One year ago last month, I shakily opened Google Docs to type my very first cover letter. Over the next year, the ups and downs of my submission journey would be dramatic. I was accepted to a couple of dream publications, received several very patronizing rejection letters, pushed myself to experiment with new forms like flash fiction, and (unfortunately) (reluctantly) joined Twitter. During the fall and winter, I had a nearly 6-month-long acceptance drought where I almost quit multiple times. But I haven’t yet, and at this time, I don’t plan to—check back in at this time next year.
Everyone’s journey is different, but as a writer a) in my early twenties b) with no formal training c) primarily submitting poetry, that’s a snapshot of what it’s been like for me. Looking back over the past year, I’ve learned a lot of lessons both small and large—for instance, don’t pay money to submit your work if, like me, you are a hobbyist writer who works in food service and is already shelling out a small fortune for grad school tuition.
But here are the three most important lessons I’ve learned:
Get involved in the community. We all know writing is lonely, but I’ve found publishing to be lonely—and sometimes, very transactional—too. I’ve found my deepest sense of community through getting involved in literary magazines behind-the-scenes. I love editing, so I’ve taken on editorial and reading roles at multiple smaller mags. If you enjoy editing, graphic design, social media, web design, or any other activity that a lit mag might need help with, getting involved behind-the-scenes is a great way to forge friendships that will make your writing journey a little less lonely. Plus, seeing “how the sausage gets made,” so to speak, has helped me contextualize my rejections better and take them less personally.
This may seem beyond reach for those just starting out, but I promise, it’s not. Large and small mags alike often post volunteer openings on social media, so if you hang around lit Twitter long enough, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to interest you. You also don’t need to have an established portfolio to get involved as a volunteer editor, reader, or designer. If you’re a young emerging writer like me, magazines that are dedicated to new writers, writers under 30, and/or writers without an MFA can provide both approachable ways to get involved and a great sense of community.
Define what “success” means to you. The dream of “success” looks different for everyone, and that definition can change throughout our lives. To emotionally sustain yourself over the long-term in publishing, it’s critical to understand what success means for you. For me, success isn’t about becoming a #1 New York Times bestseller or getting interviewed on Between the Covers (though I wish!), but it does include cultivating a community of people who enjoy consistently reading my work and discussing it with me and one another. In discerning this, I’ve also found it useful to delineate 5-year vs. 20-year success, emotional vs. financial success, and so on. Honing in on my own goals (and allowing them to shift as needed) has helped me weather a common struggle in publishing: insecurity that you’re not good enough. For example, the other week I found myself feeling jealous of an emerging writer I follow online who had successfully signed with an agent for their debut novel. But then I reminded myself that I’m not interested in querying any of the novels I’m writing right now; for me, success doesn’t involve getting agented for my fiction. Regularly naming the specifics of what success looks like to me allows me to contextualize my development as a published author within my own aspirations, writing, and values—and no one else’s.
It’s also important to understand that success probably won’t arrive right away, and that’s okay. When people say “publishing is a long game,” they’re not kidding. Speaking for myself, it wasn’t until last month that I started to feel like I was on track to “succeed” at this publication thing in a way that was meaningful for me. Taking a year (or longer) to build up a track record you’re pleased with—or having acceptance droughts where it feels like your momentum has plummeted—isn’t a sign of failure. It’s a sign that the publishing industry, even indie lit, is extremely difficult to gain a foothold in. In that environment, every acceptance is a genuine victory, and every rejection is just Tuesday.
Finally, stay centered in the joy. Writing should be a refuge from the submissions grind, not a continuation of it. Following my imagination wherever it takes me keeps me passionate about and fulfilled by my writing. For example, during my acceptance drought over the fall and winter, I temporarily stopped being able to enjoy writing poetry. Instead of forcing myself to continue churning out material for Submittable’s gaping maw, I pivoted to follow an idea for a series of mystery novellas that I’m never going to submit anywhere but that I’m having a fabulous time drafting. If submitting and publishing takes the joy out of writing, it’s more than okay to pause or even stop—it’s necessary. At its core, writing is about curiosity and joy. If we don’t have them, we have nothing.