Are you still submitting? Determination is the key.

You’ve heard it before, I’m sure – you have to keep swimming. That’s true for the actual act of writing in the first place. No matter how hard it is, you just keep going. To quote the erstwhile Chuck Wendig, “I will finish the shit I start.” And then, to explain why, we’ll quote the incomparable Angela Slatter: “You can edit shit, but you can’t edit nothing.” Notice how shit features in both those quotes? Subconscious, I’m sure, but it helps to make the point. Nothing is shiny first time around. In writing, you really can polish a turd, if you keep at it, make the necessary changes, listen to critique and so on. But you have to have a turd to start with, and that means working hard, writing, writing, writing, essentially, keep pushing until you’ve squeezed one out. And then start polishing.

But I think it’s time we moved away from the crappy analogies. Sorry, it seems I can’t help myself.

Let’s assume you did get the thing finished, be it novel or short story or whatever. Then you started polishing. You edited, tweaked and buffed till it was perfect. Then you sent it out to your critiquing friends and beta readers, and those bastards pointed out all the imperfections. So you listened, because you’re smart like that. And you polished again and again. Eventually, it really was about as good as you could make it. So you submitted it to your favourite market.

And it got rejected.

“Fuck ’em!” you cry, and send it somewhere else. Their loss if they can’t recognise your genius, right?

Yes, to a degree. Because no matter how good a story is, it might not be right for that publisher’s catalogue, that editor’s taste, that publication’s readership and so on. You have to have a good story – that, above and beyond everything else, is a pre-requisite – but you also have to find the right home. And that’s as much luck and determination as it is smart planning and skill. Of course, if you send your werewolf story to a soft porn magazine it’s not going to sell. Are you laughing? Cos that happened to me.

To be fair, it wasn’t really my fault. When I was moving to Australia permanently, I asked an Australian friend what magazines out here might be good for fiction. I thought I’d start submitting, see if I could get a bit of Aussie publication going before I got here permanently. He said to me, “Picture Magazine publishes fiction, give them a go.” And he sent me the submission address. Old-school post back in those days. Of course, he was winding me up, but I didn’t know that Picture Magazine was a soft-core porn publication. I sent them a story about a werewolf detective. I got a letter back. It said, “This is a beaut yarn, mate, but really not the sort of thing we publish. Thanks anyway.” That’s because the fiction they usually publish is a reader’s-wives/confessions-of-a-randy-plumber type of thing. I didn’t know this before I submitted or when I got the rejection.

When I got to Australia I looked into it. I laughed. Then I went and kicked my mate in the nards for being such a douchebag. Then we both laughed about it. True story. Anyway, write good shit and know your market, is the core of what I’m saying here.

After that, it becomes all about determination. I write this post now because I was recently reminded of the importance of determination by a friend of mine. Ian McHugh is a bloody brilliant short fiction writer. He’s sold stories to such pro markets as Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Asimov’s and many more. He’s a Writers Of The Future winner and his first collection is coming from Ticonderoga Publications in 2014. Yes, he is one accomplished bastard.

Why am I citing Ian as an example of determination? Well, even with a record like his, he still gets a lot of rejection. He recently made a pro sale with a story that has taken a long time to find a home. How long? I’ll let Ian explain:

This was actually the 19th time I’d submitted this particular story, so it’s my new record holder for number-of-rejections-before-selling. Previous best was 14. My general rule has been to trunk a story after 15 rejections. I broke it for this one because I got some lightning-to-the-brain feedback with the 14th rejection and rewrote the ending.

That means that not only was it rejection 14 times before he had a sudden realisation about how to improve the story, but it was subsequently rejected another four times with the new ending before it found its home.

As Ian said, “Take whatever lessons you will from my Obsessive Compulsive Bloody-Mindedness Disorder (OCBMD).”

The lesson I take from it? Trust in yourself and keep looking for a home. My personal record of rejections before a sale is the same as Ian’s previous best: 14. What really surprised me was the people on our email list expressing amazement at Ian’s tenacity, saying things like, “I couldn’t handle that much rejection” or “I give up after two or three rejections.”


Let me share some of my own numbers. My recent short fiction sales are all stories that didn’t find a home right away. In fact, my stories hardly ever do. Only a handful of things I’ve written have sold to the first place I sent them, and those are usually things written for a specific themed anthology, or stories written by request/commission. Of the 3 recent stories that I wrote simply because they were in my brain-juice, and then tried to sell, I got 11 rejections, 2 rejections and 6 rejections before they sold to the 12th, 3rd and 7th market respectively. That’s actually a fair cross-section of submission numbers. (And I was bloody happy with the one that sold on the third attempt!)

So, don’t give up on writing something – finish that motherfucker. Then, when it’s finished and polished to its highest possible sheen, start submitting and do not give up. Stay open to the possibility of change, like Ian’s sudden inspiration. I recently did that and changed a story’s structure entirely after something like 10 or 11 rejections, but it’s still essentially the same story and it’s still out there looking for a home.

Finish it, polish it, submit it, repeat.

Off you go.

Caveat: It gets to a point when you have to admit that your story might not be a polished gem at all, but actually just a stinking turd. Sometimes you do have to trunk a story. Ian’s method is give up after 15 rejections. Mine is probably about the same. But when I give up, I never really give up. I rewrite the story, use the ideas in a different way, make it into something else and then send it out there again. Never. Give. Up.


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23 thoughts on “Are you still submitting? Determination is the key.

  1. Heh. I tried submitting to Picture once, and Playboy too. They paid really well. If only they ever bought something from me!

    Oh, and yes, everything you say is true. πŸ™‚

  2. Sean – I would love to sell to Playboy. Those are some sweet pay rates. I remember Jeff Vandemeer talking about getting US$4,500 for a short story. I nearly choked on my gruel! (Not sure if that was Playboy, but a comparable market.)

  3. Thanks Alan. Exactly the article I needed to read. Thanks for sharing rejection numbers. I’ve been trunking stories after 3 or 4 attempts, perhaps I should dust a few of them off and send them out again.

    Kind regards, Adam.

  4. Adam – definitely! But always pay attention to feedback, see where you might be able to give it another polish between submissions and so on.

  5. Hey Alan, great post. I too generally give up after 3 or 4 rejections, which makes things difficult as I only have time to write a few stories a year. Perhaps I’ll take a longer view in future, but that also means finding the time to read more magazines to assess new markets.

  6. Chris – I recommend listening to podcasts. Things like Escape Pod, PodCastle, Pseudopod and so on. They usually podcast previously published stories from a variety of places and that can help to give you an idea of what sort of things are published where. And read lots of publications, of course.

  7. Yeah, I could probably wallpaper a room with my rejections. I’ve had three only recently. One fully deserved it because it was written in haste to meet a deadline, but I will put it away for a while and rewrite. the other two – no. I’ll look at it again in a little while, but think it’s a publishable story and will sell, eventually. One story I finally sold late last year had been rejected several times, but eventually found an anthology it fitted. My novel Wolfborn was rejected by every YA market in the country before a publisher who’d had to turn it down for reasons unconnected with its quality emailed me saying she had a hole in the schedule at her new employers and culd she take a look at this manuscript she’d heard I had( she said later that yes, it did look familiar when I sent it to her…). You just never know, do you?

    I have a few MSS on my iPad, so much easier to carry with me than a laptop and I don’t have to start in longhand.

    As for Playboy, it seems a lot if people really did read it for the articles and fiction. Quite a few big name writers have written for it. $4500? None of my *books* ever paid more than $3000!

  8. Hi Alan,

    Thanks for sharing such an honest account of your experiences and offering such great advice. I think we forget we are already way ahead of the game if we are simply writing consistently. Isn’t it a skill in itself to be able to decipher and transfer the rambles of our minds onto paper in the first place?

    It would be rude of me not to share my β€œcrappy” analogy, as I know you like them. Writing for me is much like building a sandcastle. At first we gather the sand, slop it all together and cement it down until we have the foundation. Once we have the basic structure that’s when we go back and really make something of it by taking away sections, smoothing out areas, adding dimensions and carving new paths. Like you said, we have to start with something, or all we will be left with is a lump of sand.

    I’m glad to see you quoted Chuck Wendig in your article as I was going to recommend you read his article, “25 things I want to say to so-called ‘aspiring’ writers’. You both have the same humorous undertones and no-hold-barred writing style that I really enjoy.

  9. I’m up to nine agent rejections so far on my novel manuscript. I think it was Miss Snark that recommended you not give up till you have one hundred. Not sure I’ll get that far. :p

  10. I was going to say that Roger Barrett got his start in Playboy, but then he was writing fiction that suited the market.

    Am hoping to get my first rejection in about 2 weeks time. Though not from Playboy πŸ™‚

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