Ranks of the Rejected: Gabrielle Harbowy

In this episode of the Ranks of the Rejected, we’re going to turn the tables and—Gasp!—talk to an editor. Gabrielle Harbowy is the managing editor at Dragon Moon Press, submissions editor for Apex Magazine, and copyeditor for Pyr, Circlet Press, and other publishers of novel-length genre fiction. She has graciously agreed to be interviewed and provide some insight on rejectomancy from the other side of the coin.

As an editor, Gabrielle has many strange and wondrous powers, one of which is removing rejectomancy points from foolish Rejectomancers who fall prey to SSD (special snowflake disorder) or FTFFD (failure to follow fucking directions). But her powers are not always used for evil, and her suite of extraordinary abilities includes many that are beneficial to the Rejectomancer. Follow all the submission guidelines, proofread and revise your story, and she may bestow such boons as Read to the End or Create Constructive Criticism or that most potent of editorial blessings, Aura of Acceptance. But writers beware, she also has access to the dreaded Random Reject Table.

random reject table GRH

Here’s a bit more about Gabrielle.

Gabrielle Harbowy is a writer, editor and award-nominated anthologist. She has been reading and acquiring novel- and short-fiction submissions since 2008 and hasn’t poured bleach in her eyes yet, but she *has* learned not to say “Now I’ve seen everything.” She is passionate about helping authors navigate and understand the slush pile. Her short fiction appears in several anthologies including Carbide Tipped Pens from Tor. Anthology-wise, her latest project is Women in Practical Armor, co-edited with fantasy legend Ed Greenwood. This is their fourth anthology collaboration, and its crowd-funding effort is live on Kickstarter right now!

1) Okay, since this a blog about rejection, let’s get right to the meat. What are the top three things you see in a story or manuscript that result in an auto-reject? Please, be blunt. We writers rarely understand nuance or subtlety.

I only get three? Hmm…

Okay. Since you’re asking me about auto-rejections, I’ll focus on the things that are so rejection-assured that I would have to reject on the basis of these flaws even if I like the story.

a) Failure to address the theme/genre of the market. This tops my list. Even if a story is well-written and I love it, if it doesn’t fit the theme of the anthology, or the genre of the publisher, I can’t buy it even if I want to.

That sort of situation is rare, but it happens. Ed and I got a great story for When the Hero Comes Home 2 in which the fantastical element the story would have needed to fit the genre of the book, would have killed the story. It ONLY worked in a mundane world. It was a great story…for another book.

More often, a lack of attention to the market is correlated with a lack of attention to one’s own writing, and the things that aren’t a fit also aren’t very good. If it’s a good story that just isn’t right for us, at least I’ve had the pleasure of reading a good story (even if it comes with the heartache of rejecting something awesome). If it’s a “meh” story that isn’t remotely a fit for us, and is just the result of someone throwing their story at every market they have an address for to see if it sticks, reading and processing it has been nothing but a waste of my time.

b) Lack of plot. A premise is not a plot. A premise is the set-up and the plot is the conflict and resolution that happens to one person within that set-up.

Many, many short stories go something like this: “I have this awesome idea, so I’m going to flesh out a world around this idea. Right at the end, I’m going to introduce a new fact about the world that you didn’t see coming. It’s a plot twist!”

Except, no. It isn’t a plot twist. It’s just a reveal of withheld information. “Guy looks in mirror and studies his hair” isn’t a plot, so when it turns out he’s actually a dog, that’s not a plot twist. In a plot, there is a protagonist (a character who wants something concrete/has something at stake), and something between that character and their goal. If no one has a goal, there’s no conflict or resolution. It can be a perfectly good vignette, but it’s not a story. Okay, he’s a dog. So? What conflicts arise from the guy being a dog, and what does he do about them? THAT’s the plot.

c) Someone else’s intellectual property. Unless I’m specifically licensing tie-in fiction, or unless you’ve specifically received permission from an author or their publisher or their literary estate, I can’t publish your steampunk reimagining of a modern bestseller (with the same characters and the same plot) or your crossover mashup of two other authors’ work, until that thing you’re making use of for your own purposes is in the public domain…and you’ll probably be a disembodied consciousness in a jar before that time comes.

2) When you send a form rejection letter, can it mean something in addition to “no?” Do you have multiple tiers of form rejections? For example, a simple “no, thank you,” a “no, thank you, but send us more work,” and so on.

It gets tricky when some publishers are so genial in their form letters that you can’t tell whether they’re a form or not. (I’ve taken to writing “dear author:” in my form letters, so that authors know without a doubt that they’re getting a form.)

It also gets tricky when publishers use those ambiguous phrases that some people mean, but that other people only say to be polite.

“Not quite” a fit doesn’t mean “change it a little and try again.” If a market wants you to revise and resubmit, they’ll be specific enough that you won’t have any doubt over whether they mean it.

Not a fit “at this time” doesn’t mean “our needs may change, so try again in a couple of months.”

I never say “please submit work to us again” unless I mean it, and then I let the author know that it’s a personal letter. But I do know other editors who have told me that they make it part of their form. They don’t really mean it as more than an encouraging pleasantry. That said, if you send them more stuff, they will look at it.

But, to stop rambling and actually answer your question, a form rejection could mean “No. Also you made my eyes bleed. Please get therapy.” It could mean “This was really, really close.” It could mean “This story doesn’t fit the feel of the anthology.” It could mean “This was good but it’s too similar to something we’ve acquired already, but since it hasn’t been announced there’s no way you could have known that.” It could mean “This looks like a fourth-grader typed it in the dark. We really wish you hadn’t told us in your cover letter that you’re a university literature professor, because now we despair for the future of humanity.”

The form letter can mean any of those things, but all of those things mean this:

“This market has decided not to buy this story. It’s strictly a business decision and not a personal one, but we’re not going to discuss it further with you for any or all of the following reasons:

  • we’re too busy to respond to each author individually
  • we’re not open to negotiation about it
  • we don’t want to deal with the fallout of honestly telling you it was awful
  •  we don’t want to deal with the fallout of honestly telling you we loved it and had to say no anyway
  • it’s our managing editor’s rule that we’re just not allowed to

3) Is there ever a situation when a writer should respond to a rejection letter? If so, what’s the protocol?

Please don’t respond to a rejection letter, even a really encouraging personal one, even just to say “thank you for your time.”

The only situation in which it’s okay to respond to a rejection letter is if it asks you a question to which the sender would genuinely like an answer. For instance, “This wasn’t a fit for us, but do you have any other finished manuscripts we might consider?” (Pro tip: Reply to that one.)

4) I know editors are not all heartless monsters, and there are real people behind those rejection letters who aren’t out to destroy hope and crush dreams. Are there rejection letters that are difficult for the editor to send out?  

The “really close” ones that almost made it. The ones that are to people you know personally. The ones that are to people whose work you’ve acquired before, but not this time. I’ve also delayed sending a rejection letter because I learned it was the author’s birthday.

5) Rejection is just part of the business, but do you have any pro tips for writers on how best to deal with it?

Here’s the plain truth: You’ll probably never know why your story was rejected. You’ve been conditioned to expect closure in life, and here in your career where it most matters to you, you’re probably never going to get it. Which sucks.

And somehow, you’re expected to roll a crit on your Will save every time or something, to keep that from bothering you. Failing that, all you can do is develop whatever coping mechanism works for you.

Maybe you have to invent a narrative you can accept and believe (They didn’t take it because it’s got sex in it; They didn’t take it because it doesn’t have sex in it; They rolled low on the Random Effects table).

Maybe you’ve got to turn around and send it right back out to another market, have a lot of ice cream, and distract yourself with B movies or with outlining your next manuscript. Maybe meditation or retail-therapy are involved.

There’s no one answer. Find something that works for you, preferably something that isn’t destructive. Keep writing. Keep submitting. Make peace with the lack of closure, and move on.

Editors don’t set out to crush dreams (even though, as my partner always points out, broken dreams have no calories). We open every story and manuscript wanting it to be amazing and perfect and brilliant.

All you have to do is send us stuff that lives up to those expectations. No pressure!

Previous Ranks of the Rejected Interviews

Ranks of the Rejected: Rose Blackthorn

Ranks of the Rejected: Orrin Grey

One thought on “Ranks of the Rejected: Gabrielle Harbowy

  1. Pingback: Cope with Rejection Like a Boss | Becky DeVendra

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