How to Differentiate Between Desire and Desperation in Pursuit of Publication

Image: a multi-colored neon sign artwork in which the words "human, desire, hope, dream, need" are arranged like spokes on a wheel.
Photo by Alexis Fauvet on Unsplash

Today’s post is by writer and nonfiction coach Amy Goldmacher (@Solidgoldmacher).

Is the desire to get published damaging?

As writers, we want to share our messages and our stories with others. A way of achieving that goal is through publishing. However, an unintended consequence of our drive to get published may be that our deeper internal motivations get overridden by the pursuit of the goal.

The odds aren’t good when the goods are odd

Here’s what I mean: I have been submitting a 10,000-word, 2nd-person POV flash memoir in the form of a glossary to competitions and small presses since May 2022. For context, this book is about a woman who becomes the age her father was when he died, and how she realizes the way she grew up doesn’t need to be the way she lives the rest of her life, written in alphabetical glossary entries. It is my story, but it’s also for those who, perhaps facing the downhill portion of the mortality rollercoaster, feel that some of what made us successful may no longer serve us.

Memoir is a crowded and competitive market, and my stylistic choices meant additional barriers to publication. I knew this as I wrote and revised and found the structure that served the story. But, as rejections stacked up, I started to feel more desperate. There are not limitless outlets accepting unconventional works like mine. I scoured the internet for places to submit, regardless of what they were offering, pursuing any opportunity to be picked. I started flinging submissions like spaghetti against a wall to see what would stick. As Meredith from Season 2, Episode 5 of Grey’s Anatomy begged her McDreamy, I too was desperate: pick me, choose me, love me. Does it not feel like the ultimate indication of approval to be selected above all others?

The wrong yes will break your heart worse than a rejection

Another common waypoint writers experience on the path to publication is the near-miss, when a press says you almost made the final cut. But even more painful is an acceptance that doesn’t fit.

Seven months after submitting my manuscript to a tiny lit mag chapbook competition, I got a “congratulations, you’re the winner” email. Instead of being elated—finally! My book was chosen!—I was sad. Wanting to be chosen had overridden what I really want for my book and for myself: I want this book to be printed and bound and sold so others can buy it, hold it, and read it. In my haste to submit to anywhere that might take it, I overlooked what winning a competition meant at this lit mag. In their submission guidelines they offered publication, but it was unclear to me in what form it would be published. They have only published print and online magazines to date. They also offered a small honorarium, no royalties, and there was no information about marketing or advertising support. Though I know any honorarium or royalties will not come near what I have already invested in editing, coaching, and submission fees, I want more than what was included in this particular contest’s offering.

So I declined. I feel bad for declining the award. It’s not good practice—I don’t recommend it. These outlets are run by people with the best intentions who invest much of their own time and money into offering these competitions.

As writers, we make hard decisions at many points in the process. And hard decisions sometimes don’t feel good.

Get—and stay—in touch with your why to guide your submission strategy

This experience taught me that submitting work shouldn’t be an act of desperation. I shouldn’t have submitted to this competition because I didn’t want or have a good understanding of the prize.

I’m changing up my submission strategy. It might mean that getting this book published will take longer or might never happen, but it means I’m focused on my why, and it means I might prevent my own heartache later.

My why for this book, the reason I wrote it, is to help fatherless daughters and hypervigilants realize they can let go of what no longer serves them. I want them to be able to find and read this book so they feel less alone. That is why I am seeking a place that will publish a physical book, has a track record of success with physical books, and provides author support in the form of an honorarium, marketing, royalties, and author copies.

My criteria may not be what you want or need to feel successful for your publication, but I invite you to examine your motivations for getting your work into the world and what would be most meaningful to you to receive in return: Why do you need your story to be in the world? What form does it need to take to make you feel successful? What would make you happy and validated to receive in return?

More strategy, less desperation, in pursuit of the goal.

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