The agony (and the ecstasy) of literary rejection

Ask any writer what the worst part of writing is, and you will get two answers: 1.) The dreaded writer’s block, and 2.) Getting rejected by publishers after spending weeks, months, even years on a manuscript. Granted, the rejection part comes after the actual writing, but it is an intrinsic, necessary part of the process, and it is often (perhaps always) the most nerve-wracking, nail-biting, and not infrequently discouraging leg of the journey. Imagine spending days hiking up a steep mountain, straining to reach the summit, and then being turned around five feet from the finish line by some Unknown Literary God. The ULG laughs in your face, tells you you are unworthy of climbing the mountain, and encourages you to take your business elsewhere – to the lesser gods at Reader’s Digest Ridge, perhaps. That is the struggle of getting your writing published.

My personal journey into Reject Land began seven years ago, when I started sending out my short stories to the literary universe. Well over one hundred submissions, 2,555 days, and countless sob sessions later, I’ve had two of my fiction stories accepted for publication. I’m no mathematician, but even I know the odds are never in my favor with that particular equation. Common sense would tell me to retreat to my corner, lick my wounds, and give up on this notion that one day I will be a “real” writer – a writer established with a credible publishing house, who goes on book tours, and, you know, actually earns money from writing. Logic screams in the back of my mind on a constant basis, begging me to be content with obscurity and a non-writerly, predictable, boring life.

But as a group, we writers are not that concerned with reality. We prefer to live in our imaginations, believing that we can make dreams real through talent, tenacity, luck, and sheer force of will. And so we beat on, boats against the current of literary rejections, borne back ceaselessly into the familiar quagmire of self-doubt, panic, and bouts of uncontrollable weeping.

Photo via Visual Hunt

Photo via Visual Hunt

What helps bolster our courage is knowing that even the greatest writers have struggled with rejection. J.K. Rowling received a dozen rejections for the first Harry Potter book, and was told that she had little chance of making money as a writer. Margaret Mitchell received 38 rejections for Gone with the Wind, William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies was originally deemed “rubbish,” Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, now the unofficial bible of the beat generation, was essentially laughed at by Knopf publishers, and Stephen King was told that “science fiction which deals with negative utopias” would not sell – and we all know how wrong that statement turned out to be.

These are just a few examples of proof that publishers can get it wrong, that even the most reputable companies miss golden opportunities to publish emerging writers who have what it takes to make a serious impact on the literary market. And while few of us fancy ourselves as being in the same ranks as Rowling or King, their rags-to-riches success stories give us hope. There are readers out there – somewhere – who will want to read our work, who might just believe we’re not half bad – or, at the very least, not nearly as bad or perhaps even better than the authors of 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight.

As I write this, I currently have thirteen stories sent out to 38 literary magazines. I send work out on a constant basis, combing the web to find places where my writing style just might fit. Writers know this as well: you need to research the places to which you send your work, to save yourself the grief of sending literary fiction to a place that only wants genre fiction, or, god forbid, fiction longer than 3000 words to a place only interested in stories that get told in 1000 words or less. Sending out submissions can be more time consuming and pain-staking than actually writing and revising the stories you’re sending. It is a repetitive, tiresome, often discouraging cycle, and it can be difficult not to throw in the towel with each “Thank you for sharing your work, but unfortunately it is not the right fit for us” email.

But we shake ourselves off and keep on. What else, after all, is there to do? Give up? Stop writing? All writers (all true writers) would tell you the same thing – that is impossible. Writing is not just what we do; it is who we are. We breathe words and bleed ink. We are alchemists, turning raw experience and undefinable emotion into translatable words on a page. We cannot and will not stop writing, no matter how many rejections you throw at us. We’re a stubborn group, us writers.

When I get the next rejection email, and I know I will (this is not self-defeating talk, it is simply reality), I will go through all the familiar stages. The butterflies in my stomach when I see the name of the literary magazine in my inbox. The sighing and eye-rolling when I read the same formulated “thanks, no thanks” response. The brief but very real crisis of confidence and identity when I question if I’ve been kidding myself all this time, fancying myself a worthy writer. And, finally, the shrug of the shoulders and the determination to carry on, believing that one day, it will happen. One of those emails will not be a rejection, but an acceptance. Because the next one could always be THE one.

We don’t write to become famous or rich (well, maybe some of us do, but not the best ones, not the true ones); we write because it’s who we are. It’s what we love. And as long as I can sit down before a blank page and still feel joyful and lucky to be able to put words on paper, I will count myself a real writer. Published or not.

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous… In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”

– Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

typewriter-book-notebook-paper-writing-write

Photo via Visual Hunt

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And, for a sample of my fiction writing, follow the link to read my original short story, “Lost and Found,” recently published by the Hawaii Pacific Review: https://hawaiipacificreview.org/2015/12/10/lost-and-found/

 

 

Shannon Bowring

About Shannon Bowring

I am 26 years old. I was raised up in the County, in the tiny town of Ashland. I attended the University of Maine in Orono and graduated in 2012 with a BA in English, with a concentration in Creative Writing. Reading and writing have always been the greatest loves of my life. I am most at home in the dusty corners of used bookstores, surrounded by forgotten books. One day, inspiration struck when I decided I wanted to combine all my loves – writing, reading, traveling, exploring these beloved shops – to create an outlet in which I can share my bookish adventures with an audience of like-minded readers who could appreciate my love of words and stories.