Storyville: Surviving Rejection
I know you are all out there sending in your stories, getting rejected, and feeling frustrated. It’s tough! I know, I’m out there with you. So I wanted to talk with you today about some of my experiences, my statistics, and how you can survive rejection, and keep submitting until you break through. You know why I think writing short stories is important (THIS COLUMN), and you’ve heard about the adventures of Rudy Jenkins (THIS COLUMN), and I’ve given out tips before on how to succeed (THIS COLUMN), but let’s talk today about what it takes, and how you can find the motivation and inspiration to never give up.
While I have published over 150 stories (including reprints) not all of the markets or projects were listed on Duotrope (my complete list IS HERE). Here are my lifetime statistics as far as submissions.
Total Submissions: 1,348
No Response: 38
Acceptance Rate: 8.6%
So that should give you some idea of what I’ve gone through in my career. How about a few more stats though?
Longest Time to Acceptance (genre): 812 days, “Battle Not with Monsters”
Second Longest Time to Acceptance (genre): 636 days, “Chasing Ghosts”
Longest Time to Acceptance (literary): 1,200 days, “Moving Heavy Objects”
Most Rejections (genre): 46, “Chasing Ghosts”
Most Rejections (literary): 106, “Moving Heavy Objects”
Second Most Rejections (literary): 80, “Sugar and Spice”
A FEW STORIES
- “Stillness”, my first pro sale, was rejected 28 times, before getting into Shivers VI (Cemetery Dance) alongside Stephen King and Peter Straub.
- “Chasing Ghosts” was a story I submitted to Chuck Palahniuk, in The Cult workshop, to try to get into Burnt Tongues. He hated it. It was rejected by every genre market out there (46), before landing in Cemetery Dance (acceptance rate of about 1%). It was long-listed for Best Horror of the Year.
- “Moving Heavy Objects” took almost four years, and 106 rejections, before landing in storySouth, with an acceptance rate of less than 2%. It was a Million Writers Award nominee at storySouth.
- I was invited into an anthology, wrote a story I loved, sent it in. The editor didn’t get the ending, kept trying to get me to change it to something horrible. I ended up pulling the story as we just couldn’t get on the same page. That story was “The Offering on the Hill”, which ended up in Chiral Mad 3, and long-listed for Best Horror of the Year.
- I was invited to submit to a classic horror anthology, looking for graphic stories. My story was rejected. That story was “Battle Not with Monsters”, which is coming out in Cemetery Dance this year. It was rejected a total of 12 times, and took 812 days to get accepted. From submission time to release date it has taken over 2,000 days (about five and a half years).
- My first novel Disintegration started in my MFA program. I wrote half the first semester, and my professor loved it. Second semester with a new professor, he asked the class to raise their hands if anyone would keep reading after the first page. Nobody raised their hand. He said it wasn’t thesis material (code for not good enough). I almost quit the program. I decided to set that book aside and work on literary fiction with him (in the end, a great decision). Two years later, I finished that book. It took me a year to work my way through 26 small / indie presses. No luck. Started looking at agents. Took me another year, and 100+ rejections, to get my agent. We then submitted to the Big 6, for another year, several dozen rejections, finally signing a two-book deal with Penguin Random House imprint, Alibi. It took another year of edits before it was published. From the writing in 2009 to release in 2015 was six years. My second book, Breaker, at Alibi, I wrote in 25 days, and it was nominated for a Thriller Award.
So why the hell didn’t I give up? What kept me going? How can you find that strength? Here are some tips:
- Figure out your voice, and then write to your strengths. It may take you a few years. It’s crucial to understand your influences, to hone your craft, to learn the basics, to grasp the more advanced techniques, to master critical analysis, and to see how your work compares to the stories that make it into the top publications, the “best of the year” anthologies, that win awards.
- Once you can do that, then you will see what you need to do in order to write a truly special story. If you can do that, then write, edit, and finish your stories, and then send them out. If you believe in your work, then NEVER. EVER. GIVE. UP.
- Understand that your story can be rejected for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the work—too many vampire stories, too long, too short, not a fit for the theme, not quite the genre they want, editor doesn’t like (X) which can be a theme, first person, third person, whatever. It’s subjective.
- Don’t give up after a few rejections. 5, 10, 15? That’s nothing. Come talk to me when you hit 20 or 40. Then we’ll see if we can find you some other markets.
- If you don’t fight for your story, nobody will.
- Every authors struggles, every author gets rejected, no matter how successful.
- Do your research on editors and genres and markets, it will help to get you published and make sure you’re submitting to the right places.
- Read these publications to understand the editor POV.
- If you are getting personal notes from an editor that is a big deal. Most editors don’t have time, don’t want to get blowback (it happens) when they are critical. It means you are getting closer. Keep submitting to those places.
- If you are doing well, it will take longer. See my notes above. If a slush reader likes your story, they will pass it up the ladder to another editor, and then sometimes to a managing editor or the main editor or Editor-in-Chief. Depends on how big the publication is. That takes time. So don’t get impatient, it means your work is being looked at by a lot of people, who are discussing it. That’s good.
- Don’t get discouraged by places that reject in a day or a few days or a week. They know what they like, and are quick to reject because they have high standards, a certain aesthetic, and can spot a story that doesn't work for them. I’ve rejected stories at Gamut and Dark House Press based on an opening line, a first paragraph, a first page. If it has any merit, I keep going. I can fix some things, but at some point I check out, and say no. I’m looking for reasons to say no, but I’m also looking for reasons to say yes.
- Make sure your grammar, formatting, length, etc. are all tight and spot on. This is the easiest way to get rejected.
- Don’t take it personally.
- So, my acceptance rate is about 8.6%. Let’s just say 10% for easier math. That means, for every 10 submissions, I get accepted. Keep that in mind. If your acceptance rage is 5%, that means every 20 submissions. Keep going.
- If you’ve ever worked in sales, you know the number of cold calls you need to make to get a sale. If the markets you are submitting to have a really low acceptance rate, say 1%, that means you have to be that one in a hundred. Very difficult. Submit appropriately, but submit widely. Understand the numbers, and know how difficult it is. And then keep going.
- Remember that great sale you made to that pro-paying market with an acceptance rate of 5%? If you did it once, you can do it again. Keep going.
- If editors like your work, keep coming back to them. For some reason they like me at Cemetery Dance (three stories, and one collection accepted to date). I will always submit when they open up. I’ve also had good luck with editors like Michael Bailey, Doug Murano, D. Alexander Ward. They may not always take my work, but if I’ve been accepted with a publication or editor more than once, I’ll be sure to keep them on my radar. Sometimes I get invited in, sometimes I have to submit with everyone else. Either way, I have to bring my A game.
- Bring your A game.
- How do you get invited in? Publish widely, publish well, do great work, and establish a voice. The editors I work with know what a “Richard Thomas story” looks like, but they also expect to be surprised. They seek originality, impact, and emotion.
I hope that this column has shown you how hard it is, how you can break through, and what you need to do in order to have the right mindset. If it was easy then everyone could do it. You are talented, so believe in yourself, and never give up. Perfection is the enemy of good, but you also have to be in it to win it. Keep submitting, and shoot me questions any time if I can help.
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