Submit That Manuscript!
JUST a few days ago I received a rejection letter from the Southern Review. The e-mail read, in part, “Dear Joey Franklin: Thank you for sending us [your essay]. We enjoyed this piece, but we didn’t feel it was right for the Southern Review.”
How to describe the emotions wrapped up in this brief encounter? First there was surprise at the unexpected response after months of waiting. Then a jolt of anticipation as my finger hovered over the e-mail link on my phone’s screen—the possibility of sharing journal space with so many writers I admire; the schmoozing when I run into editors at next year’s AWP book fair; the kudos from colleagues who’ve been trying to get into the magazine for years—eat your hearts out! And there’s also the practical matter of money (the Southern Review actually pays cash) as well as the all-important publication line on my curriculum vitae.
Then, of course, I open the e-mail and all that irrational optimism plunges deep into the pit of my stomach. Rejection is a sickening experience, something akin to airplane turbulence or bumping into your ex while she’s out with her new fling. Neuroscientists have actually identified similarities between our response to rejection and our response to physical pain. And the more personal the rejection, the more pain we feel. A friend of mine recently told me she received two rejection letters in one day—one from a poetry journal and the other from a potential employer. Guess which rejection hurt worse.
As writers, we work to put a piece of ourselves on the page, and when editors reject that work, it can feel really personal. I think this may be a significant reason so many writers procrastinate, put off revision, and ultimately fail to send out their best work to journals, editors, and agents. And yet, in my own experience, submitting work has often played an important role in lifting a manuscript over those final hurdles toward something that resembles a complete work of art. As I see it there are at least three reasons a writer should make submission a regular part of the writing process.
1. Finishing What You Start
Submission encourages us to stick with a manuscript until it’s really done. If you’re like me, somewhere on your
computer you’ve got a folder where you keep false starts, half-finished drafts, and nearly completed manuscripts that you don’t know what to do with. Of course, if our only goal is to write, who cares how full this folder gets? But if we want to participate in the literary conversation, to communicate with another person beyond our own friends and family, we have to find a way to move our manuscripts forward. By committing to submit our work, we create self-imposed deadlines that keep us in the chair and force us to not only complete drafts, but to polish and refine them as well.
In compiling his essay collection Partisans, published in May by Black Lawrence Press, Joe Oestreich struggled to know whether his manuscript was really ready for submission. Then he got an e-mail about an upcoming deadline for a book contest that gave him “a much-needed kick in the pants.” The contest motivated him to polish a few essays and plug a few thematic holes, and by the contest deadline he had a manuscript that finally felt complete. In the end, Oestreich didn’t win that contest, but entering it helped him complete his manuscript and gave him the confidence he needed to keep submitting. Without the contest, he says, the manuscript might still be sitting in a folder on his computer.
For writers such as Oestreich, the simple presence of a submission target can be motivation enough to complete a manuscript. Such external goals work for two reasons. First, and most obviously, they create a deadline. Anyone who has spent time in a writing workshop knows the motivating power of due dates, but external goals can have a much more significant effect. Jennifer Sinor, author of the memoir Ordinary Trauma (University of Utah Press, 2017), sees external goals as a way to reduce the pressure writers feel to produce “art.” According to Sinor, giving yourself a submission target allows you to accept that “you don’t have to write the Great American Novel; you just have to send [something] to an online journal or to a contest by the end of the month.” External deadlines can alleviate the pressure to make a manuscript perfect, which might just be what’s needed to get that manuscript done.
2. Becoming Your Own
The second reason to make submission part of the writing process is that submission changes the way we read our own work. Developing an objective ear is vital to sophisticated revision, and nothing helps develop that objective ear more quickly than revising a draft with a living, breathing reader in mind. By writing to an audience beyond our immediate circle of friends, we develop the ability to hear our own work as it really sounds.
In the past seven years, Ira Sukrungruang has published a book of poetry, a memoir, a collection of short stories, and a collection of essays. Near
the end of his writing process, Sukrungruang transforms into what he calls a “language technician.” During the final push toward submission, he says, he “concentrates solely on word and rhythm and pacing and shape.” More than some artistic icing on the manuscript cake, this concentration on language represents Sukrungruang’s commitment to the reader experience. And like many writers, Sukrungruang pictures an actual person when he thinks of his reader. “Generally, I think I write for the lady on the bus. She’s the grouchy one with a permanent scowl,” he says. “If I can please her with my writing, then I can please anyone.”
Jericho Parms, author of Lost Wax (University of Georgia Press, 2016), describes her own reader-centric revision in a similar way. “When I prepare to send work out, I always give it one final read with an eye to potential roadblocks I’ve created for a reader. Are my sentences clean and deliberate? Can my readers follow each trajectory I weave together? Where have I overindulged in language that might distance a reader who is new to my voice?” For Parms, this self-interrogation is a key step in finding her unique voice in a manuscript—a voice that strikes a balance between her personal vision and the expectations of a potential reader.
Submission can also be a way of acknowledging that we, as writers, don’t always know as much as we think we do about our own work. Matthew Gavin Frank, author of The Mad Feast (Liveright Press, 2015), thinks of submission as a way to give his writing some independence. He says he needs to “let it off leash... let it run around, allow other folks to have their way with it in order for me to really know what it is that I’ve done.” Thinking of submission in this manner can take some of the fear out of the experience. Instead of thinking of submission as a competition we hope to win, we can think of submission as an act of humility and community—perhaps an acknowledgement that writing has little hope of achieving its artistic potential if it is never exposed to the sometimes harsh light of the disinterested reader’s eye.
3. Learning From Rejection
Perhaps the most important reason to submit is to get more comfortable with rejection, because rejection is such a basic part of the writing life. A no from an editor can be disappointing, sure, but it can also help us be more honest about the weaknesses in our own writing. On top of that, rejection can help us see more clearly where our work fits into the larger literary conversation and give us confidence to stick with a project.
The novelist Anne Valente, author of Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down (William Morrow, 2016), describes rejection as “one of the greatest teachers we have in our creative work.” At its most basic level, rejection tells us that “one editor couldn’t use our
work,” she says, but a series of rejections might be a good indication that a manuscript needs real help. And a rejection might teach us other important lessons as well. For instance, rejection might be a lesson in selecting a more appropriate outlet for a manuscript. Rejection might be a lesson in the limits of experimentation, or the strength of a particular voice or argument. Then again, rejection just might be a lesson in sticking to one’s convictions. As Valente says, “Through years of writing and submitting, I think writers can hone their sense of what is good feedback and what needs to be revised, and what should remain as is because perhaps the work is doing something that hasn’t been done before.”
At the very least, rejection can help cultivate perspective. Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas, author of Don’t Come Back (Mad River Books, 2017), sees rejection as liberating. “What on earth do you stand to lose once you’ve been rejected?” she asks. “Nothing.” And since all of us are so likely to get rejected anyway, we might as well embrace the projects we believe in and let editors do their jobs. “[Our manuscripts] are not children that go out into the world.... They are words on a screen, valuable only for their arrangement. Our job is to make that arrangement as deliberate as possible. The world’s job is to reject us as many times as possible.”
Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas isn’t alone in her pragmatic approach to rejection. “Feelings of rejection, if I’m lucky, turn into swagger,” says the poet Erica Dawson, author of The Small Blades Hurt (Measure Press, 2013). “My poems are competitive with each other.” If Dawson submits three poems to a journal and two get accepted, she imagines that third poem getting indignant: “The third poem is like, ‘Fuck that—I’m so much better than the first two.’” Dawson takes rejection as a challenge. “I’ve got to get that third poem to prove its worth,” she says. In this imaginative way, Dawson transforms the negative emotional experience of rejection into the positive emotional experience of play. Rejection becomes a chance to revisit her work, listen to its voice, and judge it again on her own terms.
IN SUGGESTING writers submit more work, I am aware of the potential problem such advice creates for the army of overworked editors and agents who have to read all those submissions. So, while I believe submitting work is important, I also believe in being a conscientious member of the writing community. To that end, a few caveats:
Know your target market.
We must get to know the aesthetic of a particular journal or agent before submitting. It does no good to send a Petrarchan sonnet to a journal that publishes only avant-garde haiku.
Submit only truly finished work. As writers, our job is to revise a manuscript until we can’t stand it anymore. Then revise again until we fall back in love with it. Then revise again until someone else will fall in love it. Only then should we send out work. And when we get that rejection letter, we sit back down in the chair and make it better, again.
Track submissions. Most editors allow writers to simultaneously submit to multiple outlets, which is great for us but makes more work for those editors. We must keep track of our submissions and immediately notify editors if a submission is accepted elsewhere.
Reserve a folder for failed attempts. If we finish a manuscript, and it is ultimately not our best work, we can’t be afraid to put it away for as long as we need to. Part of learning to use that essential objective ear is learning to admit when a piece is just not working, no matter how much time we’ve spent with it.
Take rejection in stride. No one wants to be that self-important writer who lashes out at editors for doing their job, but if we aren’t careful, we can let rejection get to us. Sending out work requires some humility in the first place. We should remember that same humility when an editor decides our work isn’t ready.
I’ve been submitting work to literary magazines for more than a decade, and I collect rejections like some people collect love letters. I keep them in a green file folder in my desk at work, and I like to show them to students—not out of some form of self-flagellation, but as a reminder to them and to myself that submission and rejection are part of the process of becoming a writer. If we aren’t submitting, we aren’t taking advantage of the most effective tool writers have for turning rough drafts into final drafts. If we aren’t submitting, we aren’t engaging in an important step in discovering our own voice on the page. And if we aren’t submitting, we’re missing out on opportunities to discover where our work fits in the grand literary conversation.
And yet, is rejection essential? Maybe not. Ultimately, as a writer I’m interested in translating the mess of my own heart and mind onto the page, and tenure requirements notwithstanding, publication is secondary. If I were a plumber or an accountant, I would still write. From a personal perspective, I don’t need the validation of an editor, but to think of the authoreditor relationship as only a professional matter or as merely a necessary evil in the otherwise idyllic life of the writer-artist is to shortchange the role of a disinterested reader in the creation of literary art. By committing to submit our best work to editors, we acknowledge that writing, at its most valuable, is a private act with a public end. And in that way, our commitment to submitting work can become a commitment to the writing community itself.