Over the weekend, I came across two blog posts which really resonated with me: Keep writing stories, and keep sending them out by Jennifer R Donohue and How to Avoid Writing Burnout by Anne Leigh Parrish. Both posts acknowledge the frustration of rejection while emphasising how important it is to keep on submitting work. They highlight the need to separate your emotions from the submission process and treat writing as any other business. However, this is easier said than done...
I think part of the problem is that the processes involved in writing and submitting are all but invisible. Even when we read about someone having received dozens of rejections, this is usually in the context of discussing an overwhelming success story, like the Harry Potter books. We frame the example as an exception because the success of the finished book(s) is exceptional. There is only one JK Rowling! Statistics are a little more useful, but they fail to distinguish between different situations. We read that the average earnings for writers is X amount, but we have little idea of what is involved in earning the average amount — or how it can be surpassed.
It's always going to be hard to differentiate between writers — or even types of writers — because there are so many different reasons for writing and approaches to a writing career. Some writers have lucrative day jobs and don't need to consider short term earnings potential from writing; some writers rely on writing as their sole income and may be unable to work in a "normal" job. Some people write as a hobby and only submit stories occasionally; others are very prolific and submit dozens of stories, articles and pitches every week. I know where I fit in terms of the type of writer I want to be, but I have no idea how many people are living my dream of earning a living from writing — let alone how they go about achieving it.
How do you keep your faith in either a specific story or yourself as a writer? I keep writing because I have to — it's an urge that cannot otherwise be satiated — and I try to submit work whenever I can because I know it's the only way I stand a chance of being successful. After a particular story has been rejected a few times, I lose faith. I can't find the confidence to keep submitting it, because I assume it must be terrible. Even if all the rejections are vague/general/form rejections. Even if I got a positive rejection encouraging me to resubmit to the publication in future. I can't imagine resubmitting to a publication after 10 years of nothing but rejections: I'd assume long before that I simply wasn't good enough for that publication or that my writing style didn't fit.
Yet if someone else were saying all of this, I would reassure them that good writers get rejected all the time. I would point out that good stories get rejected because they don't fit a particular publication — or even a particular issue of that publication. I would tell them to keep persevering. To keep submitting even the stories that had been rejected several times.
I know my emotions get too caught up in my writing. Rejections in general don't bother me — in fact, I have been surprised by some very complimentary rejections — but a couple of weeks ago I got a very harsh rejection and it took the wind out of my sails. The ridiculous thing is, one story I submitted was written for my MA dissertation and I got positive feedback from both the markers, who are brilliant writers themselves — yet the rejection saying the same story (actually, an improved version of it) was utter crap (I paraphrase) has had a greater effect than the praise of two professional writers, one of whom has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize! I'm not saying the story is brilliant, but I thought it was good enough. I didn't expect such harsh criticism and receiving it has left me shaken. I doubt I will submit the story anywhere else.
My biggest challenge is dealing with the unpredictability of writing and submitting. My first acceptance was for a story I wrote pretty quickly over a few days, whereas stories I spent weeks crafting have accumulated rejection after rejection. Whenever I feel like I'm on a roll and submit regularly, I'm fine with rejections — until an unusually harsh one floors me. I can churn out drafts for weeks in a row and then face an existential crisis when I struggle with a certain story. I think the problem is that these unexpected blips seem to confirm my worst fears: that I am a terrible writer and everyone else knows. That I will never be anything but a terrible writer. That I should give up writing.
I try to detach my emotions from the business side of writing, but some blips are the literary equivalent of the school bullying zoning in on the aspect of yourself that you view as your biggest weakness. You believe them. You crumble.
I suppose I persevere because I need to write and submitting is a necessary evil in the process of achieving my goals. I just wish I was better at keeping my emotional responses to rejection in check and keeping faith in myself and my writing. How can I keep confident?
The only "solution" I can think of is to consider the numbers game: assuming my work is competent (which I doubt when my confidence is low), the more I submit the more acceptances I will get. The more competitions I enter, the higher my chances of winning (or, more realistically, getting shortlisted for) one of them. The more stories I write, the more good ones I will produce. In theory.
The numbers game theory circles back to the invisibility of the submission process. Do the writers with the most acceptances submit a lot more work than everyone else? Or are they literary geniuses who write perfect stories and submit them to the perfect outlet? Are competitions won by people who enter a lot of competitions? Or by wunderkinds who write perfect stories so that they can win a prestigious competition and launch a lucrative literary career? I suspect hard graft is behind most writers' success, but it's difficult to appreciate this when the only hard graft we observe is our own.