Baby’s First Rejection

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.

21 Comments on “Baby’s First Rejection

  1. That’s really specific feedback. My first rejection was a form.

    Do you think that by definition a character transformation needs to take place for something to be a story? I thought in the most basic terms, it’s defined as character wants XXX and might not get it because of YYY. If XXX is to solve the murder and YYY is the killer is clever, is it not a story if the detective doesn’t have some kind of growth? Is this a difference between character and plot driven stories?

    As an aside, here is some feedback from a recent reject (same market, different readers):

    -Ashlynn felt real to me as a character, and I liked her change in attitude at the end. I think that while she came off a bit whiny, she has a distinct voice, and her issues with her parents are relatable.

    -I think the main character is portrayed well and she seemed very believable in both her dialogue and thoughts, but this did feel like an excerpt from a longer piece. Ultimately there isn’t really much of a plot. I think it definitely has the potential to be developed further.

    So, her attitude change may have been enough to make your rejector happy, but my rejector may have preferred yours for having more of a plot.

    Sometimes I just don’t know what people want 🙂

    • Yeah, I think some change needs to take place in the central character, although I’m occasionally willing to overlook that in really short pieces that present very interesting concepts or ideas. That said, one person’s definition of “change” might be very different from another’s.

      That looks like a pretty good rejection letter with solid feedback. It’s very true that it’s hard to gauge what editors want, so, honestly, at the end of the day, unless you’re getting the same feedback over and over again, you have to trust your gut. I’ve ignored feedback from editors and then went on to publish the story somewhere else without changing a thing. The first editor wasn’t “wrong,” it came down to a matter of taste and a preference for a certain type of POV (3rd vs. 1st).

      • I appreciated their feedback, and if I send that particular market another story, it will definitely have more of a plot.

        And yes, there is always an element of taste/preference 🙂

    • Yep, one of the most detailed I’ve received in over ten years of writing. It stung; the first ones always do, but I agree, personal rejections like this are very valuable.

  2. My first rejection wasn’t very detailed at all. It was just:

    “We enjoyed the voice in both your poems, but we are going to pass on inclusion in XXX.”
    It then continued to say that they hoped I would submit again; only that I waited six months first.

    I got my hopes too high back then, but doesn’t every writer sending off their first piece?

    • Hey, an invitation to submit again is pretty solid for a first rejection in my book. 🙂

      Yeah, I distinctly remember thinking one submission = one publication. I was quickly disabused of that notion. 😉

    • You think so? I think it’s just frank and to-the-point, honestly. I might have thought it was mean ten years ago, but looking at it now, I don’t feel that way.

  3. Oh God! I have visions of looking back on my book in a few years and having it ‘scream amateur’ at me! Or worse, not seeing the amateurishness, if it is, indeed, amateur! The horror!

  4. Though I was writing for (and publishing) science fiction fanzines throughout high school and may have received rejections from some of them, my first rejection from a professional magazine came from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in September 1974. I was 17 years old.

    I made my first pro sale soon after, but I never have sold to F&SF.

    • Michael, thanks for sharing. Is a sale to F&SF on the bucket list? Unfortunately, the magazine that sent my first rejection no longer exists, so there will be no redemption for me. 😉

      • Once upon a time F&SF was at the top of the list of publications where I wanted to see my work. While I would still like to place a story there, I have drifted into other genres and don’t write much fantasy and science fiction these days. Alas, this greatly diminishes the odds of writing an appropriate story, let alone submitting it!

  5. As much as it may have hurt, it’s pretty great that you received such specific comments. I wonder why he felt the need to do that. I would much rather get something like that than the form rejection.

  6. My first rejection was for a short story submitted many years ago (I was 20) to a literary magazine. The rejection was simply “this is not a short story; this is an incident.” That hurt. So I became a journalist and wrote freelanced non-fiction articles for many years for magazines and newspapers. But I did return to fiction writing – short stories – many were published including in a collection of mystery short stories Beyond the Tripping Point (Blue Denim Press, 2012).

    Now I use that first rejection comment when teaching fiction writing courses and workshops and when evaluating other writers’ manuscripts. I quit journalism three/four years ago and now also write mystery novels in the Beyond series.

    The funny thing is I don’t remember the name of the magazine, the last name of the editor or even the incident/story involved.

    Maybe time is selective in what you remember and maybe you remember only the important things.

    • HI, Sharon. Thanks for sharing. I often return to that first rejection as well, especially the part about the storyline being incomplete. It’s certainly something I have worked on in the years since.

      By the way, congrats on your transition back to writing fiction and the success you’ve had there. 🙂

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