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Surviving Submissions: Donning Your Chain Mail

From left to right: Porter A, Therese W, Kathleen B, Vaughn R, Keith C (looking dejected) and Donald M at 2014 UnCon.
From left to right: Porter A, Therese W, Kathleen B, Vaughn R, Keith C and Donald M, preparing to submit their work to publishers.

In the late 1990s, I wrote a short story—my first ever—and submitted it to The New Yorker. It was a really amazing piece of fiction, one that reflected dozens of minutes of toil and revision. I do not remember the plot (which suggests there was none) except for one detail: the female character sits on a therapist’s couch, and, wrapped in a blanket like a burrito, floats into the air and–poof!–vanishes.

I am certain this 7,000-word work of art was roughly 7,000 words too long.

More than fifteen years later, I see how many things were wrong with that experience. First, the piece was a piece of garbage. I did not know how to write a story, and I had no one guiding me through the process. I should have sought advice from someone, if not another writer, than at least a friendly barista or the wine guy with the radio voice at the Safeway where I buy cheap Riesling.

Wrong thing #2: I had the gall to submit to The New Yorker. Sure, I had read The New Yorker, usually while waiting for my dental appointments, usually looking at the pretty cover or the cartoons because the stories were, well, a little uppity in my opinion. Perhaps I thought that the inclusion of my story would endear me to the other works of fiction. But certainly, even if my story had been an actual work of art, I was not familiar enough with the publication to know whether it would be a good fit.

These days I am a better writer with a better understanding of story structure, and yes, I carry around suitcases of humility. I have given up trying to like The New Yorker’s fiction and instead peruse People while waiting for my dental checkups. And when I submit an essay or a story, a grant proposal or retreat application, I do so in a much smarter way.

In 2015, I (someone who lives with bipolar disorder 2) got involved in an organization with this goal: reduce the stigma of mental illness by sharing our stories and serving as a resource to others with mental health conditions. With this in mind, I wrote an essay about mental illness in a marriage. Once again I aimed high, and after much revision based on my critique partners’ feedback, I sent the essay to The New York Times. Seven weeks later I received a form letter rejection from the editor: Dear Sarah Callender . . .

A form letter rejection feels crummy. And submitting smartly doesn’t eliminate the possibility of rejection.

After receiving the form letter rejection, I threw a fifteen-minute pity party, then told my puppy I loved him about fifty times. He wagged and replied fifty-one times that he loved me back, and I started researching other places where I could send the piece. After all, it’s the first rejection that’s the hardest. And the second and the third and the fiftieth, and honestly if one more well-intentioned, kindhearted person tells me how many rejections Rowling had before Harry Potter was acquired, I might shriek. She had her manuscript rejected twelve times. Twelve. Big whoop.

But rejection forces me to consider and reconsider just how badly I want to be an author. It tests my mettle and keeps me improving my craft. It reminds me of the importance of knightly (and daily) chain mail. Although this mental illness essay experience had the same result as the vanishing-burrito fiasco, I had gone about writing and submitting it in a very different way. And I felt good about that.

I’d love to share what I have learned about submitting essays, op-eds, short fiction and grant applications.

  1. Do it. We can’t control how our piece will be received, but we can ensure it IS received. Set a goal. For example: I will submit Story X to eight different publications by June 2016. This is a far better goal than Get published in The New Yorker. You can control submissions; you cannot control how an editor perceives your submission.
  2. Before you submit, familiarize yourself with the publication. Fifteen years ago, I didn’t do that because I was green and foolish. But I do it now, yesiree. Ironically, when we don’t research a publication before submitting, we waste a load of time.
  3. Be prepared to pay money. Or not. There are oodles of contests and publications to which you might send your work, but many require a fee. Have a budget before you start submitting willy-nilly. My budget is currently zero.
  4. Respect and adhere to the publication’s guidelines. Poke around to find the editors’ desired subject matter and word count along with their preferred formatting and submission method. If they ask for a brief cover letter, provide one that’s polished and concise. If they ask that you not follow up, then don’t follow up. And if you are sending an essay or story to multiple places and someone grabs it, be sure to notify the other publications. No editor likes to fall in love with a piece that’s already been picked up by someone else.
  5. Along those lines, carefully track your submissions. I always think I will remember what I send out and when and to whom. I never do. Put your activity into a spreadsheet with headings like: Title/Project, Submission Date, Response Time, OK to Follow Up?, Yay or Nay, Editor’s Feedback. Even if you receive only “no thank you” responses, your spreadsheet will illustrate your bravery.
  6. When you do receive a rejection, resist the urge to send the editor a nasty note about how dimwitted and shortsighted he is, about how he will come to rue the day he rejected you. Rather, send a brief thank you for his time and consideration. It’s too small a world to burn bridges.
  7. Do not give up. Keep honing your craft. Keep putting yourself in situations where you are taking risks, even when it means you may be rejected. Know that with every rejection, you increase your chances of beating Ms. Rowling in the Rejection Olympics, which I’m telling you, is not hard to do.

Your turn! What are some silver linings you have found as you submit your work? What has gotten you through the low points? Would you be willing to share ideas about where emerging writers might submit work? Do you have any cringe-worthy submission stories? Does this chain mail make me look fat? Thanks for reading and sharing, dear WUers.

Photo compliments of flickr’s Vicki Burton [1].

About Sarah Callender [2]

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.