*This blog was recently published on our founder’s blog. Here it is in its entirety.
A High Bar
When I started Sucker a little over a year ago, I had zero expectations and a glowing vision of what I wanted to do: Publish the best in edgy, emerging YA literary fiction and provide all submitters with feedback that would not crush their hearts. Creating a supportive environment, even among those we had to reject, was tantamount to the desire to publish stellar YA fiction.
As submissions rolled in for the first volume, I felt, dare I say, honored and privileged; these writers were handing me their work and in that act, trusting me to make a decision about it. Handing me their vulnerable, pulsing hearts and hoping I would keep them pumping but knowing that I may not.
From the very first submission, I thought about the writer on the other side of the submission pile. I was hyper-aware of them and imagined that he or she may have been sitting in front of his or her computer, just having hit send, heart beating with excitement, that this publication, this one might be IT. Might be the moment that someone they don’t know will read their work and say, for once, YES!
Even before I read word one from that first submission, I had, in the back of my mind that, that no matter what—rejection, acceptance, or mentorship—I wanted writers to feel acknowledged and supported and most of all, hopeful so that they will keep writing. I didn’t want the blood of another writer on my hands, didn’t want to be someone’s reason for throwing in the towel. I know how words can assault a writer, no matter who is the speaker of those words.
As time went on, and I read more and more submissions, uncovering the gems that came to be what made up the first volume of Sucker, I began to grow confident in my vision. Boosted by the positive response of both those who we rejected and accepted, I thought, I can do this. Soon my vision began to shine super bright and even more clear to me: Edgy, provocative, literary YA fiction that is not only the most engaging content, but edited so finely that each word, phrase, sentence, and punctuation mark is a reflection of careful, careful thought. I wanted the literary life of Sucker to be in all ways The Best. We wouldn’t publish monthly but yearly, so I could really focus on making our work truly awesome and shiny. Our first issue was filled with stories that, for the most part, had to be revised and in some cases, multiple times. I wanted my writers to reach the bar I set, and they all did. The level of trust, respect, and work was super, super high. All aspects of the magazine from process to product were better than I could have ever envisioned.
With expectations based on what I felt was a hit-the-ball-out-of-the-park first volume, I headed into reading submissions for the second volume of Sucker with a bar high enough that even a trapeze artist would cringe. Extending this somewhat corny metaphor, I had a lingering question: Would I be able to swing it? Or maybe swing from it without falling?
Before I swing from high bars…
Throughout making Sucker volume 1, I was also going though the process of signing with an agent and revising my own manuscript. Not only was I no longer out there, but now I was on the other side. For the first time in my writing life, I was not fielding rejection letters for myself. I was in a place of YES to get all self-helpy here for a minute. YES to submissions that were rolling in, YES from an agent. YES YES YES! Even when I was rejecting a submission, it was from a place of YES. Not to mention that the rejecting process was kind of warm and fuzzy. I made those rejections submissions have a name and a face. I told writers here’s what didn’t work, but hey if you fix it, you can try again! Also, this process of Sucker was a new literary endeavor and as I said in yesterday’s part 1, it wasn’t ripe with expectation. It was all fun.
But then came the process of Sucker volume II, ripe, brimming with all kinds of expectations. High bar set. Now I had to grab it and go…but because I am a worrier by nature, I had to pause a little and…worry.
About a month ago, as I was reading submissions and making decisions about them for the upcoming volume 2, that worry was very focused on the process of saying yes and no to writers. The idea of rejecting a writer made my heart hurt. My empathy crossed the line into a neurotic mother.
Not to mention that the process of rejecting submissions has been rather, well, complicated. My original vision: “Publish the best in edgy, emerging YA literary fiction and provide all submitters with feedback that would not crush their hearts. Creating a supportive environment, even among those we had to reject, was tantamount to the desire to publish stellar fiction.” This made for a lengthy response process. And it wasn’t like other lit mags. Usually submissions come in, are read and put into piles of yes, no, and maybe. The “no” subs just get simple form letters, while the “maybes” might get a line or two of feedback and a request to resubmit but this is very rare, and the accepted ones, of course, get the coveted YESSSSSS!!! Our first issue took the process a step further by providing all submitters with the feedback sheet from our readers.
The second issue was supposed to be that easy, just that extra step of forwarding the feedback sheet. Nope. I was terrified now. Terrified and worried about how that rejected writer might feel. This time around submission came in, I read the cover letter, and if I was intrigued, I put the submission in my pile, if I wasn’t, I handed it to one of our 11 readers. However, I made a lot of exceptions to this rule since now I knew a lot of our submitters through Twitter followers, Facebook fans, MFA folks, etc. There were writers from the first issue and friends of writers from the first issue who had been sending encouraging and supportive messages to me. I really couldn’t just hand those stories over to my readers. I worried about how the feedback for them would go. Like a mother worries about sending her kid off to school the first day. What if the kids aren’t nice to her? What is she feels lonely?
However, as I began that process of personally responding to those submitters who I knew, I realized that this would take way too much time. So, I reached out to the staff and sent them some reminders about being kind in their feedback.
I doled out samples of what was good and what was bad. I re-instructed everyone to choose kindness over harshness. I had to hand over most of the submissions to readers and let them get the pile down a bit before I could realistically be able to tackle the ones that would possibly make it to publication.
As feedback sheets came back to me, I read them. The mentor and acceptance feedback sheets didn’t cause heart palpitations to happen, and I so enjoyed writing the emails to those folks inviting them to be in the magazine or have a chance to revise with us. But the rejections, well, I would glance at the feedback sheet, see “reject” at the bottom and… just put them off in another pile. I felt a compulsion to rewrite ALL of the feedback sheets because I worried we might hurt someone’s feelings. I found myself editing every feedback sheet.
I had to stop. It was taking too much time. So I just let them sit (again) for a bit.
When I finally went back to that pile, I began with the rejections that were easy. The pieces that weren’t really editorially right for the mag and that were really adult or middle grade, rather than YA. Those didn’t get feedback sheets but instead a letter saying that it wasn’t YA. After those were done, in another effort to narrow things down a bit, I posted a message on the FB page that said if you are dying to know about the status of your submission and haven’t received a response yet, DM me. Then I edited those feedback sheets and sent them off, accordingly.
But then came the pile of about 70 stories that I just had to really bite the bullet and say no. 70 feedback sheets I needed to read and make sure no one was unkind. I saw some that needed little tweaks here and there, but I didn’t notice anything glaring. I began to relax like when one day I dropped my daughter off at school and watched her, seeing that she actually was choosing to go off alone and play on the monkey bars and didn’t seem that sad.
However, lingering around me still was a fear of what if…what if we do hurt someone’s feelings? What if I think I am checking these sheets carefully, but I’m not…
In this moment I felt that I could not quite grab that high bar I had set for myself this time around, the second guessing and anxiety way bigger than anything else. I couldn’t even envision this next issue because I was really consumed with this fear of hurting someone’s feelings.
So, guess what happens next?
About six weeks ago I sat down with my intern to go through these final submissions left in the “no” pile and make sure that the feedback sheets were kind in tone. For example, we changed things like “this piece bored me out of my mind, it was so slow” to “the pacing of the story could be a little faster” and “the piece wasn’t that bad…if it was completely rewritten” to “with some revisions, this piece will be much stronger”. And the like.
After careful inspection and slight tweaking, we sent off the first ten (out of 70)….
Days later, I received an email that had words such as “feedback” and “destructive”.
My whole body literally pooled into itself as I read those words. I felt hot and nervous and my heart pounded. Shitshitshitshitshit. I checked the feedback sheet and there it was, a few of the lines of feedback that were not the kindest of words, feedback that was more “destructive” rather than “constructive”.
So, as I feared, I let one slip through my fingers. I didn’t check the feedback sheet carefully enough before I sent it off, or maybe I was tired from worrying about everything. : ) Who knows. But the response from the writer was scathing towards us as a magazine and upsetting, personally to me. I forwarded the sheet to the reader as well as the email from the writer, and I apologized directly to the writer myself. The reader, of course, was very apologetic and felt terrible.
Lesson learned. Lesson forever and ever learned.
So after that, we went through the rejections again and reworded things obsessively…and I came to the conclusion that from now on, I am going to send out all the rest of the rejections without the feedback sheets. Instead I will add a line that says if you want to see the feedback, reply back to us with a request. It will buy time to recheck the feedback sheet before it goes out.
The thing about the writer who wrote the scathing response to us is that I actually agreed with the feedback that had been given, just not the form that it took. But as a writer who has been out there for over ten years and has received all kinds of rejections and critiques, I don’t care how someone tells me what they think, what really maters is if it resonates with me.
But I have a very seasoned and thick, thick skin—like bbq chicken with a heavy rub, you know? The thing about that rejection is that, what I didn’t pay enough attention to is the piece was heavily based on the writer’s real life. Actually, I think the line on the cover letter was that the line between fiction and fact was something this writer didn’t pay much attention to. So what I believe the writer was angry about was the reader’s response felt like an attack on her personally. (See why we won’t publish CNF?)
Going forward, I will continue to screen the sheets and impress upon our readers that kindness is a must. The feedback sheets are written for me, really, and not the writers. Although the readers were informed that the writers would read them, I just don’t know if they realize how sensitive they have to be. But because we had never had a bad response, in fact, only genuine thanks yous for taking the time to tell me why you are saying no, I thought we were fine.
So now we are just about finished sending out all requested feedback sheets and getting ready to work on deciding about mentored pieces. We have five stories that are definitely going in the magazine, five stories I feel so fantastic about and excited to share with readers. I know that my fear and expectations and my neurosis about taking care of everyone will be a continual challenge for me. I know that we may hurt writers’ feelings sometimes, and I know that I will have to live with that.
I end this blog post series with the following quotes about rejection and failure (courtesy of http://www.brainyquote.com):
I failed my way to success. -Thomas Edison
Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm. - Winston Churchill
Ambition is the last refuge of the failure. -Oscar Wilde
I take rejection as someone blowing a bugle in my ear to wake me up and get going, rather than retreat. -Sylvester Stallone
Look up the definition of rejection in the dictionary, get really comfortable with it, and then maybe you can go into acting. -Loni Anderson
As actors, we deal with rejection so much more than any other business. So I don’t care how much of a genius you are, if you don’t have the propensity to be able to get back up every time you get knocked down, then you’re not going to survive. -Ryan Kwanten