Not Fiction, Still Rejection

19 Mar

By Sharon Stephenson

So here’s how it goes down for the wannabe in nonfiction. Actually, most of the process is exactly the same as for the poet and the fiction writer. We just have fewer places to send our work, and therefore, less variation in our rejection letters. With knots in our bellies, we still send out our essays and manuscripts either by snail mail or through some online submission portal. I prefer putting my weird literary creature and its stuffy little cover letter into a manila envelope. I walk to the post office and buy enough postage to ferry my beloved envelope off to a literary magazine like The Sun, a North Carolina-based class act that does not accept online submissions, period. But if I just submitted to those stately gentlemen of the literary world who only accept manila envelopes sealed with my DNA-rich saliva, I would be cutting of my published nose to spite my publishable face.

Every writer has Submittable bookmarked, since Submittable is the online giant for getting your nonfiction up onto someone else’s screen. However, the only writers who don’t hate Submittable are those currently not getting medication for their obsessive-compulsive disorder, because if you just take a quick glance below–hell, the font is so teeny you can’t even read it–all you see is that red word.  That word, dear friend, is “Declined.” The “Accepted” is a pleasant old-growth forest green, but who cares?  The thin-skinned writer only sees red, the color of rejection.


A few places accept either online or snail mail submissions. Some of those few also ask that you submit your work only to them because they will get back to you in due course, and you owe them some respect. My conclusion, based on one data point, is that one of these publications is run by Lucifer and his Legion.

Painted Bride Quarterly had a call for submissions to a themed issue on costume. I sent my manila envelope, stuffed with hopes, dreams, a cover letter, and a 3,000 word essay in keeping with their word limit. Six months later, no thumbs up or down, and another literary journal had an open call for a themed issue, also on costume.

Now, I have friends who not only write but get published and make money to boot. Most surprisingly of all, I have friends sit across the desk and select what gets published. (Note: I cannot submit work to these same friends because that’s just weird.) These friends with knowledge, with credentials, said it was entirely cool to email Painted Bride Quarterly and ask them for a status report.


I submitted an essay in hard copy format for the Costume issue in July. I may have inadvertently excluded my SASE. I’m not sure of your reading timeline for Issue #87, but I can resubmit electronically or just rely on the generous spirit of your staff to let me know the status eventually, even if no SASE made its way to your desk.

Please advise.

Best regards,

Sharon Stephenson

Pretty sneaky to use the old “I forgot my Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope” excuse, I admit, but I didn’t want to anger Lucifer and his Legion any more than necessary.

Lucifer and his Legion did not respond. My friends in the business shrugged their shoulders. Who can force someone to have manners? A full month later, I emailed again:

Dear Kathleen Volk Miller, Marion Wrenn, and the rest of the Painted Bride Quarterly staff,

Good afternoon.  I submitted an essay in hard copy format for the Costume issue (#87) back in July. I may have inadvertently excluded my SASE. I’m not sure of your reading timeline for Issue #87, but in case I did not submit a SASE, do you notify writers who have made such an oversight?

Just a quick reply would be appreciated.

Best regards,

Sharon Stephenson

Those who know me would be able to tell that I was mad as hell at this point–the “Just a quick reply would be appreciated” speaks volumes.

A month later, still no reply. I decided to look up a phone number to ring Lucifer and his Legion. I was always checking the Painted Bride Quarterly website, and so I it was easy to pop over to find a phone number. But in the few days since I had last checked, the Painted Bride Quarterly special issue on costume had gone live online, with the print version soon to follow. Of course, my 3,000 word essay was not in the mix. By this time, the deadline for submitting to the other literary journal had passed.

I made no phone call. Instead, I wrote this blog and sent it to Martin. Then, I resubmitted my damn essay.

Sharon Stephenson is currently Chair and Professor of Physics at Gettysburg College. Her literary nonfiction has appeared in The Dead Mule and Real Time. She blogs at


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