This is another resurrected post about story submissions and rejections from when I expected this blog to be a success story about my fiction adventure. Last week I figured I’ll just tell the truth. This has been a bruising ride with bouts of elation, and there are probably a few writers who can relate. I spent 13 months trying to figure out the meaning of every detail of editor responses, from one-line form rejections to encouraging and constructive personal notes. Still, no means no. And despite being fascinated by scrying and divination since my teens, the fixation on minute details became ridiculous. Still, superstition may be a reasonable response to the carnival ride called — with due perversion — submission.
Editor Responses — What Does All This Mean?
#1 Editors are often right. Yes, even when you’re new to writing fiction and think all your stories are perfect. Even when they make suggestions about a story you’re certain you got just right, down to each sacred word dictated by your muse. Even if you reject this premise now, bear it in mind. It will become more meaningful if you continue to write. Those of you who’ve been around rejection mountain, bear with me, I just had to say that.
Another thing: editors and slush readers aren’t in the critiquing business. They don’t have to respond to unsolicited submissions at all, and if anyone takes the time to comment on your story it’s a gift.
Pointer for novices: Never write back to argue about a rejection.
The Personal Rejection Report, or There May be Hope
So, my rate of personal rejections has increased. I sent out 64 story submissions to horror, science fiction and fantasy publications in 2013. I was shortlisted, or bumped a few times at pro publications. I received 7 personal rejections. Most of those personals came from publications I was submitting to for the first time. This encouraged me to keep trying more venues. In 2014, I sent out 49 submissions and got back 13 personal rejections.
I’ve made three sales — tempted to call it four because Specklit bought two of my drabbles, but given it was a total of 200 words and one check, I’m counting it as one sale. Thank you, Alex Fayle. The other two sales were flashes to two Apokrupha anthologies, Dark Bits and Vignettes From the End of the World. Apokrupha is a semi-pro horror publisher; their vision resonated with me. Thanks, Jacob Hale and the Apokrupha team. That’s three sales in fiction since May 2013 when I returned to the fray after several years away.
BTW, I only count a rejection as a personal if it says something specific about the story. Email with my name, the name of my story and the editor’s name with the suggestion to send more are most likely auto-generated, although sometimes these are higher-tier rejections. Not always, though. A few publications have form rejections that invite everyone who submits to submit again. I picture an army of slush readers in a basement.
A few of these personal rejections contained constructive feedback. These are valuable. See #1 above. I’ve worked as an editor; I’ve survived as a copywriter for a few years and I was a creative writing instructor at a university — I’m still learning to write. My need to say this may show I’ve spent too much time scanning posts by people who think editors exist to climb over each other in eagerness to buy stories written that morning by people who don’t read the publications they get so angry at for not buying their work.
Other personal rejections contain specific compliments that assure me an editor read my story and appreciated it. Sweet. Keeps me going.
Overcoming Rejection Blues
I went through a downer time from all the Close-but-No responses. In the back of my mind I’ve analyzed the rejections for a pattern. Is there something specific I’m doing wrong, some way I need to improve to get from close to yes?
What’s left of my mind has obsessed about these questions for months. Requests to ‘send more’ made me sad. If I couldn’t sell anything, how would there ever be anything more to send? I got over it and went the ‘do it harder’ route.
After a round of revising to make sure every story was as strong as possible, I slammed out even more exclusive submissions, topping out at 14 stories with editors. I stepped up production of new stories. I stretched in different directions. I wrote funny stories; I wrote fantasy (not the dark kind) for the first time in years; I wrote some of the darkest, most painful work of my life, and I branched into contemporary fantasy, a new passion.
My new work is better than those resurrected stories I was so set on selling when I first emerged from my cave last spring. I also wrote a Gothic horror novel last fall and I’m in the middle of the second draft. So I’m getting a lot of practice.
My daily challenge to write at least 500 words of new fiction is paying off with lots of genre flash and short stories running less than 2500 words each. This may improve my odds of publication. I haven’t been able to sell science fiction and horror stories at my preferred length of 5000-6000 words.
My brain seems to have grasped that pro markets for horror and hard science fiction are in short supply. A few of my favorite publications rarely — as in, they say they’re open to it, but I’ve never seen it happen — publish outright horror. Competition for the few spots in the top publications for hard science fiction remains fierce and I don’t think I’m imagining things when I say most of those story slots go to well-known writers. One of my demons tells me I have to beat a certain top name I see in every publication I’m trying to break into. Nothing like a high bar. The demon is right.
Back to those editor responses. If I was going to take all this extremely seriously, evidence suggests my stories do not play well with others. This doesn’t surprise me. I’m bent. I picture an editor creating a pleasing arrangement of shortlisted stories for an issue or anthology, finding that mine doesn’t fit, and booting it back.
I consider whether I’ll ever fit, but it’s a bit late for that now. Years of reparenting might result in my being a different writer…who knows. Tongue far in cheek.
I immerse myself in my favorite publications and read anthologies by editors I’m courting. I keep collecting clues. Openings, bodies, endings — I analyze effective stories with the verve of a 19th century medical student with a fresh corpse. It’s possible that in the acute stages of attempting to break in as a fiction writer I tipped into mania. Once I found a database of sample rejection slips, including notes on different tiers. Don’t do that.
Lessons From Rejections
So how could I improve my odds of reaching readers? In those editor responses the best tip was to take greater care with the story opening. I flubbed one, and a top editor was kind enough to take the time to tell me so. He was right. See #1 above.
If anyone else is going through ‘How do I get out of the slush pile?’ or ‘Now that I’m getting out of the slush pile how do I get more acceptances?’ I recommend reading blog posts by slush readers. These people are on the front lines of separating the stories that don’t have a shot from the ones that do, and they lay it right out there. Some of it makes for funny reading, in a yikes kind of way. Some of it is startling. I had no idea that many people are writing stories about balls for genre publications. One slush reader hit her limit on stories with bodily fluids. Seriously, people, these posts are worth a read.
Easy ways to find posts by slush readers: check blogs of publications you read or enter ‘slush reader’ in a search engine.
Bonus tip: If you get really down, read as many Dave Barry books back to back as possible. People might give you looks for cracking up in public, yet it beats the alternatives. I’ve vowed to stay away from weed eaters until things improve.
Extra bonus tip: A rejection means the editor couldn’t use the story. It doesn’t mean you or the story suck. Write a lot more stories, but only if you must. If you keep at it, some fabulous editor might suggest that you explain ambisexual clusterbanging. This just happened to me.
When you reach the point of experiencing strange happiness from personal rejections you may be ready for a breakthrough — or you’re going around the bend. When I figure out which one this is, I’ll let you know.
Note: I wrote this on April 5, 2014 in the midst of submission mania, when I was still spending many hours per week writing, polishing and submitting short stories. A few weeks ago I decided to change course and stopped sending out stories. I’ve stepped up copywriting for survival, so I’m down to a few hours a week on my Gothic horror novel. I’m happy to report it’s almost finished.
I’m heartened that Lightspeed will be doing Queers Destroy Science Fiction.