you're not waiting in anticipation—lwith everything in a holding pattern—until you get that notice, the rejection won't sting quite as much.
The trouble with rejection is that it's hard to turn it into something productive. Rejection means one of two hard truths and determining which is the case for any given submission isn't an easy task. It may be that your strong work hasn't met the right editor yet. Submissions are rejected for many reasons. At a journal, your submission may have been in the pool of ten that were whittled down to eight. An agent may be impressed with your work but not enthusiastic enough about it to feel he can properly represent it. Or a publishing house may have released something very similar to your submission recently. This may be little solace as the postal worker nears your house with a fist full of self-addressed stamped envelopes, but it might help you continue to send your work out into the world.
Of course, rejection may be coming because your fiction simply isn't up to snuff and isn't ready to be published. Make sure you're sending out your strongest work. Revise over and over. Show it to trusted readers for feedback. When you think you're "done," let it sit awhile and then revise it again. Even after you start sending your work out, revisit it occasionally with an eye for revision. You may find the time between submitting it and receiving rejections gives you new insight. It may not be the gem you once thought.
Whether hoarding the rejection letters in a file, tacking them up on the wall, or tossing them in the trash, the savvy writer sees if there's anything to be learned from a rejection first. Form rejections may not be particularly helpful, but if a note has been scrawled at the bottom of a form letter or if someone took the time to write a more personal note, there may be valuable advice. Look at the comments objectively and see if you agree. If a rejection mentions the end of your novel "didn't settle well enough for us," reconsider the ending through the prism of that comment. You may agree and revise. Or you may not and continue to send that same draft out. But use the opportunity to reconsider elements you may have been taking for granted.
While your fiction submissions are piled on the desks of agents or filed away in the slush pile, make sure you're writing. Waiting is only guaranteed to be productive and rewarding if you use it as an opportunity to create.
Q: I entered a poetry contest and learned that my poem is a semi-finalist and that it can be published in their anthology for a fee. Is this common?
A: That letter naming you as a semi-finalist and praising your work may be flattering, but don't write off that check just yet. Scammers know what writers want: to hear their poem is great and to see their work in print. That title of "semi-finalist" loses some of its luster when it's applied to all or most of the thousands of writers who entered. The real motive of such contests is to make money—not recognize true talent. (That fee multiplied by thousands really adds up.) No real selection based on merit has gone into such a process. It's just a poem publishing mill available to anyone with cash.
Scams can be hard to detect when you're starting out and this gets even more complicated because many legitimate contests do require fees. How do you tell the difference? Legitimate contests state their reading fees up front. You include your fee when you submit your entry. And the fees are usually reasonable given the prize. It's common to pay $5 to $15 for a contest offering a $1,000 top prize. Still, that practice alone doesn't mean a contest is above board. Always pay attention to the sponsoring organization. Is the contest connected to a well-established organization or journal? One run by a reputable literary journal may garner you some prize money and a legitimate publication—one you don't have to fund yourself.
--Posted May 12, 2009
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.
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