Rejection: a small message written in fog and tea leaves from which a writer tries to extract any clue as to where the hell he went wrong.
I’ve got ’em–a big thick stack of ’em–and now that I’ve re-entered the fray of short story marketing, I’m getting more. Unfortunately, as cryptic as were the rejections I amassed a decade ago, the ones hitting my desk these days are totally inscrutable.
But last week’s Submit post got me thinking about those old rejections…Was there more to learn from them than I thought? So I went up into the attic, pulled down the dusty, crack-edged binder, and started to paw through them.
Here’s what I found.
When I first started writing and learning the craft, my focus was on markets, not on the stories themselves. All of my rejections were alphabetized by market, organized by date within market. With this I was able to gauge how well I was doing with this editor and how close I was getting to a sale. I could see my rejections progress from form to note to letter as I built a relationship with the editor (sometimes only to fall back down the ladder as the editors moved from magazine to magazine in publishing’s version of Musical Chairs).
My working mantra was “Write, Submit, Write More.” Rewrite only came into the mix upon request, and certainly not based on any editorial scrawls found in the margin of a form rejection.
Such was my arrogance.
Going through the old rejections, I can see how, given my market-oriented focus, the editorial scribblings gave me so little. Too slow. Too fast. Not enough character. Too much character. Just not right for us. They were all over the place, they gave me nothing to grasp, nothing on which to concentrate, no real guidance or consistent critique.
Then I reorganized the rejections, sorting them by story instead of by market. Suddenly, instead of seeing my history with a market/editor, I could see the progression of each story as it passed through the industry. Patterns immediately emerged. Some MSS consistently got the “too slow to start” comments, while others consistently got the “not enough idea development” critique. Some stories were always given the “just didn’t do it for me” response. Now that’s some information I could have used. The idea that I should be getting consistent commentary on all my stories was ludicrous. Each story is different, especially when I was learning so much so fast. There’s no way they’d all have the same problem.
Such was my ignorance.
I also failed to appreciate how much encouragement I received from the editors. It may seem inconsequential to some, but when an editor takes the time to say “Please do send your next!” I think it’s a really cool thing. It means I got to the editor, s/he read the story all the way through and liked it enough that s/he wanted to see more of my work. Unfortunately, at the time, I didn’t see this encouragement; it didn’t make it through my filters. All I saw was the rejection.
Such was my inexperience.
Going through these old rejections, though, I made some interesting discoveries.
- I found a rejection for a story, “Nighthawk,” that I don’t remember writing and of which I don’t have a copy; judging by the date, it’s possibly the first story I ever wrote, now lost to history.
- One story, “Sum of the Angles,” was rejected by both Playboy and Boy’s Life; it’s an odd story that might have a chance at both those markets.
- I sold some stories multiple times: some markets accepted reprints, some sold non-overlapping rights (e.g., anthology vs serial rights), and some stories were sold to markets that went under before the story ever saw print.
Breaking down the numbers by story was interesting, also. As I made the shift from short stories to novels, I stopped tracking so carefully, but of the rejections I saved, it broke out as follows:
- For all stories, I had a total of 327 submissions:
- 44% were form rejections
- 51% were “notes from the editor” rejections
- 5% were acceptances
- For the stories that were accepted, I had 102 submissions:
- 36% were form rejections
- 53% were “notes from the editor” rejections
- 15% were acceptances
- I had 11 stories accepted (33% of my inventory)
- 15 actual acceptances
- 3 were reprint acceptances
- 4 never saw print
I was surprised to see the “Notes from Editor” rejection percentage was about the same for accepted stories (53%) as it was for the whole inventory (51%). I expected my accepted stories to have a higher percentage of personal rejections, but that just wasn’t the case. This tells me that whether or not I get personal editorial notes is probably more of a market-specific factor than a story-specific result.
Now, as all my rejections are boiler-plate emails with no personal stamp whatsoever, I grow nostalgic for those hardcopy rejection days.
Such is my foolishness.