Friday, October 21, 2022

The Submission Game--How to Keep Playing It without Getting Gut Punched

Back in the late 90s, I was a prolific and published writer in the nonfiction genre, with a syndicated newspaper column and quite a few books behind me. I knew the game of submitting for nonfiction publication. I had had lots of practice over twenty years, knew how much was serendipity and meticulous timing, how much was networking and who you knew, how much was about the piece you were trying to sell.

Cancer took away a year of my outer life at the end of that decade, and while I was recuperating from chemo, I took a hard look at what I'd done so far as a writer.

You may have had these life-facing moments, often brought about by trauma, serious illness, and loss. You get a chance to ask: What have I been doing and what do I long to do, that I haven't yet?

My answer was fiction. I wanted to learn about it, write it, and publish it.

I took classes, got an MFA, studied privately, and read, read, read to learn everything I could. I also wrote--a lot of stories and two novel manuscripts that I know now were my learning books.

I thought since I'd been published so much, I would slip smoothly into the submission game when I began sending out my fiction. Not true, not at all. I was courageous, you have to give me that. I submitted stories to Atlantic Monthly and the big guns first. I thought, why not? Nothing to lose.

But there was.

The rejections came steadily. By mail, some by email. Back then, most submissions were snail mail. Submittable (the online submitting platform that most literary journals and some agencies now use) didn't exist. Editors were kind. I developed meaningful (to me) relationships with a few who handwrote their rejections and sent encouragement. I saved everything, thinking I'd paper my bathroom wall, as I'd read someone famous did.

During the chemo year I wrote those forty-odd short stories and two novel manuscripts, then I realized how little I knew about fiction or the business of publishing it, so I moved and went back to school for that MFA--a real wake-up call but a good one. From that, I scrapped the two learning manuscripts and began another one which eventually was published by a small press (Qualities of Light). I went on to successfully sign with an agent, write two more books, and get enlightened about the whole submission process.

Since I retired at the beginning of the year, and one novel is with my agent while the other is being prepared for publication, I decided to browse those forty stories begun in 2000. I wanted to keep writing but I needed a break from long projects for a while--a year, I told myself. And I wondered if I'd be any better at the submission game after twenty years.

I wasn't. I did know enough to get feedback on the best of the stories before sending anything out. I chose a flash piece I'd rewritten in 2009 when I took a flash fiction class out of boredom with my book. I ran it by my writing partner, got good suggestions, then signed up for a flash class and worked with the instructor to get it ready to submit. I chose five online literary journals. Signed up for Duotrope (a wonderful online submission organizer--great for agent and writing submission tracking). Sent it out.

Rejections started coming in. I texted my writing partner about the ouch of this, even after all my years in the biz. "Treat it like a game," she said. "Have a list of twenty places to send to. As soon as you get one rejection, send to a new place."

It took me a good three months to get over those initial rejections, so I didn't follow her advice right away. But one day I realized I was still stuck in the same ego mire that ran my earliest experiences with publishing, back in the nonfiction days. I used exactly the game-approach then that my friend advocated now.

Long story (or blog post) short, I spent time the next week choosing pubs. Beginner-story pubs. I hired my flash fiction teacher to help--she suggested ones to start with. Nothing illustrious, just good enough to feel proud if I got a story accepted. I sent another story off. I logged the submissions into Duotrope. I got rejections (when they come in hours or days, it can be very discouraging!).

Then, I got an email from one of the nicer online journals: "We read your story and enjoyed it. We'd like to publish it." (Check it out here, if you wish.)

I sent out another story. The next week, that got a slew of rejections then--again!--an acceptance. A third story, the same: rejection, rejection, rejection, then a note saying the story was a finalist in a contest.

If I'm playing a game, my odds are about 6:1 right now. I send a story to ten publications (all online). Six rejections to one acceptance for a short story. Now I can (almost) get a rejection without feeling gut punched and believing all my writing is worthless---know that feeling? I expect that I need to get a certain number of rejections before I get a yes, so each one is a step closer.

What are the odds in the submission game with agents? One very informed industry consultant said 75:1. That was quite a few years ago. A recent post by Dan Blank talked about a fairly new agent named Kimberly Fernando who posted on Twitter that she was now open to queries. Here's her post. She got over 500 queries in response in one day!). That's part of the sobering--to just know, if you are submitting to agents, the kind of odds you're playing right now.

My foray back into short-story submission has taught me a lot about this game, and I know I'll be using it for any future books as well. You may not agree, feeling that the whole writing experience should be art, nothing more. I understand but I also believe time (and stomach pains) might teach you better.

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