Advice for aspiring authors, from an aspiring author:
Today I received my most wonderful rejection yet. The editor of a really good magazine sent me a rejection that had my head spinning with pride and filled me with hope for my writing career. I spent most of the day reading over his encouraging notes and comparing them to my story, thinking to myself yes, he’s right, that doesn’t quite work, that wasn’t clear enough, I’ll need to change that - but damn I might actually get published one of these days, holy shit I might be a writer after all!
I can hear you whispering in the back there. He’s lost it, man. I told you this would happen eventually. Dude is all dazed and happy over a damn rejection letter! Maybe the truth hasn’t sunk in yet. Maybe he doesn’t understand that the story got rejected.
Well, you’re wrong. I understand with painful clarity that the story got rejected. Believe me, I am sad. This would have been a wonderful first sale. Hell, it would have been a wonderful sale for Clive Barker. We’re talking about a first-rate genre magazine here, not your aunt’s quarterly I’ll-pay-you-when-we-get-some-money webzine. I didn’t get in, and that hurts. It hurts every time.
But that’s not the point here. The point is that this was a truly encouraging rejection. You see, there are all sorts of rejection letters, and by the time you’ve collected a score or two of them you know the different types and respond accordingly.
Rejection is part of the business. This is easy for me to say, with my collection of twenty-one rejection letters. But it isn’t just my opinion. Some of the best and richest writers have recorded their trials and tribulations. A few of them come close to bragging about the vast numbers of rejections they collected before getting a story published. And it doesn’t stop with your first sale, either. It’s pretty safe to say that just about any magazine would now be happy to buy just about any story Stephen King sent them. But, as he’s noted in several of the introductions to his stories, Mr. King was still getting rejections long after “Carrie” and “The Shining” came out. Both of those books sold boatloads of copies, and came out in book club editions. But he still got rejections. So did Harlan Ellison, and Ursula K. Le Guin. These are all speculative fiction names, of course. That’s what I read and write, so that’s what I know. But I’d be willing to bet that Tom Clancy, Umberto Eco and Maya Angelou all have their own stories of rejection. Believe me, it’s part of the business. Read a couple of trade journals if you don’t want to take my word for it. (It’s probably a good idea to read them anyway.)
Your stories will get rejected. It doesn’t matter who you are, it’s going to take some time before you know the craft and the market well enough to achieve a perfect acceptance record. It will probably take a long time. If you really want To Be A Writer, you will need to know how to deal with rejection.
Before we go anywhere with this, there’s one thing that’s very important to note: editors do not reject authors. They reject stories. Even after your masterpiece has been rejected, you are still in business. Keep your masterpiece circulating, and above all, keep writing. The next story might be The One. Or the story after next. Or the one after that.
With that out of the way, let’s look at the different types of rejection letters. They all mean different things, and demand different responses.
“YOUR STORY SUCKS, FOOL!”
(AN URBAN LEGEND)
Despite your paranoid fears, this legendary rejection doesn’t actually exist, as far as I know. Nobody ever writes to tell you how horribly incompetent you are, and nobody ever says your story was the worst piece of English prose they’ve ever seen. The publishing world is not American Idol, and nobody has any interest in insulting potential writers. All rejection letters, to the best of my knowledge, are at least formally polite.
A friend of mine who is an editor at one of the big houses confirms this. It is editorial policy to never, ever insult an author. If your story is truly abominable, they will damn you with faint praise or send you a form letter. They will never tell you how bad the story really is.
Note that some of the more detailed rejection letters can sound so harsh that they do resemble "your story sucks!" Also, remember that even the most professional publishers can only be pushed so far, and if you insist on resubmitting a rejected story again and again with only cosmetic changes you will eventually earn a well-deserved insulting response.
This is a short note or e-mail, obviously not a form letter but following a specific formula. It says, in the briefest form possible, “I can’t publish your story.” It may also say something like “we’ve received more submissions than I ever imagined possible,” and often contains a spelling error or two. This is a sure sign that the zine in question is run from a laptop in somebody’s kitchen. Which is not a bad place for your first publication, but you can take solace in the fact that it wasn’t going to pay you very much anyway.
Note: I’m not putting down the amateur zines. Many of the greatest spec-fic writers got their start in fanzines. They are definitely worth your time, and there’s a lot of good writing in them. All I’m trying to do here is console the recipients of Post-It rejections. I’ve got several of them.
“THE FORM REJECTION”
The sign of a slightly better organized publication, the Form Rejection is immediately recognizable by being as stilted and impersonal as possible. It offers no encouragement whatsoever, and holds out no hope for the future. Do not be misled by the words “although your story was well written...” or “please try again...” It’s a form letter. Everybody’s story is well written. “Well written” means “I can’t see any single thing terribly wrong with your story, but it doesn’t do anything for me at all.” This is as close to “your story sucks, fool!” as it gets.
Please note that this does not mean that all hope is lost. Far from it. Every publication is subject to the whims and tastes of its editors, and since you haven't received any feedback here, you should not try to second-guess the faceless editors behind the form letter. This is a waste of time. Instead, put a little note in your submission file (see below), and find another place to send the story. DO NOT change the story in any way, unless you really and truly believe you’ve found a serious weakness in it.
(Demeter reminds me that some of the larger magazines, who see a lot of stories failing for the same basic reasons, attach a list of common failings to their form letters. It's worth comparing your story to this list, to see if you've committed any of the Deadly Sins of Writing or accidentally stepped on a particular editor's pet peeve. Think of it as reading the FAQ.)
This is much, much better. The Critique actually shows signs that someone has read your story and understood, at least vaguely, what it was about. It is, in fact, usually a sign that the story made it through to a second reading. In other words, it was pretty good. Not good enough, as it turns out, but better than most.
The Critique is also a sign of an editor that you may be interested in working with. While the Post-It and Form Rejection don’t give you anything to base your judgement on, the Critique shows you there is an actual editor at work. Someone who thinks about the stories, and knows their stuff. If someone tells you “this sort of thing has been done once or twice before, most notably in ‘Parallax Medusa’...” you can take it as a good sign. It’s worth re-examining the story based on this feedback, although you are free to disagree with the editor. Most importantly, make a note of these comments. If one editor tells you your characters’ motives are not believable, it might be just their opinion. If three consecutive editors tell you the same thing, you betcha there’s a problem with your story. You don’t absolutely HAVE to change it, but you should think about it.
(With all due respect to Robert A. Heinlein, his advice on this topic is completely idiotic, and I absolutely refuse to believe that he never reworked a story based on editorial feedback. For one thing, it's a matter of record that John Campbell changed something in just about every story he ever published, and Heinlein was part of Campbell’s original stable. It’s quite improbable that every one of Heinlein’s stories made it past Campbell’s desk without some red ink. For another thing, the "Author's Cut" of Stranger in a Strange Land is about a hundred pages longer than the version that was originally published.)
You may want to send these people some kind of response, thanking them for their input and for considering your submission. I used to do this, but I gave it up when I started to figure out how swamped most editors are. But if you do write to the editors, make absolutely sure of one thing: never be bitter. Do not try to tell them how wrong they were to reject your beloved masterpiece. Be polite, be professional, be brief. Thank them for their time, let them know that you’ll be trying them again in the future, sign and send. If you're thinking of saying anything else, DON'T. I know for a fact that many good editors keep detailed files on potential writers. As hard as it may be for an unpublished author to believe, there are editors that track every single story they read. They remember names. It’s better if they remember you as a nice person to deal with, with a professional attitude, rather than a whining little wannabe who turned up his nose at the first sign of rejection. Always remember, they rejected the story, not the author.
“WE LIKE YOUR WORK” - THE ENCOURAGING LETTER
This is as good as it gets without having a contract attached. From my experience (I’ve gotten two or three of these so far), the Encouraging Letter usually takes an agonizingly long time to arrive. The story has gone through two or three readings and been put on a shortlist. The editor has really been deliberating over this. Ultimately, the story didn’t quite make it, but the editor truly wants to hear from you again.
The editor in question will have things to say about the story. She will point out minor flaws or signs that the story is simply not right for that magazine. She will also take the time to point out what she liked most about the story. Savour these kindnesses as much as you like, but don’t forget to take a serious look at the criticisms. This is definitely some feedback you want to consider. You might actually be able to rework the story and have it accepted by the same editor.
This letter really seems like it warrants a response, but again, I would advise against it. At most, you might want to thank the editors for their input. You might want to ask if they are interested in seeing the same story again after revisions, but from what I've seen, this never works. I tend to think that if they believed the story could be salvaged, they would have said so in the first place. A better response, in my opinion, would be to find another story for them.
This sort of letter is often sent out when an editor loves a story, but doesn’t feel that it is right for their audience. It may be perfectly good for another magazine. More on this subject later.
DEALING WITH REJECTIONS:
So how do you deal with all the rejections you’ve accumulated? First of all, keep writing. The instant you stop writing, your career is over. This should go without saying. Secondly, you need to organize. Make this a learning experience. At the same time you are improving your writing skills, you are building a knowledge base that is no less important than your actual craftsmanship. This may eventually make the difference between you publishing a couple of stories and keeping your day job, and becoming an actual working author. Again, I’m getting a little ahead of myself here, but this is all based on things that I’ve heard professionals say.
Keep a submission file. Make note of every story you’ve submitted to every magazine. Note the date, note who you sent it to. Keep track of the names of the specific people who rejected each story. Editors move around, and markets change. You have got to keep on top of this.
Keep a separate file on magazines. Have an entry for every single fiction-publishing magazine you’ve ever seen. Take note of their submission guidelines, estimated response times, and pay rates. In general, it’s a good idea to read as many magazines as possible, and not only from your specific genre.
Note the style of stories they’ve published. You need to be able to gauge the market. I’ve wasted a lot of time sending stories to the wrong magazines. Many magazines take several months to respond, and if your story is good enough to get through to a second reading, it takes even longer. You need to keep the wasted time to a minimum by sending your stories to the right places. Remember, for example, that while “Realms of Fantasy” and “The Third Alternative” both publish urban fantasies, they do not AT ALL like the same style of writing. Eventually, you should reach a point where, upon finishing a story, you can immediately tell whether it’s a Realms of Fantasy story or a TTA story. (I think I’m finally developing this sense. You can, too.)
Note the responses to your submissions. How long did the response take? Was it a form letter, or a critique? What, if anything, did they say about the story? It’s important to note patterns of feedback.
Finally, remember that the longer the rejection took, the better the story was. This is somewhat counter-intuitive, since ideally you’d like to see a positive response in minimum time. But keep in mind that most editors do not actually read every submission. At least at the larger magazines, every story has to go through at least one “Reader” or Assistant Editor before getting into a much smaller pile of submissions for the editor herself to read -- and even this small pile is a lot larger than you think. Some magazines have editorial teams that vote on submissions, meaning that every one of the editors has to read your story. And at most of the decent magazines, the kind of publications you really want to see your work published in, there are dozens or hundreds of stories in the queue ahead of you. The editors of Cemetery Dance have estimated that they receive an average of 300 submissions a month. That might sound like a lot, but Asimov's reportedly gets 800-850 a month. It takes time to wade through all those words. Note that there is at least one short-cut through this “slush pile” - submissions from well-established authors will always get priority treatment, and I imagine that sometimes an assistant will read something that is so obviously brilliant that it gets rushed into the editor’s shortlist with all due haste. So, if you want to get faster responses, get yourself published. Or write the greatest short story ever.
Easy, right? Now get to it.
If anybody, published or otherwise, has any kind of feedback or additions, I’ll be happy to hear them. I am, as always and at all times, aware of my own amateur status. It may be horribly presumptuous for me to even write this sort of thing. But I like to believe I’ve accumulated some valuable experience and read some useful things on this subject.
UPDATE (2/7/2005: I'm going to have to rewrite this to reflect my ongoing experiences, but for now I'll just add a few notes. I've had seven stories published, and a great many more close calls, since I wrote the above, but I've had no experiences that contradict any of what I wrote here. In fact, most of these opinions have been reinforced. Most of the stories I've had accepted were previously rejected by at least one or two magazines. I did rewrite a couple of them based on the occasional detailed critiques that drifted my way. It really does pay to listen to editors. Most of them know what they're talking about.
Another point I've found is that editors really, honestly, do remember authors they've rejected, especially the ones that came close to acceptance. You can and should use this in your future submissions. In fact, if an editor gives you detailed feedback on a story, and your next cover letter contains no acknowledgement of said feedback, it's a bit of an insult. I suggest adding words to the effect of: "Your advice on my story 'The Marvelous Beastlets of Trank' was quite helpful. I hope my new story 'The Terrible Triplets of Thork' will be more suitable for your magazine." Or something. Editors are appreciative of authors who do their homework.
One last point that I have to repeat, because I forgot about it for a while: never stop. If writing is important to you, don't let a few rejections keep you from realising your dream. Rejection is part of the business. It's hard to get fiction published, and even harder to make money at it. But it is not impossible, and perseverance is half the formula for success.