A couple of days ago, I commented on a writer’s blog who had just received her first rejection. That first one is tough, and I wanted to offer a little sympathy and solidarity to this person. Of course, it got me thinking about my first rejection (on an unsolicited short story, anyway), so I immediately had to go and find it. I was forced to delve into the dark and forgotten vault of my now-defunct Hotmail account to unearth the beastly thing, but I found it, and here it is, coming at you from the dim, misty yesteryear of 2005.
Dear Mr. Rudel,
I’m going to decline “XXX” It’s not ready for publication.
1) You’ve used words incorrectly, and in redundance.
On the first page, Jacob is not “struggling to discern the distance.” He’s trying to estimate or gauge it. The result would not be a judgment, but an estimate or guess.
Stygian is capitalized. Refers to the River Styx. A monocular glow likely comes from a “single” headlight. Therefore, “single” is redundant.
“object” is vague…be more specific, in all instances in the story. Remember, the reader is going to fixate on this as the source of danger. He needs some details to hang onto.
“he might run afoul of” is unnecessary by implication.
2) The storyline is incomplete. Jacob flees Donna, reminisces of their relationship, is chased by a demon on PCP, and dies. There’s no story here. In a story, by definition, the protagonist changes in some way as a direct result of having experienced the events of the story…and this does not mean being consumed, unless the reason is clear, explicit, and serves a purpose.
In summary: do not overwrite your story. And adjust the storyline. Also, read more. There are lots of good horror short stories out there [we publish them in XXX, XXX, and XXX]. See what other writers are writing, and how they develop their stories.
Hope this helps.
At the time, over ten years ago, I was devastated. This was the first time I had sent a short story out for publication, and, you know, my friends said it was good, so my chances at publication had to be, like, what? Ninety percent? I remember reading this as a neophyte writer, as naïve about the craft and business of writing as you can possibly be, and feeling like someone had ripped my guts out, thrown them on the ground, and then danced a spiteful little jig on my poor, defenseless entrails.
I’ll admit, I let this rejection set me back, and it kept me from submitting my work for quite a while. That was stupid and immature because this is a good rejection. Sure, the editor pulled no punches with his comments, but he also didn’t send me a form letter. He took the time to break down what was wrong with my story, and that kind of feedback is invaluable to a new writer. By the way, pretty much everything he says is right on the money, and this story was absolutely, positively not ready for anything even resembling publication. I had a look at it again, and ten-plus years have not been kind to it. I think there’s a decent idea in there, but goddamn, it fucking screams amateur.
In the decade-plus since this rejection, I’ve put a lot of what’s in this letter into practice, and while I’ve gotten a lot more rejections over the years, I’ve also had some success, much of it owed to editors like this one, who took the time to tell me exactly what I was doing wrong.
Do you remember your first rejection? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.