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Dealing with Literary Rejection: Tips from Sarah Fawn Montgomery

Every writer experiences rejection. Yet we tend to suffer in silence, nursing our egos and refreshing our inboxes for news of the next editorial decision. Is there a better way to approach this inevitability of literary life? The answer is yes! Here are some tips for preventing, and getting over, the rejection blues.

1. Work for a literary magazine. I began submitting pieces before really understanding how the publishing process worked, so each rejection felt personal. Clearly, the editors had rejected me, not my piece, and I knew they would remember my name forever, laughing if I ever dared to submit again. After working for The Normal School, Brevity, and now Prairie Schooner, I realize there are dozens of reasons your piece may not be selected: it doesn't fit the magazine's aesthetic, it doesn't fit the current call or theme, the editors published a piece about hiking or opera or grasshoppers last issue, the editors were feeling particularly annoyed by epigraphs the day they read your piece, or, let's face it, the piece wasn't good enough (which is ok, since not every piece you write can be a knockout). Working behind the scenes, I know not every decision I make is an attack on a writer, nor do I remember each writer's name or previous pieces if they want to submit again. I've loved writers whose previous works fell short, and sometimes top-tier writers have submitted pieces that fall flat. There is something larger at work when it comes to editing, and being a part of this larger process can be refreshing for our sometimes-fragile writer egos.

2. Send out your work in batches. When you send out a piece to one magazine and spend months wringing your hands hoping--then despairing--the inevitable rejection feels much more important and much more severe. You hung your metaphorical hat on one hook for six months, and then the hook threw your hat back in your face and gouged you in the gut. If you send out your piece in batches, however, a few things change. Sure, this means you will receive more rejections, but the more you receive, the less they will sting. More importantly though, increased rejections means increased exposure. By sending out in larger quantities, more editors and magazines will see your work, which may increase your chances of an acceptance.

3. Create a rejection ritual. A UNL colleague makes a point of purchasing a "rejection latte" for every rejection, which sounds delicious and fairly celebratory rather than conciliatory. My own ritual is this: rather than dwell in rejection, thinking the offending magazine will never publish me, I send another piece off, which has resulted in an acceptance on more than one occasion, something that might not have happened had I allowed myself to wallow.

4. Use rejection as motivation. Some writers vow never to send to a magazine again if they've been rejected enough times, thereby increasing their bitterness and guaranteeing the magazine will never publish them. Other writers give up on a piece if it is rejected a certain number of times. But again, there are dozens of reasons your piece(s) may have been rejected, and the editorial boards of literary magazines are shifting all the time. Refusing to submit because your feelings are hurt only narrows potential venues for your work and wastes the creative and emotional energy you've put into the work. Instead, keep sending to the magazines you love and keep sending the pieces that make you proud. It feels good when a magazine you respect finally publishes your work, and it feels even better when a piece you thought no one wanted finally finds the right home.

5. Get crafty. I began collecting hardcopy rejection slips shortly after I started submitting my work. Eventually I used these slips to decoupage a coffee table I keep in my office [pictured above!]. Along with being a nice conversation starter, the table serves as both a reminder that rejection is a part of the process--if I'm not getting rejected, I'm not doing my job as a writer--but also as a bit of inspiration, since a dozen or so of the magazines pasted onto the table have now published me. Arts and crafts are a nice distraction from self-pity--plus, add a rejection latte and things don't seem bad at all.


Sarah Fawn Montgomery is an ideal candidate to discuss this topic since she's both experienced at being rejected and incredibly successful, as her bio attests: Her work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and her poetry and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in various magazines including Confrontation, Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Fugue, Georgetown Review, The Los Angeles Review, North Dakota Quarterly, The Pinch, Puerto del Sol, Zone 3 and others.