Writers, it hurts.
I know; I’ve been there, and I’m there now. As I said in an older post, rejections are raining!
The good news about this is that it means I’ve been submitting a lot as of late. The bad news is…Well, there are a number of bad things that fall out of receiving rejections.
Writers, we spend months, years, sometimes decades working on a project, only to have it rejected by agents, editors, and publishers. Our manuscript doesn’t fit their needs, doesn’t arouse interest or curiosity, does not satisfy the editor’s sense of what her readership wants, will not garner “hits”, will not encourage a reader to keep on reading, will not sell.
So we are told, or it is implied.
There is so much to say about rejection, particularly the experience of being repeatedly rejected, that books could be written on the subject. Have they? I’ve seen nary a one.
Rejection can be, if a writer detaches sufficiently to observe himself run its gauntlet, quite fascinating, an experience that evokes feelings that vary greatly in intensity and nature.
And that can be surprisingly subtle!
No sooner does a writer think she has escaped unscathed from rejection then some chance remark or event that alludes to competency or accomplishment sets off what might be termed, kindly, an overreaction. Rarely, if ever, does a writer succeed in not being effected, at all, by rejection.
But the degree to which one is thrown–how one responds to rejection–can vary.
Writers can learn to minimize the damage of rejection–to not allow a rejection to send one’s sails luffing, one’s writing into a windless stall. A writer is wise to discover how to maximize her propulsion, to protect her points of sail.
But all this, of course, is internal work on the part of the writer; skills and insights gained over time through repeated grappling with rejection. What can the outside world do to make this journey easier on the writer, to allow him to keep on sailing, smoothly, swiftly, to protect the creative process of the writer?
A good deal.
The manner in which a manuscript is rejected has much bearing on how a rejection is experienced by a writer. Editors and agents can elevate a rejection from one that confuses, frustrates, or discourages a writer into a rejection that goes down easier, causes less damage, or even–how delightful when this happens–assists or encourages a writer.
These, then, are my tips to editors, to publishers, to anyone who seeks the submissions of creative writers, my nine rights of submitting writers, shared in appreciation for the work that editors perform, and in the hope that the process of rejection can become one that does less damage to a writer’s creative momentum.
1) The right to find the information necessary to submit a manuscript
But one new to submitting her work might be surprised to discover how many publications play hide and seek with writers when it comes to sharing information about submitting. Most magazines do not indulge in this, and many go to great length to make finding this information easy. But there are a few notable publications that make the very act of submitting tricky and time consuming. These are typically well-known, high status publications that, I suspect, hide this information in an attempt to stem the flow of submissions coming in.
Should you find yourself, no matter how long you search a publication’s site, unable to find information on submitting, do this: simply Google, or search, the magazine’s name and “submissions”.
This method is often the fastest!
2) The right to submit without paying a fee
A hot issue as of late.
I am not going to recount the ins and outs of this topic. But, I do feel that writers should not be asked to submit a fee in order to submit a manuscript for review.
My chief reasons are a desire to keep submissions affordable for all and the endeavor of writing in step with other creative fields (does a painter pay to have her canvases viewed by a dealer, an actor to audition for a role?). And to not burden unpaid (or barely paid), hardworking, creative writers any more than we already are. There is something illogical about a publication putting out a “call for submissions” but requesting, first, payment.
Objections aside, many journals and magazines are now charging fees. My heartfelt request to them is to keep the fees nominal. A couple dollars is plenty; the $20 or more that a few now charge, obnoxious.
And, any publication that does charge a fee should state this, and the amount, upfront and in an obvious fashion. A submitting writer should not learn that a magazine charges a fee only when she reaches the end of the submission process.
Nor should he be kept in suspense as to the amount of the fee!
3) The right to receive a realistic approximation of how long a reply will take
But many publications do not let writers know, realistically, how long it will be before the writer can expect to receive a reply.
Why is this important? Because a fair approximation of how long a writer might have to wait keeps a magazine honest, and calms a writer waiting for a reply. It also cuts down on writers, anxiously awaiting replies, unnecessarily pestering overworked editors.
A win-win for everyone.
4) The right to receive a reply
I’m tempted to write “no comment”.
But given how often non-responses happen, and not just to submitting writers, but in general–to desperate job applicants, generous hosts attempting to gather pokey guests, and mobs of the well-intended mailing letters and placing voicemails, emails, and text messages only to receive silence–the topic demands more.
In the dark ages–when submissions were done exclusively on paper, and rejections were mailed back to writers in bulky paper envelopes–the occasional omission of a reply could, perhaps, be forgiven. But today, when nearly all submissions take place online, and replies can be sent with a few flicks of a finger, I find these omissions close to inexplicable.
Sometimes a publication goes out of business, leaving a pile of unanswered manuscripts. That’s troubling.
But I can hear Miss Manners sighing, and asking (politely, of course), so what? With all that time freed up by the folding of the publication, surely one could find an hour or two to reply to any remaining submissions…?
What other reason could there be for not replying–at all–to a submission? A failure in one’s submission software? The loss of a manuscript after it having been printed?
I have no idea.
All I know is that while this happens to most writers at least once, it can drive writers close to insane, and that all self-respecting publications should strive to never, ever, leave a writer not replied to, ignored, in limbo.
5) The right to have one’s manuscript read—thoroughly
A tricky topic.
I once sent a skillfully written short story to a publication that will remain unnamed. It was a fancy publication, I was aiming high, my chance of being accepted there low. But I’d read the publication before submitting, and I’d studied its site, paying particular attention to its fiction. It was my assessment that my story held its own compared to what I found there.
The editor did not agree.
That’s fine. I do believe, as I once said in an earlier post, that past a point of basic competence, the evaluation of writing is subjective, and completely so.
What wasn’t fine was that my manuscript came back to me within a few days. Fewer, if memory serves, than the fingers on my two hands. Had it even been read, I wondered?
My sense, of course, was that it had not been read, or if read, not past its opening lines. I was so bothered by this that I wrote back to the editor, asking if the piece had been read. Needless to say, I did not receive a reply.
Why does it matter if a manuscript is not read past its opening?
I will not go so far as to assert that editors should read each and every submission to the bitter end. In many instances that is not necessary, and in some it is not realistic. But I do believe that each and every manuscript should be read to a point where the editor knows–with certainty–what are its limits and strengths.
In most cases, this means reading well into the writing.
Not only is this fair to the submitting writer, but it’s smart. How many times have you read a wonderful piece of writing, despite not having been thrilled with its opening?
No matter how hard writers work to make openings sparkle, the reality is that the opening to any creative work is often a rocky place, where a reader balances precariously, torn between two opposing forces–a desire to put the thing down, and a desire to give the writer the benefit of the doubt, and to keep on reading.
Recall how many works of literature we now consider canonical begin with something less than scintillation. Here are the opening lines of one of my favorite novels, a work considered to be one of the greatest written in the English language:
Under certain circumstances there are few hours in the day more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. There are circumstances in which, whether you partake of tea or not–some people of course never do–the situation is in itself delightful. Those that I have in mind in beginning to unfold this simple history offered an admirable setting to an innocent pastime. The implements of this little feast had been disposed upon the lawn of an old English country-house, in what I should call the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon.
I don’t know about you, but I have trouble imaging an editor today–and perhaps then, when this novel was written–who would readily keep reading past these opening lines. But what riches would they miss if they choose not to! Poor Mr. James; his best, according to many, would not have seen the light of day!
There are copious examples we can find that illustrate this. Good readers are generous readers, and do not demand to be perfectly entertained from the get-go. Editors, I believe, should strive to do the same.
6) The right to be addressed by one’s (proper) name
An omission found in many, if not most, rejection letters.
I have not used one of the electronic submission systems now available to publishers, but I find it hard to imagine that these systems make it difficult to address writers by their proper names.
Editors, please stop using the abomination “Dear Writer”. And, please, realize that the ubiquitous “Dear (first name) (surname)” is only slightly less problematic.
You have received a manuscript from a real person, someone who has provided you with a great deal of personal information. A person who has worked for months, if not years, on the manuscript you are about to reject. Which might well grant to you an intimate view into the interior world of the writer. And you are about to tell this person precisely what he or she dreads hearing.
Please show the writer the courtesy of a proper title and address. To me, that means “Dear Ms. Martin”. If I were a man, “Dear Mr. Martin”.
This is not hard: the use of “Ms.” has made addressing women by their last names as easy as pie. Men, of course, should be addressed as “Mr.”.
Persons whose gender is hidden under ambiguous names, or who are using initials in place of first names, can fairly be subjected to the ignominy of being addressed by their initials, or by both their first and last names, as in “Dear P.F. Piper” or “Dear Cam Carey”.
And no one should be addressed by first name only–as in “Dear Christopher”–unless a personal relationship exists between the editor and writer!
Along these lines, all submitting writers should extend effort to obtain the name of the editor to whom they are sending work, and to address the editor by name in one’s cover letter.
“Dear Editor”, while excusable if this information is not available or if there are multiple editors listed in the masthead, just doesn’t cut it!
7) The right to be given the benefit of the doubt
Some time ago, I submitted a story–a finely drawn, historically set story–to an old, large American publication, one of the few remaining “glossy mags” that still publishes short fiction, thinking it would be met with interest there. I searched high and low for the place to which to send the manuscript–submission information was not clear–and ended up sending it to the editor who seemed most appropriate.
Imagine my surprise when the submission turned up back in my mailbox, with nothing–no note, no rejection letter–accompanying it. I could only conclude that whoever received it was not the correct person, and that he or she had neither the time nor inclination to pass the submission on to the proper recipient.
Nor to scribble a note telling me to whom the story should be sent!
Too bad; the story was strong, and would have been, I believe, enjoyed by readers of said publication.
Editors, please extend the benefit of the doubt to submitting writers. Writers sometimes make errors, and the submissions we send are, for the very most part, earnest and mailed with best intentions.
If a manuscript lands on your desk that should be in the office next door, or is not properly formatted, or in the wrong size font, why not give it a whirl anyway, or at least pass it on to the right desk? Your tolerance will result in happier writers, and might bring good karma your way.
After all, did every submission of the repeatedly rejected The Great Gatsby arrive in perfect form? Who knows, perhaps a fine story, wrinkled or not, might just land in your lap!
8) The right to receive comments on a manuscript
Okay, maybe this isn’t a right.
But let’s be honest, what a lovely gesture it is–how powerful, how satisfying, how encouraging–when a writer receives a note, no matter how brief, letting him know that an editor appreciates something about his writing.
Editors, do not underestimate the influence you wield with a simple line or two–even just a phrase–that lets a writer know that she has impressed you with her writing! Please keep in mind–even when pressed and facing stacks of unread material–that the slightest encouragement from you can make a real difference in helping a writer persevere in the face of tremendous odds working against her.
I have been fortunate to have received encouraging words from editors. They are embedded in my mind, saved in files on the desktop of my computer, copied, by hand, inside the front cover of my writer’s notebook, and saved in my email. One nice handwritten note I received years ago is secured in a binder. Only a few love letters, and the precious early scribbles of my children are as securely archived in my papers!
I turn to these notes when feeling low, when thinking I’ve made the biggest mistake of my life by continuing to write, or when desperately needing cheering up.
What an honor, and responsibility, to hold such power with a few strokes of a pen!
Please use it–liberally, and wisely!
9) The right to be read anonymously or, at least, without bias
In an ideal world, I would make all submissions blind. Our world, however, is far from ideal.
Like many, I believe publications should actively recruit submissions from under-represented groups in literature. These include women writers, writers with little education, writers from lower rungs of our economic ladder, from ethnic, racial, and religious groups not often encountered on the page, and writers facing challenges such as incarceration or having been victims of crime.
This is a double-edged sword.
Encouraging writers to submit information about themselves, and linking that information to their manuscripts–to not read manuscripts blindly–allows readers of manuscripts to reach judgments about the work while influenced by factors that are, arguably, not relevant to its merits.
One editor might be biased, consciously or not, against older women writers, while another might be biased for. If older and female, one would wish that the editor biased against this demographic would work in a blind environment. But if the editor is biased for such a demographic, one’s wishes are for the exact opposite!
Another editor might prefer to accept a poem written by a writer with an Asian name over another poem of equal merit written by a writer who, judging by his or her name, appears to not belong to any minority group. As is quickly apparent, whether or not one wishes this editor to be working blind is dependent on one’s own demographic niche.
Unless, of course, one is blessed with a big heart and wishes to see–and the heck with the burden it puts on one’s own chances–under-represented groups get ahead in publishing.
Talk about complicated!
It is tempting to throw up one’s hands, and to declare that all submissions should simply be one or the other. Either all blind, or all done traditionally with each writer’s information attached to his manuscript. Unfortunately, neither response meets the competing, and legitimate, concerns at play here.
Two events in the literary world in the last year or so illustrate the disparate threads tangled in this debate.
The first is the controversy that arose when poet Michael Derrick Hudson submitted a poem, already rejected many times, under an assumed Asian name, only to find it not only accepted for publication, but included in the prestigious Best American Poetry of 2015.
Writer Sherman Alexie, editor of the 2015 edition of Best American Poetry, defended his selection of a poem submitted under an assumed name, candidly revealing that the poet’s assumed name being Asian counted, in his mind, in the poet’s favor.
The second controversy involved an “experiment” that writer Catherine Nichols conducted after growing suspicious that the reason she could not sell her novel was due to her being female.
Nichols, renaming herself George, submitted her book to agents under an assumed, male identity. Significantly–and sadly and troubling–her novel did receive markedly more interest when sent out in identical form, but under a male name.
What are we to make of these two events?
Alexi, while openly unhappy with having chosen a poem for inclusion in Best American Poetry of 2015 without knowing that it had been submitted under an assumed name that conferred upon its writer a false minority status, defended his decision to publish the poem, and his practice of deliberately seeking to increase the representation of minority writers.
One can only think that an editor like Alexi wants nothing to do with blind submissions. Nichols, on the other hand, would like, I suspect, if not a world ridded of bias against women writers, then a world of blind, anonymous submissions.
But as we have seen each approach leaves much to be desired. What is the answer? Other than finding a wand that magically rids the world of bias, I think the answer lies somewhere between the two extremes.
I would like to see markets for creative writing take strong steps to increase submissions from groups under-represented in publishing. These steps could range from placing calls for submissions in unlikely places–such as prison writing programs (there are some), battered women shelters, and high school writing classrooms–to marketing their publication in places less traditional than Poets & Writers or Duotrope, to advertising in the publications, papers, and sites aimed at whatever group one is interested in reaching.
Ideally, this strategy would increase the variety and range of submissions coming to the desks of editors. And that, of course, could be tracked and verified.
But past this point, why not take the plunge and separate a writer’s identity from her manuscript?
Cut the cord. Trust in process, and no longer allow oneself to be swayed by external characteristics and attributes.
The proud possessor of a MFA from Iowa? Sorry, no longer applicable here. Young, white, trendy, and male? Too bad; we won’t have a clue! Middle-aged, female, Samoan, and a new writer? That won’t cut either way–not here.
Some might say, of course not. But I think this scenario is well worth exploring. Who, really, wants more of the likes of the embarrassing and divisive contretemps described above?
So these are my suggestions–to editors, agents, and publishers–to anyone seeking writing from writers. Made in the hope that the process of offering our work for review can be made more efficient, more respectful, more inclusive, and less painful and less damaging.
That the process can become more interactive between writer and publisher, more informative, more helpful, and in the long haul, simply more enjoyable–for all.