Zen and the Art of Getting Rejected
How reframing short story rejections can lead to publishing success.
(This article was published in slightly different form in The Innovation.)
If, like me, you write short stories, you probably submit your work to literary journals. And, like me, you probably know the feeling of rejection all too well. We are not alone. The last time I checked the publishing resource Duotrope, there were 40 literary journals that accepted literally zero stories over the past 12 months. ZERO! We would expect this from some of the “glossy” journals like The New Yorker and The Paris Review—that is, journals without a ton of space for fiction—but we also see journals like The Missouri Review, Granta, American Short Fiction, and Kenyon Review on the list. And even smaller journals show up, such as Salt Hill, Five Points, and New Ohio Review.
And it gets worse. These journals (again, according to Duotrope) received nearly 10,000 submissions during these 12 months. Truly an unbelievable statistic.
Of course, no literary journal really accepts zero submissions, so let’s round way up and assume these top journals accept 1% of their admissions. Most short story writers submit any one story to several journals simultaneously. So here’s the question: How many submissions to top literary journals must a writer make to come close to a 50–50 chance (on average) of getting published?
The answer? 69 journals! That’s right: submitting to 69 journals gives the average writer a 50.02% chance of getting published (assuming 1% acceptance rate). (If you’re interested in my math, let me know.) All of which is to say, if you’re going to submit your stories (or creative essays) to top journals, you better be prepared for rejection.
Like I said, you’re not alone.
You’ve probably heard some of these famous rejection stories (this is a tiny sample, in no particular order): Stephen King’s Carrie was rejected 30 times before Doubleday gave it a chance. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was turned down—conveniently enough—22 times. Robert Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected 121 times (!). David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress (one of my faves) was rejected 54 times. James Joyce’s story collection Dubliners was rejected 18 times. Atlantic Monthly said that Kurt Vonnegut’s short story about the bombing of Dresden was not quite “compelling enough for final acceptance” (sound familiar?)—this story went on to become Vonnegut’s masterwork Slaughterhouse-Five.
You may have heard the story of Chuck Ross, who in the 1970s retyped Jerzy Kosinki’s Steps (1968) and sent it to 14 top publishers and 13 agents. All 27 rejected the manuscript. We can assume these publishers/agents didn’t realize they were reading a National Book Award–winning bestseller. (Here’s my source; the numbers vary; here’s a discussion on Ross’s efforts.)
Over the past year or so of running Submitit, I’ve been lucky enough to work with some fabulous short story writers. They’ve been published in a number of journals, including ZYZZYVA, Copper Nickel, Ecotone, Los Angeles Review, PANK, Glimmer Train, Narrative, Greensboro Review, Juked, Carve, New England Review, Summerset Review, The Collagist, and more—all reputable journals, some elite. Many of these writers are contest and award winners (multiple Pushcart Prizes on my list). These are all successful and accomplished writers who have been perfecting their craft for years. And they all expect rejections. It is quite simply part of the publishing game.
So it’s time to embrace these inevitable rejection notes. Here are some strategies:
Don’t take the rejection personally.
Sometimes, a story may not work for a journal’s specific needs at the moment it is read (maybe the journal is looking for a light story, a dark story, something short, something long, a love story, the opposite of a love story, etc.), or perhaps the journal is simply out of space for a given issue. Sometimes a story might not appeal to a particular editor’s taste. Sometimes an editor may simply not be in the right mood for a story—that is, it could be a matter of bad luck (I’ve heard that editor’s on an empty stomach pass on more stories than editors after lunch). Finally, you might simply not be submitting your story to the right literary journals. If you’re just tossing your story out there, without researching specific journals, you’re going to get a ton of rejections. (Of course, Submitit is here to help on this last point.)
Change the way you think about rejections, and set rejection goals.
Think of rejections not as failures but rather as small steps toward an acceptance. Writers often talk about hitting a certain daily word count (1,000 words seems to be the number du jour (literally)). Try setting a similar goal for rejections in a year. The number of rejections you receive is directly proportional to the number of times you submit, and the number of times you submit is directly proportional (in the long run) to the number of times you’ll get published.
I recently read about one successful writer who shoots for 100 rejections a year. Any fewer, and she’s not doing enough submitting. A writer I work with at Submitit posts her rejections to her Instagram page. That’s the idea! Stop dreading these things, and start celebrating them. Rejections suggest you’re heading in the right direction.
Come up with a rejection ritual.
When I get a rejection note, I allow myself a 5-minute pity party. I punch a little punching bag. I curse the journal (shall you not be anthologized this year, evil journal!). Then, after my pity party, I mentally thank the literary gods for bringing me one step closer to my rejection goals. I quickly note the rejection on my spreadsheet and delete the email (I don’t want the rejection hanging around). Finally, I try to think of some way to reframe the rejection and turn it into something positive. Here are some ideas: Treat yourself to a used book. Call your mom. Have a shot (but just a shot!) of whiskey. In other words, find something to help reframe the rejection. And then start writing again.
Learn from your rejections. If you’re not in a university writing program or part of a writing group, you’re probably not getting a ton of feedback on your work. While I do think it’s important to get notes and ideas from other writers, especially ones you trust (hint: Submitit offers several editing services), I know this isn’t always possible. Rejections can give you at least an idea of how your story is being received by others.
As I’ve hopefully made clear above, rejections often don’t mean much at all (they are often questions of space, taste, timing, mood, etc.). But if one of your stories is getting nothing but form rejections, especially a story you’ve sent out to 10 or more journals, this could be a sign. Consider a revision.
Take advantage of the passage of time. Since you’ve probably waited months and months (and months and months) before getting many of your rejections, definitely go back and read your story again. I often talk to writers about the importance of putting a story “in the oven” before submitting. Make it disappear. Get it out of your mind. You need to stay away from your story long enough to be able to read it with fresh eyes. (I read somewhere that Zadie Smith sets her work aside for a year before sharing it with anyone.) Having a story sit in a bunch of slush piles is an accidental way of accomplishing exactly this. A bunch of rejections may be a clue that you were sending out an uncooked story. Read it again, make changes, and try anew.
Believe in yourself. Rejections will either make you stronger or drive you crazy (or a little of both, but hopefully more of the former). You must believe in your work if you’re going to succeed in the world of short story publishing. If you’re feeling bad about rejections, go back to the drawing board. Read for inspiration. Work on your craft. Take a writing class. Rejections can be a test of your commitment to writing. If you truly love writing short stories, if it’s hard to imagine doing anything else, and if you’re planning to submit your stories to literary journals, then you must have strength and resilience. Don’t let rejections bring you down.
Writing and submitting short stories to literary journals means getting rejected. Rejections are simply part of the journey. I hope the above helps you navigate these little setbacks and turn them into milestones on the path to publishing success. Best of luck!
— Erik Harper Klass is the founder of Submitit, the WORLD’S FIRST full-service submissions company. He has published stories and essays in a variety of journals, including New England Review, Summerset Review, and Open: Journal of Arts and Letters, and he has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes.