I knew going into the writing life that eventually I would want to try and publish, and I knew also that getting published was difficult and that rejection was part of the process. A lot of rejection. A lot. I mean it.
I didn’t know how much a lot of rejection was (I still don’t) even though I had heard that so-and-so famous writer got rejected ### of times before being published, or that famous novel TITLE GOES HERE was harshly shot down ### times before finding a home and infamy in the annals of literary successes. For my part I have been rejected, oh let’s say my liberal estimation is thirty times — ever. That’s not “a lot” I don’t think. That’s quite reasonable actually, if you consider that every unpublished writer in the world is so much clover in the field, and even if one is born with four leaves it takes a mighty long time – or a stroke of luck – to get discovered quickly.
This is not to say that every single rejection is easy to accept just because it’s one of a relative few. No, every rejection is a disorienting smack in the chops. Every rejection feels like all rejection, and in the hours after that dull, dim letter crosses your desk the pursuit of writing feels hopeless and completely void of meaning.
One of my first rejections came from a magazine called “Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine.” I knew very little about the publishing world back then and what I received when that rejection letter came in was the now-familiar form response letting me know that the magazine editors appreciated the chance to read my stuff and thanks for submitting but this isn’t right for us at this time, etc. But unlike the other letters I was getting there was something else. In the lower section of the page, below the short-and-to-the-point form copy of the rejection, was a handwritten comment.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the rarest of rejections. An actual, helpful, critical response from a real live person. In this case the person was none other than Zimmer Bradley herself! In my naivete all I saw was a rejection, and though I was impressed that a real live celebrity author took the time to comment on my work (and send along an autograph via the signed comment) I took for granted that this sort of thing was the norm.
A few years later I submitted another story to another mag, not so famous, and when the inevitable rejection came once again there was an editorial comment attached. With so few attempts and so little experience in the time of my efforts I continued to assume that this was normal. But it isn’t . . .
This week I received a rejection, and once again it came with an editorial comment. I knew this one was coming. Not the rejection necessarily, but the editorial should the piece get rejected. Yes, I finally realized (a while ago) that any response one might get from a potential publisher is nothing less than pixie dust, liquid gold, diamonds and rubies, dragon scales, and sometimes even the Crown Jewels. When I saw in the submission guidelines that this publication offered feedback on rejections I submitted to them just for the sake of their response. I didn’t even care whether the story was a fit. Someone who knew the biz was going to tell me something that I couldn’t see for myself – and I was going to benefit from it. Here’s what they said (parenthetical additions are mine):
“I liked the voice and the sense of detail, but the initial focus on description, for example of the (such and such) and of the appearances of (character 1) and especially (character 2), made the pace feel slower there than I needed at the opening of the tale.”
That’s it, nothing more specific about what worked and what did not, but oh the nectar contained in this tiny flower! Here’s what I took from these comments:
1) The editor liked the voice of the story. Hey! I can live with that. Voice is critical and to have that component down is something to be proud of – this guy is a professional after all and that’s a compliment to me.
2) Successful use of detail. Ok! I suspected that I had a good description of things going on: setting, mood, the things that make the story materialize off the page, and this confirmed it. Score.
3) Looks like I got myself in trouble with too much detail early on, however, spending too many precious words on set up that didn’t need to happen. The story got off to a slow start and for short fiction that’s a mistake. My use of detail in this case was a boon and a bust.
The good news? I now have a good idea about how to revise this story and get it a little closer to success. Coincidentally this story is the same one that elicited the unexpected comments of the editor following Zimmer Bradley. I like to think, with a little more work, I might have a winner here.
In conclusion, every rejection is a chance to get better. You never know when the next one might come with a valuable editorial clue about how to improve your work. Take heart when this happens. So rare is this in the publishing world that, truly, it is the next best thing to acceptance.