Monday, April 05, 2010

Accepting rejecting

I've finished my deliberations now for Southword and picked six stories for the summer issue. I am this year's Fiction Editor but in fact it is only this issue that I get to choose stories for, since the second issue of the year will run the winning and runner-up stories from the Sean O'Faolain competition, which I am judging. Which made my task that much harder. My one shot at choosing the fiction section of a literary journal!

To be honest, I hadn't thought it would be that hard. I thought, Ok, find the six stories that speak to me the most. But it wasn't that simple, not by any means, and I thought writing about it here might be informative in some way.

I feel extremely honoured to be asked to do this, and it gave me an invaluable glimpse at the other side of the business that we, as writers who send our work out, are involved in. As a writer I have received - and continue to receive, on a weekly if not daily basis -  many rejections from many literary magazines of all shapes, sizes and nationalities. I have also been delighted to receive acceptances, far far less of them than the rejections, but those are the odds. That's how it works. At first, each rejection really stung. I took it personally, that I had been turned away, that I wasn't good enough. Often, I was submitting entirely the wrong kinds of stories to journals - sending magical realism to a journal that only publishes traditional fiction, things like that. I naively thought I could "persuade" them with the sheer perfection of my story! But no. An editor likes what an editor likes. That was the lesson I had to learn.

I received one rejection that really stuck with me, where the editor said he had loved my flash story but that it just didn't fit with the others he was choosing for that month. If he could have, he would have designed the issue so that it did fit, but those weren't the stories he received. I liked that. I felt that it wasn't just a brush-off; after all, he didn't have to say anything, did he? A form rejection. Or, as sometimes happens, total silence.

It wasn't until I was picking the 6 Southword stories did I understand what "fitting together" meant. I wanted the stories to mean something as a whole, to say something together, not just to be great stories in their own right. I wanted to put my personal stamp on the issue. But how they would fit together isn't something I could put my finger on. Just a gut feeling.

Now, the problem was, over 180 stories were submitted, and there were more than 6 stories that spoke to me. Quite a few more. I started sending out rejection emails to the ones that didn't speak to me, a fairly kind - I hoped - sort of general rejection. But I did feel each one that I sent out, because I knew, in my gut, how it would be received. And because this was not done anonymously, some of the names were familiar to me, some were friends. That was not fun at all.

Then I held on longer to the yesses and the maybes, re-reading them, changing my mind every few days. But I had a deadline. So I had to choose. And that was really difficult.

In the end, I went with my gut. I took the plunge, and the delighted responses to my acceptances almost cancelled out the distress of having to reject 174 stories. I was rejecting the stories but even I felt I was rejecting the person. Don't hate me, I wanted to say. It's just my job. What kind of defence is that? But I couldn't even publish 10, let alone 180.

It wasn't until I had all my six that I suddenly saw how they fit together. Now, if you read the issue, you may not think they do at all. But for me, they make up something, a whole. And that turned out to be very important. I had to turn down several stories I really loved. And a whole lot more that I liked a great deal. That's the way it goes. I think I did it as best I could, but it's never going to be easy to receive the email that doesn't say "Yes! I want to publish your story".

If you've never received a rejection, odds are that you've never sent your stories anywhere at all. That is the safe way to do it. Very safe. Sending your words out there, to be read by a stranger or even a friend, to allow that person the power to accept or turn down your work, is very unsafe. It's scary. And believe me when I say to all 180 of those who submitted: I do not take that lightly. I thank you for letting me read your stories. Well done for taking that risk. 

I look forward to reading all the stories sent in by those taking that risk again, for the Sean O'Faolain competition. This time my task is easier in that it is anonymous, and I only have to choose winners, not reject anyone at all. But there will be hundreds more stories, and there will be many more that speak to me than the number I am designated to pick. It is, once again, a privilege. But afterwards - and I would not have said this before - I think I might just stick to being the one sending out my stories, happier to jump off that cliff instead.

9 comments:

Ethel Rohan said...

Beautiful post, Tania. Thank you for sharing your experiences and this perspective. Brava.

Milton said...

What a lovely post.

My human is just on the verge of sending out stories but is scared that too many rejections will send her scurrying into a corner. Your post, however, has made her feel a wee bit better about the whole business.

I'm gonna constantly claw her now to get sending. After all, how else can she afford to give me treats?

Yours, in determined mode,

The Milt x

Lauri said...

Lovely, perceptive post. I've been on both sides of that line and know how you feel. On the writer side rejections hardly affect me anymore. I think the key is to get loads- go searching for them. As a writer you must get over that barrier.

Kirsty Logan said...

Most editors are writers too. Writers need to remember that the rejections they receive come from people who have been rejected themselves, dozens or hundreds of times.

Perhaps I'm a little harsh, but sometimes I don't understand why writers take rejection so hard. Surely they have been rejected before in their lives? No-one gets every job they apply for or ends up in a relationship with everyone they ask out. Everyone has had traffic lights turn red just as they approach. It's part of life. Without failure, success would be totally meaningless.

Tania Hershman said...

Ethel, thanks you, I'm glad some of it spoke to you.

Milton - unfortunately, even when your human finds wonderful magazines to publish his/her fiction, it is unlikely they will fund your cat treats! Glory only, mostly!

Lauri, thank you. I know, rejection hardly affects me anymore either, which is why I'd rather be on that side than this side! And yes, I totally agree, writers should aim to collect loads of rejections, that's the way to do it.

Kirsty, I think once you've got past the first 50 or so, it gets easier. I hadn't wanted this blog post to be about rejection but about rejecting - I'd far rather be rejected than be the one turning writing down, but I am sure I'd probably get used to doing that too. And yes, I am firmly of the belief that success is only only sweet because of all the rejection!

litrefs said...

sometimes I don't understand why writers take rejection so hard - people might be more shielded from failure nowadays. In the local public library there's a book called "A Writer's Guide to Overcoming Rejection" by Edward Baker (Summersdale Publishers, 1998) so clearly it's an issue. I agree with those who've said that it's best to expect rejection. I read recently that when Masefield was poet laureate he sent his official poems to the Times with a stamped return envelope. And diluting the pain by sending lots of things off sounds a good idea too. I've 29 things in the post ...

My current technique for sending rejection letters is to have 3 of them open at once and paste different snippets of each to create each rejection, adding an individualised comment if I can. Too detailed a crit can be asking for trouble, especially with poetry. Gerry Cambridge ("The Dark Horse") said that when he used to send reasoned crits back, the rejected poet sometimes sent Gerry extracts from his mag proving that others had made just the same mistakes as the rejected poet.

Thinking said...

hmm...nice post Tania.

I really appreaciate the way you speak up....while I have been rejected so many...almost all the time by the eidtors here....in my country....

I am now amune to rejection...but now I took the rejection with calm honesty as I know...I have so much to learn and they are so many writers better than me....

Thank you anyways to give us the glimpse of a person who have the authority to reject....

Thanks.

Lauri said...

Thinking, I feel a bit sad when writers speak as you have. Yes, of course we need a bit of humility, but don't assume the rejection is because you are a bad writer and others are better. Rejections have many reasons not least of which is that the story and the pub just don't match.

I just got the comments from judges in a recent prize in SA for my children's book Aunt Lulu which was shortlisted. One judge loved it to bits and is absolutely sure it will be a best seller and wanted it to win the gold prize, even at one point begged the other judges to choose it. The fourth judge hated it and thought I was copying other writers and that I shouldn't write about a country I've never visited. (It was set in Botswana where I've lived for 20 years). You see? In most cases it comes down to personal preference and we all like different things. Our job as writers is to find the readers that love us.

Tania Hershman said...

Hi Thinking, thanks for stopping by. Yes, it's good to develop an immunity to rejection, but I know that it still affects me so I don't expect anyone to be totally hardened to it! And as Lauri eloquently put it, is it no "you" who are rejected, it is your writing, and it may - as I have explained above - not mean you are in some way inferior, it may just mean it doesn't fit that publication.

Lauri - thanks for telling us this, it illustrates perfectly the subjectivity involved, which we should praise because without it, everyone might have the same taste as Judge No 4 (fool! fool!).