This one goes out to all the new and almost new writers out there beating their heads against a brick wall. Regardless of whether you have a M.F.A, some other degree giving you limited credibility, or no degree at all, your biggest requirement for success is your tolerance level for rejection. If you are more seasoned in your craft, you are no doubt already familiar with the fine art of rejection.
There is nothing quite so disappointing as waiting for something that isn’t going to happen. Months spent anticipating a response that is either not what you expected or not forthcoming at all can be devastating. While this is true of so many things in life, it’s a daily reality for struggling new artists. As a new/emerging writer, I have found there is no easy path to acceptance. In fact, the only way to acceptance is through continued rejection.
The writing comes easily, relatively speaking, that is. It’s the searching for places to publish, the reading of submission guidelines, the submitting itself, that takes hard work. It’s the reading of magazines you aspire to see your own work in that takes time. The really tough part is reading the rejections that inevitably come at the end of it all.
It’s unlikely any great artist ever woke up one morning and found him or herself an overnight success. There’s a process to follow for success. You may think your work is an unparalleled masterpiece, but the reality is that you’re not as good as you think you are. There’s a lot of competition, as there is in any field. Those magazines and writing contests where you submit your work receive a mountain of submissions. The editors have the tiring job of sorting through these and choosing the best work for publication. Many magazines have only a 1-2% acceptance rate. Some of the really prestigious literary magazines accept less than this. There may be a better chance of publication in a smaller, newer, lesser known magazine, but it’s still tough to get your foot in the door as a writer.
That being said, it’s not impossible. Assuming your work is as great as you think it is, there is hope. Follow the process. Start by perfecting your piece before submitting. This may mean putting your work aside for a while to allow time for you to revisit it at another time. Taking the time to proofread, edit, critique, and revise your own writing is as important as the writing itself. Be your toughest critic. Ask someone else to read your work and make suggestions. Select an appropriate place to submit your piece and follow the submission guidelines carefully. No matter how great your piece may be, if you submit to the wrong place or ignore the editor’s guidelines, you’re sabotaging yourself. Do your research. Find the best place to submit a certain piece, read the submissions page several times, and follow the directions. Sometimes it’s as simple as being at the right place at the right time and doing what you’ve been asked to do.
Of course, it’s not really quite that simple. There are those odd times when you send a random piece to a random magazine and it’s quickly accepted. More often than not, though, you’ll find that after doing all the right things, a long-awaited email brings bad news. You are told, “Thank you for sending us your work. However, it is not right for us at this time.” You may wonder, if it’s not right at this time, maybe another time? Do not submit the same piece to the same magazine at another time. Rather, take the time to read several issues of the magazine you are interested in and get a feel for their style. Then you have two choices – adapt your writing to fit their requirements and send them something else, or try to find a different home for your work.
If you are fortunate enough to receive a rejection with a positive tone, be encouraged. This means the magazine editor is open to receiving a variety of types of writing and understands how tough it is to be a writer. A personal note or comment, or suggestions for improvement should be appreciated as much as an acceptance. Take their suggestions seriously – they may lead to future publication. Remember that most editors are writers too, and can relate to what you are trying to accomplish. Also keep in mind that although you may have written hundreds of great poems or stories, the editor receiving your work may have read tens of thousands of pieces, some of which were a waste of time, and others that required tough decisions to be made. Make sure your piece is relevant and polished if you want it to be in the “tough decisions” category.
The only thing more exciting than receiving your first acceptance is receiving the second, and the third, and knowing that there is hope for you as a writer, after all. Be sure to thank the editor for accepting your work. Add their publication to your bio for future submissions. When your list of publications is too long for your bio, you’ll know you’ve reached some measure of success as a writer.
For those who have been struggling for some time to publish that first masterpiece, keep in mind that many great artists were not recognized for their work till after their death. That’s not much consolation, of course, but it raises the question of why we create. It’s obviously not for the money, as there is none. Possibly it’s for the recognition. If it’s money and fame you’re after, chances are you are not a true artist. As with all creative endeavours, writers write because they need to write. They can’t not write. What they hope for is to share their work with others. It may be to inspire, to inform, to entertain, or to reveal certain truths. It may be to commiserate with others or to relate to others or to help people get their minds off their own troubles. Whether the intent is to produce some mind-blowing piece of literary work, or to bring a smile or a tear to someone, or to simply entertain, the writer, like any other artist, aspires to make a contribution to the world. If fame and fortune come as an added bonus, all the better. If not, write anyway. Write for yourself. Write for your family and friends. Write in the hope that you may someday find recognition. Create what you were born to create for its own sake.
Making life as a new writer even more difficult is the fact that many fine literary and genre magazines have closed down. It seems there may be a limited market for poetry and short stories. Perhaps this is the result of technology taking over our time. It is reassuring, however, to see many magazines adapting by going to an online format along with print. Being an elementary teacher as well as a writer, I’ve been disillusioned with the cuts to programs in the Arts Department. Apparently, music, art, drama, and creative writing aren’t quite as important as science, technology, math, and the ability to read and understand non-fiction. In spite of these obstacles to creativity, artists need to persevere to keep their contributions valid in an ever-changing world.
The recipe for success? Start with a good dollop of natural talent, pour in a lot of hard work, stir in an immeasurable amount of patience, dot with a bit of compromise, sprinkle with more than a few dashes of stubbornness, top with a pinch of luck, and add as much rejection as you can tolerate. All that rejection will be guaranteed to leave a bad taste in your mouth, but the end result will be worth it. Somewhere in the bite of rejection you may finally find acceptance.
Ivanka Fear is a retired teacher and a writer from Ontario, Canada. She holds a B.A. and B.Ed., majoring in English and French literature, from Western University. Her poems and short stories appear in or are forthcoming in Spadina Literary Review, Montreal Writes, Spillwords, Commuterlit, Canadian Stories, Adelaide Literary, October Hill, Scarlet Leaf Review, Polar Borealis, Lighten Up, Bewildering Stories, The Sirens Call, Utopia Science Fiction, The Literary Hatchet, Wellington Street Review, Aphelion, Sad Girl Review, and Tales From the Moonlit Path. She has recently completed her first novel.