One of the things that is hardest about writing is the self-promotion and constant rejection. I've always focused on improving my writing, and neglected the promotion part. I would give it a go for a few months, collect my rejection letters, and then move on to something else. This summer, for reasons that even I am still trying to figure out, I decided to get back to submitting stories. It's kind of like going back to dating after being out of the game for a while, risking rejection and humiliation, and all the while sensing, maybe I'm just not doing it right.
Truth is, I'm still not sure I'm doing it right, but I am doing it. It does give me some consolation that through all of the stops and starts, all of the rejection letters that turned into rejection emails, I've at least learned a few things that make this part of the job easier. Hopefully they can make it easier for you as well.
1) Thicken your skin.
There are dozens of reasons why the journal or publisher who received your story didn't choose to publish it, and only one of those reasons can be "it isn't good enough." Sometimes they just filled all their needs for the upcoming issue early, and they didn't want to string you along until they start planning the next one. Sometimes they might really mean it when they say "not for us." That same story with a different magazine editor might get in. Your promotional skills are at least as important as your writing skills, and sending a science fiction story to a journal that only publishes slice-of-life vignettes is bound to fail, no matter how good the story is. And maybe the story just isn't good enough, which is not the same as saying that you're not good enough. Stories can improve, and so can writers.
2) Get strategic.
If you're even aware that part of the reason you're getting so many rejections is because you're sending good stories to magazines or publishers who can't use them, then start learning the market. Get yourself a copy of the current Writer's Market and start figuring out who might want each one of your particular stories. Not only does the Market tell you what kind of writing each publication wants, it also tells you when they want it. One thing I did that helped me get more strategic about submitting is scanning the Writer's Market and separating each market by their window of submission. It could be that the reason your story query went unanswered for six months is that you submitted at a time when they aren't even considering manuscripts. To avoid doing this, I created four documents, one for each season of the year, and copied and pasted each market that I thought might be remotely right for me into those documents based on their reading windows. If a magazine said they read from August to December, then they go into the fall document. Now I can stop sorting through that massive book every time I'm ready to submit, and only consult my seasonal list. If I've already submitted to every journal on that list (which happens) then I have a list of journals that accept submissions all year long.
3) Track your submissions.
Most journals don't want simultaneous submissions, or if they allow them, insist that you contact them as soon as the story gets accepted elsewhere. You definitely don't want to burn any bridges with a publisher by getting close to being published and then ruining it with poor etiquette. In addition, you don't want to forget where your stories are, in case you can send them out again. Use an app like Story Tracker to track your submissions so you remember when and where you submitted a story. Submittable has a tracking feature as well, but it obviously doesn't help for submissions that don't go through it's platform. Keeping all that information is one place can be really helpful. As soon as you get a rejection email, and you will get a lot, enter that information into the tracker. Then revise that story and get it right back out the door to someone who might give it a home. The tracker will also tell you how long a journal has had your work, so you can decide for yourself if you want to pull it and submit elsewhere or just simultaneously submit. Set yourself a pace, whether it's sending a story every week or every month, and stick to it.
4) Don't give up.
Writing is difficult and vulnerable work. We put so much of ourselves into our characters and stories that it's hard not to take rejection personal. But it isn't, regardless of what it feels like. Keep at it. Instead of focusing on how many rejections you get, really read them and see if you can track any changes in the responses. Are you getting any positive feedback, or, better yet, advice? Don't be so quick to delete a rejection email, when there might actually be some encouraging news buried among the shards of your broken dreams. Take those kind words from editors as encouragement that you're on the cusp of getting published. Think of it this way: you're not trying to get a bunch of stories published, just one. Success breeds success. All you need is to get one story published somewhere, anywhere, and the next submission you send out will have the words "recently published in ____" in your bio. Stephen King, a great writer who also got a lot of rejection letters in his time, wrote in his memoir On Writing, "... when you've had a little success, magazines are a lot less apt to use that phrase, 'Not for us.'" So just keep writing and submitting, keep listening to the feedback you get and using it to improve your work, until you break through to that place where one success leads to others.
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