The writer's utility belt hangs heavy with many weapons: the freeze ray of imagery, good for solidifying a moment forever in time; the grappling hook of metaphor, ready to link two unlike things with a tightrope of commonality; the antimatter canon, armed to obliterate any word or line that's weighing a story down. But that belt holds something else too—must, if the writer hopes to leave his or her cave in the mantle of the published author—and that something is relentlessness.
By relentlessness, I don't just mean endurance. I don't mean the hours you write even when you're not in the mood to write. I don't mean the months or years you devote to the revision of a story that's close but not quite there. I don't even mean how, at times, you must push friends and family away in order to carve out a space in your life for your art. All of those are things that you'll have to do. Here, though, what I'm talking about is outright tenacity in the face of those voices—most of which will be your own—telling you that you don't have what it takes, that your work is crap, or that you will never be published.
Perhaps, for some writers, publications and acclaim come easy, but I'm not one of those writers, nor do I know any. No magazine or editor has ever come to my door and knocked and asked if I had a story or novel sitting around that needed publishing. I say this, and you nod. But, you'd be surprised by how often students or beginning writers complain about not being published or about the difficulty of placing work before confessing that they don't really send their work out, or that they'll send a story to three or four literary magazines before giving up on it.
Invariably, my response is, "Three or four?" Then, I lead said student or writer to my office where a corkboard hangs prominently above my computer. To the face of the corkboard, I have thumbtacked about fifty rejection slips. All sixteen of the stories in my collection were published in journals and magazines, and very few were published by the first places I tried. Most of the stories were rejected by ten or fifteen publications, and some were rejected by as many as fifty. Some stories, after so many rejections, returned to the drawing board where they were revised before being sent out again. Others felt finished to me and continued to make the rounds. Some met with success. Others did not. And, in the end, when I finally sold a collection, of the thirty-five stories I'd published, only sixteen made the book's final cut.
If that sounds like a lot of work, you're correct, but what you learn from the submission process can be invaluable. When you get a rejection with any kind of personal response from an editor, you know that story was strong. You got the editor's attention. That editor likes your stuff and is worth trying again with something else. Plus, such encouragement probably means that another editor will like the story even more, maybe even enough to publish it.
Alternatively, say a story goes out to fifty places, and not one editor gives you a nice No or asks for more work? That story is probably a dud. Time to revise it or put it away for a while.
I'm not encouraging you to use editors as your own makeshift workshop. You don't want to get a reputation for sending out weak or unfinished stories. And you should only send out your absolute best, your work at its most polished, work you're proud to show the world. Sometimes, it's hard to know when a piece is done. But, when you feel like you've really got something, when your story sense starts tingling and tells you you're sitting on something special? Send it out! And don't let the first dozen rejections stop you.
For the fifty or so rejections that hang on my wall, there are another few hundred stuffed in a folder in my desk. The early ones hurt, sure, but now I find them weirdly encouraging. No rejection's sting comes close to the joy I feel when a story is accepted, and those rejection letters remind me that, in the end, most stories that deserve homes in print will find them. Finding them might just take time—and persistence.