Never Give Up, Never Surrender - Cameron Johnston Takes a Look at Getting Published

7 June 2018

How to survive the slog of the submissions trenches!

Have you just finished a short story or that NaNoWriMo novel? Feeling daunted about submitting it to your first magazine, website, agent or publisher? Don’t worry; I’m here to make things worse. Sorry about that. 

Many writers only write for the sheer fun of it, and hey, that is pretty cool, but there comes a point where many of us decide to dip a toe into the kraken-infested waters of publication and hope for the best – this article is for you valiant word-warriors.

For the most part, people just starting out have no idea of what they are letting themselves in for. It's a cold and indifferent ocean out there, and it's hard to see rejection messages drop into your inbox. Been there, and it sucks. Expect rejection, and probably a lot of it, HOWEVER *points down to the carefully borrowed title* never give up, never surrender. You are a creator painting your marvellous mind and burning imagination across blank pages, and thus truly made of awesome. Never forget that.

Some people get their first rejection and decide to stop submitting their work, while others suffer the pangs of self-doubt and inadequacy and don't try again for years. To them I say, please don't lose heart. You are damn-well out there giving it a go, and that makes you a writer! 

I've met people at writing conventions who, when asked the age-old question “So what do you write?”, look somewhat sheepish when they reply, "Er, well, I'm not actually published yet." So?  Neither was I at one point. Neither was any published writer. And we all remember what that felt like. Stephen King certainly does, and if you haven't read his 'On Writing' you really should. Million-selling novelists are just further along on that very same path you have stepped onto. If you have written a thing then you are already One of Us, and if we asked, we really do want to know what cool stuff you are writing.

Every established writer I know has had *craploads* of rejections, but the one thing that they all have in common is that they kept going. They persevered. They learned, and they improved, they kept writing and eventually got published.  I have a total of 216 rejections at the last count (oh, apparently it’s 217 now *sigh*) for a variety of short stories and novel submissions. Other writers have received far, far more. After a while it stops hurting quite so much and becomes less personal, and when those blessed, gilded acceptances come in, oh they do feel special after slogging through rejections and close-calls.

You start to realise that a lot of the rejections can fall into one or more of the following categories:

1) Your writing, characters, story, or something else are not quite polished enough or unique enough for your target market.

2) You didn’t follow the submission guidelines or you sent it to the wrong market in the first place. Make sure you do your research and follow the guidelines to the *letter* – they are there for a reason. 

3) Personal taste of the editor. Some will love it, others will hate it.

4) They recently published, or are due to publish, something similar.

5) They are overstocked on horror/comedy/romance/revenge/werewolf etc stories at the moment. Luck of the timing.

6) Just because. *Shrugs*. Sometimes good things just don't find a home.

It's never personal. Don’t reply back to rejection messages - take a deep breath and relax. And move on to the next thing…

Study your craft. 

Save yourself a heap of pain and get good. Level up and polish that prose before submitting. Don’t let editors reject fascinating characters and intricate plots because of clunky prose and typos. Join writing groups, have your work critiqued, and also critique the work of others. Look at particular sentences and scenes in novels you love and figure out why they work so well. Never stop learning and improving.

Put on your tin hat. 

You are not expendable crewman number six, you are a WRITER and you are amazing. Rejections? Pah! Submit that story to the next market. You only need it to hit the right target once. If all you get are form rejections with no personalised comment from the editors, see if you can figure out why – could your start be too slow or too weak? Is the main character introduced too late? Analyse and bandage up any weaknesses and then send it straight back out. Despite your best efforts, sometimes you do exhaust your markets for a story, so file it away (never delete it, you might want to rewrite it years later) and shout "By Grabthar's hammer, by the suns of Worvan, you shall be avenged!" (or some other favourite line from a fantastic movie) and then you get stuck in writing a new and even stronger story.

Know that rejections are never pleasant. 

It's fine to take a few days out for self-care. I've had a few short stories out and about various markets and when three rejections all arrive in the same morning you can be damn sure I'm going to crack open a cold beer that evening.

Join a community. 

Writer's groups, online or off, are a great source of encouragement. It really does help to talk to other writers who are sending their work out into no-man's land and group commiseration about rejection can be very cathartic. Other writers are usually more than happy to help answer all those burning questions you have on the submission process, publishing in general, and flag up cool new books that are coming out. 

Get smart. 

Research the markets before you write and you can often avoid rejection. Sparkly vampire/werewolf love triangle stories? Zombie apocalypse? Those are hard, hard sells at the moment even if your story is really good. A sprawling 1500-page epic fantasy mega-doorstopper novel from an unknown writer? Costly to edit and print, and publishers are not likely to risk that on an unknown writer. A little research before you write can save a lot of time and help you avoid regurgitating tired old tropes editors see day in day out. On the other hand, publishers are not gods and they do get it wrong. Perhaps your 'unsellable' novel will prove to be a self-publishing success. Go into the submissions trenches with your eyes wide open and try and find new twists on old ideas to avoid falling into the muddy swamp of cliché and trope. 

All that is left now is to thank you for reading and to wish you good luck out there! Well, that and to have a sneaky plug of my signing - at the Forbidden Planet Newcastle Megastore at 5:30pm on Thursday 14th June. After the long slog through the exquisite joys of agent submissions, publisher submissions, and then the agonising wait of the acquisitions process, it’s *finally* here and I hope you enjoy it!