Dear N. K.:
Please accept my sincerest greetings for the upcoming holiday season!
I would like to offer you my essay, “It’s not Personal”, 1100 words, for your consideration for publication in The Writers' Table section of Page & Spine. It is a humorous essay dealing with the modern-day rejection travails that writers go through.
My poem ‘A Word a Day’ was published in the Crumbs section of Page & Spine earlier this year. My stories have also appeared in Tincture Journal, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Glassfire magazine among other avenues. Anthologies featuring my work include Chicken Soup for the Soul: Indian College Students, the Dear Nana Collection by Writers Who Rock (forthcoming), and Walking in the Feminine: A Stepping into Our Shoes Anthology (forthcoming).
It's Not Personal (1100 words)
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a story must be in want of an acceptance. Unfortunately, however, rejections of all hues form the kernel of most writers’ correspondence.
In the dawn of my submission years, the drumming in my chest rose to a crescendo whenever I spotted a white envelope lighting up the dark interiors of the mailbox. I would unlock the box, and one of those annoying missives would tumble out. That was the era of postal mail, when editorial staff felt comfortable scribbling a succinct ‘No’ across the top of a submission. Occasionally a letter arrived bearing a sprinkling of complimentary adjectives that indicated the sender’s “deep regret”. The soothing words did little to appease my wounded writer’s ego.
In later years, I checked my email every hopeful morning, eager to dig out an acceptance or even a ‘regretful’ note among the cluster of offers for cheap online shopping that clogged my inbox. Often, the seasons changed and several birthday candles were snuffed out before any response arrived. Then one day I found not one, but two curt dismissals lying in wait. The timestamps of the emails revealed more than their contents – clearly the editors were rushing and tripping over one another in their race to reject me. The double-blow led me to marvel at the swiftness with which they had dispatched my piece. Had they taken a longer, harder look, they might have detected visions of my tortured genius.
In the era of apps and social media, however, a new variable has thrust itself into the equation – that of submission trackers and managers. These software applications lend coherent shape to my worst literary fears, for they come equipped with that one thing that can shake even the best of writers to their core – statistics.
On one such site that has gained popularity among the writing masses, the listing for a magazine shows their average number of days for an acceptance and for a rejection, as well as the percentage of non-responses and author withdrawals. If I feel sufficiently suicidal, I can even unearth a report of the most recent responses to a particular market. For example, I sent a submission to a magazine known for its brief essays, and discovered that the last response was received a few days ago, for a submission that was sent a few days before mine. All the arrows are facing the same way. My mind’s eye throws up a comic panel – the bespectacled editor is standing behind me, placing a friendly hand on my shoulder while the blurb attributed to him reads: “Don’t worry, your rejection is on its way.”
On the other hand, with each passing day that a rejection does not arrive, I feel an acceptance coming on, which renders it doubly difficult to wash away the hurt when the inevitable refusal comes crashing into my life.
The dizzying array of stats alarms even that rare writer who is calm and composed in the face of a rebuff, but for the neurotic writer, ‘tis a dangerous thing. The mind spirals into hitherto unknown depths of depression, when they realize that they belong to that commonplace ninety-five percent of scribblers who couldn’t win over the editorial staff with the mere magic of their words.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the heartlands of Mountain View, California, or perhaps up in that enigmatic entity known only as The Cloud, all those ‘we regret to inform you…’ mails that have ever been addressed to me are clogging the Gmail servers that could otherwise have served a loftier purpose, such as spam mails for organ enlargements.
Last year, a story of two thousand words bounced back to me within three days. Its penultimate sentence stated words to the following effect (paraphrased here to protect the guilty)
“Your submission lacks the literary qualities necessary for our magazine…”
For the most part, when I read the standard pithy rejections, a pang of disappointment washes over me, but this one stung. To ensure that I felt aggrieved and not merely stung, the last sentence ended with a zinger: “We hope you are not discouraged and will continue writing.”
That parting sentence amounted to stabbing the writer in the heart and then drawing the knife out cleanly so that one could dab ointment on the inflicted wound. The balm has no effect, and the damage has already been done. The heart of the writer is destroyed, stamped out, even if momentarily, for surely he will pick up the pieces of his shattered soul and send out submission packages with renewed vigour the following week.
If there’s one thing that rejection teaches a writer, it is that the elusive quality called literary merit is highly subjective. Shortly afterwards, this story of mine found a home in another magazine, so I shed few tears on this snub.
My niece, all of thirteen, composed a poem for an inter-school poetry competition on the theme of astronomy. Days before the deadline, she rustled up a two-page poem on the assigned topic and handed it in, feeling sickly as she watched her friends proffer ten-page epics. She relayed her anxiety to her mother, but after moping a little, she declared that if she didn’t win a prize it was only because the judges failed to understand her poetry, and it would be their loss.
And that, in a nutshell, sums up what should be our attitude to submitting, if not writing. It’s their loss, not ours. One could argue that it’s a head-in-the-sand approach, but it can work well if used with caution. After all, what are writers if not evolved versions of ostriches?
Thanks to my niece, in recent times I have acquired a level of rejection self-actualization that borders on the ludicrous. I would love to compose and send a bile-infested, slang-ridden letter of hate to rejecting editors, if only I didn’t sympathize with them. Most editors are writers too, so they must of necessity understand the blood, sweat and tears that make up a piece. They too might have hovered over a submit button for several nerve-wracking seconds before finally clicking it.
To paraphrase Jane Austen once more: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a good story must be in want of validation.
To that I say: best of luck to all writers searching for their editor-equivalent of Mr. Darcy, including me.
Oh, and about my niece, she won first prize in that competition.
It's great to hear from you. Happy Holidays.
I found your essay It's Not Personal representative of the attitude of many of the writers who submit work to Page & Spine. You are correct insofar as your title. Rejecting work isn't personal. In fact, to some of us, it's a painful duty. That's because, as you surmise, many editors are also writers. We know what the writer is going through, having our creations judged by strangers and perhaps found lacking.
And that's the point you missed. Agreed, we writers bare our souls when we create. Our creations are our babies. And our babies are always the brightest, the most beautiful, as all parents agree. But when our chicks leave the nest at submission, they have to fly on their own merit in a very crowded sky. We are empty-nesters and, despite our love and pride, we have to let our fledglings go because, to editors, our baby is product. As writers we may consider our work "art". To anyone asked to spend money on it, it's the difference between a crow and a nightingale. Which would they rather hear sing?
I don't know how other editors work, but I'm being truthful when I say I don't read a writer's credentials until after I've made a decision on accepting or rejecting their submission. The question I ask myself when I review a submission is: Is it worth the money? I decide that by asking two more questions: Will our readers respond favorably to it? Is it technically as good or better than what we're publishing right now?
How does a writer avoid negative answers to those questions? By demonstrating creativity, technical skill, and evaluating whether that particular product will fit comfortably within our electronic covers. There is no lack of creativity in the selections we receive. There is often a lack of technical skill, much of which I blame on premature submission. (Don't be in such a hurry. Let it rest and read it again. Let someone else read it. Use a spelling and grammar program to find errors to which you're blind because you're reading what you meant to write, not what's on the page.) And, finally, make sure your piece looks and sounds comfortable among the other selections the publication offers.
Is the final decision made in a vacuum? Absolutely not. P&S has an editorial board made up of professional editors who are extensively published in the areas they edit. I rarely disagree with their recommendations.
Gargi, you value the creative act above the editors' evaluation. That's a healthy attitude so long as you're receiving more acceptances than rejections (always assuming publication is the object of the exercise). But if the rejections outweigh acceptances, assume that your piece is either being submitted to incompatible venues or, in its current form, needs improvement.
Please convey my warmest congratulations to your niece. I believe she's already learned something valuable about the art of writing: Say what you have to say as effectively as possible, then stop talking.
Gargi Mehra writes fiction, humor, and the occasional pithy blog post at: http://gargimehra.wordpress.com/