Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Truth about Publication Odds

Yesterday, I was rejected for publication in a literary magazine. So were, as it turns out, 173 others. I wasn't supposed to know this, but due to a clerical error, the e-mail address of every single one of those who had been turned down was plainly visible. The more professional approach would have been to conceal the identities of those who didn't make it in, therefore making the publication's boilerplate rationale for rejection a bit more plausible.

We were told there wasn't room enough to include everyone's entry, which is technically true, but mostly good public relations. It makes me realize again that the odds are stacked against me and everyone else from the beginning. Six writers got in, leaving nearly 200 of us on the outside. How does one even begin to know how to compete? How does one grab the attention of an editor or editorial staff who has around 175 other worthy contenders to consider?

I don't know the answer and neither does anyone else. Many aspiring writers I know, seeking a strategy and a comprehensible plan to work, pursue the professional approach. They listen to or read glorified advice columns drafted by those who have had some success themselves and think they've worked out a sensible rationale that works for everyone. Though many people swear by the wisdom of these columns, I'm skeptical of their effectiveness. In other publications, especially the writing contests which promise prize money, twice as many people have competed with me for inclusion and to place.

This post is not meant to discourage anyone from working on the craft of writing, or one day being recognized for it. I suppose I'm speaking mainly to those who may have, like me, done quite well in a college creative writing program and been a bit of a rock star inside and outside of workshop. When it comes time to cast one's lot with everyone else, the experience can be a very humbling one. For a time, I received regular, frequent praise from my professors and fellow students. Since then, what I mainly receive is silence.

It is the goal of many to write a novel or to enshrine one's name in print in any form. In the apartment complex where I live, I've met a woman who has saved up enough money so that she doesn't have to work for a year. She can instead devote her time exclusively to writing. I don't have the heart to tell that her plans are romantic, but grandiose. In movies and in real life an archetype exists of the struggling writer or novelist who comes out of nowhere to have a book published. Effort and talent alone, according to this myth, produces success.

I spoke with an older man, about my father's age, last week about a variety of topics. One of his friends pursued the same course that I have, an approach nearly everyone without substantial name recognition has to manage first. He submitted short stories to small publications and journals over the course of twenty years. Slowly, he began to be published sporadically here and there. His publication history came in a trickle, not a flood. After a decade's worth of work, the stories he'd written were compiled into an anthology, which eventually won a prize. But it took a total of twenty years solid before his personal goals came to fruition.

And that is the point I'm seeking to make, both for myself and for others. Don't quit your day job. Don't chain yourself to a computer for months writing the Great American Novel. Everyone wants to write the Great American Novel. That's the problem. A wiser strategy, in my opinion, would be to work steadily on weekends, lunch breaks, or holidays from work. Think of publication as applying for a job in a competitive market. No matter how professional your resume or how solid your references, you're still going into the same stack as everyone else with a professional resume and solid references.

Maybe someone will see value in your work. Maybe you'll fit the needs of the company or the publication. But what is different with creative writing of any kind is that your words alone will have to suffice for a personal interview. You will not have the right to plead your case. You will not be given an idea of what the publication gods are requesting of all applicants. As long as you understand that going in, you will experience a minimum of hurt feelings and angst.

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