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Criticism, Publishing, The Writer's Life, Writings

A Little More About Submissions

A few days after writing my “sour grapes” post on who actually reads your submissions, Poets & Writers ran a column by Benjamin Percy on perseverance amid the tidal wave of rejections most writers receive. Although he doesn’t get into first readers or the process by which stories are chosen for publication, he does make a strong point about not allowing rejections to stop you from submitting.

Percy uses a boxing metaphor—Rocky Balboa, in fact—to make his case. It helps, he intimates, to have a pugnacious and competitive attitude about being published. You must keep in mind that most literary journals that are worth being published in receive thousands of submissions per year, sometimes per month, so that your odds of having your story accepted, even if it is a stellar piece, are minimal. His own story, “In the Rough,” was rejected thirty-nine times before being accepted, and eventually was selected as an Honorable Mention by Salman Rushdie for the 2008 Best American Short Stories.

In P&W’s monthly feature, “The Practical Writer,” Percy continues the boxing imagery:

I have a friend from grad school who gave up on an extraordinary story after a single rejection; I’m not surprised, but I’m sorry to report that he’s no longer writing. Others aren’t quite so sensitive, but after five rejections, seven, ten, they’re usually ready to throw in the towel. Each SASE that arrives in your mailbox, I know, is like a fist to the face. But you’ve got to see through the blood—you’ve got to keep breathing raggedly through those broken ribs—you’ve got to remember the thirty-ninth rejection.

There are so many reasons that SASE might have shown up in your mailbox. Sometimes it’s because the story wasn’t strong enough, but sometimes it isn’t. Regardless, you must develop around your heart a callus the size of a speed bag.

I have always understood this advice and have tried to follow it—sort of. I’ve had periods where I’ve sent out reams of stories, but also months where I’ve sent out maybe two or three. No more. I’m going hardcore now. A couple of weeks ago I sent out fifty submissions. Already have five rejections. And I’m working on the next batch.

If perseverance is what they want (in addition to great writing, of course), perseverance is what they’ll get.

Ed. Note: An interview with Salman Rushdie is in the Paris Review.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


8 thoughts on “A Little More About Submissions

  1. Great post! I feel so inspired now. And aggressive. It’s so weird… I don’t know what exactly was stopping me from submitting before, but it doesn’t feel like a big deal now that I’m doing it. And this will sound like a lie but it’s totally true: at this point I don’t care about rejection/acceptance. I just want to keep submitting. Another weird thing: I just sent a few stories to a former professor who is writing me a grad school reference letter. I care way more about what she thinks of my work and about getting into an MFA program than I do about getting published. I know this whole attitude won’t last. I think I’m already on the plane, though, and there’s no getting off in mid air. Perserverance? Let’s do this thing.

    Posted by moondaria | October 17, 2009, 1:15 PM
  2. This is good advice. When I was submitting short stories, I sent out two every month. Wrote the rough draft for two new ones, and edited two more. It got to the point where I was so focused on the quality of my current pieces that I hardly noticed the rejection. Really, who has time?

    Posted by uninvoked | October 17, 2009, 2:06 PM
  3. How many people say they want to write something, and then never do? Of those who do, how many never finish what they write? Of the amount who finish, how many proof and edit, and do so with some amount of expertise and ability? Of that amount, how many actually submit? Of those who submit, how many resubmit and resubmit their work into the market place? If you look at it from that perspective, then you might start to feel more optimistic about being published.

    Of course, it would make things more pleasant if the magazine and journal market wasn’t a dinosaur waiting to be buried.

    Posted by ssternberg | October 18, 2009, 1:40 AM
  4. Stewart is absolutely right; how many go through all the steps? Certainly I didn’t. But shortly after I actually began the full process, what happened? Glimmer Train, Mirror Dance and who knows what to follow? Stewart gets a big I Told You So in his column. I still lack your discipline, Joe, but I’m working on it.

    Posted by jonzech | October 18, 2009, 3:11 AM
  5. Oh, and…Salman Rushdie is at once the greatest man on earth and the worst. He was married to the single most beautiful woman on the planet, Padma Lakshmi. And then they divorced.

    Posted by jonzech | October 18, 2009, 3:19 AM
  6. Great comments, all.

    Bottom line is that once you understand how impersonal the submission process really is, there’s no reason to fear it. It is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it is what it is, and writers must learn to deal with it.

    Posted by jpon | October 19, 2009, 2:01 AM
  7. I agree that anticipation is worse than realization in this case. Something about sending away those envelopes sounds very hard — until you are actually doing it. Then it gets easier. But as soon as you stop sending, it feels hard again. That’s frustrating.

    I’m a much slower submitter. I sent out a wave of things in may, two things in the summer, and nothing since. But I still don’t think my fiction is where I want it, and I’m in a fiction workshop right now — hopefully over the winter break (from school) I can revise my 10 or so stories I’ve written this semester (most are flash).

    Congrats on your flash publication. Looks like Vestal is somewhere I might try to submit. The look of the site is very, very surprising. Is it a predominantly literary publication, or do they publish a lot of genre fiction? I don’t tend to enjoy genre fiction, but I’ve notice my flash fiction tends to end up being more, hmm, magical. Perhaps it’s just very nonlinear sometimes.

    Posted by John Gilmore | November 16, 2009, 3:29 AM
  8. John, it sounds like your submission strategy is much like mine. I send stories out in waves as well, and then have a hard time motivating myself to do it again for a month or two. I’m working on setting aside a couple of hours on the weekends to send out a few stories, but it’s not a habit yet.

    Re Vestal, they are definitely a literary journal. I haven’t seen much genre in there. Good luck with your submission to them.

    Posted by jpon | November 16, 2009, 12:34 PM

Tahoma Literary Review Now Open for Submissions

TLR is officially open for submissions of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. To find out more about this new (paying) literary journal, please visit us at Tahoma Literary Review.

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