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.