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On Being Rejected in Less Than Five Minutes


Today, a story of mine was turned down in less time than it would take to listen to Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ Although I’ve become accustomed to disappointing submission responses, I felt pretty steamed at the indecent haste of this rejection. The story in question is a flash fiction piece called ‘How To Feed Ducks,’ submitted to an online journal. Said publication specializes in intense, vivid shards of narrative. ‘How to Feed Ducks’ tells the story of an old man who visits his local park to feed the ducks and one day confronts a group of young people spray-painting a wall.

The story went off through Submittable at 14.31 Greenwich Mean Time. The journal promised a swift decision process of between 1-3 days. That’s an admirable turnaround. At 14.35, I received an email from the journal, turning my piece down. I found this incredible, and not in a good way. Even though ‘Ducks’ is a swift read, I did wonder whether it had been read at all. I conjured up a vision of someone hunched at a computer, cackling as they hit a button that delivered the bad news. In an era of instant gratification, this was instant dismissal, and it hurt. I paced around the room, sat down again, and wrote this article.

Josh Quick hiking comic

‘I have developed a stoic attitude about being turned down.’ (Illustration by Josh Quick)

Being turned down is an endemic part of any writer’s life – unless you are a best-selling author. If J.K. Rowling wrote a poem on a napkin, it would sell. If James Patterson came up with a Mills & Boon romance novel, it would fill virtual and real bookshop shelves (even if he baffled his usual readership with his choice of genre). I am not a best-selling author, although I can claim some success. Over the past three years, having penned several novels that have not yet seen the publishing light of day, I’ve been writing and sending out short stories.

I keep a spreadsheet of my submissions and include any comments received when I hear back. If a response comes unusually quickly, I make a note. And I have developed a stoic attitude about being turned down. Often a ‘no’ can be seen as something analogous to the ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ break-up line.I have learned to be patient, although it’s not easy. Occasionally, one is rewarded. In December several years ago, I submitted a short story to an annual contest run by Moment magazine. Nine months later, I found out I was the first-place winner and was asked to fly to New York for the awards ceremony. The length of this wait suddenly didn’t matter.

Most of the time, the response I receive to a story is a polite ‘thanks, but no thanks,’ usually within a month or two. I never hound a literary journal for a verdict, as I know so many are run on a shoestring and by a volunteer staff who must wade through enough waves of submissions. I also value ‘personalised’ rejections. By these, I mean those welcome occasions when an editor, or a reader, has taken the time to comment on my work. Recently an editor said no, “but it’s clear you’ve a very good writer’. Comments like this take the sting out of a rejection; best of all is when I am asked for more writing. From reading profiles of editors, I have come to understand that most are writers themselves. I am sure they are bombarded, but if they are open to submissions, then the least that the hopeful writer can expect is to have his/her story read all the way through. Certainly, those editors would want their own submissions treated with dignity.

So how should you react if your work is turned down with the kind of alacrity Usain Bolt might admire? You might want to curse the editor and put malicious words on Twitter about the journal who rebuffed you, but you need to be bigger than that. After all, you’re a mature adult. And if you’re a serious writer, you sling your backpack on again, tighten your metaphorical belt, and continue the journey towards the mountains, savoring the treasured times someone said yes.

This is what I shall do.

As of this writing, ‘Ducks’ is still waiting to see the digital or print light of day, so it will remain in my backpack for now, but – hopefully – not forever.

Note: The opinions expressed by guest bloggers at the Submittable blog are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Submittable. 

Paul B. CohenPaul B. Cohen is a British author who lived in the United States for eleven years. Recent short stories have appeared in ConclaveSpelkGold Dust and Prole. His tale ‘Lecha Dodi’ won first place in the 2014 Moment-Karma Foundation Short Story Contest. His novels are like pacing tigers behind bars – eager to be released. Website: paulbcohen.com

Paul Cohen