I was updating my submissions spreadsheet yesterday and found myself scrolling back up to the top, and my beginnings as a writer back in 2003. I log all submissions on this spreadsheet, in date order. Hits get highlighted in bold so it's easy to see the fallow periods when lots were submitted but nothing sold.
It was interesting looking at the lists of old, unsold stories. Those I wrote in 2003, 2004, 2005 got sent out 3 or 4 time, and always came back. I had the occasional hit during these times - a fluke vaguely literary story got shortlisted in a few competitions; I had a few unpaying internet publications; and my one and only Woman's Weekly sale back in 2004 (anyone know who you have to sleep with to sell another??)
Then there are the good periods, with lots of bold-highlighted lines on the spreadsheet. Stories subbed March-May 2007 looks particularly good - 9 hits from that period. Mid-July to November that same year was terrible. Everything came back unloved and unwanted.
Those early endless rejections taught me perserverance. I could have given up, but I didn't - because I enjoyed writing and the few acceptances had given me such a buzz I had to do all I could to recapture that feeling (though nothing ever feels as good as the first sale!)
And all those unsold early stories? When I re-read them now I can see why they didn't sell. Stories which start ok then peter out with no real resolution. Stories full of cliches, adverbs and dialogue tags. Stories with too many characters. Experimental stories written in weird and wonderful formats. Stories which should really never have seen the light of day. I feel vaguely sorry for the magazine editors who had to read them. But I thank them too, for not black-listing me and for accepting some of my stories once I'd learned enough craft.
BUT - those stories were my apprenticeship. They earned their keep, because through writing them, editing them, subbing them and getting them back again I learnt what works and what doesn't. I learnt how to structure a story. How to balance description and dialogue. How to tighten a story, reducing it to just the right number of words, where every word counts and every word works. I got better at writing. I'm still learning.
And a few of those stories contain half-decent plots I can reuse. I've rewritten one (a complete rewrite, starting from scratch I mean, not an edit) and sold it. I think there are others which could be resurrected and used. (Here's one, the second story I ever wrote: unknown woman turns up at the door with a sob story about needing to take her son to a hospital appointment but no money for petrol and she won't be paid till Friday. Does your MC take her on trust and lend her money? Or not and live with the guilt the woman might be genuine? Feel free to use this if you like. We'd all write completely different stories from this starting place, and though they wouldn't all sell, the best ones might.)
Although I know of a few writers who sold the first story they ever submitted, most follow the kind of path I have. It's slow and sometimes tortuous. And once you begin to sell there's no guarantee you'll keep selling. I've just logged today's rejection from Take A Break, sob sob.
But the only certain thing in this game is, if you don't write you won't improve; if you don't submit you won't sell. Keep at it, keep smiling, and good luck!