By Michelle Barker
Any writers who send out their work are familiar with that refrain. Worst two words in the English language, right? “Dear Writer” not only means it’s a rejection letter, but worse: a form rejection. It doesn’t just say, “We didn’t like your work.” It says, “We don’t even want to know your name.”
It’s hard not to take this personally. No matter what you write, your work is always personal in some profound way—and that’s leaving aside the investment of precious time you’ve made to do it, as well as the fact that most of us have to put in the hard work before we get paid. If we get paid. This is a job that creates depression, neuroses, and a tendency to drink too much red wine.
It takes courage to send out your work, as well as a large measure of faith. I’d like to share a secret that might help. Yes, the writing is personal. But sending out your work? Pure business. If you can separate your heart from the business side of things, you’ll be ahead of the game.
And that’s another thing: it’s a game. It helps to remember that. I’m not saying it’s fun. Think the twelfth hour of a Monopoly marathon when your mother-in-law is holding Boardwalk and Park Place, and you’re coming around the board. You’ll want to quit. But hopefully you won’t, because writing doesn’t work so well as a form of communication unless you have readers.
Not every home is going to be right for your work. Some poems will feel ill-at-ease with all their piercings and frayed edges, wandering into certain upscale magazines—because they don’t belong there. Part of the business of sending out your work is making sure you target the right places.
It’s also worth remembering that editors are people. They have bad days. They have preferences. Sometimes their preferences won’t make sense to you. But you wouldn’t want to place your work with someone who didn’t love it as much as you do, so if they say no, consider it at least partially a blessing.
Unfortunately, most editors are so busy they don’t have time to tell you why they said no. This is a shame. You’ll never know if it’s because they read five dog stories in a row and yours was just bad timing—or if your work really wasn’t ready. That’s possible, too. We tend to be too eager about our fresh ink.
Submitting one’s work is such a soul-deadening experience that it’s tempting to give up. After five rejections we throw up our hands and say, “See? I knew my work was crap.” According to agent Noah Lukeman, the throwing-up-hands stage shouldn’t start until you’re at submission #50 at least.
I offer a couple of statistics for your consideration:
- It took Agatha Christie five years to find someone who would publish her novels.
- The Chicken Soup for the Soul series (okay, not a personal favourite, but bear with me) went to 140 publishers before it found a home.
- “Nobody will want to read a book about a seagull,” one editor told Richard Bach. Jonathan Livingston Seagull ended up selling 44 million copies.
- The editor who finally agreed to publish Harry Potter advised J.K. Rowling to get a day job, because she wouldn’t make any money on children’s books.
- 26 rejections of A Wrinkle in Time, 25 of The Time Traveler’s Wife, 60 of The Help.
I will close with a nod to my personal writing hero, Stephen King. When he was starting out as a writer, he pounded a nail into his wall where he kept his rejection letters. Soon the nail was too small to hold them, so he replaced it with a spike—and kept on writing, and kept on sending out his work.
The rest, as they say, is history.