by Stephen Parrish

can’t find any mention of this when I google the interwebs. But I heard about it on the show. That’s right, I’m old enough to have watched Jackie Gleason broadcast “live from Miami Beach.” During one poignant episode of The Jackie Gleason Show a close personal friend of Jackie’s narrated The Great One’s early career.

Jackie Gleason originally tried to break into the entertainment business as a singer. During his debut appearance in a vaudeville act, his performance was so poor that members of the audience threw tomatoes at him. Apparently theater-goers of the time routinely equipped themselves with such projectiles for just such a contingency.

At home that night, wiping tears and tomato juice from his face, Jackie learned his mother had died.

He went on, of course, to make his mark in comedy and drama, staring in the hit TV series The Honeymooners and several films including The Hustler. What few people seem to know is that he also sold millions of “mood music” albums in the 1950s and 60s. The guy whose singing voice launched rotten tomatoes became, for a time, a force in the music industry.

Some writer friends of mine have walked away after a few rejections, and in my opinion, too few. For some reason, a pair of manuscripts seem to be a common limit; the quitting writers don’t think there’s any point in writing a third. Yet my fourth novel was the first to be published, and according to one survey (, only about 2% of authors debut with their first novel. 14% debut with their fifth.

Hemingway reportedly rewrote the last page of A Farewell to Arms thirty times. You only fail when you quit.

The road will almost certainly be rocky, because rejection rates are high. In the more prestigious journals, the rejection rates are stratospheric. Theodore Ross recalls his time as a reader at Harper’s Magazine:

“The great majority of stories that crossed my desk were, of course, terrible. A smaller subset were mediocre; a tiny fraction were good; one was excellent; I rejected it, too. (It ended up in the Paris Review.) Graduate students, retirees, lunatics, published authors, and untold residents of this country’s federal and state prison systems sent me their work, as did one of the stars from the television show, Scrubs. To all I said no. The literary editor at the publication once told me that in his many years only one story had emerged from the slush pile and into print.”

A former intern at The Paris Review once wrote anonymously in a forum that in two years of reading for the review not one piece was taken from the slush. I asked a couple of Paris Review staff members about this at an AWP conference. They looked at each other, thought for a moment, then one said to the other, “Didn’t we take something from the slush a year or so ago?” The other frowned, shook her head, and said, “Not that I recall.”

You have to acknowledge all this, but you can’t let any of it defeat you. First, because there’s no shame in getting rejected. Just look at Jackie Gleason. Author Joe Konrath keeps a spiral notebook filled with more than 500 rejections he received before landing his first publication. The only thing Joe counts nowadays is his money.

Second, because there are reasons for submitting your work even if you suspect it isn’t quite good enough, or you believe your chances of placing it are slim. Writers tend to improve their games when showing their writing to others, especially to editors. And they tend to improve their games even more when they imagine their work being read by hundreds or thousands of journal readers. Merely sending your stuff out makes your stuff better, makes you a better writer.

If you’re getting your writing workshopped you’re already taking the most important step toward publication, after the writing itself. Demand that your crit partners be harsh. In my experience many if not most writers who show their work to friends and colleagues are seeking validation, not criticism. I tell my crit partners that if they say even one nice thing about my piece I’ll track them down and sit on them.

When submitting, follow the guidelines to the letter. Be polite and authentic in your query, not boastful, condescending, or affected. Save the details about your pets for your annual Christmas letter. Editors are prospecting for gems in the gravel. If you won’t follow the instructions, or you cop an attitude, or your cat’s name, “Admiral Snuggles,” is the one that sticks in the editor’s mind, you look like gravel.

After your piece is rejected, take another look at it, and send it out again. Keep sending it out. I can’t count how many times a piece I’ve rejected, or would have rejected, was accepted by another journal. More often than you might guess, it’s just a matter of finding the right home for your work. Having said that, keep writing new work, too. Experienced editors recognize tired submissions, the ones that have an over-polished feel about them, the feel of having been around the block.

Never give up. Ever. I’ve noticed a funny thing about this business. Every one of my friends who has quit writing, because he or she felt like a failure, was, in my evaluation of their writing, on the cusp of breaking through. The day you quit is the day before the following would have arrived in your inbox:

Dear You: I love your story, “Admiral Snuggles Defends the Patio from Chirpy Flying Beasts.” If it’s still available, I’d like to take it for the Review…”

Remember, they threw tomatoes at Jackie Gleason.


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