Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Dear Writer Rejected

Writer, Rejected, I adore you. I need to borrow some of your disillusionment for a minute, is that okay?

So, against all reason and logic, at the last possible second, I submitted a piece to Narrative Magazine for their first person narrative contest. I paid $20 like a chump. I'm pretty young, 24, and I've never even submitted anything to be published, though I've written all my life. I don't know why I did it; part of me felt that what I had written was what they were looking for, and part of me just wanted my first rejection so I could just get it over with already.

I feel silly even asking you this, but I need you to burst my naive bubble here. There are 3 working days left for them to send me my goddamn rejection before announcing the winners, and they haven't, and it's giving me agita. More than agita, I'm slightly paralyzed with anxiety. I am of a nature that is cursed with this eternal, twisted optimism and I want it to die. It's not even that I fear the disappointment, that will hardly make a dent, but the waiting, WR, the waiting is killing me.

With every passing day approaching the 31st (when they announce), my delusions of grandeur get slightly fatter, and I spend more and more time indulging them when I should be doing other things, like work, or scooping the cat litter, or listening when other people speak. It's distracting. I keep on imagining myself lounging in a park, eating soft cheeses and wearing beautiful dresses, all purchased with my glorious prize money, or explaining on the college applications I'll soon be sending out that while yes, I certainly did flunk out at 19, would they actually dare to deny admission to a little blooming visionary like myself, who gets the first thing she's ever written published in a big journal on the first shot? I'd be all, "Baby please. Your institution is dying to nurture my genius. Now get me a latte."

You see? It's poisonous. Please tell me it's near impossible, that it's unlikely they even read my submission. Please tell me they are just so enraptured by whatever elegant, established career writer they're set to champion next that they haven't had time to get to tell the little people they can eat cake. In your experience, in the context of a writing contest, is it at all significant to have a longer response time? I know I only have a few more days, but I need somebody to ground me a little so I can carry on with the next order of business. How do you handle this waiting game yourself?

With love,

Dear Lilah: 

All of the last three winners of the Narrative Magazine contest were majorly famous for the written word in some significant way. That means the chances are slim for chumps like you and me. But here's what's true: you are an 'effing literary wonder. Flunking out at 19 and getting your ass back in school a few years later and, hello, WRITING stories that you are sending out to contests. You are in the game, my friend. You are a writer, and you are young, and you have years ahead to better your craft and show everyone who has ever rejected you how superb you are. 

It's unlikely you're going to win that contest this time, so you'd better take a Pepcid AC for that agita. But know that you are unstoppably on the right path. So keep it up, sister. We are rooting for you. Since you are a virgin submitter, I'll tell you this: the waiting gets easier after you get a few hundred rejections under your belt. You learn to morph your dream this way and that to keep it alive. You'd be surprised how quickly coulats and cheddar begin to look good.  For you, I'd say push it up a few years, and know that there's much hard work ahead. You can buy that dress and eat soft cheese when you're in your 30's.

p.s. It's hard to listen when other people speak.


Steve said...


Check your driver's license: does it say "Jacob Appel"? If so, you might have reason to hope. :)

John said...

In my sporadic visits here, one thing I've noticed is that many posts relate to writing contests. All, or nearly all, discuss fee-charging contests, as Lilah describes above. It also sounds like W,R herself enters such contests, and some measure of her frustration seems to emanate from not winning same.

It's worth pointing out that there are blogs and sites, such as the Preditors & Editors site, that attempt to describe the scams that attach to amateur and beginning writing efforts. Fee-charging agents, editing services, and vanity publishers are some of these, but fee-charging contests are others. Preditors & Editors says "We strongly advise writers to enter only those contests without a fee. P&E does not recommend any contests with entry fees."

Narrative magazine has a very bad rep on writers' blogs, since it essentially charges reading fees masquerading as "contest" entry fees.

Waiting is bad, though if the appeal of the "contest" is fame and fortune in return for a fee, this is going to up the ante, since newbies like Lilah are going to think they have a chance at becoming the next Erica Jong or Sylvia Plath when the contest "discovers" them. The fact is that the prizes, as W,r and Steve both suggest, normally go to the usual suspects.

My advice to Lilah would be to go to the Duotrope list of markets, write her best stuff, and submit to those. None charges a reading fee, though none offers instant fame and fortune, either.

And I notice that various zines and e-mailers are suggesting that W,R's resentments would be better tempered by doing the mundane work of writing (such as combing the Duotrope list and submitting heavily) rather than complaining that Jacob Appel won another fee-charging contest.

John said...

By the way, lots of places on Duotrope reject your stuff by return e-mail, so waiting is less of an issue!

Lilah said...

WR, thank you. I feel unburdened.

John, I was definitely aware of how ill-advised especially Narrative was before I submitted. I think you're dead on when you mention instant fame & fortune. I'm not especially anxious to be published, I don't think it implies very much about your quality of writing, and I don't have too many doubts that if I work hard (which I do, obsessively), I will have very much trouble accomplishing that. I had never tried before because I didn't feel I was even close to writing about what I want to write about until recently, so I just kept working on it. I still am horrified every single time I re-read whatever I've written the day before, but I'm sure I'm not alone right there.

The immediacy of the deal is the thing--I'll be honest, I just want to go back to school. And a good one, preferably; I can't live through another round of high school. I dreamt that if I could point to some big recognition like that, as remote a possibility as it is, they might give my sordid academic history a little leeway. I have a pattern of wishing for things I don't especially deserve, as you might have noticed, haha.

I still think it's cruel to wait until the last minute. Taking that pepcid about now.

John said...

Your odds are going to be better playing the slots, I'm afraid.

anonymissy said...

Lilah -- Hey, good luck! And pay John no mind. He's grouchy and sour. He also lectures people and repeats himself a lot.

Like my dad, he's a pain in the neck, but I do think he's right about writing contests -- there's something unsavory about them. It just doesn't seem okay to have to pay people to read your stuff.

Anonymous said...

One thing in favor of contests at certain mags--if they normally read several thousand subs a month, the contest may not get as many. So technically you might improve your chances. The only contests I submit to are the ones where you get a subscription to the mag with your entry fee. So at least it's not money for nothin.

Mario said...

Rule #1: Money flows to the writer.

If you must throw your money away, buy a lottery ticket. DO NOT use it to enter writing contests. Even if you win, and the chances are slim to none that you will, you will most likely not become famous or rich. Build up a body of work over a long period of time. That will help.

One of my teachers told me this: "Most magazines run a free contest on a regular basis. The prize is publication. You enter it by mailing your manuscripts to editors. You win it when you find an editor who likes your manuscript enough to print it."

Write regularly. Submit widely. Rinse and repeat.

tembo said...

if a journal states that they'll return SASEs by (let's say) two weeks from now, and you haven't personally heard from any editors via email or phone or pigeon, etc. ... is it safe to assume that your SASE will arrive with a form-rejection?

in other words, when (do you think) those fortunate few are notified they'll be published?

Joe said...

If your writing is as honest and beautifully expressed as your letter to Writer, Rejected, I'm sure you're a wonderful writer. I loved your letter. I'm pretty skeptical of the world of publishing and I don't believe the quality of your writing has too much to do with whether you win contests, get published, or become famous. But my hope for you is that your writing is inspired by the same things that inspired you to write your letter to LROD: a genuine desire to express what's going on with you and your unique perspective and ways of seeing the world. I find it self-destructive and dark to be driven to write by dreams of fame, money, status, by fantasies of impressing colleges or people at a party with your published writer persona. I feel those things too, but I try to push them from my mind, if possible, because they are dead end feelings. Please decide your own value. If you think about it, the contest has no authority to trust. The only reason the contest seems impressive is because other people have been duped into finding it impressive. It's cultural and empty. Writing something that moves you means you already won.

Writer, Rejected said...

Well put, Joe. I myself am striving to shake off the dream and find purity in writing. I hope to evolve to that level.