By Natalie D-Napoleon
Earlier this year I came across an article by Kim Liao in which she explained “Why You Should Aim For 100 Rejections A Year.” As soon as I finished reading the piece I went to the folder in my email marked “Writing Submissions 2017” and for the first time in my life, I began to count my rejections rather than counting my acceptances. I had effortlessly amassed 53 rejections. I punched my fist in the air and whooped out loud. It was June and I was already halfway to 100 rejections for the year.
I am the sensitive type (of course, I’m a writer): I weep openly when listening to sad love songs or during Claire and Jamie’s various reunifications on Outlander, and I have cried in the past on my friend’s and husband’s shoulder when my writing has been rejected. However, before Kim Liao’s article, another woman had sent me on the journey of beginning to accept that rejection was less about failure and more about getting closer to your goals. In 2015, I attended the first BinderCon conference in L.A. BinderCon began as a “secret” Facebook group of women writers sharing contacts and information and grew into a movement and conference which supports women and gender variant writers.
At BinderCon 2015, Katie Orenstein, founder of The OpEd Project, spoke about the lack of representation of women in the media and the reasons why. As a former journalist and foreign correspondent, she had a perspective on being rejected that I could not fathom at the time. Orenstein opened my eyes to one impressive fact—that women submit their work less than men. She had the statistics to prove it and the acceptances and consequent higher representation of men in the media. In one generalized conclusion: When women and people of color get rejected, we take it personally. When white men’s work is rejected, they don’t take it as a measure of the worth of their work—they decide it simply needs to find the right home elsewhere.
Orenstein says that the dearth of women’s voices in the media, “has affected the quality of our nation’s conversation, the way research is conducted, how stories are reported, and how history plays out—and indeed, what we think history is. As it turns out, the most crucial factor in determining history is more often not the distinction between what is fact and what is fiction, but who tells the story.”
Orenstein's talk put a fire in my belly. I had an aim now that was both personal and political, to start by not taking writing rejections personally, and to submit more often because that’s what had worked, most likely for centuries of successful male writers. I didn’t aim for 100 rejections in that year; however, I had begun a master’s degree in writing, and the idea was placed in my back pocket for when I had produced the work that needed to be put out into the world. The formula seemed so simple: Submit, submit, submit, submit, and don’t take rejection personally.
Checking that “Writing Submissions 2017” folder again as I neared the end of December 2017, I counted 100 rejections—and one written rejection in a pile of papers on my desk from The Sun—took me to 101! While walking the path that Kim Liao and Katie Orenstein put me on, I have learnt a few lessons:
1. Have a body of work to submit.
In the past when I had submitted work. I didn’t have a body of work behind me to make submitting worth my while—just a handful of poems, a new short story every year. From 2014 to 2016 I completed my degree online. With a four-year-old and a part-time job as a writing tutor, I didn’t have much time to do anything other than produce creative writing. I was ferocious and voracious; I wrote and wrote and re-wrote and didn’t stop to think for a moment about what I would do with the work. I simply enjoyed the process of creating after taking a break for several years to be a mom and pursue the life of a singer-songwriter. What this time gave me was a significant body of work to begin dipping in to in order to begin submitting when the time was right. By the time I completed my degree, I had a complete poetry collection and several creative nonfiction essays ready to submit.
2. Pitch your submissions like a freelance journalist pitches stories.
My husband is a freelance journalist, so when I began submitting and expressing my frustration when I was rejected, his first question to me was Why don’t you try submitting like journalists do? "Research the publication, the editors, the judges, and pitch the work you think will resonate specifically with that publication or judge," he advised.
I had read the worn "read our publication before you submit," but I figured that advice was for everyone else, not me. Despite my reservations, I started to heed his and journal editors’ advice, I began to read publications and pitch my work accordingly. This meant researching editors, then finding examples of their work online and reading them. I can say that a good portion of my acceptances—and positive rejections—were the result of taking the time to research and read before I submitted work. The added bonus: I discovered new writers, poetry and creative nonfiction writing that I both enjoyed and could learn from in order to improve my own work.
As a part of this process, I subscribed to each journal’s mailing list. I now regularly go to my email inbox and read these mailings, which often leads to submitting work when themes are called for, or reminds me of reading periods and submission deadlines.
3. Rewrite to meet the word count, and learn to edit your work.
Continuing to think like a freelancer, when I found competitions I wanted to enter, I rewrote work to meet the word count or cut stanzas out of poems to meet the line count. Through this process I became a better editor of my own work. I removed a whole stanza from one poem that placed me second in a competition, and I now prefer the edited version.
I came to discover what author Katherine Paterson says: “I love revisions. … We can’t go back and revise our lives, but being allowed to go back and revise what we have written comes closest.”
Part of this process also meant finding good, trustworthy readers of my work who would give me feedback on what was working and what was not in my writing. In the past I took little time to reflect on my own work, or to find readers. Often, knowing that I had a reader about to peruse my work with a critical eye made me edit more ruthlessly before forwarding my work to them. I learned to ask my readers for specific feedback—e.g., “What do you think of the dialogue on page two of the story?” This helped me identify the weak areas in my own work, especially when readers confirmed my own judgement.
The rejection process also allows you to get to know your stronger and weaker work through the self-reflective process of editing, getting reader feedback, and occasional editorial feedback. As Paul Martin writes in Writer's Little Instruction Book – Getting Published, “Every rejection … adds to your knowledge about the right market for your work.”
4. IRL connections matter.
No art is created in a vacuum, and no art exists without community. Often writers find community online; however, very few of my online connections have been made without some seven-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon real life connection. When I began my master’s degree I joined two different local in-person writing groups, began attending local poetry readings and book launches, and through this process I met local writers and publishers.
Eventually these relationships—and I’d like to think the quality of my work—led to getting a poem published in an ekphrastic poetry collection by a local publisher. A friend suggested I submit a memoir piece to a local reading series, and although I had a cold and hacking cough at the time, I thought about my 100 rejections, soldiered on and made a recording. I was accepted to the series, got to read to a full room of attentive listeners, and was coached by a drama teacher on how to read my work aloud—another valuable lesson—all the while connecting with a local writing community I could lean on in the process.
5. Celebrate encouraging feedback.
As an editor told Liao in (according to her article), “The thrill of an acceptance eventually wears off, but the quiet solidarity of an encouraging rejection lasts forever.” The few personal notes I received in 2017 added fuel to the fire, which kept me submitting. When a prominent journal in Australia rejected two poems they wrote, "We enjoyed the intense, vertiginous imagery in these poems," and then urged me to submit more work in the future. Encouraging rejections let you know your writing is on track (and apparently gives some people vertigo), and that someone out there is carefully considering and paying attention to your work.
The added bonus is that once you know the editors like your work, if you continue to submit to that journal they should: a) remember your name, and b) eventually accept a piece. Getting to know the body of work of an emerging writer is what often gives editors an “in” to understanding your unique point of view. After I had a poem accepted for publication in Australian Poetry Journal, I realized I recognized the editor’s name, and when I reviewed my submissions I found out that I’d sent samples of my work to other journals she edited. Maybe she recognized my name, or maybe once she read the work one more time it “clicked.”
6. Set aside regular time to submit, review and rewrite your work.
Because I was inspired by Liao’s article to continue submitting, I began to set aside time each week to submit. However, this didn’t mean I began submitting blindly. I would carefully study the newsletters of journals, do Google searches, read the Submittable weekly mailer and search the site, the Poets and Writers newsletter, and save competitions that arose on Facebook. Then I would take the time to read the journal I wanted to submit to and decide if my work was appropriate or needed to be rewritten, or if I needed to review my own body of work to find something that may fit a theme call-out. By doing this for an hour or two, two or three days a week, I built up to 101 rejections.
I also learnt during the process that I had underestimated some of my own work. My experimental erasure poetry was being published extensively, and I found that what Orenstein had suggested was true: more rejection builds resilience and an ability to brush it off. Most of all, I realized the truth of what Zora Sanders, the former editor of Australian journal Meanjin Quarterly, said: For women to bring our work to the attention of editors we need “to take more risks.”
This led me to the greatest lesson of all: How to use rejection to review my work and improve my writing.
And the result of my year of 101 rejections? I won second place for my poem “First Blood” and had another poem commended in a poetry competition judged by the international editor of the Kenyon Review; I made two competition shortlists with a creative nonfiction memoir piece, “Crossing,” and then the same story was accepted by a major Australia literary journal for publication; I had four erasure poems published online and another accepted in Australian Poetry Journal; I read a memoir piece at a local reading series to a sold-out room, and finally, an ekphrastic poem was published in a collection by Gunpowder Press. That’s 11 acceptances for 101 rejections, if anyone is counting.
This year, I’m prepared to aim for 102 rejections with glee, while I quietly place a few more cracks in the literary glass ceiling.
Natalie D-Napoleon is a writer, singer-songwriter and educator from Fremantle, Australia who now lives in California. She has an MA in Writing from Swinburne University and currently works as a Coordinator at a Writing Center in a California city college. Her work has appeared in Entropy, The Found Poetry Review, LA Yoga Magazine and the Santa Barbara News-Press. Recently, her story “Crossing” made the finalists' list for the Penelope Niven Prize in Creative Nonfiction, and her poem "First Blood" placed second in the 2017 KSP Poetry Awards judged by John Kinsella.
Twitter and Instagram: @nataliednapo