Sub­mit That Manuscript!

Poets and Writers - - The Practical Writer -

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

Dis­in­ter­ested Reader

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.

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