Dealing With Rejection Letters
Most aspiring writers find that the most enjoyable part of the job is writing your story. It’s so exciting! First you come up with a premise, then characters form, and before you know it you’re raring to go.
So you sit down with a pad and pen or work with a word processor. You write your first rough draft, hammering away with unholy fervor to get those white-hot ideas out of your head and down onto paper. Once you’re done, it’s such a relief. After I’ve finished writing up a narrative or short story I feel like I need a cigarette, never mind the fact that I quit smoking some time ago.
But saying that you’re done is a bit of an overstatement. There’s the proofreading. Some people look at it as a chore while others look forward to the chance to fix the spelling and punctuation, and tweak every little sentence. By the time you’re done it’s been polished until it shines. The story scoots along like greased lightning. Every sentence, every word is smooth.
Now comes the tough part, the part that any writer with a couple stories under his belt dreads more than the coming dawn and the painful moments of sobriety that go along with it. (Kidding). What are you going to do with that wonderful story of yours? Send it in, right?
Well let’s start with the basics: you look through online and print magazines until you find a dozen or so that print material in the same genre as your work. Then you follow the correct formatting, which will always be different for each publication so make sure to read their submission guidelines. Let’s say you follow the guidelines and send your story away.
The following weeks - and in many cases, months - you hold your head up high. The story glows in your mind. It’s perfect. What publication wouldn’t jump at the chance to print it?
Then reality hits you like a ton of bricks, most often in the form of an email.
We appreciate the opportunity to read your work and enjoyed it immensely. Unfortunately we don’t feel that it’s right for our magazine. Thanks for giving us the chance to read it, and please send us more.
Some person who I would skin alive, braid a whip from his own hide, tip it with his shattered teeth, and then beat him to death with it if I knew his address or could afford to track him down.
Don’t look at me like that. You’d do the same thing too if you thought you could get away with it. Incidentally you might look up my other work, a musing on committing the perfect murder. Ahem.
Anyway, now that I’ve come down from my happy place (Sorry for the sidetrack), if you’re anything like me, your first reaction to this will be, “Well if you liked it so much why the h--- won’t you print the f---ing thing?”
Of course words do not do this feeling justice unless screamed from the top of one’s lungs. The sense of dismay, the shock and utter disbelief, the notion that somehow your work has been irreparably wronged is profound; and I share your pain.
Their cheery suggestion that you present more work for them to read over and reject, thereby completely driving any remaining shreds of self-esteem you might’ve had into the floor, is particularly insulting. It’s almost an invitation to go another ten rounds with a heavyweight boxer while having your hands tied behind your back; painful and ludicrous to think that you might take them up on their offer.
But that’s what writers do. In many ways we’re both the most stubborn and stupid people around to willingly subject ourselves to such pain and criticism. But when the words and stories are there, tearing you up from inside, you just can’t stop even though you know you should. Gluttons for punishment, the lot of us.
As someone who is finally getting his work printed, albeit in minor publications for the moment, I would like to offer a few tips and thoughts to help you through these trying times in the hopes that you won’t give up on your dream of getting your work published… On second thought, give up; it will mean less competition for me.
I see you’re still here. Damn.
Oh well, I might as well present what I’ve already drawn up, though I personally think you should follow the prescribed advice above.
The first thing to do when receiving a rejection letter is to throw it aside. If it’s an email, put it in a designated crap folder. If it’s a letter, tack it up on a wall of shame. That way when you’re on the bestseller list you can post them all back to sender with a letter asking them if they regret their decision not to print your work.
It’s a petty little vengeful tactic, but after conversing with more editors than is good for me, I’ve come to realize that the vast majority of them working for small independent publications are incredibly anal and petty individuals. This may be the jaded opinion of a writer, and I’m sure you’ve got your own jaded opinions as well, but the vast majority of editors rely on a first impression of a person’s work. Not good.
To that end if the editor is having a bad day, if she’s gotten into a fight with her husband the night before, if he got a speeding ticket on the way to work, if the single mother living in a trailer just found out from her sixteen year old daughter that she’s going to be a grandma, your work has about as much a chance of survival as a farm-raised turkey returned to the wild… by air-drop.
I’m not slamming all editors; I’m told that many of them are good at what they do, I’ve just yet to hear from one that I didn’t want to check for daylight streaming in one ear and out the other. But that’s the trade-off; if you’re just starting out trying to get a few publications under your belt in preparation for your debut novel you’ll likely be dealing with editors of a similar level of experience.
Don't Write Back
Sometimes you’ll get a rejection letter that is not only antagonizing, but so damned stupid that you’d need to have a lobotomy to understand. My particular favorite is when an editor lets their own system of values and beliefs get in the way of doing their job. A real winner I had some time last year was a submission of historical fiction detailing a clash between Christian missionaries and Norse raiders set in the 9th century. It included an appearance by a prominent deity in the Norse pantheon, which the editor took issue with as she felt it did not portray the deity true to life.
Do you hear that? It’s the sound of my brain breaking down and melting into a puddle.
Yes folks, the editor thought a mythological figure was not being portrayed true-to-life. No matter how many times I type that it just doesn’t seem right.
Anyway, my point is that once the decision has been made by a publication not to accept your story there’s no changing their minds. Don’t argue, don’t try to clarify it. If you’re really mystified by a comment, get a friend to read your work and then ask them if the comment seemed legitimate to you. Oftentimes a writer can get too close to his/her work to see every angle, but other times you’ve just got to shrug it off and go on to the next publication hoping that whoever works at the new one doesn’t share the same genes as the previous editor.
This can be one of the toughest parts of receiving a rejection letter. We’re writers; of course we’re going to want to fire off a reply defending our work.
To be honest, I didn’t always follow this rule. Eventually I came up with this little piece of genius as a response.
Thank you for expressing your interest in rejecting my story. Over the past few months I've had many people interested in rejecting my work, making it quite difficult to decide on which ones to accept. Make no mistake that your rejection letter was one of the higher quality ones I receive on a daily basis. However, due to the high number of rejected submissions received, I am sorry to say that I cannot accept your rejection letter at this time. I will be looking forward to reading my story printed in your magazine in the near future. Thanks again.
I appreciate your interest in rejecting my work and am willing to consider accepting further rejection letters in the foreseeable future.
Wouldn’t you like to know
Needless to say, I’ve been blacklisted from a few publications since then, though I can’t honestly say that the satisfaction of sending it wasn’t worth the trouble. The problem is that most publications have seen some variation of this letter dozens of times in the past and don’t find it cute or funny.
Occasionally you won’t receive a form letter and will actually get a hand-typed rejection. This is typically a step in the right direction as it means the editors gave it serious consideration. You should be heartened by this.
However these letters often come with suggestions for alterations despite the fact that publications will typically not consider the same work twice. For the most part I would tell you to ignore any such comments unless they point out things like grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
The only time that you should give serious thought to a change or re-write is when several publications all suggest the same changes or point out the same problem with the story. Otherwise you’ll have a different version of the story for every publication you submit to. That’s a lot of effort with no pay-off whatsoever.
Preventing Rejection Letters
After having received upwards of two-hundred rejection letters and counting I’ve found that there are a number of things in one’s writing which publications and editors seem to be positively phobic over, whether it makes much sense to you or not.
First: adverbs. It seems ludicrous to me that there are thousands of words which publishers will not accept, but there you have it. Statements such as “he grinned sardonically” or “he said sarcastically” will get you into trouble. I know, these terms are used to modify the manner in which a statement is made, and rightly so. However they will be cut from your work every time.
The only explanation I can think of is that it’s a type of rite-of-passage. After a little practice you can read through someone’s work and know how much experience they have in writing by counting the adverbs. The fewer an editor finds the more likely he/she is to assume you know your business and take your seriously. Odd, but it appears to be true.
One way in which writers will try to incorporate the same feeling in a sentence without using adverbs is by using different identifying words. “He said, she said, he asked, she asked.” These are the most basic and acceptable identifiers. Some people will use are “he screamed, shrieked, shouted, grated, bellowed, etc.” In moderation, say one or two per page, these are acceptable. However some people go overboard with their identifiers, using terms instead of “he said, she said” that it’s not possible to use in real life. For example, you can’t laugh something, nor can you chuckle something. You certainly can’t vomit something, at least I hope not.
I think my all-time favorite was: “That’s not fair!” he ejaculated.
The last suggestion I have is the excessive use of “as” and “while”. Writing, and by extension, reading, is a linear process. You can’t readily present two separate actions going at once. That’s why many writers starting out will make the mistake of presenting several actions in the same sentence in hopes of indicating that they happen simultaneously. As I’m primarily an action writer, I had this problem myself.
For example “Bertha ran into house while Annie stomped on the rabid zombie-frogs coming up the front stoop as the dog, howling all the while, was overcome by the frothing undead amphibious hordes.” Aside from being one helluva run-on sentence, it just doesn’t flow well. There’s too much happening, cluttering up the mental image.
Instead, present each occurrence in sequence. Most readers have been reading for quite some time. They will understand that a number of things are happening at once. It’s importance to give them a little credit.
The final trick: ask yourself whether the integrity of the work is more important than getting it published. If you believe your work is perfect, and to change it is sacrilege, that’s fine. You’ll enjoy reading your work over and over, but it won’t be appearing in any printed magazine or book anytime soon unless you pay for it yourself.
I know that you’ve probably got tons of ideas that would make great books. It breaks my heart to know that so many absolutely incredible works will never see the light of day. Why, you ask? Because it has to be conventional enough for most editors to readily accept. The drawback: it’s probably not as enjoyable as it could be. One must tread a fine line between convention and originality, making the work different enough for someone to actually want to read while familiar enough for even the most xenophobic publisher to accept. This is by far the most difficult feat to achieve.
Despite the title of this section, following these tips will not ensure your work is published every time. Most decent writers get an average of 40 rejection letters for every acceptance letter, so make sure you've got a waste basket big enough for the job.
You may notice that many of the prevention suggestions go against what you commonly find in books you enjoy reading. There is a reason for this. Today’s A list writers can pretty much write however they want and rely on their name to ensure book sales. That’s what editors of any stripe think on first and foremost: how much money will this work bring in? It’s their job to be practical in that respect, no harm done.
That’s why you’ll often find such big-name authors as Anne Rice, Stephen King, Terry Pratchett, Bernard Cornwall, and countless others break this rule.
You, on the other hand, must follow these rules because you are not a household name… yet. Think of it like the Marine Prayer in Full Metal Jacket. “These are my rules! There are many like them but these rules are mine!” Now I’m not saying that neglecting these suggestions will ensure you never get published, but it will make it a lot harder than it needs to be.
In any case, good luck and keep writing. You’ll never get published unless you dive right in and get to work. It’s sink or swim folks.
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