Back in my early days as a writer, I used to spend waste time poring over entries in the Writer’s Marketplace (this was before the Internet) to see how long it took a magazine to respond. I would carefully track all of my submissions, and then spend time calculating average response times. And when I got rejection slips, I’d ponder over the meaning of every word trying to find some hint of meaning in an otherwise bland form letter.
I don’t do this any more. Part of the reason is that I now better understand the markets to which I submit today. Part of the reason is because the majority of my writing these days is solicited. And part of the reason is that if I want to spend my time writing, I can’t afford to spend it pondering over the meaning of a word on a rejection slip.
As a data junkie, and quantified selfer, you’d think I’d be really into the measurements that surround the submission and publication process. And perhaps, in a loose way, I am. I track all of my submissions in a Google Spreadsheet (a template of which is freely available to anyone who wants to use it). But I find that these day, I don’t spend much time looking at the data, or putting it to significant use. In part, I think that’s because I’ve learned there really isn’t much that I can control in the process, and data is most helpful for things which we have control over.
Some of this comes from experience. Let’s say that a magazine’s average response time, according to my data, is 33 days. I submit a story to them. What is the point of checking on the story any time before 33 days? Given that the average response is 33 days, I’m kind of wasting my time expecting something before then. If I get a response sooner, great. But instead of checking and worrying and wondering if my story has been received and read, I feel like my energy is better spent working the next story.
After 33 days has past, then what? Well, what can I really do about it? An editor will get to my story when they get to it. That 33 days is just an average. Trying to guess when the response will come in seems needlessly worrisome to me today. What if the story hits 66 days? Well, I’ve probably written two or three other items during that time, maybe more if I’m not constantly worrying about the ones out on submission.
Then, too, my 33 days average is based on a pretty small sample. I’ve never been into the crowd-sourcing tools for submissions, like Duotrope, not because they charge money, but because I’m dubious of the data quality. My idea of a high data-quality service would be one where the magazines are supplying realtime response rates to the service. You’d get much more granular and probably more accurate response rates that way. Then, too, whether or not we like to admit it, editors jump around in their reading piles. I’ve had stories accepted at magazines 4 hours after submitting, that normally take 2-3 months to respond. Context plays a role in the response time process.
The bottom line, for me, is that the bulk of my enjoyment is in writing stories and articles. And nothing prevents me from writing more of them once others have been submitted–unless I get bogged down into constantly checking the status of my submissions. Thankfully, I’ve grown out of this phase.
Rejectomancy is another time-killer in a writer’s life. “Rejectomancy,” for those unfamiliar with the term, is the fine art of reading into rejection slips. That is, pondering over every word and trying to decide what it says about your story. Consider this:
Thanks for submitting “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” It is well-written, but I’m afraid it just doesn’t work for me. Best of luck placing it elsewhere, and please let me see your next one.
So… she thinks my story is well written but it didn’t quite work for her? What does that mean? And what’s this “best of luck placing it elsewhere?” Is she saying it sarcastically, like, “Yeah, good luck trying to get that piece of junk published.”
I imagine that all writers who submit stories for publication go through a phase of rejectomancy. But, outside concrete advice or recommendation, I don’t see much value in it. Worse, it can lead a writer to second-guess his or herself. And worse than that, it takes time away from working on the next story.
Granted, when I get rejection slips these days (I still get them), they often have useful advice in them from the editor. Usually this is because I’ve written for the editor before, and they are trying to help me out so I will write for them again. That is part of what an editor’s job is. In these cases, however, there is no rejectomancy involved. An editor will write, “Good story, strong writing, but it started too slowly, and I also just published a story with a similar theme last month.” Pretty clear there.
It can be hard, but I have learned not to guess at rejection slips. If it’s a form letter, I see it as rejection, nothing personal, and send the story off to the next place. If there is helpful advice, I’ll consider it. In rare instance, I might make a change to the story. But that is pretty rare. Usually, I am two or three stories down the road from the one just rejected, and it’s hard to go back–at least for me.
Other excuses to avoid writing
A writer can come up with almost any excuse to avoid writing. For a long time, I did just that. I’d clean my office first, or clean out my email inbox. Or I’d try to outline my story. Or I’d write a blog post. I’d do the window-dressing of writing, without the actual work.
These days, I rarely find a reason not to write. Indeed, as of today, I’ve written every day for 451 consecutive days, and 594 our of the last 596 days. Nothing, not illness, the day job, a bad mood, or a late night, prevents me from writing. This takes some discipline, but once I started to write every day, I discovered that I really do love to write, and that the act of writing reduces my stress levels. I feel much less stressed out on days that I get in my writing than on days where I can only write a little bit. It’s been so long since I haven’t written that I have no idea how I’d feel if I missed a day.
The discipline I’ve learned comes in large part through repetition. Learning to write in 10 minutes, if that’s all I have available; or being able to write surrounded by distractions like TV noise, or the kids playing in the background. The more I do it, the easier it becomes.
But consider that the time I spent analyzing my submission times, coupled with the time I spent pouring over rejection slips to find hidden meaning, was all time that could have been spent writing and improving my craft. I wish I’d known that back then, and very lucky is the writer who learns those lessons early on in their career.