Wednesday, January 1, 2020

100 Rejections: Pain or Gain?

I keep the guidelines of journals I'm interested in
on my desk. That way they're right in my face
and I can't avoid them.
It’s the start of a new year, and I’ve just crossed the finish line of a marathon I began last January, a strange, windmill-tilting quest to collect 100 rejections of my writing in one year. Yep, that’s right—I sent my work out to a lot of publishers during the past year, hoping that 100 of them would reject it in 2019.

The idea of boosting your submission process by trying for 100 rejections was championed back in 2016 by writer Kim Liao in her now-famous article “Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year.” It’s great reading, and it got a lot of writers talking about Liao’s philosophy, which was inspired by a friend’s advice to her: “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.”

I like this approach, and although I’d never really counted rejections, I knew that in past years I got way fewer than 100 per year; probably more like 20 or 30. So this past year I decided to participate in an online group where everyone was trying to get 100 rejections in 2019. (I like to do these things with groups because without any accountability or encouragement, I know I'll probably blow it off after a couple of weeks.)

The count & the amount
How did it go? In short, I didn’t make it to 100 rejections. I got 52, so I basically ran a half-100 marathon. And to get those 52 rejections, I sent out a lot more submissions than I normally would in one year. So my first takeaway is: It’s really hard work sending out enough submissions for 100 to bounce back.

My second takeaway was that it was fascinating to actually keep track of how many submissions I sent out (71*), how many were rejected (52), and how many were accepted (19). That meant a 27% acceptance rate, or roughly 1 out of every 4 submissions, and it held steady pretty much throughout the year. That 27% stat makes me happy. I’d never done enough analysis to figure out my acceptance rate in past years—I was afraid to, to be honest, fearing the percentage would be so depressing that I’d hang up my notebooks and never write again. But 1 in 4? I can live with that.

I kept a simple ongoing list of rejections and acceptances in my Notes app so I could jot them down anytime I got an e-mail with a yes or a no (and even at that, I may have missed one or two; I track submissions with an index card system that I love but that isn’t stat-friendly). By my calculations, I made $970** from writing in 2019, most of it from a second-place win in a national contest and reprints of a couple of articles that I wasn’t expecting and that I counted as a win. I didn’t keep track of how much I paid in contest entries and reading fees, but I'm cheap about those so I figure they came to about $100.

The reckoning
Because I’ve never kept meticulous stats on acceptances and rejections in the past, I can’t say how many more of either I got in 2019. But at a glance back through my 2018 submissions, it looks like I got more than twice as many acceptances in 2019. So based on that alone, this is a good system. I got into a few journals I didn't think I had much chance at; I was in "why not?" mode a lot this year, and that's a good way to be. And although, as I said, I worked a lot to send out all of those submissions, I never felt exhausted or defeated by the project. It was fun; it was a game. I’m a sucker for games.

However, I can’t help thinking that the whole process made me very eager to be published, perhaps more than was healthy. Like many writers, I was often told early on that writers should write more and publish less. (Somebody famous said that; I forget who.) Parts of me are at war over this. That publish-less thing is sort of a puritanical philosophy, like we all need to suffer to be worthy, and I know there are times when I rush off poems and essays for publication before they’re ready. (I can only hope they get rejected.) I also know that I’m 57 years old and don’t have the luxury of time that I felt in my 20s or 30s. And I sort of feel like, if I can’t rush to publication when I’m pushing 60, when exactly do I get to that? And I laugh, because writing is all about joy and not about rules. And I know I need to just keep writing and send out what I like.

On to 100?
I guess this was a success, since I’m already planning how to get more rejections in 2020***. But as always, I was surprised during this year of rejections by the way some of them broke my heart and others rolled right off me. In general, the 100-rejections practice helped take the sting out of them; when collecting them was a goal, it changed my feelings about them a little. ("Rejection? Great! Put it on the list!") That said, it didn’t mean I enjoyed getting rejecting any more than usual. This system is not a magic antidote; it’s more like desensitization. But, as I always tell young writers when I do presentations for them, this kind of desensitization is your friend. If you’re the kind who wants to rip up every rejection letter and mail it back to the editor in a Sharpie-scrawled envelope, you’re going to get very tired of doing that when they’re coming in at this rate. You log them in and move on and send out more, and that’s what takes up a lot of time in a writer's daily life.

Which brings up the question: When do you have time to write when you’re beating your brains out sending out all those submissions? I didn’t actually find that to be a problem; I continued my usual practice of doing two month-long writing marathons in April and August, and I sent out fewer submissions during those months because I was concentrating on a lot of writing. Through the rest of the year, I wrote about the same number of poems as usual, as well as some essays. So I guess the answer is that the writing still takes first priority; the submitting time, for me, ended up pushing something else out of the way, like Netflix or yard work. Which reminds me, please steer clear of my yard. While I was sending out submissions, I think skunks moved in there.

* I tracked submissions, not individual poems or pieces of writing. And note that the “submissions sent out” is just the sum of acceptances and rejections received during 2019; some were submitted in 2018, and I think a couple of publishers sat on them longer than that.

** I love it when writers tell you how much they make, don't you? The great taboo. This figure only tracks journal payments and contest wins, not book sales or honoraria at readings.

*** I'll try to be more methodical, like make lists of journals I want to be in and then actually go down the list and send poems to them. So far, I've been very good about making the lists. Not so good about the sending part.