Mucking Through the Slush Pile For the Clear Well Within: Maria’s Guide to the Modern Writer’s Hustle in Getting Published: Why You’re Getting Rejected, What You Can Do About It.

Posted by maria nazod on Saturday, December 5, 2009

I’ve been meaning to write this blog for quite some time. And all this time, I’ve put it off, again and again for no apparent reason other than being lackadaisical. But now, however, I realize providing these tips is a civil act of duty; a way of rescuing other writers from the doldrums of submitting, including: the art of rejection, (which thus far, I’ve got down to a science,) who these editors, really are, and what we’re really up against. Most importantly? How to not take it all too personally. In fact, not at all.

Now. I do not mean to come off as being self-important, in that I can save, feed, clothe, and provide compasses to all of the lost, broke, talented, and up-and-coming writers out there. What I can do, however, is speak from a qualified standpoint, if only because, for the last nine months, excluding one vacation to Cuba, I have done nothing but sit in a room, write, workshop poems in a weekly group and submit. Sit in a room, write, workshop poems, and submit.

 The past year has netted some great results. It has also netted in some inevitable failures, known as the one-dimensional, flat envelope known as a form-letter rejection. Plenty of them.

That being said, I know what the hell I’m talking about, so please listen. I understand there are many of you out there who know what you’re doing, but if you fall into one of the following categories, then seriously, listen up here, because I will save you a ton of time that you could spent writing, submitting, and researching the good journals out there, instead of bemoaning your rejections. If you are 1) A poet, or a fiction writer who is sending out individual pieces for publication to various literary magazines. 2) An up-and-coming poet or fiction writer who is crushed by rejection, and often exposed repeatedly to it, and you know you’re talented. 3)Any kind of writer who is experienced, savvy, but most likely a poet or an emerging fiction writer, who does not have an agent, so thus is trying to build up their byline. 4) All of the above.

So, listen closely folks. Here is what they don’t tell you in Writer’s Market, what they won’t tell you in any seminar, and what I’ve learned from hour upon hour of grueling research, labor, and most of all my inspiration of this blog: talking to talented friends, both emerging and established alike who have expressed discouragement from rejections.Here we go.

The first thing you need to know. Your best sources for finding journals that are soliciting work: Duotrope’s Digest, and Poets and Writers. Duotrope’s is an online statistical manual and every writer’s dream: it tells you what journals are out there, what type of work they publish, the average time of their acceptances and rejections, and a link to each individual magazine’s website. Could one ask for more? I strongly urge you to get to know this site if you’ve not done so already. And kick some money their way. They put a lot of effort into what they do, and are broke as the rest of us. The Poets and Writers Classifieds ads are the next best resource.

And now, I give you the reasons why you are getting rejected and what you can do about it:

Why you’re getting rejected:

1.     You aren’t sending out enough. When you first start out sending out your work, I encourage you to simultaneously submit. Just do it as much as possible. I’m serious. Keep careful track of the journals you send out to, and be sure to go through the list and withdraw individual poems from the manuscript, but until then? Keep submitting! Think of yourself as being all alone, in the desert or forest, cut off from most natural resources. That’s how it is when you’re a post-MFA emerging writer. You need to take that big pile of poems that’s been sitting there on your desk for the last three weeks, and spread them around. You need to get your name out there, to as many places as possible. So, at the beginning, it is essential to think of this as a number game. Pretty simple. It’s simple statistics. The more places you send to, eventually, one will accept you. In the meantime, you need to stand undaunted as the guy in the bar who gets rejected ninety-nine out of a hundred times. Lucky number one-hundred-ten could mean a night of play! 

Maybe some can think up arguments that point to the contrary, but at the beginning, submit, submit, submit. Submit to good journals. By that I mean ones with a greater circulation and good editors (more on that later, about the importance of researching the ethos and staff of the journal), and even those with big names: Crazyhorse, Hayden’s Ferry, and River Styx are just a few that accepted simultaneous submissions. So get ‘em out there. These journals are tough to get into, but if you think you have quality work, then prepare to aggressively shoot it out there, to as many of them at a time, without regard for the rejections that come your way (and they will), just send, send, send. Lick those envelopes, save those postage receipts (you never know, they could yield a tax-write off), and navigate those online submissions managers. 

2.   You take rejection too personally. Don’t. No. I’m serious. If you fit into one of the three categories listed above, I assume you take your craft seriously. And that has gotten you to this point; of feeling that you have a fair shot getting into competitive literary journals. If you take your craft seriously, and you try hard enough, guess what? Someone else, like an editor of a reputable journal will also! Below I have delineated a few reasons why you were rejection, and just how impersonal rejection is:

3   Your lines are too long for the magazine. I’m dead serious. Of course, for those of you who have read my poems (, you will see that my lines are indeed long, like ten syllables or more long, anywhere from a whole 8x 11.5 page or more. Once I submitted to a well-distributed, well-respected literary review, they rejected me without comment. A month later, they had an upcoming themed issue about the Midwest, which my work would be perfect for. I re-sent. I got a rejection with a handwritten sentence, “Your lines are too long for our magazine’s size. 

Huh. I stood there, astonished. Really. I thought to myself. So, the first time around, that could have been a contributing factor? The form and length of a poem? And if this was their reason for rejection, how many more editors have rejected my work for this reason and this reason alone? Could it be this reason alone? The answer is a resounding yes. Many editors simply will not publish your poem due to limited space in the journal. I’ve had to re-format my long, breathy lines twice already, chopping them down to fit a perfect-bound journal.

4. The editor’s an idiot. Editors are people. Just like us. They have good days, great days, shitty days, and so-so days. They get constipated, have fights with their partners, and then their toilets overflow. They have car insurance to pay, dogs to walk, food to cook. On top of it, allow me to let you in a seemingly simple secret it has taken me eons to learn:

You don’t have to be a smart, savvy, well-read, established person in order to be an editor.I will say it again: you don’t have to be a smart, savvy, well-connected, well-read person to be an editor. Seriously! You don’t! I always had this image of editors, sitting in the Manhattan Conde Nast office, with black berets, enveloped in a sultry cloud of clove cigarettes. Or at least an established professor, at a reputable university, a Whitman scholar, perhaps, who will take the time to read each poem with the kind of careful attention to quality and craft that I myself would. Right? Wrong.  

Sometimes, though not always, editors fit into the two above categories. Mostly they fit into one of the following: a) graduate students who may know what they’re talking about b) graduate students who may not know what they’re talking about, and on top of it, are extremely drunk. (I know because I was one. Some of the best years of my life.) That being said, I still had a long ways to go before I understood what merits a good poem. But I was drunk on self-importance, and liberal applications of booze. Convinced, on top of it, just because I was having my honeymoon with The Norton Anthology, and quite frankly, a lot of other poets whom I’ve since changed my mind about, I thought that I was god’s gift to poetry…with a lower-case “g…” c) young, well-intentioned interns who also are just coming to grips with what a good poem means. D) drunk undergraduate students who, once again, don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about when it comes to discerning what is “good” from “bad” work, who could likely be Business or Science majors engaging in a brief flirtation with poetry. d)Here’s big one: they could simply be people who write poems, often bad ones, who adore the fact that this position is affording them the power to reject and accept poetry. Let’s face it. There is a lot of bad poetry in the world, too much in fact. I am sure the same could be said for fiction, but more so for poetry.

 And so. This leads me to reinforcing my point: You know you’re good, so don’t take it seriously. As for any handwritten feedback. Ah, my friend, the same advice presides: don’t take it all too seriously. You don’t know who wrote the note, and for all you know, it could easily and likely be one of the pissant undergraduate Biology majors. So, if the rejection has a handwritten email that goes like this: “Thank you for submitting to ________, unfortunately your work, blah, blah. But as a sidenote, I really enjoyed reading your poems, but I’d like to see what you do with the essay form. Also, I would like to see your poems be more about the external world that your internal one…and your emotions are not always as intense as you can make them…blah, blah, blah….” 

 Take this note. File it with the rest of them, and think of it as an attractive person of the opposite sex who approaches you, tells you you’re attractive for no good reason, and then never calls you back. You cannot analyze this feedback. In my personal opinion, I’d say it’s mostly bullshit, but some of the time, though not all the time; it could actually be a thoughtful response from a thoughtful person. The thing is, you just don’t know. So treat it like the hot date who never called you back: contain a fond memory of it, don’t try to read too deeply into what it all means, chalk it up to your growing experience, that it didn’t work out because of the alignment of the planets, because of the stars, the fact that you disagreed about whether or not Catcher in the Rye was an influential novel, or simply Salinger’s opportunity to ramble and swear. It doesn’t matter. The point is, it didn’t work out, just like your placement in said literary journal. Most of all? Let it go. Move on. I know, I know I make it easier than it sounds. But seriously, the more you retrain yourself to do this, the better. Trust your colleagues, whether they are in a virtual or in-person writing group, or an MFA program. Trust your gut. And then move on.

I once received a rejection from an editor that read, in regards to my poems, “Some good images, but this is basically a jumble of prose.” WTF?!

No, this is not a jumble of prose, dumbass. I wanted to cry. This is use of the long line, dammit. A poem doesn’t have to be broken into short, terse, staccato lines all the time. It has to do with the poet’s brain chemistry, man, it has to do with how the brain interprets rhythm…after all, there are prose poems, poems that lapse into essays and go back to being poems, poems that have long lines, and some short one…poems… 

STOP. I say this to myself as much as to you. Hear me? Stop.

Naturally upon doing what I should have done before submitting, I researched this editor’s background. Sure enough. I had more publications to my name than him. Apart from his bio that stated he’d written poetry for “More than twenty years,” and his poems themselves, which were of lackluster appeal, I could not tell, for the life of me, what qualified him to be making these assumptions about my poems. Once again. Welcome to the world of publishing.

5. Because your poems never reached the appropriate editor. Because they were left in the slush pile for a few months, and finally some intern got to them, and then promptly rejected them. The head editor, who may have some panache and taste probably never even, saw them. Once again. Repeat the mantra that is why you never take it personally.

6. You didn’t send your best work. Really, be brutal with yourself. Did you send them your absolute, best, polished, roaring, crazy, singing poetry? Or ere you so eager to dash something off that you send them a semi-revised sonnet with sloppy line-breaks. Be honest. Before sending anything out, I recommend taking your poems though a rigorous process of revision. Here mine: write the poem. Revise it some, thirty to fifty times. That has been my magic number recently, but you have your own. Let it sit. Then, when you’re reading to read it in a calm and detached manner, look at it again. Make a last editing changes, then submit to a writing group, again: MFA workshop, online, to a trusted friend, etc. I don’t know what I’d do without my one-a-week-writing group, with esteemed writers Jeannette Angell and Fred Biddle. As writers, we are the worst judges of our own work. We need a different pair of eyes, if not several. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve forgotten about a poem I’ve written, just due to the sheer volume of them I’ve been eking out, and had Jeannette dig one up from her hard drive, that I submitted to the group for review some months ago. I sent the poem out. Sure enough? It was picked up in a flash by Tar River Poetry.  So, I beg of you, ask yourself, are you sending out your best work? Or are you just trying to get published?

7. You didn’t see what kind of work the magazine published. For all you know, your work could be far too edgy, far too Language-y, far too confessional, far too conservative, far too formal, far too long, far too short, or yes, far too good. Realistically it is impossible for most of us, on our Liberal Arts budget to go out and subscribe to all the journals out there. Believe me, we’d like to. But it’s fiscally impossible for most. That being said, most journals contain some sample poems on their page. Check them out and be honest with yourself: if this the kind of journal you’d want to see your work appear in? Is this the kind of journal, moreover, that would publish your work?

This goes especially for poets. In a constantly evolving world of poetics, in which elements of craft and style are always changing, most of what I see being published today seems to be linguistically elaborate, but more often than not, lacking an emotional depth. Not all of it. But a great deal. In a poetic world where Language poets are writing sonnets, Confessional poets are playing with language, and sometimes poems that are a glorified GRE vocabulary quiz are acclaimed as “taking risks,” poetry is by far the most subjective field in the business, (and it is a business, my friend, no matter what anyone tells you, full of probabilities, outcomes, and statistics.), and because of that, if someone has an aversion to narrative poems, you’re screwed.  

I can honestly say, I myself am a proponent of the narrative school, but mostly I believe more than anything, that art is meant to communicate. Therefore, when I come across a poem that doesn’t seem deep or challenging, but just want to fuck with and confound me with three-syllable words, I look at myself and say, “You know, I’m almost thirty fucking years old. At twenty I was talking classes at Iowa with members of the permanent faculty. I was by far the worst in the class, with all the other students having already obtained their MFA. I’ve since gotten my own MFA, been wrung through the wringer of intelligent, tough workshops with intelligent tough, teachers, and have been taught to think critically about what I read. If I, as a smart person cannot get this poem, then fuck it.”

What I am getting at is, even I myself have a strict allegiance to what constitutes a publishable poem. Why should editors be any different?  

What you can do right: 

Now that I’ve cited all that you could do wrong with submitting to literary journals, and the wrong they can do, let’s put a pragmatic, yet optimistic spin on things. Despite all that can be wrong with the world of literature, there is always something right. There will be fools in every profession, whether it is fiction, poetry, or politics. (Look at our previous president, for goddsakes.) And as long as there are morons governing artistic aesthetics, guess what? There are also intelligent journals, with intelligent editors, who do read you work with the care and diligence it requires. Please read this section very carefully if you are submitting a chapbook or full-length manuscript of poems to an independent press. Often they charge reading fees, and whereas it is essential to support your favorite journals and presses out there, make sure your sending to one worth your money. Here is what you can do to ensure your work will be read…and read well:

1.Research the mission statement and masthead. Who are these people? Are they visible? Are there pictures, bios, and clear contact information? There better be, or else they are the kind of publication who are a) not interested in hearing from you, b) having something to hide, whether because they lack credentials or because c) they publish themselves and they don’t want to make that too apparent.

Does the mission statement contain curse words, (blogs like these don’t count, I am doing this for nothing, so thus allotted as many curses as I desire) does it seem unprofessional, in any way? Do the editors seem all-around nuts or just way too laid-back? I’ve googled one editor of a small press to see what he was up to; he was published in a small magazine. His bio said he spends his time: “testing his liver’s capacity with alcohol as an undergrad at the University of __________."  I don’t think so. And to think I almost paid him a $15.00 reading fee! Once sadly, I saw an independent publishing group claiming that they’d read the first fifteen pages of your manuscript for a fifteen-dollar fee. They claimed themselves to be unlike other magazines out there, because unlike other magazines out there, they actually give you in depth-feedback as to why they’ve rejected you. I found it strange that there was no revealing information about the editors, aside from their cavalier claim to empathy that, they “were writers also.” But all the same, I sent the first few pages of my manuscript.

What I received back was a response from a woman who was part of the press. Upon seeing her name at the end of the email, I realized, she conveniently had her own books published through that very press! Her feedback basically consisted of some copy-edits (thanks), and her opinion that, my work, “was too brooding, although the characters and plot were good, but that all in all, she wanted me, the speaker of the poems to find a nice guy.” Why? Because she (the speaker in the poems) just doesn’t seem happy! And she wanted a happy ending. And sometimes, if we just keep being unhappy, well, wherever we go, there we are, now aren’t we?

Are. You. Fucking. Kidding me. The first thing that tipped me off to her not having a clue as to what she was talking about was the use of “plot” and “characters.” Was she even a poet? After researching her site, I saw, sadly, that my suspicions were confirmed. She was self-published through the press. Mainly a novelist by trade, hence her yearning for my poems to yield a happy-ending, nice guy, her references to plot and characters, and on top of it, wrote chick lit! On top of it, I had better credentials than she did. Her poetry was ghastly and published in a few obscure journals.

So heed my warning. Know who these editors are!

So, peruse their pictures and bios carefully. What are they about? Do they sound pretentious? Down-to-earth? Kind? Well-versed? Is the mission statement well thought out, well, written, and clear? Do they know what kind of work they’re looking for, because if you still don’t get a clear idea as to what type of work they’re looking for, then they don’t have one, either. Do these people have solid credentials? Have they published in some decent journals themselves? Too often do I have brilliant, well-established friends, often having as many as eight novels to their name, come crying to me, because they got rejected. Upon some Internet sleuthing, I usually find the same, recurring pattern: the editor is young, inexperienced, and my friend has more credentials than them times a thousand. So, look carefully at these journals. These editors don’t need to be Pulitzer Prize recipients, but it is good to see they have some professional promise and experience and writers. A good publication byline. A book of two published, even.

Next. What’s in a name? A lot, especially when it comes to contributors.  Scan the journal. From what you can see, are there some big name, well-established poets getting published alongside some emerging ones?

Next. Do you see a preponderance of those people being published having strangely familiar names, except it’s not so strange, because they are the editors of other reputable journals? Bad sign. Whereas politics do enter the publishing picture inevitably, when you see a journal whose contributors consist of 1) editors from other journals, or 2) the editors from that very journal, or 3) both of the above? Well guess what. It is nothing more than a sycophantic vanity press in the guise of a literary journal, and I am going to stop even elaborating about it, because it’s not worth your time. Save your time and postage without being rejected by corrupt, insipid amateurs. 

How long has the journal been around? In the cutthroat world of publishing, great journals fold all the time, and good ones are emerging all the time. Meanwhile, it helps to see that the journal has been published for a while, a few years, at the very least. What would be the point in submitting work only for the publication to fold before it gains a noteworthy status? If it seems to be a new, very good journal, meeting all of the above criterion, i.e., having intelligent editors, publishing strong work, with diverse mix of poets from different levels of experience and walks in life, then I say go for it. If it doesn’t? Do you really want to give your hard-written poems away just to say you’ve been publishing? I don’t.

Cross Submitting is a Delicate Art. Much like writing itself. Keep careful track of all the journals you simultaneously submit to; like I said, I feel this is the way to go in the early days. You need to thicken up your skin to rejection, get used to submitting regularly regardless, and get your name out there. That being said, you have to keep tenacious care of what poems are being cross-subbed where, as well as what the rules are for each journal. Some journals allow you to simultaneously submit across the board, others want to know in the over letter, right off the bat, and others want you to shoot them an email and let them know as soon as your poem is accepted by another pub.

Now, ready for the tricky part. Here’s what journals don’t want you to know: you can submit to journals that don’t allow simultaneous subs. And I’ll tell you how: go to your best friend Duotrope’s Digest. Check out the place you want to submit to, that prohibits simultaneous subs. Look at the average response time it takes for them to get back to you. In comparison to the other simultaneous-sub permitting places, does it take markedly longer or shorter? If, for example the average response time for a journals that does not allow cross-submissions has a reported response time of seven days, and the other journals you’ve submitted to will still take months from the date you submitted? Go for it! Statistically it is impossible for them to evade this probability and suddenly accept a poem of yours months before the average response time. I only recommend doing this if the response times between the permitting and non-permitting journals are vastly different.

Then, there’s the other tactic you can perform: while your poems are being considered by those journals that allow simultaneous subs, provided it will still take them a while to get back to you, as denoted by Duotrope’s, try finding a place you want to submit to that does not allow cross-subs, that is approaching the end of its reading period. Send to the no-simultaneous subs place towards the end of their reading period. That way, they’ll get back to you faster.

Electric versus print: which is better? To be totally honest (and I don’t mean to put down electronic journals, because there are a lot of great ones out there), if you want to apply from prestigious grants such as the PEN American Award, experience says print is best. When applying for awards such as these, they base your publishing history solely on print rather than electronic publications. Why that is, I am not sure. One could argue it is because the actual act of printing takes time, money, and raw materials, so the publications that are willing to physically print your words must have a helluva lot more investment than one whose publishing process involves a site editor.

That being said, this is sheerly theoretical on my part. And if you disagree in any way, feel free to dispute me. Personally, I am not sure if I even agree with this theory. Whereas it is a simple fact that most grant applications tend to place more emphasis on print pubs, there are many, many electronic publications that are rigorous and discerning in their selection process. Also, I maintain that it is actually better to have a healthy combination of online and print pubs, if only because, if you meet someone who wants to become familiar with your work, it is more accessible to them. Think about it. How many times have you met someone at a party, and they’ve taken your card, or asked your name, and wanted to see your work? Unless you have a personal website, it makes it easier for others to access you, quite simply.

Does all of this make sense? If only for the fact that I want you to succeed. It disheartens me to hear many of my friends, many of them talented writers, lamenting their rejections, if only because I have been there also. A ten-minute pep talk just isn’t sufficient anymore. So, I hope you take this for what it’s worth. And onward, once into the breech, dear friends! As I say this to you, I say it to myself. Ole! 


Tags: slushpile marianazos publishing 


About Me

Maria Nazos I'm a poet, I just wrote my first book, and I believe in destiny but I sure as hell don't wait for it. Check out my blog for my random thoughts, events, and upcoming workshops.