Or It Sucks, but It Gets You Where You Want Your Writing to Be
I got a rejection letter today.
This notice makes the 23rd for this short story, a story that I’m proud of and worked hard to get exactly right. The rejection came, like many rejections, as a form letter that was a mix of encouraging platitudes and the invitation to submit another story soon. Rare are the rejections with feedback, and a few read like break-up letters. I remember one apologizing for their limited space, a kind of “it’s not you; it’s me” explanation.
Rejection isn’t easy, but as Gene O’Neill said in my interview (A Conversation with Gene O’Neill), “It’s part of the process.” Gene talked about Scott Edleman, writer and former continuity editor at Marvel Comics, when they visited the Jack London Museum together. “They had a stack about four feet high of his rejections. Now that would bum some people out looking at that, but Scott and I, we looked at that stack, and that inspired both of us. If Jack London could stick it out, then so could we.”
It’s true. As Samuel Beckett once said, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Rejection is where writers hone their craft. Editors know what works for fiction and their publication. Respecting the editor’s opinion goes a long way to accepting a rejection letter, and learning to do a bit of research of the publication helps too. Sending a western to a science fiction magazine is a guaranteed rejection. I recently reviewed the submission guidelines for a publication, read a sample story in their recent issue, and decided my story was not a good fit.
However, you don’t want to edit yourself out of publication, but don’t just shotgun your submissions. It’s best to give some thought about the publications you send a submission to.
Frank Herbert’s Dune was rejected twenty-three times before being picked up by Chilton’s, a publisher of automotive repair manuals. And with short fiction, many times a story is rejected because the author ignored the publication’s submission guidelines. If they want it in Times New Roman font with one-inch margins and no indentations—give it to them. This is the advice from Robert McGuill, who works as a writer and an associate editor at Narrative. His job is to separate the wheat from the chaff of hundreds of stories and send only a handful upstairs to the editor and editor-in-chief. Out of hundreds of submissions received, Narrative only publishes one or two works of fiction, a piece of non-fiction, and several poems per monthly edition.
Despite McGuill’s insider’s view of the selection process, Bob estimates it takes him up to fifty submissions before his stories are accepted for print.
Kavitas Das, writing in The Atlantic, said writers shouldn’t romanticize rejection. He spoke explicitly to editors rejecting writers of color who are dismissed at the rate neither O’Neill, McGuill, or I experience. Das tells the story of Marlon James’s first novel, Jon Crow’s Devil, which received 80 rejections. James went on to win the 2015 Man Booker Prize for his book A Brief History of Seven Killings. “Was it lack of imagination on the part of those publishers? Was it unconscious bias against a new and unfamiliar narrative—one that they didn’t regard as “mainstream?” Or was it a complex business decision based on multiple factors? As an emerging writer of color, I’m no longer inspired by this narrative. I don’t see much cause to celebrate when writers of James’s profound talent are roundly rejected in the course of normal business.”
He has a point. White, male writers are accepted 90 out of 100 submissions most publications receive, with persons of color and women rounding out the remaining ten stories. It can be a blow to a writer of color’s ego. The Guardian quotes James saying, “There was a time I thought I was writing the kind of stories people didn’t want to read.” He described being so distraught that he destroyed his work. Still, he persisted.
Alex Haley’s Roots was rejected 200 times.
Even for me, a white male author, I dismiss romanticizing rejection and instead endorse O’Neill’s “it’s part of the process” narrative. Part of that process is taking chances. O’Neill said that you should constantly improve as a writer, and I’ve certainly made that my goal but it puts my story at risk of being dismissed. Many of my most rejected pieces are often works of experimentation. Can I write a zombie story without zombies? Can I write a story that is all dialog with shifting points of view? That’s not to say, telling or retelling the same tale is a sure-fire way to publication success. I’ve had a lot of success publishing speculative fiction that follows a set formula, yet I’m still well within the McGuill average on those stories.
Stephen King’s Carrie was rejected 30 times.
After nearly a hundred stories, I can’t tell you what gets published and what does not. I wrote a story set in a train station, and one of the rejection letters said that the editors were taking a different shape with the current issue, and yet another magazine accepted it because they had a series of train-themed horror stories they were assembling into an issue. I had a story rejected for being too long based on the other stories in the edition, and another editor accepted the same story despite exceeding their 4,000-word limit. some publications have accepted stories that have sat on their desk for almost a year and others have accepted within hours after I hit “send.”
Often you never know why an editor rejects a story. McGuill says most of his rejections are on technical flaws and recommends careful editing before submitting. But I think about how many stories in the Iowa Review, Threepenny Review, or the New Yorker I’ve read that I thought were stinkers. I realize that in the end, there’s another human reading my work, and if my story fails to stimulate them, I’m going to get an email that begins with “Thank you for submitting, however…”
Of the five successful writers I’ve interviewed—Tony Peak, Gene O’Neill, Robert Ford, Robert McGuill, and Sharron Riddle—all greet rejection with a shrug and an acceptance. No one is fond of rejection, but they accept it without sentimentalization. It’s part of the process. It means you’re putting your work out there, and that’s the key.
Every writer I know has a friend who wants to be a writer. The friend writes stories no one reads or puts them on Facebook, where they get 50 likes from well-meaning acquaintances who praise their work, but they never submit. Or they submit and give up after three or four rejections. And I don’t blame them. It’s hard getting that letter and harder still to get up and keep writing in the face of it.
From my point of view, rejection is the toughest part of the job and the risk I need to embrace to get published.
Keep reading. Keep writing. Keep submitting.
2 thoughts on “In Praise of Rejection”
I really loved this one, Scott!
Thanks, Tom! It’s the same in any art form, isn’t it? Including acting. You can’t succeed without putting yourself out there but then you run the risk of someone politely passing. The choice is to keep moving forward or do something else.