As much as I’ve internalized inspirational
messages like “write the book you want to read” and “believe in your writing,”
I still procrastinate and feel down about the quantity and quality of my stories. Change
is easier said than done. But on rare occasions, I’ll find a piece of writing advice that
triggers a metamorphosis. My entire mindset shifts, and I become an altogether different
type of writer, behaving in ways I had never attempted before.
These are the three pieces of writing advice that changed my life.
Number One: Aim for Rejection In 2017, I started seriously submitting my
writing to professional publications. That first year, I submitted to eleven literary
magazines and writing contests. In 2018, I submitted to fifteen. In 2019, I submitted
to over one hundred and fifty. What the heck happened?!
Sometime toward the end of 2018, I read an article on Literary Hub by Kim Liao entitled
“Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year.” She talks about a writer friend of
hers who seemed to win everything—from writing residencies to publication in well-known magazines.
This friend changed her life by saying, “Collect rejections. Set rejection goals. I know someone
who shoots for one hundred rejections in a year, because if you work that hard to get
so many rejections, you’re sure to get a few acceptances, too.”
Liao describes how our fragile creative egos hold us back because we only want to be loved
and accepted—and that’s unrealistic in the competitive field of writing. After that
realization, her submission process transformed: “Instead of tucking my story or essay apologetically
into a bottle and desperately casting it out to sea, I launch determined air raids of submission
grenades, five or ten at a time.” When I read this article, it was close to
the new year, so one of my resolutions for 2019 was to collect fifty rejections for short
stories, poetry, and writing scholarships. Given some magazines can take six months to
respond and I didn’t have much out at the time, I figured that would be a reachable
goal for my first year. However, I didn’t want to spam magazines with sloppy drafts
that didn’t fit their aesthetic. I still wanted to present my best possible work, so
I made sure not to rush into submitting work I hadn’t gotten critiqued. I carefully read
each magazine’s guidelines and their past stories, in hopes of increasing my chances.
I also favored submitting to paying markets I respected that didn’t require reading
fees. I surpassed my goal, collecting 104 “not
the best fit for our magazine” emails. And that experience has made me realize that rejection
reaps even more benefits than I had expected. For one, it’ll hone your submission skills.
In the past year, I’ve learned the ins and outs of the submission process because I’ve
read so many guidelines. I’ve mastered how to format my submission, write a cover letter,
and find places to submit. I’ve also read some amazing pieces of writing on the websites
I’ve submitted to—and that has helped me see what types of pieces are getting published
and discover new favorite authors. As time passes, I know my writing will improve, and
by the time I’ve further refined my skills, I’ll already know how to navigate the industry.
Second, rejection will force you to develop thicker skin. Now, I’m not completely desensitized
to rejection, but I no longer feel the sinking feeling every time I see a new email in my
inbox that starts with “Thank you for submitting to…” My eggs are in so many baskets that
the most a form-letter rejection receives from me is a shrug. Every time I receive a
rejection, I find another place to submit and let the cycle continue.
Third, rejections occasionally come with personalized feedback. Most editors don’t have the time
or energy to devote to personalized feedback because they receive hundreds of submissions.
But those rare gems who do are a godsend. One publication that rejected a horror story
of mine passed along comments from their slush pile readers, where they said, “Holy fuck!
I love this piece! The premise is unique and totally engaging. The sensory descriptions
are honestly beyond anything I’ve ever encountered before. Just, yes. All the yes.” Even though
the story didn’t end up being a good fit for the magazine, that type of encouragement
gave me the push I needed to continue submitting that piece.
Personalized rejections also might tell me that I need to revise the story before I submit
it elsewhere, which is equally valuable. One magazine editor told me, “I liked the vividness
of your setting and imagery, and the assurance of your narrative voice. My sense of Romin’s
character was a little slight, and I didn’t feel entirely grounded in the story as a result.”
With that specific feedback, I could more objectively understand why the story was getting
rejected by different magazines. What’s more, I want to polish my stories so that
I can be proud of the final product. I want my work to be the best it can be and published
by a reputable magazine, not just posted anywhere that will take it.
Fourth, just as the Lithub article pointed out, rejection will increase your acceptance
rate. In 2018, I had five small pieces published at nice places, but they were mostly non-paying.
In 2019, I had twelve pieces accepted, several of them paying venues, including one that
paid ten cents per word. Fifth, rejection means a writing professional
is reading your work. This sounds a bit vain, but as a writer, I want to be read, and submitting
my work achieves that goal because someone has to read my writing in order to reject
it. I find comfort in the idea that something I spent so much time on is being read by another
human being, even if they don’t connect with it.
Sixth, and most importantly, aiming for rejection means you’ll submit more, which will inspire
you to write more. There are countless pieces that I’ve pushed myself to finish drafting
or revising because of submission deadlines. I also treat magazine themes or word limits
as writing prompts, crafting a story specifically for that market. I wrote a story for a horror
anthology that had a 1,200-word cap. Although the story was rejected for that publication,
I ended up selling it somewhere else within a few months. Thanks to my rejection goals,
I’ve finished more stories and poems in the past year than I have ever before.
Writers can be overly sensitive and insecure. We receive one rejection, and we think that
means the story sucks and will never get published. Most of the time, we just need to receive
more feedback on it and revise more—or we need to keep trying to find a good fit. I
feel no shame in rejection but instead wear it as a badge of honor.
Even when I’m deep in the submission hellscape, I make sure to view my writing as a form of
joyful self-expression. In the words of Kim Liao, “…submissions are not required to
be a writer… The act of writing is the part that feels like flying.”
Number Two: Treat Your Writing Like a Business I have a friend who writes at least ten books
a year—and we’re talking full-fledged, 120,000-word, typo-free books. How does she
do it? Well, for one, she’s a ghostwriter, so writing is one of her primary sources of
income. She’s also writing from a plot outline that someone else has written, and she has
a developmental editor (me) and copy editor polishing her drafts before they’re published.
By the time we’re finished, the writing is smooth and the story is entertaining enough
to feel like a publishable book. I’ve edited twenty-six of her novels, and
her output speed—along with the quality of her writing—never fails to amaze me.
We work under tight deadlines, so she often churns out the first draft in a month, then
goes through it a few more times to make changes based on my feedback and that of other editors
and beta readers. She can write 10,000 words in a day, if she’s feeling feisty.
I wanted to know how she did it—and how she avoided creative burnout. Where did she
find that level of discipline? I was struggling to finish a draft of even one novel, and I
begged her to give me some advice. Here’s what she told me: “Treat your writing like
a business.” Think of it as a normal job, even if the going is slow. She takes regular
breaks and says, “be stern with yourself.” I’d heard similar advice before, but this
time it clicked because I’d seen someone actually put it into practice. Treating writing
like a business had seemed cold and clinical to me, as I prefer to view writing as an art
and a craft first, a business second. I didn’t want to feel like a word factory churning
out generic content for the masses. But my friend writes with such heart and humor, and
writing with a business attitude clearly didn’t change the quality of her output; it merely
increased the quantity. My mentality shifted. Writing wasn’t a hobby
I could put on the backburner. This short story I started drafting five months ago?
I need to finish it today, get feedback, revise it, and submit it places. It’s on my need-to-do
list, not my want-to-do list. I have to prioritize it. I have to be disciplined. And I did sit
down and finish that 5,400-word short story in one day. It flowed from my fingertips,
and my critique partners praised it as one of the best stories I’d written to date.
After revising it, I felt total elation. I didn’t feel guilty for writing instead of
getting ahead on work because writing is part of my work.
I also felt daunted about writing an outline for my middle-grade fantasy novel. Sure, I’d
written a dozen plot outlines for work, producing a 20,000-word summary in a week, but I’d
been working under a deadline then, and I was being paid for it. I’d never written
a coherent outline for myself from start to finish, with no paycheck or deadline to externally
motivate me. I’d tried to give myself deadlines before, but I quickly lost momentum. But this
was a shorter book, and I really, really, really wanted to start drafting it. I told
myself that it was another project for work, that this was part of my business, and voilà,
I had a 12,000-word chapter-by-chapter outline to guide my draft.
Now, I don’t mean “business” in terms of spending or making money, because writing
fiction rarely makes a huge profit when weighed against the time and resources required to
do it well. As Stephen King said in his memoir, “Writing isn’t about making money, getting
famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching
the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.”
So, in my mind, treating writing like a business means approaching it as a job rather than
a hobby. I realize this approach isn’t feasible for everyone because work and family responsibilities
will often come before writing. Time and energy are luxuries. But for me, looking at my writing
as something that must get done helped me throw away my usual excuses. It hasn’t taken
the fun out of the process, either, and has in fact been more inspiring than it ever was
when I treated it like a “someday-I’ll-get-published” hobby—because I’m finishing things. I’m
producing more stories than ever before and getting them out there. I’m honing my craft
and making mistakes and learning and trying. Even if you can only write when you get a
spare moment, you can still think of it like a business by adding small, attainable goals
to your weekly to-do list. Any progress is better than no progress.
Number Three: Defeat Envy with Positivity Of the Seven Deadly Sins, Envy is definitely
mine. I’ve always been highly competitive, obsessed with being the best and the favorite.
I look at people younger than me who have published award-winning or commercially successful
novels, and the green-eyed monster rears its ugly head. Why do I suck so much? Why am I
so slow at writing? What am I doing with my life?!
Recently, I applied for a big writing scholarship. I was proud of my application and really thought
I had a shot. I waited anxiously to hear the results—and when the organization posted
them, my hopes crumbled into dust. The winner had published forty-five stories and edited
a number of anthologies and was writing an amazing novel while attending a Master’s
program. There was no way I could compete with that. They 110% deserved the scholarship,
but I still felt bummed. Instead of wallowing too much, I tried to
view the time I put into writing my application as a guide for improving myself. The application
required essays about your goals as a writer and what education paths you wanted to pursue.
For me, that included books, classes, and mentorship from a professional author. So,
all was not lost—writing those responses helped me clarify my goals and work toward
being a writer who’s worthy of such scholarships. I also vowed to read the winning author’s
stories and keep her name on my radar. In adopting this attitude, I was thinking
of the advice from Write Naked, a book on writing by romance author Jennifer Probst.
She outlines her strategy for using kindness to offset the envy she feels toward other
writers’ successes: 1. ACKNOWLEDGE. Denying how you feel is useless.
Just own up, even if it’s hard. These are your own private feelings and if you feel
mean, whiny, and pissed off that you didn’t get what she got, just go with it. 2. ACT IN A WAY THAT CONTRADICTS THE FEELINGS.
If there’s a particular author you can’t stop obsessing about, wondering how she got
that movie deal or television show, hit the New York Times best-sellers list for the tenth
time in a row, or is now rich from a book you didn’t even think was that good, do
something nice. Congratulate her on Facebook. E-mail her. Buy her book. Celebrate her success.
Praise her to one of your friends. You will be surprised how such an action drains the
poison from your feelings. Fake it till you make it. Personally, I hate being fake nice. I want
to be a genuine person. But I couldn’t keep letting myself feel disheartened by other
writers’ success stories. I wanted to turn that sulking into something useful, and that’s
what Probst’s advice gave me—a positive outlet for that negative energy. As she goes
on to say: “We’re going to have to deal with jealousy
at all stages of our careers. When we’re not published, we’re jealous of the published.
When we’re not signing big contracts, we’re jealous of those seven-figure deals. When
we don’t hit the best-seller lists, we’re jealous of those who do. It’s an endless,
vicious cycle. Break it by practicing kindness. Doing so allows your heart to catch up until
you realize you’re not really faking it anymore. Somehow, along the way, the goodwill
and acceptance become real.” Writing should be about collaboration, not
competition. The world is big enough to contain a multitude of books, and supporting other
writers benefits the entire author community. We all want more readers, and by recommending
each other’s books, we get people reading more. In addition, everyone’s publishing
journey is different, and there’s no one set path to “success.” Some people debut
at age 25, others at 65. Some publish one novel their whole lives, others a novel every
year. You might be a local favorite or a worldwide best-seller. You can’t base your own goal
posts off somebody else’s, because you’re not even playing in the same game. As the
saying goes, “the race is long, and in the end, it’s only against yourself.”
Aiming for rejection, treating my writing like a business, and turning envy into positivity
have reshaped me into not only a better writer, but also a better person. Even if these tips
don’t have the life-altering effect for you as they did for me, I hope you’ll find
the words that will motivate you to become the writer you aspire to be.
What writing advice changed your life? Share the magic with me in the comments. Whatever
you do, keep writing.