It’s a numbers game, they tell us. It’s all subjective, they say. Rejection isn’t personal. It doesn’t mean anything. Keep trying. You never know.
Ninety-nine and a half times out of a hundred, you won’t know why your work was rejected. You’ll receive an email that may not even get your name right—I often receive emails that begin, “Dear P.”—followed by stock language: “Thank you for the opportunity to read your work. Unfortunately, it does not meet our needs at this time. We wish you the best of luck placing it elsewhere. Sincerely, . . .”
On rare occasions, they give you a reason. They don’t like second person narrative. The topic is too controversial. The story violates one of their taboos, like animal abuse or graphic sex. It’s too timely, or not timely enough. The editorial team just accepted something on the same topic. Your main character is too odd, too quirky, not relatable. Or it’s almost there, but not quite, so polish the story up and submit it again (except you already polished it until it gleamed, so you have no idea what this means or where they’re seeing smudges).
Of course, this is what you get if you’re submitting a piece for publication. If you’re submitting a novel to an agent, don’t expect anywhere near this much info. When agents reject your work, they like to add a line about how subjective the process is; apparently, that’s supposed to make you feel better (“I absolutely despise orange brocade and chartreuse leather together in a lace-edged bustier with tin tassels, but hey, this is all subjective, and somebody else might just loooove it!”).
And yet, writers are counseled to keep trying, keep submitting, keep sending out the work we’ve slaved over that all those other places have already rejected, because it’s all subjective and you never know.
Thing is, you never do know.
In the spring of 2013, I woke up on a Saturday morning with an odd story idea. I fed the cats, made tea, and plunked myself in the recliner with my laptop. Four hours later, I had a first draft of a story I titled, “The Gift.”
I knew, of course, that first drafts always suck. Mine was no exception. So I edited and shaped and revised. When it was the best I could come up with, I sent it out. Not long after that, I received my first rejection. In what would become a pattern, I let the story sit fr a while; then, I tweaked it and sent it out again—only to meet with another rejection.
That summer, when the flow of my freelance work had slowed to the tiniest trickle, I decided that the time had come. I’d been saying for years that I wanted to write stories and novels, but my excuse had always been, “I’m so busy! I don’t have time!” And I’d always assured myself that I’d do it someday.
But right then, I had nothing but time. I knew from experience that this slow spell wouldn’t last forever. From one angle, it was a drought; from another, it was an opportunity, a glut of spare time I might not see again for a long, long time.
The moment was upon me. If I really wanted to be a writer, it was time to make a decision: either commit seriously to writing as a profession, or set it aside as an occasional hobby. Shelve the notion of writing a novel “someday.”
Because “someday” was now.
It was time to pass or play.
I decided to play.
As part of my new commitment to my writing career, I joined a local writing group. The first story I shared with them was “The Gift.” They loved it, which was encouraging, though not particularly helpful.
I was also working on other pieces, short fiction as well as the novel I’d been tinkering with for years. Every now and then, I’d send something out. In the fall of 2013, one of my stories won second place in an online publication, and another sold to an anthology. With what can only be described as breathtaking naïveté, I decided this writing thing wasn’t going to be as hard as everyone made it out to be.
As the years passed, I finished my first novel and worked on a novella and several short stories. I submitted to various publications and contests, meeting with some (very) modest success.
Yet somehow, I always came back to “The Gift.” I’d send it out to a contest or publication, and the response was inevitably a form rejection. I wondered whether I simply had different taste than the places I was submitting to—and yes, I read the selections available on their websites before submitting—or if there really was something fundamentally wrong with the story that I wasn’t seeing.
In the winter of 2019, I signed up for an online fiction writing course with Zulema Summerfield. Part of the class involved submitting work for critique by Zulema and the other students. I submitted “The Gift,” figuring that if eight other people looked at it, maybe somebody could figure out the problem. Their comments included both praise and fairly minor suggestions, some of which I incorporated into the next draft.
In the spring, I applied to a very prestigious writers conference. I was planning to work on my current novel-in-progress, but since I’m still developing the plot, I couldn’t produce the required synopsis for the application. When I telephoned the conference director about this dilemma, she suggested that for my writing sample, I should use my strongest work. If accepted, I could then swap that out for the new novel. I scrolled through my short fiction and decided to use “The Gift” as my writing sample.
Six weeks later, I received the conference’s response. They received 219 submissions, but could take only 124. I’ll spare you doing the math: they took 56% of the applicants. My application—with “The Gift”—didn’t even make it into the top half of the applicant pool. (When I told Zulema about this rejection, she responded, “But I love that story!” Sadly, she wasn’t affiliated with the conference, so she couldn’t vote.)
To add to the fun, I’d submitted “The Gift” to other publications that spring, which meant that within a few weeks of the conference rejection, I received a flurry of other rejections. Again, I wondered if there was something wrong with this story that only editors could see, in the way that only dogs can hear certain whistles.
In early September, 2019, just as I was about to fix dinner, I checked my email on my phone and saw a new message. I clicked. The subject line was simply “Re: [Typehouse Literary Magazine] The Gift.”
The truth was that I’d forgotten I’d submitted “The Gift” to that contest. To me, it seemed like a good fit, but what the hell did I know?
I flopped down on the sofa, because who wants to read bad news standing up? One of the cats settled herself on the back of the sofa, and I began to read.
The salutation was “Dear P.” which, as we know, is never a good sign. I kept going anyway: “Thank you for your submission to Typehouse Literary Magazine’s 2019 2nd Biennial Short Fiction Contest.” I braced myself for the inevitable line about how they had had so many entries and it had been a difficult decision, but. . . .
Instead, I saw this:
We are pleased to let you know your story “The Gift” has won 1st place in this year’s contest, and will be noted as such on social media, the webpage and the magazine. This also includes publication in the magazine and a $175 prize.
I shrieked so loudly the cat fell off the sofa. My much-rejected story had won. It won first prize. It would be published. In a literary magazine. It would bring in cash.
It had been judged worthy.
The judge of the contest was Venita Blackburn. I immediately looked her up. Let me tell you: she has credentials. Among other things, she has published—twice—in the Paris Review, and that’s not even the first publication on the list on her website bio. Her work has won multiple awards. She’s an assistant professor of creative writing. She’s the real deal.
And she chose my story as the winning entry.
The cats were milling about, demanding their dinner, but I had one more thing to check. I logged into Duotrope, the website I use for tracking submissions, and I counted all the times I’d submitted this story to a contest or publication.
The submission to Typehouse Literary Magazine was #17.
In days to come, as I read and reread that email, as I called friends and family to announce the news, as I reread “The Gift,” as I tweeted and texted and emailed about this unexpected triumph, I would go back to that list on Duotrope. The first submission was May 24, 2013. At least three of the submissions were to publications which have since closed. I didn’t send this story out at all in 2016. Maybe I’d given up on it, at least for a while.
But its time has come.
The unanswerable question remains: why now? What was different this time? Did I fix a fatal flaw in my most recent revision? Was it a matter of timing?
Or was it simply that my story clicked with Ms. Blackburn’s preferences? Assuming that most of the submissions were well-written, why did mine rise to the top? Was it the subject matter? Did she feel a connection to one or more of my characters?
I’ve seen the publication proof; it includes a line entitled “Venita’s thoughts” in which she states that my story “possessed the classic narrative grip, urging the reader on and on in wonder and scandal.” Does it? Did I really write a story with these attributes?
I suppose I could send her an email and ask why she chose my story, but I doubt I will. It feels disrespectful, or maybe a bit too much like begging: Tell me all the reasons my story was so wonderful! Suffice to know that “The Gift” apparently did not have a fatal flaw after all. It just needed to reach the right reader. That this right reader just happened to be the judge of a literary contest to which I’d submitted was something I couldn’t possibly know or control.
In the end, a writer can control only two things: the writing, and where it’s submitted. If you make the writing the best you can, and you keep submitting it, you increase the chances that your story will reach its reader.
Because maybe the 17th time will be the charm.
You never know.
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Update (9/25/19): the new issue of Typehouse Literary Magazine–including “The Gift”–is now available for preorder! (Note: I had nothing to do with designing the cover, but I absolutely love it!)