You’re a soldier just outside a great, fortified castle. You are not the enemy but an ally of the soldiers in the castle and you have a message for them. The problem: they don’t know you’re not the enemy. The have an idea that the only way to get them the message is to use the catapults outside the castle. So you go and disguise yourself as the enemy. You will shoot off hollow shells and inside of them will be the message to the castle.
But since you’re a messenger and don’t know anything at all about physics or trajectory science, you just wing it.
Your first shot doesn’t even shoot, it just falls off the basket and the catapult jerks with impotence; you blush and look around you in shame.
Your first real shot goes too short, about two feet. You begin to burn up from the embarrassment. You look around you. Other soldiers are setting the arm back a certain degree, looking at the distance, pushing the carriage forward or backward. You study their methods, but only for a moment; you don’t want to seem like you don’t know what you’re doing. You also realize that they are messengers as well and not trying to destroy the castle. You could make friends with some, if you wanted. But not right now. Right now, you are making your way.
Your next shot goes a little farther and so you play with the arm.
Next it goes too far. You didn’t think these catapults were so powerful. You start to get the right balance through trial-and-error.
Then, after you get the right degrees, you try an assortment of shells. It can’t be too heavy or it will damage the castle, but it can’t be too light otherwise it won’t fly. Another big chunk of your time is making the right shell to send over the top and into the heart of the castle.
Then, after you have done all of this, you look over and notice that other soldiers have different kinds of shells. Some are painted a certain way, some are weird shapes. Some have time-released parachutes and other contraptions. The lesson is clear: You have to make the container of your shell attractive so that your message to will get their attention.
Next, once that message is inside and they read it (since now you realize that the castle is getting nothing but messages), it must be a great and entertaining and provoking message.
Finally, after you’ve mastered all of this, you realize that you must keep doing it. The same thing, over and over–set the arm back, lock it. Load the ammo. Hit the release. Watch it fly. Wait. Shrug. Repeat. Eat a little. Rest a little. Until you die.
This is what it’s like. Some publications get ten thousand submissions a year. How will you stand out? With a great story having great characters. A hook at the beginning, flow and movement, outer as well as inner conflict, and of course, a unique style. And having said this, let me say it again: It should always be about perfecting your stories, keeping a fluidity and an urgency for greatness in the storymaking process. Always. Never ever flag from that.
But there’s another aspect, an aspect that a lot of writers just give up on and never understand: you have to keep on firing at the castle. Why? If it was good, wouldn’t it be accepted? No. Because prevalent through all of this is the idea that you must never ever stop shelling the castle until they wave that white flag of acceptance, and even then you must find another castle and start all over.
Just because you’re rejected doesn’t mean they didn’t like what they read. It’s because it was rejected. And rejection means a lot of things.
Rejection: a specific OPINION from a specific PERSON at a specific TIME on a specific DAY about a specific WORK.
Do you understand all of the infinitesimal variations in that statement? Here are some.
OPINION means it’s not fact. If they didn’t like it, they could like it another time. Opinions change.
PERSON means a human being. If that guy or girl didn’t like it, another one might. It also means that that person is dealing with stuff at that moment (see TIME and DAY). They went through a breakup and you wrote a love story? Rejected. After lunch and gassy and their focus is shot? Rejected. Before lunch and cranky and rushing through slushpile reads? Rejected. Keep in mind too that the human who is reading your work might not be a professor or an editor or even a paid employee. You are, at the very beginning, writing for people who are instructed to use the word Rejected on a constant basis. They are slushpile readers. They only submit the things that they feel can be accepted. Their jobs depend on their boss liking what you wrote. As Dennis Palumbo once said, “They’re not in trouble if they say No. Nothing bad can happen and they won’t lose any money. The moment they say Yes, their troubles begin. If you’re an agent, you now have a new client whom you have to get work. If you’re an executive, you have to sell this idea to all of your compatriots…[but] if you say No, you can just go to lunch.” That’s who you’re submitting to. But keep submitting! Rejection is the stone on which we sharpen our swords.
TIME and DAY means a certain spacial-temporal coordinate, meaning it’s completely unique to every single second of time and day in our lives. Submit on a different day and/or at a different time, and you might get a different PERSON.
And WORK means that if this story is not good enough, try again. They didn’t like the one about dinosaurs? Try the one about penguins. Plus (always keeping in mind that it’s all about the story), the more you make stories, the better you get at them.
They don’t know you’re not the enemy. Being a messenger with a message isn’t good enough. Not being the enemy isn’t good enough. You have to go through great lengths to show them you’re not the enemy, and it involves not just having a great message, it involves learning and perfecting the use of your catapult. Both skills are required to get the message through.
And if you believe in the message–when it’s written from that place of honest wonder and passion–and if you work your hardest at making it the best message, you’ll do yourself a great disservice if you don’t keep launching.
Never ever stop.
Make stories and submit them. Submit stories and make them.
All the time.
Read on your days off.
Get in better shape so you can submit/make.
Quit smoking and drinking so you can live longer to submit/make.
Focus on that catapult but don’t forget about your messages.
Never ever quit.
And, eventually, one day, they’ll get the message.