Publishing is a subjective business. It’s easy to forget this. Writers often get so caught up in fear or rejection that they avoid submitting work altogether. This is understandable, of course. It’s much less frightening to tinker with one’s work until it’s perfectthan it is to send the work out into the world. It’s a big, scary world after all, a world filled with editors and agents lurking in the shadows, waiting eagerly to tear apart our work the minute we send it out.
Everyday, editors at literary magazines and agents in literary agencies face piles upon piles of submissions. The dreaded slush pile. Having worked both as an intern in a literary agency and as a staff member for a literary magazine, I assure you that the slush pile can terrify editors and agents just as much as it scares the pants off of writers. People reading slush have to make fast decisions about the work they read or they’d never get through it all. And these decisions are inevitably subjective.
Ultimately, the key to writers’ sanity is to embrace this subjectivity.
I’d like you do a little exercise. Pull out a piece of paper and write the word “rejection” on it. Take out a second piece and write “acceptance.” Now I’d like you to ceremoniously destroy these pieces of paper. Tear them up. Crumple up the pieces. Stomp on them. Set them on fire. Whatever you choose to do, make it dramatic.
Why did I ask you to do that? Because submitting your work–be it a query to an agent or a short story to a literary magazine–is not about acceptance or rejection.
It’s about finding the right home for your work.
When you get a YES or NO response about your writing, you’re getting feedback and this feedback helps you narrow down your search. It’s like that picture book Are You My Mother? where the little bird goes from place to place asking animals that same question until he finally finds his mother. We’re that little bird. And we’re asking agent after agent (or literary magazine after literary magazine) “Is your agency or publication the right home for my work?” Each agent or editor who says NO brings us one step closer to finding that one YES.
These words–acceptance and rejection–are an illusion. They imply that if your work gets chosen, you’re getting that magic seal of approval whereas if you hear “thanks, but no thanks” your work is no good. At least, that’s what it feels like. The truth is that most of the time it has nothing to do with value-judgements like “good” or “bad.” Some work happens to be the right fit for an agent or editor and some just isn’t. What one agent or editor sees as not for them, could be the piece that another agent or editor has been waiting for.
And here’s the beauty of all of this: all you need is one. Your work is not a Vanderbilt, it doesn’t need multiple vacation homes. All you need is one. One agent. One editor. One champion for your work.
Even if you send a zillion queries or submissions, this doesn’t mean the chances of your work getting chosen is one zillion to one. Think about it, if your work lands in the hands of that one person who’s the best fit then the odds of getting a YES are 100%. The trick is finding that one person and that’s where perseverance comes in.
Every piece I’ve submitted has eventually found its home. With one story, I found the right fit on the first try and the whole process from submission to YES happened literally overnight. Other pieces, took years and dozens of NO’s before I could find that YES. But I’ve noticed one trend, whether the YES takes a few hours or a few years. When the YES finally happens, the person saying it doesn’t just say it in an unceremonious form-letter. They tell you that they’ve “been waiting for a piece just like this.”
And when you hear that, you know you’ve found home.