Go Figure: A Year’s End Accounting

January 3, 2023 § 23 Comments

By Jennifer Lang

Were someone to quickly scroll through my Submittable account dashboard and see the overwhelming number of asphalt grey and pencil lead black boxes, they’d probably assume I was a Loser, in need of new tactics or in the wrong profession. Not one beloved, coveted shamrock green box since November 2, 2021, for a story that cascaded out of me in hours and was snatched within a few days by The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts.

Between January 5 and December 31, 2022, my folder looks like this:

RECEIVED                9

IN-PROGRESS          8

WITHDRAWN          7

DECLINED               53

ACCEPTED               0

To my non-statistician brain, Loser isn’t strong enough; these numbers scream failure, shitty writer, shoddy stories. To my been-around-the-block brain, Loser’s too harsh; I know better. It’s less about what I submitted and more about where I submitted (does the journal publish only pop culture stories or have a penchant for more meditational?), who is reading (what are the backgrounds and ages of editors and readers?), what else have they read lately (an abundance of second person, flash, CNF pieces or empty nester women’s woes of sleepless nights?), and what they’re looking for in submissions (traditional prose, hybrid, stories of childhood, research based?). Most of these questions, of course, I cannot answer.

If this would have been the sum total of my writing year, I might have stopped submitting, enrolled in a class, hired a coach, consulted a developmental editor. But these numbers are deceiving. They don’t tell the full story. They don’t show the two signed book contracts, one in March and the other in September, with Vine Leaves Press. They don’t reveal the love letters from the editors who read my manuscripts and highlighted everything they admired and asked me to sign on the dotted lines to make my dreams come true and turn my words into books.

Still, as the year comes to a close, I am baffled. How can I succeed at the one and bomb the other to such an extent? How can I continue to teach creative writing if I have no recent publications to show for myself? How am I supposed to feel confident with my book if I cannot master the shorter submissions? How can I close the crazy gap between book publication and the submission process?

As we start yet another cycle around the sun, I’d like to offer the following takeaways:

  • Know nothing about this process is personal. Everyone says it but I’ll say it again. As an assistant editor for Brevity, I read 10 submissions a week for a large chunk of the year. When I read, I am looking for story. For words that make me feel something. For good writing, well-constructed sentences, sentence variation, va-va-voom writing. For logic. For new, often overlooked points of views and perspectives. For an immersive experience where I lose track of time.
  • Keep going. Step into Frosty the Snowman’s shoes and put one foot in front of the other. Memorize this word and its definition like a mantra: perseverance (noun) = steady persistence in a course of action, a purpose, a state, etc., especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement.
  • Trust your gut. While rejections were piling up for my book manuscripts, I started feeling desperate and antsy (this precedes/bleeds straight into the Year of Submittable Rejections). What if these thousands of words never became real books? Then, two small presses said yes. The catch? Neither had actually read my work. One offered me a contract within hours of sending my proposal and filling out the publisher’s questionnaire. The other expressed her enthusiasm for my work based on fill-in-the-blank: what I’d previously published, who I connected to, how I presented myself. But it didn’t feel right. Being published without being read, not to mention edited, was one huge red flag. I asked writer friends who had already published books what they thought as well as writer friends who were in similar stages of submission. In the end, I dug deep inside myself, turned down the offers, and rolled the dice.
  • Believe in yourself. My biggest struggle. It doesn’t matter how many people cheer me on and tell me they love my writing. I doubt myself. My beginnings. My endings. The what-I’m-Trying-To-Say parts. But with time and maturity, age and experience, I am working on it. On myself. On believing.

May 2023 be full of the three-letter Y word: YES!


Jennifer Lang was born in the San Francisco Bay Area, lives in Tel Aviv, and runs Israel Writers Studio. Her essays have appeared in the Baltimore Review, Crab Orchard Review, Under the Sun, Ascent, Consequence, and elsewhere. Places We Left Behind: a memoir-in-shorts and Landed: a yogi’s memoir in pieces & poses will both be published by Vine Leaves Press (September 2023 and October 2024). A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, she holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serve as Assistant Editor for Brevity. You can learn more about Jennifer Lang at www.israelwriterstudio.com or find her on her yoga mat: practicing since 1995, teaching since 2003.


§ 23 Responses to Go Figure: A Year’s End Accounting

  • youngv2015 says:

    Thank you for this essay. Congrats on your books being accepted. Keep submitting your stories!

  • Amanda Le Rougetel says:

    What a good essay to read at the beginning of this new year. Success is complex, isn’t it, and hardly ever arrives in a straight line for us. Thanks for this eloquent reminder that a) we must believe in ourselves and our writing before anyone else can (or will), and b) that we must persist despite how the numbers line up in the accounting columns. Today, my goal is to persist with a piece of short fiction that is so foreign to me I wonder why I’m writing it…yet, I also know that I’m writing it as part of a larger practice in which the craft (not the final score) is the game.

  • Let me second the importance of Jennifer’s magic word “perseverance.” For years I coached writers aiming to get published in major magazines, and I discovered that the crucial ingredient was not writing talent but rather the gumption to just keep going at it, to ignore inevitable rejections and to take encouragement from editors as the subtle opportunity that it actually was.

  • I admit to have a submittable account that looks a lot like yours but one thing it says to me is that at least I did something this past year. And just the sheer law of averages says that something will eventually stick. That keeps me going. As does telling myself that it’s not personal (I hope)

  • rachaelhanel says:

    Oh my gosh, I could have written this: “How can I succeed at the one and bomb the other to such an extent? How can I continue to teach creative writing if I have no recent publications to show for myself?” Questions I ask myself almost daily!

  • I have the same story but i read for a big literary magazine for two years. The competition is unreal. For an ia call for writers over 60 we received 2500 submissiins in less than two months. Alas, a sizeable number were abput the same subjects( Loss) Next we had a call for long essays. These were the best, many involving inteteresting life experiences and research. Finally there was a call for “flash” — short essays like ihe Brevity publishes. Same deluge. But these essays were also much alike and demanded compressed poetic writing skills that most did not evince. I complained: why are these essays so much alike? All about my body, my relative and my emotions in different contexts.Where is travel, where is cooking, where is the world? And the magazine published very few pieces, and a lot were about craft. i advise actually reading a copy of the magazines you submit to or would like to be published in. And signing on as a reader. A huge education. You cant read them all but a lot are following the same trajectory. You’d be surprised how few writers do resd the publications they are dying to be published in. What i am.perceiving is that older styles of writing are out and more poetic, less prosaic styles and subject matters are out. Most publications are interested in stories they havent heard. before which means the writers are often from foreign countries. I,too, like these stories. Many are looking for Bipoc writers, and they should be. Good luck.

  • Brenda Ridley says:

    Even though my rational mind knows better, I thought I was the only one wearing a big “L” on her forehead. I’ve been feeling sorry for myself and was starting to think about quitting writing. Thank you for urging that we march on.

  • Sandra says:

    Yes to all of this.

  • Alice Lowe says:

    YES! A new year for new beginnings. Let’s say yes to each new day.

  • BJ says:

    Thank you!

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