Failing Better Isn’t Really Failing (Literary Rejection Letters and You)

One of my favorite things about this blog is how many people find their way here by searching for information about literary rejection letters.  If there’s a word in German that means the opposite of Schadenfreude, that’d how I’d describe it:  It’s not that I’m glad for your literary travails, but it’s also not rank commiseration.  It’s a shame that neither of us are selling to Tin House, but let’s be honest:  thousands of very talented fiction writers and poets offer very good work every day, and only a tiny sliver of that is being shared with the world at mid-sized or major markets and web venues.

I worry less and less about that lately.  I’ve gotten to the point that the work I’m sending out has been workshopped at high levels, has been wrestled with, lived with, fought with, blown up, and, importantly, influenced by the ways I’ve learned to be a better reader.  You can do all these things without getting an MFA, and you should do them.

There’s a fairly famous online lit venue called Fail Better.  The monicker is taken from Samuel Beckett:

Ever tried.
Ever failed.
No matter.
Try again.
Fail again.
Fail better.

It doesn’t matter what your field is.  If we must fail, we might as well fail better.  And then we’re not really failing at all.

I got two rejection letters this morning.

No matter.

Do what you do, and do it as well as you can.  Stretch yourself, open your art or work or code to people whose opinions matter.  Stay your course, but don’t be afraid to be enriched by the eyes and ears of others willing to share their vantage.   Make friends.  Be nice.  Amazing things will happen.  You’re only failing if you’ve refused to let rejection make you better.


How All Literary Rejection Letters Should Start

This lets you know right away that the rest of the email is not about your Pushcart nomination.

After the salutation, the very first word of the first sentence should be “unfortunately.” This saves writers from having to scan the rest of the text for the word. It also means that if the writer’s e-mail service shows body text previews, the writer doesn’t even have to open the email to know they’ve been slush-piled. I still recommend reading the actual rejections just in case there are specific comments or requests for more work.

This message has been brought to you by the editors of a review somewhere in the formerly industrial Midwest. Remembering which story I sent them four months ago is pretty tough, and it looks like they forgot the title, too.

Since many of you visit this blog looking for bits and pieces about the MFA process and the nuts and bolts of trying to get pieces published, I thought I’d share the secret hierarchy of rejection letters.

1: The standard form letter like the one seen here.  Not very gratifying, but don’t take it personally.  You’re busy, they’re busy, and that’s just how it goes.

2: The form letter with your name and the title of your piece.  Pretty standard practice.  I think I get more rejections with this level of personalization than without.

3: The personalized rejection letter with a personal note telling you how much they liked your story, even though it’s not for them, and encouraging you to send them more. In the super-competitive and completely subjective literary world, this can feel almost as good as an acceptance.  When you’re at this point with a specific piece or a specific market, you know that the editors really looked hard at your piece, thought about it, and saw enough promise (or whatever they look for) to personally encourage you as a writer.  No one owes you that, so when you get it, it’s a good thing.  Follow up with a thank you.

The most important thing to remember?  We’re talking about subjective responses to art.  You will “fail” often, especially in the beginning.  The thing is persistence and, very often, revision.

Writing and Revising with Ann Hood and Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad

When I was in my MFA program, I felt like the luckiest person in the world.  My classmates were amazing, my teachers brilliant.  My job in that course of study was to learn, as best I could, how to build a story.  Ann Hood told us that whatever our latent talent, we were there to learn how fiction works, and how and why it doesn’t.  She taught us to be merciless with the things we thought we’d been so clever about, and, in short, to blow them up.

Joseph Conrad reminds us that revision literally means to see anew.  Ann might say that revision isn’t a necessary evil but a necessary good.  Someone else said “anyone can write, but only a writer can revise.”   Most honest writers will tell you that the story is really written in the revision.

Beginning writers sometimes feel so beholden to their initial muse that they mystify everything and end up producing very little.  Writing is a craft.  Yes, it requires inspiration.  There are days when I stare at the page or the screen and do very little with my hands.  Then there are days when the ideas and language flow.  I can’t control which day is which, but I can do by best, on the slow days, to prepare myself for the fast ones.  The later are more thrilling, for sure.  But they don’t come without the former.  Feeling stuck?  Read a book.  Watch a well-written show.  Listen to a song that keeps raising the narrative stakes.

Spanbauer, Palahniuk, Hempel, and My Dog

Tom Spanbauer calls cliched words and imagery received text. I know this because of a great essay Chuck Palahniuk wrote about Amy Hempel and minimalism. I try to by hyperaware of received text in my work and when I’m reading manuscripts in workshop.

Case in point:  On a recent walk, when my dog moved to use a fire hydrant in typical cartoon fashion, I actually said to myself, “Come on, boy, you’re better than that.”

(Yeah, I’m in an MFA program).