On rejection, editing, and patience
Writers are their own worst enemies but also friends but mostly enemies
|Kimberly Harrington||Nov 11, 2018|| 1|
Is there anything more fun than dwelling on rejection? Or on the loser way you’ve pulled work from pubs because you didn’t spend enough time editing a piece properly and only realized it *after* you hit ‘send’? Or just why you can’t be more consistent / have any self control / #BeBetter? If you’re me, the answer is ha ha DEFINITELY NOT.
I’ve been writing humor pieces for just four years yet have managed to drive myself completely insane wondering why I haven’t been doing this perfectly since, you know, the very beginning.
While I was on my book tour I told the story of the exactly one time I demonstrated discipline and patience in the face of rejection. Back in January 2016, I started sending the piece “I Am the One Woman Who Has It All” out on submission. I was still trying to break into The New Yorker and thought this piece was a better fit than anything else I was working on at the time. And then I waited three months for the inevitable rejection. I then submitted it to McSweeney’s. Editor Chris Monk’s feedback was that he liked the premise but didn’t feel the list structure worked. He also provided additional thoughts and suggestions, including reworking it as a monologue instead of a list. It’s rare that he doesn’t just reject (or accept) something outright. So it wasn’t dead-dead but I couldn’t quite get my brain to wrap around working it into a different format. It was the rare instance of me thinking, “I don’t want to do that. I want it to work just like this.”
So I held onto it.
I never just “hold onto it.” I submit it somewhere else, immediately, in a panic. I consider whether or not to submit to a lower tier publication. I consider whether or not Medium is a good fit for the piece since I have a substantial following there. But I usually don’t just, you know, do nothing with it.
I have bottomless admiration for comedy writers who keep their trash off the street. I can think of a few off the top of my head whose work only shows up in The New York Times or The New Yorker or McSweeney’s or other top tier pubs or mainstream news sites. They never submit (as far as I know) to lower tier humor sites, they never self publish their pieces. This all results in the impression that they are just that good all the time. No one has that impression of my work. My trash is on the street all the time, being fought over by seagulls and rats.
I held onto that piece and when I got a book deal, I decided that was a great piece to wing in there. Because, hey, less writing for me. It was a piece I still liked and a premise I still felt worked. But—and I can’t emphasize this enough—those were pages I wouldn’t need to write.
When it came time to try to place excerpts from my book, I was incredibly fortunate that by then I had had exactly one (1) piece on Shouts and it did very well. When I reached out to Emma Allen to see if it was possible to get stats on that piece (at the request of my publisher) she did some digging, found out The New Yorker doesn’t share stats but also responded with, “Also, what book? Something we might be able to excerpt?”
This is not the worst email I’ve ever received.
When the time came, a galley was sent and I realized, after some back and forth, that it would be in my best interest to not waste her time. So I worked on a list of pieces I thought might be a good fit so she wouldn’t have to sift through all 300 pages. I was hesitant to flag “I Am the One Woman Who Has It All” because she had personally rejected it (I still have the email!) But I had this sinking sensation, as I went through my own book with this killer opportunity staring me right in the face, that I wasn’t sure any of the other pieces were a good fit. Many had already appeared in McSweeney’s, others had appeared on RAZED, and others just weren’t New Yorker-y at all. Blergh. I had to include it.
To my amazement, that’s the piece she requested as an excerpt, the same one she had rejected two years earlier. A lot of people ask me why I think that is. Who knows? The world changed a lot between January 2016 and April 2018. Perhaps the premise felt more relevant than it did two years ago. One thing I knew for sure, I sure as hell wasn’t going to ask.
I didn’t expect it to do well at all. I’ll always remember the date it went up—April 25th—because it was the only excerpt anyone had accepted. And every original piece I had been working on for months, weeks, days (serious essays, humor pieces, you name it) had been rejected by that point. Rejected by The New York Times, The Rumpus, McSweeney’s, The Washington Post, Motherwell. I could go on. That excerpt was the only thing on my pre-pub day calendar.
That damn thing ended up going viral. Viral-viral. That, along with another excerpt that was picked up by The New York Times just days before my book came out, singlehandedly (double-handedly?) launched my book. If I had winged it out there on Medium, it might have done moderately okay. If I had subbed it to a lower tier humor pub, it probably would’ve died a slow death because most readers want a brand name (I know I do.) And if I had buried it forever, I would have no topic for this newsletter.
Obviously that is not what’s going to happen with every rejected piece or even 10% of them. That piece turned out to be the Seattle Slew of rejected pieces. (I have no idea what that means.) But it was my first real lesson in still believing in a piece and being patient about it despite rejection. At the end of the day, every editor is only one person with one specific vision. Some of my readers’ favorite pieces from my book are pieces that only appear in the book and wouldn’t be a good fit for any of the humor sites I mentioned. I guess my takeaway from all this: if you feel like there is really *something* to a piece, something you’re sure you haven’t seen before, something that won’t suffer from putting it on pause and continuing to work on it or come up with some other avenue for it (would it work better as a performed piece? A longer expanded piece? A video? A cartoon or comic?)—listen to that voice.
I wish I could say this lesson 100% stuck but I still struggle with what to do with a piece once it’s written and been rejected by my first (or second or third) choice pub. I think it’s because I’m usually sacrificing something to write a piece — sleep, a paid project, paying attention to my kids, eating — so when it gets rejected my first reaction is, “Ugh FUCK, what a fucking waste of time.” I take rejection very well, I don’t typically get mired in self-doubt when it happens. I just feel pissed about the pissed-away time.
There is nothing that heightens this whole situation like timely submissions. I’m sure timely submissions existed before 2015. I wouldn’t know, I don’t remember anything before 2015. But the utterly bOnKeRs presidential campaign and its relentless news cycle and cavalcade of insanity pushed it all over the top. McSweeney’s opened a new inbox just for timely submissions and those pieces are a big part of their traffic. For evidence, no need to look further than the trending list on the site. Satire has become a valid and necessary way to cope with an administration and a world that feels completely nonsensical, dark, and out of control.
But here’s the thing — once you write a timely piece you are well and truly fucked if it gets rejected. And odds are? It’s gonna get rejected. I reached out to Chris Monks this week to ask him how many submissions he received between Election Day and the day after. His answer: 100. With 60 of them being timely. 60!
To put this in perspective, McSweeney’s typically runs 3 pieces a day. So 60 people were competing for 6-9 slots total for the 2-3 days that election content would be relevant. That’s a lot of people left with timely pieces that are no longer timely. Below are the worthy winners and, odds are, not all of them were submitted as timely pieces (i.e. they were general enough that they were submitted in advance and weren’t dependent on the outcome of the election):
• Don’t Worry About The Laughing Skull On The Voting Machines by Sam Kimelman
• We Would Like to Apologize for Electing a Pack of Wolves to The United States Senate by Harmony Cox
• Ten Takeaways From the 2018 Midterm Elections by Devorah Blachor
• We Won? by Chandler Dean
• Now That I’ve Finished Burning Down Your Village, It’s Time For Us to Come Together and Heal by Ilana Gordon
• Turns Out the Blue Wave Was Actually the Ocean Rising to Kill Us by Dan Carroll
• If We’re Going to Keep Gerrymandering, Could We at Least Draw the Districts into Funnier Shapes? by Nora Walls
• Make No Mistake, We Liberals Will Squander Our Hard-Won Gains by Marco Kaye
The other thing I struggle with when it comes to timely pieces is they don’t result in my best editing. Something I’ve learned from my entire dumb life spent as a copywriter is — if time allows — it’s important to let writing and edits settle overnight. At least for me, an early bird who thinks and writes and edits best in the mornings, having some distance and fresh eyes really help me sharpen a piece. I always regret when I get a little too hair triggery and submit something just because I want it out of my face. Of course with timely pieces, you have no choice. There is no time.
You would think all the experiences above would result in me being a fine-tuned machine of infinite patience and morning-only submissions (wow, sounds dirty.) LOL NOT SO MUCH. In fact, I just did alllll that shit I wasn’t supposed to do this very week. While I was writing about patience and believing in your work and whatever the hell else this lame newsletter is about!
I had been working on and breaking apart and stitching back together the next installment of my McSweeney’s column. Even though I had no deadline and no pressure, I submitted it at 7:00 at night. Just why? Even as I hit SEND I was like “what the fuck is wrong with me this is not how I work.” I ended up emailing Chris 3 hours later to say I was pulling it and would re-edit it in the morning. And of course I was glad I did — I found not just minor things that no one but me would notice, but glaring errors and plenty of missteps and lines that fell flat. Argh.
Why do we all (“we all” = me) actively fight against our best nature? Why do we keep doing things we know from experience are the wrong things to do? Why do we drive ourselves insane over past mistakes or over someone else’s career or over things we can’t control when most of it doesn’t change anything about our own behavior — which is the only thing we can actually control? Why did this newsletter suddenly become about life?
NEW FROM ME:
It’s very very very funny (ha! ha ha!) to spend the week working on a newsletter about patience and how annoying timely pieces are and then end up WRITING TWO OF THEM.
• MEDIUM: I woke up the morning after the midterms, learned Beto lost, and obviously this is what happened next. This was submitted to McSweeney’s and rejected. Off it went to Medium —> Satan Presents: Hell’s Employee of the Month, Ted Cruz.
• MCSWEENEY’S: I wrote this piece a day after the Thousand Oaks mass shooting which was just 11 days after the Pittsburgh mass shooting. I submitted it with the note “Ugh. Here’s a thing.” and Chris responded “Ugh is right.”: Common Sayings Updated for American Culture.
THINGS FROM ELSEWHERE:
• PODCAST: My friend Emily Blistein tipped me off to this great podcast and especially this episode. I’ve mentioned Orlando Soria before in this newsletter and this episode featuring him does not disappoint. His rant about Instagram and him complaining about writing his book gave me new life. Listen here.
• WHO WILL BUY YOUR BOOK? <— This piece is a solid window into how it feels to launch a book … and then wonder where all your people are. An excerpt: “I admit to having felt betrayed by my friends’ indifference, especially after [my] first book, but I remind myself that I do the same thing all the time. I have friends in bands that I haven’t seen live in years. I’ve never been to any friends’ improv shows. I skip a lot of readings, even when I know the readers. I have friends with books I haven’t bought or read. I have explicitly lied to colleagues about having read and enjoyed their books. The book industry is partly kept afloat by a shadow economy in which the main currency is bullshit.”
• COSTUME DESIGN: The world is such an ugly place lately that I *actually gasped* when I watched this short clip. The feathers! The colors! THE CATS! Taking you back to 1946 right here right now.
• RADIOHEAD: Doubling down, two newsletters in a row. This animated short is the funniest most spot-on Radiohead-related thing I’ve ever seen. It is also the origin of my new favorite catchphrase “Clap. Clap for Radiohead.” ——> A Brief History of Radiohead from Pitchfork.
• NEW FAVORITE PERSON: Lisa Hanawalt, a glorious person I had never heard of before seeing this, is a production designer and producer of BoJack Horseman (amongst other things). The question is, will she be my best friend? Could I text her and have her text me back? Could we borrow each other’s sweaters? Watch her talk from XOXO Festival here, you. will. not. regret it. So funny, so real, so weird, so full of I’m-a-loser-but-I-know-I’m-not-really-a-loser-and-guess-I-get-the-last-laugh vibes. The best.
• LONELINESS: You need this: “Advice From a Formerly Lonely College Student.” Be sure to watch the original video embedded in the piece. I def didn’t get a little weepy over the letter and article from her mom but also maybe I did.
• HUMOR: This piece should have many, many more likes/shares. “Please Endorse Me on LinkedIn for “Good at Grieving.”
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