Revenge of the Reviewed

You’ve passed the first hurdle, getting your work published, and now it’s out there in the wild, available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other purveyors of fine literature. You’ve made it. Rejection is a thing of the past, a bad dream from which you have now awoken. Right?

Wrong!

The truth is the ante has been upped, and the stakes have been raised. Your work is now available to the—Gasp!—public. Unlike an editor who maintains some level of civility and professionalism when rejecting you, the book-reading world at large is under no such constraints. They can and will tell you exactly what they think in the most direct and even brutal fashion. An editor who doesn’t like your work will send you a vague form rejection filled with soft, professional niceties. A guy on the internet who doesn’t like your work will say you straight-up suck and the world should avoid your craptacular writing at all costs. That kind of stuff is certainly tough to hear when its aimed in your direction, but the public is plunking down their hard-earned cash, and this affords them the loudest (and sometimes cruelest) voice of all critics, the voice of the consumer. Brutal reviews hurt, no doubt, but they do keep you humble—they’ve certainly humbled the fuck out of me on occasion.

Okay, lets lay down some rules how to handle bad reviews. There’s really just one. Here it is. Do not respond to negative reviews. Let me repeat that. Never, ever respond to a negative review. Ever. There’s practically no way to avoid looking like you can’t take a little criticism. And by responding, I don’t mean just on Amazon or wherever the review actually happened. I also think it’s a bad idea to call attention to the review on your Facebook page, your Twitter account, or even your blog (it’s really the same thing as responding). You’ll notice I haven’t posted any of my bad reviews here. That’s not because I’ve never received one; trust me, I have paid my dues. This is just an instance where I actually follow my own advice.

Worse than possibly making you look bad in public, responding to bad reviews has the potential to fuck you in ways you can’t even imagine. There have been numerous incidents where authors have responded to negative reviews in shockingly childish ways, and then the tantrum goes viral. You can guess what happens next. The internet unleashes its full and not-so righteous fury upon the offending writer. I’m not going to link to any of the specific incidents because, honestly, I don’t want to pile on, and I think these authors have done their penance. If you really have to see for yourself, just type something like “authors responding to bad reviews” into Google and let the horror unfold. If that shit doesn’t convince you, nothing will.

In each case where an author has misbehaved and it’s gone viral, the author did himself or herself no favors by calling attention to the review. Yeah, the internet is forever, but it’s also filled to the brim and overflowing with a constant stream of digital diarrhea. Chances are a bad review will be buried under a hundred layers of cat videos and dick pics within days. So leave those bad reviews alone and let them fade away.

But what if something in the bad review is factually wrong? I don’t think you should respond to that either. Look, if you’ve got fans, people who like what you write, and someone posts a review of your work that is factually wrong, your fans are going to let that reviewer know, and they don’t have to be nice about it. I’ve seen reviewers get absolutely savaged by an author’s fans over an abusive or factually dubious review. Someone stumbling upon that review after your fans have had their way with the reviewer is not likely to think negatively about the author. Now, if it’s something really egregious or straight up libel, you probably should take action, but I still don’t think that action should be responding directly to the review. For starters, almost every place someone can post a review, someone can report that review and potentially have it removed. You can totally be that someone.

At the end of the day,  no matter how good something is perceived to be, there will always be someone who hates it. This goes for every writer under the sun, even the greats. For example, look at a real titan of speculative fiction, George R.R. Martin, whose success is undeniably gigantic and whose work I enjoy. Go out to Amazon, look up the first book in the Song of Ice and Fire series, Game of Thrones, and look at the reviews. George has a whopping 7,290 reviews on Amazon, and 73% of those are of the gushing, five-star variety, but 4%, that’s 303 people, think he’s terrible and gave the book one star. Are those 303 people wrong for not like Martin’s work? Nope, and the people who don’t like your work or my work or any writer’s work aren’t wrong either. Reviews are someone’s opinion, and opinions are not objectively wrong.

As a writer, you just have to come to grips with the fact that despite all the success and accolades you might acquire, someone is looking at something you wrote and thinking, “Well, this is shit.” It will always be that way, and accepting it is just another step along the winding road of Rejectomancy.

Ranks of the Rejected: Rose Blackthorn

Welcome to the next installment of Ranks of the Rejected, where I interview working authors and ask them to bare their literary wounds for your amusement and edification. Make sure and check out the links to these writers’ works and websites. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

Today’s victim . . . er, subject is Rose Blackthorn. I’ve worked with Rose in my role as acquisitions editor through Skull Island eXpeditions, and I’ve gone head to head with her as a writer on numerous occasions at a bi-weekly flash fiction contest out at the Shock Totem forums, where she routinely trounced me and a dozen other writers. Rose is one of those writers whose talent is so great and seemingly effortless, she makes you feel kind of worthless in comparison when you read her stuff. (Gee, thanks, Rose.) She is also a mighty 17th level Rejectomancer who commands the advanced powers Eschew Guidelines and Dispel Writer’s Block.

Here’s a bit more about Rose:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Rose Blackthorn lives in the high mountain desert with her boyfriend and two dogs, Boo and Shadow. She spends her free time writing, reading, being crafty, and photographing the surrounding wilderness.

She is a member of the HWA and her short fiction and poetry has appeared online and in print with a varied list of anthologies and magazines. Her first poetry collection Thorns, Hearts and Thistles was published in February 2015, and is available through Amazon.

More information can be found at the following links:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/rose_blackthorn

Blog: http://roseblackthorn.wordpress.com/

Facebook:  http://www.facebook.com/RoseBlackthorn.Author

Amazon: http://amazon.com/author/roseblackthorn

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5758684.Rose_Blackthorn

1. That first rejection is pretty memorable (i.e., it is burned into your cerebral cortex for all eternity). What do you remember about your first?

My first, huh? Well, that requires traveling back in time, way back into pre-history… When I first started submitting for publication, it was a novel. This was back before the internet and email, back when submitting a manuscript meant spending time at the local Xerox shop making copies to send out. Back at that time I didn’t have any friends who were writers, and the only advice I could find was gleaned from copies of the Writer’s Digest checked out from the local library. (Am I dating myself? I think I’m dating myself…) I had sent my manuscript (all 300+ pages of it) to several agents and publishers, and just waited for the offers to roll in. What I got were, as you can guess, waves of rejections. I also got a “We might be interested, if you’re willing to do some editing…” I was thrilled! So, being the naïve little newbie that I was, I forwarded my masterpiece to the ‘book doctor’ they referred me to.

*sigh* Can you see where this is going? Anyway, long story short, I forked out a lot of money for a service that should have been included with a legitimate publishing house or agency, and after all was said and done, they “changed their mind” and didn’t want it, after all. I learned a hard lesson, and good or bad, put my publishing aspirations on hold for a very long time. I didn’t stop writing, but I didn’t submit either. It wasn’t until 2009 that I started writing short stories. That’s when I began submitting again, and I’m happy to say I’ve had a lot better luck this time around! I’ve also been fortunate enough to meet (virtually) other writers, editors and publishers who have taught me so much about being a published author.

2. What do you hope to see in a rejection letter? You know, beyond the soul-crushing doubt and disappointment. What’s useful to you as a writer? 

No one likes rejection. But the best kind of rejection to get, is something that gives you specific points as to why you were rejected. The “we liked your story, but it doesn’t fit” may be the absolute truth, but I usually tend to regard that as a “I don’t have time to tell you what was wrong with it”. I realize that editors are busy, and many of them simply don’t have time to write a detailed critique of an author’s submission. But as much as a rejection might sting, having a specific reason that I can look at and possibly rectify is worth more than I can say.

3. Got a favorite rejection? Funny, mean, just straight-up weird?

I don’t even have to think about this one. I received a rejection (for an anthology that I really wanted to be in) that was honestly more wonderful than some of the acceptances I’ve received! Check it out:

Dear Rose,

Unfortunately, your submission, [XXX] has not been accepted to be included in the anthology, [XXX]. I really would like to thank you, however, for your consideration to be a part of this project.

I appreciate the amount of time and work that you invested in this story and I am certain that you will be able to find a publisher for this elsewhere.

Technically you have written a nice story and I enjoyed reading it. Please know that I am not rejecting this work due to any flaw of your own ability.

Rose, I loved this story a lot. Your opening description of Shannon waking up and surfacing through the water is really beautiful – just poetic descriptions. Great idea and well-executed. You have a talent for descriptive and emotional prose.

I hate to have to pass on this. Yours is one of those stories that, if I had more room in the book, would definitely be in. I simply received a number of other stories which also held positive attributes of their own. Due to the sheer volume of submissions, I am only able to select a small amount which most closely matches the overall character of the anthology. I received about 350 submissions for this anthology. The final Table of Contents, though not yet finished, will probably number about 26 – 29 stories.

Keep writing – You have gained a fan in me, and I look forward to reading more material from you in the future.

Warm regards,

P.S. I anticipate a great story from you in the “Ghost IS the Machine” anthology!

4. What’s the toughest part of rejection for you? Pro tips for dealing with it?

There was a time when every rejection was a cause for tears. I tend to be rather emotional, anyway. I could show you the trunk full of pin-stuck voodoo dolls… just kidding! But really, it’s not so bad any more. Occasionally one will still come along that really stings – and that’s usually when it’s one of those “bucket list” markets that you want in so bad you can taste it. Then, if they hold it for a long time, and you end up with a rejection… Well, those still suck pretty bad.

For the most part though, the best thing to do in my opinion, is just find another market and send the story back out again. If the rejection comes with some critique, you might go through and make some edits or revisions. But sometimes it just comes down to the editor – not everyone likes the same things. If one editor doesn’t like your story, the next one very well might. I know some awesome writers, and I’ve read extensively – but I don’t like everything written by the same author, and I don’t always like the things my friends like. So just take the rejection, make a note of it, and find the next place to submit.

5. Okay, tell us about your first or latest acceptance letter.

I’ve had a couple wonderful acceptances in the last month. One was from Pedestal Magazine for a poem, and it really made my day because the guest editors for this particular issue were Marge Simon and Bruce Boston. These two people are amazing writers, and well known poets. For them to accept something I’d written was one of those dancing-around-the-house-while-squealing moments that still come along from time to time.

The other was actually an acceptance for a reprint. I wrote a story for a submission call, and the story was accepted. Unfortunately, the press putting out the anthology had all kinds of issues. There was never any publicity for the book, and it was only in print for a short time. Add to that the fact that no one made any money on it, and it was just a sad deal all the way around. But I really liked that story. I sent it out to a few different places that accept reprints, but wasn’t having much luck – it’s fairly long for a short story at just over 7400 words. So I found another market and sent it out, and waited, and waited. At about four months I finally sent a query. I got a reply back shortly after that they had set the story aside to respond to me, and my query reminded them – and they wanted to accept my manuscript. So now this story will be published again, with a company who has a history of publicizing their magazine, and I’ll get a bit of a paycheck along the way. That’s always a plus!

6) Okay, plug away. Tells us about your latest project or book and why we should run out and buy it.

My latest releases include a short story “A Thing of Beauty” released September 1st in Disturbed Digest #10. This is a sort of post-apocalyptic/dark fantasy that involves mutated monsters, the struggle to survive, and the odd paths love can take.

Another short story, “Obsidian Heart,” was released June 4th in Morpheus Tales #26. This is another dark fantasy/horror involving love and its loss, but it makes me smile… evilly. Take that as you will!

My poetry collection Thorns, Hearts and Thistles was released in February of this year and is available from Amazon.

There are a few other things in the pipeline, but I don’t have finalized release dates for them. My story “Only a Matter of Time” will be included in Not Your Average Monster: A Bestiary of Horrors, coming from Bloodshot Books before the end of the year. This may be the goriest story I have written to date, so if that’s your thing, you won’t want to miss it. A novelette titled “Worthy Vessel” will be released from Privateer Press, tentatively scheduled to come out before Halloween. That’s another new thing for me; it was fun to write, but scary, too. I’m hoping fans of the Iron Kingdoms will enjoy it. I also have poetry appearing in Chiral Mad 3 from Written Backwards and the HWA Horror Poetry Showcase Volume 2.

Thanks for letting me share a little of what’s going on with me right now!

General Nerdery: Jurassic World Wish List

Although this blog is primarily about writing and the business of writing, it also belongs to a giant nerd, and giant nerds like nothing more than to pontificate about their favorite nerdy subjects. So, from time to time, expect to see me blathering on, very specifically, about things like medieval weapons, martial arts, and, sigh, dinosaurs.

Yep, one of my particular areas of nerd expertise is paleontology. I’ve been fascinated with dinosaurs and other prehistoric critters since I was wee tyke. So, as you might guess, the most recent entry into the Jurassic Park franchise, Jurassic World, sent me into paroxysms of nerd rage. Don’t worry; I’m not gonna bore the shit out of you with a tedious rant about dinosaurs with feathers. Instead, I’m going to be positive and talk about a few prehistoric monsters I’d like to see in a JP movie.

The five critters I’m going to talk about don’t get a lot of press, and you’ve probably never heard of most of them. The other thing to keep in mind is that none of the animals I’m going to talk about are dinosaurs. I feel justified in that decision based on the fact the JP franchise has recently introduced prehistoric critters that aren’t dinos, specifically, pterosaurs and mosasaurs. That said, the following five prehistoric animals check all the usual boxes for inclusion in a JP movie. They’re all predators, they’re all the biggest in their particular group, and they’re all really cool.

So let’s get started:

1) Sarcosuchus imperator

This one is a no-brainer for me, and it’s the only one on the list I think might have an actual shot at making it into a JP movie. Sarcosuchus is the largest crocodilian that ever lived. It’s a 40-foot, 8-ton crocodile that, no shit, probably ate dinosaurs. Let me repeat that. It fucking ate dinosaurs. Pretty cool, huh?

The other thing Sarcosuchus has going for it is it lived 112 million years ago, right in the Cretaceous period, and since the Jurassic Park franchise has a serious hard-on for the Cretaceous (not the Jurassic, oddly), ol’ Sarchy should fit right in. In all seriousness, though, crocs make for great drama. They’re some of the best ambush predators around, and, well, you can probably imagine a scene in the next JP movie (Jurassic Galaxy: The Feathering). A lone Velociraptor (Can I just call it a Utahraptor? Please?) comes to a tropical lake, bends down for a quick drink, and BAM! Eight tons of scales and teeth explode from the water, and not even the nimble raptor can avoid the jaws of death. The Sarcosuchus clamps down, pulls the raptor  into the water, and both disappear, leaving only a crimson stain on the lake’s surface. Later in the movie, Chris Pratt can saddle up and ride the giant croc into battle against the evil geneticist Dr. Henry Wu and his army of cloned flying raptor piranhas.

2) Andrewsarchus mongoliensis

As I said earlier, a running theme in the JP franchise is new critters need to be the biggest and the baddest. Well, Andrewsarchus is both. The largest mammalian carnivore in the books, Andrewsarchus is big, mean, and really, really weird. Some estimates put this vaguely wolf-shaped critter at 15 feet long and nearly 2 tons. That’s like twice the size of the largest grizzly bear. On top of that, Andrewsarchus had a massive skull with jaws that could produce some of the greatest bite force of any mammal, so it could crack bone with the best of them.

Andrewsarchus hails from the Eocene period, about 40 million years ago. It was one of those times when evolution took a couple of strange turns. For example, Andrewsarchus is a contender for the largest mammalian predator of all time, but here’s the weird part, it’s only living relatives are ungulates. In fact, it’s thought Andrewsarchus had hooves. That’s right, the largest mammalian predator of all time had hooves and is related to fucking sheep. Cool, huh?

I think a giant wolf monster with hooves is just too cool to pass up, and I can easily see them in a JP movie as part of the petting zoo or something.

3) Phorusrhacos longissimus

Yeah, I know that’s a mouthful, so let me simplify it for you. You can just call this critter and its relatives by the totally metal moniker “terror birds.” What’s a terror bird? Well, take an ostrich, cross it with a giant eagle, sprinkle in a liberal dash of baddassitude, and then crank that fucker up to eleven. That’s a terror bird, and Phorusrhacos was one of the biggest. I’m talking about an 8-foot-tall, 300-pound flightless bird armed with a beak sharper than a goddamn samurai sword and talons that’d put holes in Kevlar.

One of the other things that makes terror birds really cool is how long they were around. They showed up in the early Paleocene, like 62 million years ago, right after the extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs. In fact, they were likely some of the first large predators to evolve after the dinosaurs (although, to be technical, terror birds are dinosaurs). They stuck around until as recently as a couple million years ago, which means actual human beings just missed being bird food by a few hundred thousand years.

Phorusrhacos is great for the JP franchise because it’s an actual bird, not one of those silly non-avian dinosaurs, so, you know, you could put feathers on it and not have to worry about the public actually learning something.

4) Dunkleosteus terrelli

What do you get when you cross a giant shark, a tank, and a jumbo–sized staple remover together? You get one of the most badass monsters ever to swim the oceans. Now, I know I could have hit the easy button and chosen Carcharodon megalodon, the massive 50-foot shark you’ve all likely heard about, but I’m gonna get all hipster and shit and talk about a monster that was awesome way before giant sharks were cool.

Dunkleosteus lived a long, long time ago, in the Devonian period. We’re talking like 400 million years ago, in a time where most critters lived in the sea and animals had just begun to colonize the land. Dunkloesteus was the largest member of a group of weird armored fish called placoderms, and it was designed to be a cannibal. Its massive jaws were like a pair of industrial shears, designed to cut through the armored plates of its fellows.

In my opinion, Dunkleosteus is perfect for the JP franchise. It’s huge (30 feet long and 4 tons), looks like a nightmare concocted by a coke-addled Pokémon designer, and they could make up all kinds of shit about the strength of its jaws. I mean, by the time JP is done with it, the government will be cloning them to chew through enemy submarines to get at the tasty meat filling inside.

5) Jaekelopterus rhenania

For my final choice, I’m gonna stay with aquatic horrors and go with a creature that is the largest member of a group of terrifying monsters called sea scorpions. These arthropod nightmares swam the oceans, lakes, and rivers of the world as early as the Ordovician period (460 million years ago) and as late as the Permian period (250 million years ago). That’s a span of some 200 million years, which means sea scorpions are one of the most successful organisms in the history of organisms. I mean, shit, humans have only been around for like 200 thousand years. We’re barely a blip on the geological time scale.

Sea scorpions generally look like someone crossed a lobster with a crab during a really bad acid trip. The biggest, Jaekelopterus, was over 8 feet long with pincers that extended another 3 feet or so. I’d rather face down an entire school of sharks than deal with just one of these things. A shark would at least give you a nice, clean death. One chomp, and you’re done. A sea scorpion would tear you into bite-sized nuggets, giving you the distinct pleasure of drowning and getting eaten alive.

Jaekelopterus and the rest of the sea scorpions would fit right into JP. They could serve the little ones up like lobsters in the overpriced park restaurants, and then feed irritating secondary characters to the big ones to up the stakes and let all the moviegoers know shit just got real.

Anyway, thanks for taking a trip with me down Nerdery Lane. If you share my enthusiasm for weird prehistoric critters, tell me about one of your favorites in the comments.

Submission Protocol: Length-Wise

Rejectomancy points deducted for FTFFD or SSD: -10

In this installment of Submission Protocol we’re going to discuss another no-brainer, or so you’d think. You’ve probably been told length doesn’t matter (rim shot), but that’s not true. When submitting your stories for publication, it definitely matters.

In virtually every set of submission guidelines, the publisher will usually be very specific about the length of story they publish. By length, they almost always mean word count. In general, the word count does not include anything but the story and excludes the extra stuff you’ll have to put on your manuscript when following standard manuscript format (more on that later). How do you figure out your story’s word count? Every single word processing program on the market has a built in word counter. It’s easy to find; just look for it. If you’re typing your manuscript on an old Victorian typewriter all ironically and shit, I don’t know what to tell you. I guess make sure you’re a real good counter.

Let’s look at a typical example of this guideline:

[XXX] is an online magazine published quarterly. We are seeking fiction 1,000 – 6,000 words.

Seems simple, right? Don’t send a story under 1,000 words or over 6,000 words. But I guran-fucking-tee you this magazine and others like it auto-reject loads of submissions because they don’t meet this incredibly simple guideline. You might wonder how that can possibly be since these are directions a sea sponge could follow. The answer is most likely a condition I’ve covered previously in my blog. It’s called SSD or special snowflake disorder.

The thinking process for SSD goes something like this: “Well, sure, they’ve got very explicit word count minimums and maximums in their submission guidelines, but my 13,000-word masterpiece is so stupendously awesome, the editors won’t even notice how long it is because they’ll be utterly enthralled with my god-like talent.” Maybe that’s not the exact thinking process, but it’s what I hear in my head every time I see these rules flaunters in action.

Don’t do it.

You are not special. Your story is not that great. Please, color within the fucking lines. If you don’t, your story is likely going to get rejected unread. Are there publications that don’t mind if you go over a bit or under a bit? Probably, but you can’t know that when you’re looking at the submission guidelines, so just don’t do it.

Let’s look a little closer at this particular guideline. They’ve got quite a range, from what is generally considered flash fiction all the way to a lengthy short story. Is there a sweet spot? In my opinion, yes, I think there is. Having run a magazine for years, I can tell you space is always at a premium, and I’d prefer to run two 3,000-word pieces over one 6,000-word piece. Why? Simple economics. If I can get two good medium-sized pieces of work in my magazine rather than just a single longer one, I’ve doubled the chances of my readers finding something they like. Readers that like stuff buy magazines. On the other end of the spectrum, the 1,000-word story takes up too little space, which means I have to find something else to fill pages, and a bunch of short pieces by multiple authors is more work for me. Each one requires the same work as a larger piece: I still have to edit it, lay it out, get all the necessary paperwork from the author, get the author’s bio, (sometimes edit that), and so on and so on.

With the above in mind, if I were submitting a story to this publisher, I’d shoot for between 2,000 and 4,000 words. That’s not to say they wouldn’t publish a story at their minimum and maximum, but I’ll bet most of the stories they publish fall into this range. In the case of this particular magazine, I know it; I checked. Again, based on what I know about the magazine business, I’d guess they publish the minimum end when they come up short for an issue and publish the maximum end when they encounter something that really blows their socks off. I could be wrong, but I’ll take my chances in the middle, thank you very much.

Is there an aspect of submission guidelines you’d like to see covered? Let me know in the comments.

Next up, Submission Protocol: A Fool for Format.

Rejection Letter Rundown: The Personal Rejection

Rejectomancy XP +3 (What’s this?)

Ah, the personal rejection letter, that faint beacon of hope in the black abyss of form rejection hell. The personal rejection letter includes a small note from the editor, in his or her own words, that is positive or encouraging. It’s more sincere than a form rejection, and usually indicates the editor believes your story had some merit. I know, it’s still a rejection, but it is a sign you’re on the right track. Personal rejections are much rarer than form rejections, but I’ve found the more I publish the more of them I get. Don’t get it twisted, though; I’m still getting my fair share of form rejections.

Let’s look at an example of the personal rejection from my own (small) collection.

Hi Aeryn, and thanks for the chance to read your work, we really appreciate it.

Unfortunately, ‘XXX’ is not quite what we are looking for at the moment, but you should certainly keep passing it around. It’s a solid little karmic-horror story and was a fun read.

Thanks again, and I hope you find a good home for your story!

This is an example of the personal rejection in its simplest form. In fact, you’ll likely recognize many elements of the form rejection here. The difference is the editor took the time to insert something positive about the work in his own words, and that casts a new light on some of the common rejection lingo.

The line “…not quite what we are looking for at the moment” is one I largely ignore in a form rejection, but I’ll give it more consideration in a personal rejection. Hell, I might even take it at face value. Maybe my story wasn’t a good fit for the issue they’re putting together or even the magazine as a whole but was good enough to warrant a personal response. This is good information because it tells me what not to send this publisher, so when I resubmit, I can zero in on what they do want.

The second standard rejection line in this letter, “I hope you find a good home for your story,” also feels a bit more genuine in light of the editor’s personal comments. He said I should “keep passing it around,” and, well, I’m gonna, and I’ll feel a tiny bit more confident when I do.

The biggest positive thing to take away from this letter is pretty obvious. The editor said something nice about my story. It’s not gushing praise or anything, but it’s enough to keep me from revising the story before I send it out again. This editor thought it was “solid,” the next might think it’s good (unlikely) or even great (really unlikely).

Okay, we’ve talked about the good stuff, but let’s play devil’s advocate. First, there’s a very important element missing. The editor did not ask me to send more work. That’s a bit of a red flag for me, as it’s been present in most of the personal rejections I’ve received. The editor might have felt it was implied by the other things he said, but then again, he might not have, which leads me to my second point. This really does feel like a form letter with the exception of a sentence and a half. There are some publishers that send a personal note with every rejection—kind of an always find something nice to say philosophy. In a sense, they don’t have a true form letter. So is this just a nicer version of a form rejection? Is the editor simply letting me down easy by saying something nice about my story? It’s possible. I’ll never know.

Where to go from here? I think it’s important to stay positive, especially when you don’t have any strong evidence pointing to the negative. So, if you were to receive a letter like this, I think you should take it at the editor’s word. The editor did like the story. He does believe I should keep sending it around. I should take this as a sign to resubmit to this publication with a different story.

Have you received a personal rejection lately? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Looking for more about rejection letters? Check out the previous posts in this series:

The Common Form Rejection

The Improved Form Rejection

Rejection Relief – First Blood

Someone recently asked me to write a post about recovering from a particularly vicious rejection. I’m not talking about getting a vanilla form rejection or gentle constructive criticism from an editor. I’m talking about a severe literary beating, the kind of comment or review that cuts your guts out and makes it difficult to write a single word for weeks.

Generally, these rejections are memorable because they come early in your career, before you’ve developed the thickened skin that shields a veteran rejectomancer. The most brutal rejection I remember was a simple comment from another writer, but it was the first piece of true and honest criticism I had ever received on my work. It went something like this.

About twenty years ago, my primary writing focus was poetry. I wrote tons of the dark, angsty crap you write in your late teens and early twenties. I had poems about vampires and werewolves and demons and revelatory shit like how it wasn’t Satan’s fault he was kicked out of heaven because god is an asshole. You know, incredibly hard-hitting, original stuff.

I started going to open mike poetry readings in my home town of Modesto, California to read my stuff aloud. I did that for a couple years, and I got to the point where I was running open mike nights at the Barnes & Noble where I worked. When I was transferred to the Redding B&N, I took my poetry show on the road with me, and again when I was transferred to San Diego.

Surprisingly, those open mike nights were very popular, and it wasn’t unusual for fifty people to show up and read their stuff. My poetry was very well received in Modesto and Redding, small towns that maybe didn’t know better, but when I moved to the big city, where real, honest-to-god writers lived, I got a bit of a rude awakening.

I can remember the first couple of open mike nights in San Diego. They weren’t nearly as well attended as those in Modesto and Redding (there’s actually shit to do in San Diego), but the people that did show up were really good. After that first night, I had inklings I was maybe out of my league. My best poems, the epic ones about the emotional pain of lycanthropy or something, didn’t get anything more than polite applause. No one came up to me after the show and told me how much they liked my work. I mean, what the fuck was going on here?

But the death blow was yet to fall. You see, there was another writer working at Barnes & Noble alongside me, a real writer who had published his work, both fiction and poetry, in some fairly prestigious literary magazines. This guy was good. He never came to the open mike events because he usually worked those nights, and I made the colossally stupid mistake of asking him if he’d heard me read my poetry.

He said, “Yep.”

I doubled down on stupid and asked him, “Well, what did you think?”

I don’t remember exactly what he said (that kind of trauma is hard to recall clearly), but I remember the word “amateurish” was used more than once, and he identified a laundry list of literary sins in my poetry. To that point, I had never had my work reviewed by someone who a) actually knew what the fuck they were talking about and b) didn’t give two shits if I got the hurt feels afterward.

To say I was crushed is like saying my wife’s staunchly conservative grandfather has a few problems with Barack Obama. I was fucking devastated. I had been built up to believe my work was great by folks who meant well but just didn’t have the literary chops to properly review it. Now don’t get me wrong, this coworker wasn’t trying to be an asshole—I asked him for his opinion—and everything he said was spot on. He just had no idea that I was small-city rube who’d never had any real objective criticism. He actually did say some good things about my work, too. I just can’t recall a single one of them.

I couldn’t write a thing for a month after that. Every time I picked up the pen and tried to start a new poem, I felt nauseous, like I needed to begin by titling each piece “Amateurish.” It took me that month to really think about what this guy had said, and in the end, I had to come to grips with the fact that my work . . . well, needed work. I also realized this guy didn’t say I was hopeless, and, hey, there were people who did like what I was writing.

I assimilated his critique—thinking back, it was actually pretty cool of him to break it all down for me like that—and I started revising. My work improved, and I began to really understand the things he’d told me. Then I went in search of more advice. During this time (the practically antediluvian year of 1998), the Internet wasn’t what it is today, so I got actual physical books on writing and read them cover to cover. All of this led to me summoning up the courage to start submitting my poetry to magazines (I’d been too afraid to do that previously). And what do you know? I got a couple published.

My poetry writing days are long behind me, but that first honest critique of my work sticks with me, both the pain it caused me and the good things I learned from it. So here are a couple of things to keep in mind when you get one of those eviscerating reviews or comments:

  1. The most cutting and brutal criticism can actually help you. For reals. The guy who reviewed my poetry all those years ago wrecked me, but he also laid down some serious wisdom. It took me some time to get over the pain of having the truth dumped on my head like a sack of hammers, but when I did, I absorbed what he said, and I improved. The truth can be a mean motherfucker, but once the pain fades a little, learn from it and get better.
  2. It’s an opinion. Even if it’s an informed opinion, that doesn’t make it gospel. It’s also important to realize that sometimes reviews and comments about your work don’t come from the most objective places. People sometimes say things in biting and shitty ways just to be biting and shitty (I hear this is popular on the internet). In the end, a comment like, “You suck!” is painful but should probably be ignored. You can’t exactly learn anything from it.
  3. Suck it up. Yeah, I know, easier said than done, but if your work is going to be out there for public consumption, you have to toughen up. The unavoidable truth is the criticism never ends; in fact, it simply increases the more you write and publish. More people reading your work increases the odds someone is not going to like it.  You can’t avoid it, you can’t hide from it, and you absolutely cannot let it keep you from writing. If you’ve already had some success, even a little, that means there are people who do like your work. Focus on that, and try and ignore the comments that aren’t constructive.
  4. Start tracking your rejectomancer experience points. Hey, you’ll be getting better at something no matter how much you fail.

I hope my little tale of woe has held your interest. Maybe you even found a tiny piece of useful advice in the whole rambling mess.

Got a sad rejection story of your own? Let’s group hug it out in the comments.

 

 

Ranks of the Rejected: Orrin Grey

Welcome to the first installment of Ranks of the Rejected, where I interview working authors and ask them to bare their literary wounds to the cruel, cruel world for your amusement and edification. Since these authors are putting their rejection out there for you to gawk at, be a pal, check out their books, blogs, and websites—they’re all definitely worth a look.

First up is Orrin Grey, an accomplished author of spine-tingling horror and the macabre. I’ve worked with Orrin a number of times in my previous role as acquisitions editor at Skull Island eXpeditions, where he wrote an excellent novella called Mutagenesis and numerous short stories. He’s a consummate pro, a hell of a writer, and a 13th level Rejectomancer who has unlocked the mystical abilities Power Word: Revise and Enthrall Editor. Here’s a bit more about Orrin:

Orrin Grey is a writer, editor, amateur film scholar, and monster expert who was born on the night before Halloween. His stories of monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, and been gathered into two collections, Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings (out now) and Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts (due out in October from Word Horde). He has also co-edited Fungi, an anthology of weird fungal stories, with Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and he occasionally writes licensed fiction and other odds-and-ends for Privateer Press. You can visit him at orringrey.com or throw money at his Patreon to get behind-the-scenes access to his creative process, such as it is.

1. That first rejection letter is pretty memorable (i.e., it is burned into your cerebral cortex for all eternity). Tell us what you remember about your first.

I have to admit, I don’t think I actually do remember my first rejection letter. It was longer ago than I may care to admit, and there have been an awful lot of them since. From back in the days when we actually sent out physical submissions via snail mail and got actual rejection letters on actual pieces of paper, I kept all my rejections, and the earliest one I could find was a form letter from Weird Tales back in 2003, which doesn’t really stick in my memory, but certainly tells you where my first impulses were when it came to where I wanted to be published. I’ve still never been published in Weird Tales, except for an interview I did with them one time.

2. What do you hope to see in a rejection letter? You know, beyond the soul-crushing doubt and disappointment. What’s useful to you as a writer?

Honestly, if I’m getting a non-form letter, it’s nice when they let me know what didn’t work. Sometimes it really is a case of “this just didn’t fit our needs,” but other times it may be something more specific. I recently got a rejection letter where the editor told me that he liked the second half of the story more than the first. I took another look at it, and, what do you know, I liked the second half more, too, so I ended up rewriting it and pretty much cutting the first half out entirely, and I think it’s a better story for it. That said, my favorite thing I have ever seen a rejection letter do is to go ahead and put “REJECTION” right in the subject line of the email, just like you often have to put “SUBMISSION” in front of your name or the title of the story or whatever. That lets you know what you’re in for as soon as you see it pop up in your inbox and spares you both that moment of heart-in-your-throat hope and that crushing moment of realization after you read the first sentence or so and get to the dreaded “we are unable to publish.”

3. Got a favorite rejection? Funny, mean, just straight-up weird?

I don’t know that I remember a single, specific favorite rejection, either, but I know where I most enjoyed getting rejections from. Back in the day, when I was first getting started in this business, I distinctly remember a former editor at Clarkesworld. Even then, Clarkesworld paid great rates and had an incredibly quick turnaround time, so probably half the stuff I wrote went there before it got sent anyplace else. This editor’s rejections were always personal, vicious, specific, and extensive. I’d frequently get several paragraphs back from just about anything I sent him, often within a day or two of sending it out. There was a joke among some of my writing friends that you didn’t need a workshop or a writing group when you could just send your story to Clarkesworld and get it critiqued for free.

4. What’s the toughest part of rejection for you? Pro tips for dealing with it?

I think it might vary a bit from story to story and rejection to rejection, but I think the thing that helped me the most in dealing with rejections was actually getting to work on the other side a little bit. When I was co-editing Fungi with Silvia Moreno-Garcia, I got to see first-hand how the acceptance/rejection process works from the editorial end, and I learned valuable stuff like that you really do get way more great stories than you can possibly use, and often that tired old phrase from the form letters that “it doesn’t match our needs at this time” is absolutely true. Sometimes you have to reject a really great story because it doesn’t fit into the anthology as it’s shaping up, because it’s too similar to a story that you already bought, and so on. That made it easier to take any rejections I get in stride, and to not take them personally.

5. Okay, tell us about your first or your most recent acceptance letter?

My first acceptance letter I do remember. It was for a tiny (both literally and figuratively) little magazine called Thirteen Stories, and my story appeared in what turned out to be that publication’s final issue, where I shared a table of contents with some other up-and-coming writers of the genre, including a really good story by Gary Fry. Don’t bother looking up my story from there, though. It’s really better off forgotten.

6) Okay, plug away. Tells us about your latest project or book and why we should run out and buy it.
 
My latest book is Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts, which is available from Word Horde. It’s my second collection, featuring a lot of the stories that I wrote since my previous collection came out, but it also comes complete with an honest-to-god theme! The title comes from the 1968 Peter Bodganovich film Targets, in which an aging Boris Karloff basically playing himself says, “My kind of horror is not horror anymore. No one’s afraid of a painted monster.” That line, along with the rest of the movie, felt so much like a summation of the way that horror films were changing in the 60s that I knew immediately I wanted to use it as the epigram of my second collection. So when I was putting Painted Monsters together, I was thinking about the way that movies influenced my writing, and about the ways that horror films had changed over the years, and so the collection became a sort of exploration of the changing face of horror, with the earliest stories inspired by silent films and the monster movies of the 1930s, moving up through Italian Giallo flicks, kaiju movies, and found footage. Plus, Painted Monsters contains my ghost apocalypse story “Persistence of Vision,” which was selected for Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, so you know there’s at least one good story in there!