I got a rejection letter today. (Send cards and flowers to my home address.) It was the sixth rejection this particular story has received in its current incarnation. After five or so rejections, you can’t help but ask yourself, “Should I retire this one?”
It’s an understandable question. Repeated rejection is no fun, and it can certainly make you wonder if one of your darlings isn’t in dire need of killing. That said, I think you have to look a little deeper before you pull the plug on a story. Here are two anecdotal examples from my own experience, and, as they are from my own experience, you may consider them incontrovertible proof of whatever point it is I am about to make.
I published a story a while back that had received thirteen rejections before it was accepted. It had received thirteen form rejections. Not nice little personal notes expressing how much the editor enjoyed the story but it wasn’t a good fit or informative personal rejections that told me what was wrong with the story. Nope, just piles of “not for us” and “I’m going to pass this time” and “best of luck placing this elsewhere.” Hell, the story didn’t even get a “send us more work” rejection. In other words, it looked pretty fucking bleak.
The thing was, I really liked this story. It was quirky and weird and unlike most of the stories I had written. I had faith in this story. Now, that’s not always a good thing, and that kind of blind confidence in the face of repeated rejection can be an early symptom of SSD (special snowflake disorder). Still, I had a gut feeling the story was a good one, so I ignored my baker’s dozen of previous rejections and sent it out again, this time to a magazine that tended to publish horror on the quirky side.
Bam! Acceptance letter. They loved it. On top of that, it was my first publication with a webzine that I’ve since published with multiple times. They apparently dig my style (poor fools), and I definitely dig them for digging it.
So, what happened there? Why did that story get thirteen form rejections before it found a home? In this case, I think it was an example of poor submission targeting. I was sending the story to publications looking for classic horror tales, and this story absolutely wasn’t that. When I wised up and sent the story to a publication actually looking for the weirder side of horror, I hit pay dirt.
Okay, now the second example, the story that was rejected today. This one is a bit different. It’s been getting rejected, but it’s getting personal rejections and invitations to send more work, only one straight-up form rejection (today). What does that pattern tell me? The glass-half-full guy might say it’s getting close and just hasn’t found the right home yet. Might be some truth there. I think a large part of getting published is actually finding an editor that likes your work. On the other hand, the glass-half-empty guy might say it’s getting close but not landing because it’s a good example of my style but a very flawed story. In other words, revise or retire.
So do I continue to send the story out in its present form? Yeah, I think so. There’s been enough positive reinforcement that I’m going to listen to the glass-half-full guy. This might be just a matter of matching up the story with the right editor and publication. I could be very wrong—the story might really just suck—and there may be another half dozen rejections in my future, but at this point, I feel confident enough about the story to keep firing it off.
What is the take away from my two rambling examples? I think it’s the primary thrust of this blog: rejection, although an unavoidable part of the writer’s life, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re failing. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes you absolutely do need to retire a story or revise it heavily, but ask yourself a few questions before you do. Are you sending it to the right markets? Are you getting any positive responses? The answers to these questions might suggest you do need give this one a rest, or, maybe, that you need to hitch up your britches and fire off that story one more time.