You Can’t Be Published If You Don’t Play

“You can’t win if you don’t play,” lottery jingles tell us. The same is true with our creative pursuits. For example, with creative writing, we won’t be published if we don’t submit.

In a recent post, my friend Kate Arms Roberts posited the notion of “learning to fail better,” which she found in Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story. Kate writes about “failing” to produce something publishable, and how she can learn from that experience to produce something that is publishable.

If we wish to see our creative efforts published, we automatically fail when we don’t submit our work. But often we resist. We tell ourselves it isn’t ready yet. We anticipate rejection. It can be easier to savor the fantasy of success before submitting, rather than risk the reality of failure after submitting.

My personal essay "The Upset Win" starts on p. 65 of the print version, p. 77 of this e-reader. Click on the cover above to open the e-reader.

That was the case with me and a personal essay I wrote titled “The Upset Win,” about my role in emergency surgery on a pregnant cocker spaniel. I wrote the essay in January of 2011. In February of that year my friend and Writer’s Center instructor, the multi-published memoirist Sara Taber, edited it as a favor. She insisted it was publishable. Then I sat on it. For months. It wasn’t ready, I told myself.

When I finally did submit it to a handful of literary journals, the Barely South Review snatched it up, and it was published yesterday in their April issue. (The print journal is displayed in an e-reader format; my essay is on page 65 of the actual print copy, page 77 of the e-reader.)

If I were truly learning to fail better, I would have learned from this experience. But I’m not sure I have.

For the last six months I have been tweaking a book proposal that is due to my agent. It’s for my travel memoir documenting my cross-country U.S. road trip in which I interviewed artists and creatives of all stripes. Each month I write more of the book; it’s part of my graduate work in my MFA program. But the beauty of non-fiction is that one can sell the book before it’s finished. Yet I refuse, month after month, to find out if I can sell this one.

I’ve set an internal goal of completing this proposal by the end of the month. But in some respects, it likely is already done. I tweak and I tweak, but as of April 30th I will tweak no more. Seeing “The Upset Win” in print has reminded me of the importance of submitting.

Do you find yourself stalling as you approach the end of a creative project? What do you think are some of the factors that cause such paralysis?

36 thoughts on “You Can’t Be Published If You Don’t Play

  1. As writers, depending on our genre, what we write is so close to our innermost being, our very souls, that some reluctance to submit is only natural. For some, it may simply be not wanting the project to end. For others, it may be not wanting the success or failure of our project to be put in the hands of a stranger.


  2. Hi Patrick,

    This extends to both my writing and my visual art making. There are times I make art for a competition but don’t send it in or hold on it for “next year” because I can make it better. Some times I believe I’m being genuine and other times I wonder if it is my fear of rejection (…despite applying to things and being rejected often and still getting things accepted here and there!).

    I know for me fear can get a hold of me and prevent me from taking that risk with my work. It’s funny but only recently did it occur to me how personal songwriting is. I always knew that, but hearing Adele’s album that is so popular right now, I finally thought about what it must be like to hear about your own heartbreak publicly and have it celebrated. I never considered the risk story tellers have made sharing something that can be so personal, yet I often have that very struggle with my writing and my visual work. I wonder how much that risk of feeling exposed also affects our choices to publish or show?

    Love this post! Thanks for sharing.


    1. Hi Carrie! The Adele example is interesting. I am a huge fan of blues women, but it seems all of the musicians I fall for eventually find love and success, and their music loses its edginess. I’ve angered my kids by telling them I love Adele’s music so much, I want her to live the next ten years in heartbreak.

      I think part of the reason I’m struggling with this book proposal is that my MFA program is encouraging me to share personal pain in this travel memoir. That is particularly difficult sharing.

      Thank you for sharing that you struggle with this with your writing and visual art. I’m not alone!


  3. She Started It

    I couldn’t agree more, Patrick. Sometimes when I’m at the end of the project, I experience just as much angst as when I begin it. There’s something incredibly nerve-wrecking about submission. But you sure can’t get anywhere unless you try!


  4. Hi Patrick,
    I’m glad you’ve given yourself a deadline to send out the proposal; I’m so looking forward to reading your book when it’s published!

    I admire writers and artists who do take the risk and expose themselves in their work and become visible/open for scrutiny (both for the quality of the art itself and speculation about the personal experiences of the artist that inspired the work).

    Carrie thought of Adele when reading this post and I’m reminded of Claire Dane’s amazing portrayal of Temple Grandin in the inspirational HBO biopic about this gifted author,animal scientist, and autism activist. Temple took many creative risks – overcame her fear of going through those doorways leading into the unknown -but she managed to find the strength and conviction to walk through.

    When the fear gets the better of me, I try and hold on to Temple Grandin’s example of great courage for inspiration to move ahead with taking the risk and buckling down and getting my own work out there.

    Thanks for sending out yet another quality, thought-provoking post.


    1. Thank you for the kind words once again, Carole Jane. I need to track down this Temple Grandin biopic, perhaps I can find it on my HBO Go. It always helps to have an individual’s story to help inspire us.


  5. pjreece

    I faced this very dilemma over the winter while writing an eBook. Fortunately I had an advisor — The A-List Blogging Bootcamp. Their rules were simple: Plan-Write-Ship. That third stage was murder; I was late but I kept reminding myself that this experiment wasn’t over til I’d shipped. It’s a deceptively powerful stage of the process. Maybe because when we’re poised to actually ship it, our perceptions get razor sharp. It’s going out the door! Nail it! It’s now or never. Kind of thing.


    1. I have violated so many of my self-imposed deadlines. It certainly helps to have an external one; I know that from journalism!

      I took a personal essay class last fall at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. The instructor told us on Day One that at the end of the six-week workshop, each of us would submit one of our essays to a literary journal. She even planned a group walk to the mailbox. In the end, two of us did so, but at home by electronic submission. The others begged out. And that was that. You still needed internal discipline to keep your promise to the bootcamp, PJ.


  6. calliefeyen

    First, Patrick, CONGRATULATIONS! That is awesome and in my opinion, not at all surprising. I can’t wait to read it.
    Second, I have no idea what you’re talking about…..did you not SEE that chocolate cheesecake I made days before I was supposed to submit my essays to the MFA program? 🙂


  7. I’ve found that the more projects I submit, the less angst I feel before submitting new ones. Regularity breeds numbness, I suppose. For some reason, what I find myself struggling with and procrastinating about more is following up with existing submissions. I don’t know why, but I HATE sending follow-ups to queries or editors. I guess I feel like I’m nagging, but more than that, I begin to suspect that the answer will be a no if it’s taken them this long to reply, and I don’t want to hear no’s. So I tend to wait way too long for that follow up.


    1. Interesting tangent, Annie. I know that angst of waiting. I just checked my Submishmash account a little bit ago to see which of my personal essay submissions to journals that use the service are still “in review.” I guess I was inspired by having one just published.

      Having been on the other end of those emails, I know they are annoying, but if they’re sent after what the normal response time is expected to be, I’m more embarrassed than annoyed. The danger is expecting an answer sooner than is reasonable, and coming across as a nag. I never did this as an editor or employer, but I’m told some people keep a black list of overly eager types. So I think your fear is well-grounded.


  8. I’m sitting here now reading this when I should be correcting typos and printing off my first chapter for a writing award application – deadline Friday. How did the time fly by so fast?
    Yes I “anticipate rejection” and it is far easier to daydream we already have the life we want…
    …but your blog has spurred me on, time for the final edit and print I think!


      1. The rejection letter I received last year was encouraging and I know I’ve improved this year’s submission, printing it out now….time will tell…now it’s just the horrible wait – how long until July?


  9. Clint

    I find I can err to the other extreme too. I crank out a couple of pieces and hit “post” or “send” before really proof-reading. Spell check has made me lazy so the there/their and here/hear typos plague me. But it’s better than not playing, right?


    1. Interesting, Clint. I suspect this age of doing what we’re doing–leaving comments on a blog post, then moving on to the next one, like hummingbirds and flowers–encourages us to have a mental “click-send” message in our heads.


  10. Yes submitting work itself can be a challenge if you have been rejected more than once or twice. Being resilient is important, my novel ‘London’s Falling’ is coming out (with UK based Caffeine Nights Publishing) after much effort.I had a number of rejections and then when it was finally accepted a fair bit of much needed editing was required to arrive at a publishable and marketable novel. I would say to all writers follow Patrick Ross’ advice and mine and don’t give up.


    1. David, congratulations on the forthcoming publication of your novel, and thank you for echoing my message. You also touch on the patience a writer needs, when you think about the time it took you to write the book, find a publisher, go through editing, etc.


  11. Kate Arms-Roberts

    Great post, again Patrick. And I love the piece. The parallel between the game and the surgery is marvelous, and I love the reflection on giving up basketball completely.

    Now that I am working on blog posts that ship immediately without review and a novel that won’t be ready to ship for ages, I almost want to make time to write and submit some short stories, just to get used to submitting before the novel is ready.


    1. Kate, thank you so much for reading my essay, I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      Clint’s comment above touches on the “ship immediately” and David’s above on the long haul. I think you’re right in thinking you could uses some middle ground writing to work that writing muscle.

      In my case, my MFA encourages work on both long-form and short, so I’m writing these things anyway. It will be interesting to see how I parcel my creative time when the MFA is done. I had always pictured myself writing book-length works, but I’ve come to enjoy the essay form as well. That seems a close parallel to what you are looking at with your fiction.


  12. After I read a piece by an author years ago where she admitted that writing is never perfect and that she finds herself “editing” even when she reads other authors…Tolstoy, even, I could cut myself some slack. I’ve been reading and writing all day, so I’m going to push the comment button without a second look. Living on the edge!

    But really, think of all the folks that need to hear the story. Then it is less about my ego and more about my audience’s needs. Thanks for sharing your struggles. I think we’ve all been there…and it’s nice to hear it from someone a few steps down the path towards success.


    1. “I’ve been reading and writing all day, so I’m going to push the comment button without a second look. Living on the edge!” Love it!

      Thank you for the comment, Lara. I like the way you frame it, about the reader. A reader gives us the gift of time; we have to give them something back. If we feel our writing has something to offer, then we should want to offer it.


  13. Congratulations, Patrick! I laughed when I saw this post in my e-mail! I’ve been sitting on a completed manuscript for 2 years, having tweaked, edited, proofed, polished, proofed again, rewritten…. I got a big nudge a few weeks ago to just publish the damn book myself–so I can write something NEW. But yikes is that scary. It’s a huge relief to learn that you (and the many commenters) deal with this issue too. I suspect that it’s the best writing that stays trapped in a computer or a drawer….

    Your reply to Laura is going on my bulletin board (with your name on it): “If we feel our writing has something to offer, then we should want to offer it.” I’d wish you luck on your proposal, but I don’t think you need luck–so how about a long stretch of flow, coupled with the courage to send it off…even if it’s not perfect? : ) Thanks as always!


    1. Thank you for the not-quite-luck wish, Carolyn! As to your bulletin board, how odd to think of someone quoting me!

      Have you sought an agent or publisher for your manuscript? I’m all for people self-publishing–and if you do, please let me know, so I can read it and promote it–but there’s no harm in seeing if you can find a partner in the publishing world. It makes the process seem a bit less “yikes.”


      1. Not so odd, Patrick! Thanks for the encouragement. As for the manuscript, I had lots of big plans for it when I first finished–even sent it to a couple of publishers, and proudly showed off my first rejection letter. Then I choked, fearing rejection…and exposure. So I also dismissed self-pub too quickly (and arrogantly, I’ll add). But the universe has me on notice to put it out there in whatever way that needs to happen….


  14. I could certainly relate to this post. I’m really quite bad at submitting pieces for publication–right now I have several essays that I’ve just been “sitting on” for, as you did, months. Part of it’s perfectionism–it’s hard for me to feel that a piece is “ready enough,” especially without an external editor. However, a large part of my paralysis comes from just not really knowing where to submit, not knowing quite how to juggle simultaneous submissions, not knowing which piece would be best suited for which publication. I agree with the commenter above who talked about external deadlines, though– I have some of those as part of some travel essay writing I’m doing for an online publication, and they really push me to get the essays done and out the door, so to speak.

    I’ve bookmarked your essay to read, by the way!


    1. Ah, I’m not alone! You make an excellent point about the lack of an external editor. Of course, in my case, a writer had edited it, and still I sat on it.

      I’m still trying to learn the lit journal landscape (I’ve posted a couple of posts reviewing journals, which I’m posting to share what I’m learning). It is hard to know where to submit, how many publications to submit to, etc.

      I’m so pleased you’re going to read “The Upset Win,” Sarah!


  15. I so hate submitting because it brings with it the possibility of rejection. But because I also know that it brings the only possibility of acceptance, I’ve placed it as a higher priority this year. I have a monthly goal of sending 5 queries – can be for finished PB manuscripts, articles, poems, whatever. I guess on some level it’s a numbers game too. The more you send out the more likely someone will find they like what you’ve written.

    Another great post!


    1. Hi Julie! Good to hear you’ve upped the priority on submissions. Kudos for setting a numeric target for each month. I know another writer who does that with good results. Not sure why I haven’t adopted that myself.


  16. Pingback: Writing Links from around the web, 4/16-4/20 | Ladies Who Critique

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