Rejectomancy XP +5 (What’s this?)
Folks, it’s time to talk about that most awesome of rejections, the rejection that allows you, if just for a moment, to sniff the rarefied air of future publication. I’m talking about the informative personal rejection letter.
Let’s look at an example of this rare creature from my own (tiny) collection.
Thanks for giving us the opportunity to consider this one. After reading and discussing it, we’ve decided it’s not right for us at this time. Good luck placing it elsewhere.
The biggest problem with this one is that it ends in mid-air. This isn’t a complete story; it’s the first chapter in a novel, or at least the opening scene in a much longer work. Find and tell the rest of the story, and I think you’ll have something really good here.
The second problem with this one is that it, like so many other stories we see, seems to take place in an alternate universe where no one has ever watched [popular sci-fi, horror, and fantasy TV shows and movies], and thus the characters are flummoxed by — and need to have explained to them — things that have actually become pretty prosaic in our pop culture. My third, admittedly petty and personal problem with this story is that I’ve known a lot of Marines, but have never met one as dense as [character].
And my final (again, petty and personal) issue is with the casting: [characters names]? I live in a fairly affluent outer-ring suburb, and even my neighborhood isn’t that white-bread! Are there no kids? No dogs? No one named Juan, Rasheed, DeAntoine, or Faisal?
That said: this piece is well-written, and you did a great job of pulling us into the story, moving things along, and building up the excitement. Now, if you can figure out where this story ends — or better yet, figure out the larger story of which this is merely the opening chapter — I think you’ll have something that should sell to a much better market than we are.
Interestingly enough, the editor starts this letter with the language from their common form rejection. When this letter showed up in my inbox, the email preview showed me only those first two sentences, so I figured it was just another form rejection. I didn’t even open it until a few days later, whereupon I discovered the helpful little gem you see above.
So, let’s break this one down. Although this is still a rejection, it is hands-down the best kind of rejection you can get. First, the editor tells me exactly why they did not accept my story. Second, the editor gives me advice on how I could improve it. Lastly, there is sincere praise in this email, and I don’t care how many times you’ve published, getting this kind of feedback never gets old.
On top of everything else, the editor is right on the money with his comments, and they will definitely improve the story in question. Let’s take a look at the three main points he calls out in my story.
1) The biggest problem with this one is that it ends in mid-air.
Yep, this is something I occasionally struggle with, especially in the shorter word counts mandated by many publications. This story was a good example of that. I had a good idea, a decent setup, built my characters, got into the action, and then kind of left things hanging. Initially, I thought the ending was simply ambiguous, and it’s possible another editor might agree with me, but I’m inclined to trust this editor, as he’s given me good feedback prior to this.
What can we learn here? It’s pretty simple. Ask yourself these questions. Does my story feel finished when I stop writing? Does it feel satisfying? These are tough questions, and they may be difficult to answer on your own. A good group of objective alpha readers can certainly help, but consider these questions long and hard before you submit.
2) The second problem with this one is that it, like so many other stories we see, seems to take place in an alternate universe where no one has ever watched . . .
I removed the specific shows he mentioned because it reveals too much about the story I sent, but I’ll use a similar example from another genre. In the TV show The Walking Dead, no one has apparently ever seen a zombie movie, so the characters lack basic knowledge that anyone in our real world would have, primarily that you have to destroy a zombie’s brain to kill it. My story suffered from something similar. An event occurred that would be instantly recognized by anyone who has watched certain TV shows, and it would likely modify their behavior. Unless I’m stating that my story occurs in an alternate universe where none of these TV shows and movies existed (which is kind of lame, honestly), then my characters should be armed with the same info that someone from our own world would have.
The take away here is, again, pretty simple. Unless your story is set in an alternate universe, on another planet, or some other fantastical location where history and culture are radically different from the real world, your characters should probably have the same basic knowledge about the world that you do. Without it, your characters actions and motivations might seem suspect or even ridiculous. It’s the “why the fuck are you going into the dark basement alone when there’s an axe murderer on the loose” situation often seen in horror films that should, for the most part, be avoided.
This is not to say that every single person in a zombie story, to take the example above, is steeped in zombie lore (there are people in the real world that don’t know shit about zombies), but there would likely be someone who could inform such a character.
3) My third, admittedly petty and personal problem with this story is that I’ve known a lot of Marines, but have never met one as dense as [character].
For the record, the editor is just being nice here. His concern is not petty in any way. I portrayed a former Marine in this story in a way that Marines just don’t behave (I’ve had an actual Marine tell me this as well). It’s not that a Marine character can’t be dense, it’s just that his or her training would very probably eliminate the kind of denseness my character displays in the story.
This one ties back into the editor’s second point in that my character was missing basic information that any Marine would have. This is a problem that can crop up with any character that has an occupation that includes a lot of specific training, from Marines to firemen, and it can easily be fixed with good research, or, better yet, having someone in that occupation read your story.
4) And my final (again, petty and personal) issue is with the casting: [character names] I live in a fairly affluent outer-ring suburb, and even my neighborhood isn’t that white-bread! Are there no kids? No dogs? No one named Juan, Rasheed, DeAntoine, or Faisal?
Again, this editor is just a nice guy, and his final point is no pettier than the one before it. The problem here is simple. I’m a white 40-year-old male, and like a lot of writers I tend to imagine my characters as, well, me. Now, I’m not going to get into any social politics here, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with white 40-year-old male characters, but it’s also important to recognize the world is full of people who look nothing like that. I set my story in a place not far from where I live in downtown Seattle, and I can tell you by just looking out my window there is a hell of a lot more diversity on the street than I portrayed in my story.
How to fix this? Again, simple. When you’re done with your story, give it a diversity check, and I don’t mean just racial or gender diversity. To the editor’s point, there are dogs and kids all over the fucking place in Seattle, and when it was pointed out to me, it was almost strange that I didn’t include any in my story, which involves an entire neighborhood gathering in the street.
In summation, this is really the best kind of rejection letter you can receive. This editor went out of his way to help me improve my writing, and I’m very grateful for that. This is not to say that every piece of feedback you get from an editor is going to be useful to you, but receiving this kind of letter is a positive indicator that you’re doing something right. In general, editors don’t waste their time handing out advice to writers that don’t show some promise.
So, if you get a letter like this, pay attention to what the editor says, then try and implement it in the next story you send them.
Got an informative personal rejection you’d like to share with the class? Post it in the comments so we can all learn from your mistakes.