Feedback Rejections! (An editor responds)

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  That’s quite reasonable actually, if you consider that every unpublished writer in the world is so much clover in the field, and even if one is born with four leaves it takes a mighty long time – or a stroke of luck – to get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.

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12 comments on “Feedback Rejections! (An editor responds)

  1. Susan says:

    Hi Ty. This whole editorial comment thing intrigues me. I know that we’ve read your work (we, your friends) but I wonder if it wouldn’t be beneficial to seek out an editor – a freelance editor to review your work – not all of it but a story and see how that goes. Just a suggestion. Let me know what you think.

    • emperort says:

      Thank you, Sue! I think about that from time to time. The thing is, professional editors are terrifyingly expensive. It might be an investment better made after I have some more momentum, I think. That way I’m not immediately throwing good money after bad. Is that too jaded?

  2. lpaigewrites says:

    It must have been hard to try to pull positivity out of the rejection. All I would be thinking is “Wow, I suck.” Kudos to you, I say!

    • emperort says:

      Thanks, LP – there is something to be said about believing in your work enough to think there’s something positive going on. I have two stories I am working on and will send back out this week. One of them I am sure is publishable and one I am absolutely not sure about. Both have merit and I believe in them both. Whether they ever find a home is the question and so I guess faith is what I am running on right now.

  3. Alan says:

    Great way to pull the positives from the letter!

    • emperort says:

      You know me, Alan – that which doesn’t kill me . . . had better hide. J/K! I think I am onto some good revision thanks to these rejections. Anyway, I have no choice. I want to see my children live!

  4. jcollyer says:

    I’m glad it’s not just me that initially feels like they been kicked in the gut when you get a rejection or critical feedback. The logical part of my brain always knows, as you have said so well here, that every bit of advice you receive is worth considering, whether you decide to act on it or not. Professional advice even more so (and probably very much worth considering). And usually it only take me a sleep to get over the initial ‘I’m wasting my time, why do I bother’ feeling and actually take another look and choose to extract the positives from it, but it’s not much fun in the initial stage. And I wonder if you ever get used to it. You are absolutely right though, you will never be perfect and you will always be learning. I usually embrace this and find it a positive thing, every stage I progress to a hard-won achievement. But I find it a very peak-and-trough sort of experience. That’s not to say I will give up 🙂 But I do wonder if you ever get to the point where you can read critical feedback and accept it straight away for what it is and what you can learn from it and bypass the whole rolling-around-on-the-floor, tearing-up-manuscripts, throwing-laptop-against-the wall sort of stage! I hope so!

    • emperort says:

      Great response, J,

      I guess the answer to your question lies somewhere between the offset of success and how the individual handles rejection. I hear, over and over and over, how other artists constantly feel like they don’t know what they’re doing and fear that they are going to be exposed as a phony at any time. I have watched my dad, a very talented man in everything from manufacturing arts to photography, doubt his talent despite the praise (and a little money) from others. I think analyzing this question for ourselves – how do we view rejection and our creative minds – is worth spending some time on because coming to grips with the whole issue of being creative is valuable to the success and satisfaction we achieve in living this way. Criticism is always hard, and I think it always will be. But I remember my college days, and how much more I learned by first being wrong in my assumptions and understandings than I did by being right the first time. Criticism and rejection should be catalysts rather than deterrents.

      • jcollyer says:

        You’re absolutely right. When I went into Uni I thought I knew everything. Those first few reviews almost made me weep but looking back on it I cringe at the mistakes I was making and revel in the progress I have made because of that feedback and everything else I have received since. There’s always something new to learn and I suppose finding it hard to handle criticism just means that you care about what you’re doing. I guess it takes time to build up a thick skin but it helps to listen and remember the praise you receive as well as the criticism 🙂 And also remembering that criticism, when sought from fellow writers in communities and groups, fundemantally is just someone telling you how *they* would have done it if they had the same idea. Sometimes, often even, this is useful and sometimes it’s not. Your pathway to improvement is about filtering through the feedback and listening to what makes sense. Dealing with professional feedback I imagine is a different kettle of fish. But receiving it at all, as you say, should be looked on as a good thing!

  5. Constructive criticism is invaluable. I’m fortunate enough to belong to a writers group comprised of folks who not only have a solid grasp on the craft, but also (in many cases) belong to my target audience (e.g., widely read in my genre). Most, if not every writer, won’t know what works and what doesn’t until someone tells him or her.

    I think you have a very productive attitude about feedback. It rather amazes me when I read/hear about writers who vehemently defend their work because, although I believe in artistic vision, I suspect that writers who pay little or no mind to their readers (and their readers’ reactions) will not have many readers at all at the end of the day.

    The first trait a writer needs to cultivate is a thick skin.

    • emperort says:

      A thick skin indeed. Sometimes I give myself up to two hours to throw a fit, feel sorry, doubt and complain (to myself), but in hindsight that’s even pretty silly. The whole publication thing is wrought with factors that are against us, especially if we have yet to publish anything and therefor lack the credential. I didn’t realize for most of my writer life that the professional side of writing is like any other job. If you don’t have the cred it’s hard to get fed. I think writers who don’t have anything to put in the cover letter that says they are already published get an automatic vote of doubt from publishers. I would further bet that a so-so piece of fiction by an established writer is much more likely to be accepted than a better piece by an unknown. There are a lot of weird phenomena to getting published (or not) and until it happens we just have to be patient and keep trying. And then, of course, there are the odds that suggest for every one acceptance there may be 100, or even 1,000 rejections.

      • Sadly, it makes sense from a business standpoint. If someone else has already stuck his/her neck out and published your work, the next editor doesn’t have to spend as much time hemming and hawing about the risk. I’m sure taking a chance on a new writer takes courage.

        But it sure would be nice if the words in the story carried more weight than the name on the front (which happens to be the topic of my most recent blog post).

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