• Six Years of Rejection: What I Did When Editors Said No

    Posted Posted by Guest Writer in Inspiration     Comments 16 comments
    Feb
    23

    Our pal Martin Barkley’s story “W’s Decorum” was published recently at Queen Mob’s Tea House. I knew Martin had been working on — submitting, polishing, submitting, polishing —  that story for many years, and it set me to wondering: after six years of rejection, had he ever felt like giving up on “W’s Decorum”? What kept him from doing so? How did it feel to finally have someone pick it up? i.e., was the pleasure worth the pain? He was kind enough to write about the experience for us below.

    How about you folks? What keeps you submitting a piece of work that gets rejected again and again? How do you keep yourself from giving up? Is the pleasure of publication worth the pain of rejection? Let us know in the comments below or drop us a line. –DD

     

    By Martin Barkley

    “W’s Decorum” is a story written in the form of a legal deposition (4,962 words), a story that has a bunch of fine cuss words and erudite footnotes, and that disses George W. Bush for making being a dick acceptable.”

    From my cover letter to Queen Mob’s Tea House

     

    Negativity PositivityI wrote this story that was rejected eight times over the course of six years. In between offering the story and receiving refusals, I was busy writing other things, so that factored into the lengthy timeline to publication, but I kept coming back to the story.

    Because I keep a spreadsheet of my submissions (see below), I know how many times and where the piece got the kibosh. About half the editors responded quickly, perhaps too quickly (In one fucking day, Word Riot — really?) to have actually read the piece. Three of the submissions sat in a slush pile for two months or more, which is fairly standard, but it does drag out the process. As does the stingy “No Simultaneous Submission” policy, which I resentfully obeyed whenever required.

     

    How Careful?

    The rejections ran the gamut of editorial verbiage: “This piece doesn’t fit our needs”; “After careful consideration, we have decided not to publish your piece.” Notably, I heard the tantalizing but soulless “careful consideration” line in four of the eight rejections (AGNI, Eclectica, Word Riot and Rivet). Of course, editors don’t have time to explain what “careful consideration” means.

    A refusal rarely comes with notes on how to improve a story, but I felt in my gut the piece was worth publishing. I double-checked, revised, and eventually expanded the story for consideration elsewhere.

    [Tweet “”Of course, editors don’t have time to explain what ‘careful consideration’ means.””]

     

    Spreadsheet

    12/01/2009 W’s Decorum Austin Chronicle Rejected 2/1/2010 Snail mail; annual contest
    12/1/2011 W’s Decorum Fringe Rejected 1/1/2012 DD forwarded to editor
    1/14/2012 W’s Decorum AGNI Rejected 4/26/2012 Web portal
    3/15/2013 W’s Decorum Eclectica Rejected 5/18/2013 Submittable
    6/1/2013 W’s Decorum Word Riot Rejected 6/2/2013 Submittable
    12/17/2013 W’s Decorum Mobius Rejected 1/26/2014 E-mail
    4/20/2014 W’s Decorum Work Literary Magazine Rejected 5/27/2014 Web portal
    4/2/2015 W’s Decorum The Rivet Rejected 8/17/2015 Submittable
    10/9/2015 W’s Decorum tNY Press n/a Requested editor’s permission to submit piece despite tNY’s guideline of 500 words. Editor granted the request, but story not offered.
    10/13/2015 W’s Decorum Queen Mob’s Tea House Accepted 10/27/2015 E-mail

    Publishing Jan 20th 2016.

    Details & Shifting Tones

    The story’s setting is a legal environment, and I wanted it to be as authentic as possible, so part of the process involved checking facts and details. (Still, the misspelling of a legal term got by me.)

    I also worked to achieve a tone that evolves from profane unsophistication to lyrical sadness. To find this shifting tone, I read the story aloud, again and again. (Unaided, I can quote long passages of the story; it is a method that requires little but teaches much.)

    The original draft was 2,500 words, but the final form nearly doubled that count. This was worrisome, because many editors prefer stories under 5,000 words, but the particular form this story took justified — in my mind, anyway — the expanded length.

     

    Commingled Clusterfucks

    In 2014 I stopped tinkering with the text — as is, it was good enough; I had to quit; the perpetual reworking was driving me loopy — and instead spent whatever spare time I had searching databases to place the story.

    (I H-A-T-E combing through vapid database entries the same way editors must resent reading endless sludge just to find one semi-precious jewel. I was released from the onerous task only when a friend recommended QMTH; otherwise, I’d probably still be searching Poets & Writers.)

    Up to that point, I had repeatedly returned to the story 1) because I found satisfaction in working on a piece that was solely mine; and 2) because I saw the story as my personal record of recent historical events — namely, the commingled clusterfucks of military adventurism and economic collapse. In political terms, the story says something that needs saying — especially at this moment — and that drove me.

    Some editors pointedly say they don’t want political content in fiction, but I believe it’s just wrong-headed to put that limitation on writers. So when QMTH accepted the story, it was more like a vindication than a feeling of relief. I thought, Finally somebody understands what I’m doing here!

    During those six years, I knew the story was always there waiting for the next iteration, and I may actually miss the strange comfort I had in periodically working familiar ground, but I am elated the piece was published.

    [Tweet “”Some editors don’t want political content in fiction, but it’s just wrong-headed.””]

     

    Discussion

    What keeps you submitting a piece of work that gets rejected again and again? How do you keep yourself from giving up? Is the pleasure of publication worth the pain of rejection? Let us know in the comments below or drop us a line.

     

    Martin Barkley’s writing has appeared in The Threepeny Review, The Texas Observer, Arcadia, Queen Mob’s Tea House, and Work Literary Magazine, among others. His chapbook of short stories is forthcoming from Red Bird in 2016. He lives and works in Austin, Texas.

     

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    Veronica

    I try to never give up on a poem or story. There are pieces I’ve been shopping for close to ten years that I’m still sending around. At some point there develops sort of a disconnect; I am a far different writer, and person, than the one who wrote the piece so long ago. Not that I don’t edit and revise and polish along the way, but the root ideas sometimes seem as if they were created by someone with whom I’m not at all familiar. I wonder if Martin felt that way as he continued to send around the… Read more »

    Martin

    “…but the root ideas sometimes seem as if they were created by someone with whom I’m not at all familiar.”

    Thanks for the comment, Veronica.

    This piece was one of the first things I wrote as an adult, and I still identify with the root ideas in it. I do look back and remember the patterns and habits the story helped me to develop as a writer, and I’d like to think that I’ve evolved in that regard.

    Anon

    your site spammed my comment so i must try again.

    i’ve seen ‘no political fiction’ a lot too. i fucking hate it.
    it’s ridiculous, especially here. how about ‘no suburban
    love triangles.’ i would get behind that. ‘no white people
    cancer stories.’ we should just merge most of the journals
    in this country into ‘grief 1,’ ‘grief 2.’ or ‘grief west’ and ‘grief east.’
    ‘suburban love triangle monthly.’ ‘white people with cancer
    quarterly.’ ‘oh god she had a miscarriage and now our pasty marriage
    is falling apart review.’

    spam this too.

    Martin

    Dear Anon,

    Like your comment. Nothing gets to the crux of the matter like “i fucking hate it.”

    Yeah, not to dig too deep a hole here, but I see more “relationship” stories than I’d care to digest.

    Also, if we can find the space to write about gender struggles, we should be able to stomach stories about other dynamic subjects, such as a haywire dysfunctional political landscape.

    David Duhr

    Sorry about the spam thing, Anon. I don’t know why that might have happened.

    I agree with you both here. U.S. fiction is in need of a reboot.

    Sid

    Thanks for this comment. It got me wondering. Is American fiction too influenced by American TV. When was the last time there was a drama with no cops and no doctors? I can’t think of anything after Lou Grant! (Anyone out there old enough to remember Lou Grant?)

    There’s a lot more to life than love and death. Let’s keep writing about it!

    Yi Shun Lai

    Full disclosure: I’m an editor and have been for various publications over the years, from consumer magazines to literary magazines. (Currently, I edit nonfiction at a paying literary magazine.) Editors don’t go about looking for reasons to reject things. Editors don’t hate slush. (At TLR we call it the open queue because we believe the submissions that come to us are deserving of a better name than ‘slush.’) To the contrary, we are aware that you worked hard to write these stories. (Many of us are also writers.) We are also grateful for your support of our endeavors: Magazines don’t… Read more »

    Martin

    Thanks for the thoughts, Yi Shun Lai. I can tell you speak from experience. I have experienced a spectrum of editorial demeanor while submitting pieces. I’d say that spectrum goes from shitty and crass to mostly courtesy. I think we all know that fiction editors, particularly ones who are volunteers or underpaid, do groan from time to time with what they see in submissions. I respect that reality and don’t hold it against them if they sometimes feel the drudgery of what they do. I’ve heard them tell me of that predicament, and I don’t see the benefit in denying… Read more »

    David Duhr

    More disclosure: Martin sent me this story when I was ME at Fringe Magazine (I’m the “DD” in the spreadsheet), and I passed it along to the fiction editor, who, for reasons I can’t recall, felt it wasn’t right for us. My fondest memories at Fringe were finding those “semi-precious jewels” (as Martin writes above) in the slush. (We called it “slush.” Objectionable? Perhaps. But it’s here to stay.) Like Yi Shun, I often — though not always — felt grateful to the writers sending us their work, and understood how terribly annoying and frustrating is the submission process. Here’s… Read more »

    Martin

    “Here’s something funny. I was about to write that my least favorite moments were, again quoting Martin, “plowing into one thousand submissions at 2 AM on a Sunday morning.” But now that I think about it, I kind of miss that. It’s probably just some pointless, momentary nostalgia.”

    I don’t think it’s pointless at all.

    (Too many words, though. Why don’t you hire an editor?)

    Betty G.

    The pleasure of publication is worth the pain of rejection.

    I keep repeating it to myself until it seems true.

    The pleasure is worth the pain.
    The pleasure is worth the pain.
    The pleasure is worth…..

    Martin

    I wouldn’t say that this writing/publishing experience was painful. I mean, I struggled, sure, and that made me uncomfortable at times, but I was not “hurt” by the rejection. If anything, it pissed me off and made me go again.

    AJax

    Good post, Martin. I try to keep enough irons in the fire that I always have two things submitted, and I use a rotation system. So, one story or poem will go out to five magazines one week. Two weeks later, a second round for a different piece. Then two weeks later, back to the first piece, sent out to however many journals have rejected it. Etc. If something isn’t picked up after rive rounds, it’s back to the drawing board. If I’ve gotten some positive, helpful feedback, I might tinker or revise and resend. If it hasn’t, I put… Read more »

    Martin

    Hey Ajax,

    A plan or a system is always better than just flailing around.

    And, boy, do I have some dreck that needs burning in the fireplace.

    Jamie

    I came here through your fb post. I like to think
    that I never give up on an essay I submitted, but
    it has happened. The moment for it has passed,
    or it’s clearly just not up anyone’s alley. But there are
    pieces I’ve submitted again and again to the point of
    insanity that were eventually taken. It’s part stubbornness,
    and part belief in one’s own words. Six years isn’t so bad
    in the long run. I hope it was worth it for you.

    Martin

    Jamie,

    You’re right, six years wasn’t that bad and I enjoyed having the story around to work on.




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