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.