Even Good Stories Get Rejected

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. You finish a story, and you know it’s just the best damn thing you’ve ever written. Proud of your shiny new word baby, you send it out to a publisher you’re pretty sure will dig it. You wait with breathless anticipation for a few weeks, and then, BAM! The form rejection drops like a ten-ton weight into your inbox. Now what?

Well, sometimes I see authors want to overhaul a story based on that single rejection. A lot of the time, I think that’s a mistake. In my experience, most stories rack up at least one rejection before they sell. To illustrate this point, here are ten of my acceptances and the number of rejections they received before the blessed event.

Story Rejections
Paper Cut 16
Caroline 7
Scare Tactics 7
Night Games 6
Reunion 3
Little Sister 2
Luck Be a Bullet 2
New Arrivals 2
The Food Bank 2
Where They Belong 0

This list includes my story with the most rejections before publication and one of my few stories I sold on the first try. The only story on the list I revised was “Paper Cut” after about nine rejections. It still went on to collect seven more before I sold it. The rest of these stories I kept sending out until they found an editor that liked them.

Two of the stories on this list, “Night Games” and “Scare Tactics,” I’ve sold again to audio markets. I consider “Night Games” the best story I’ve published to date (YMMV), and it still racked up six rejections before someone liked it as much I do.

What am I trying to say with all this? It’s all in the title of the post. Even good stories get rejected. One, or two, or hell, half a dozen rejections doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve written a bad story or even a story that needs (major) revision. It can mean you’ve written a story that doesn’t quite fit the market you sent it to (might be time to dial in your submission targeting). It can mean you wrote a story about ghosts and sent it to an editor who just doesn’t like ghost stories that much. It can mean you wrote a story that’s very similar to a story the market just published or is planning to publish. In other words, it can mean a lot of things that have nothing to do with the quality of your story. Some editors are even good enough to tell you these things in the rejection letter.

This all leads to the next question. How many rejections should a story receive before you revise it or even scrap it? That’s gonna come down to a gut check. Obviously, I fall into the “keep sending it out until it finds a home” camp, but I generally start thinking about revision after six or seven rejections, especially if I’m only getting form rejections. Now, all this “advice” doesn’t mean squat if you get a rejection with specific feedback that resonates with you. In that case, revise away and thank your lucky stars you received such useful feedback right off the bat.

To sum up, consider letting your submissions stretch their legs a bit before you drag them back into the shop for an overhaul.  A couple of rejections probably doesn’t mean much.


How many rejection do you let a story rack up before you think about revision? Tell me about it in the comments.

5 thoughts on “Even Good Stories Get Rejected

  1. The number of rejections a story receives isn’t what triggers thoughts of revision. What triggers thoughts of revision is the nature of the rejections. For example, I wrote a fantasy a few years ago and every rejection that included comments from an editor mentioned a problem with the ending. At some point—and I’m not at home where I can check my files to see exactly how many rejections mentioned the ending—the cumulative weight of the comments had me rethink and revise the ending. The story’s under submission now, so I’m waiting to see if revising the ending will result in a positive outcome.

    Reply
    • Yeah, definitely, the nature of the rejections plays a big part on whether to revise or not. For example, with “Night Games,” I kept getting “good” rejections or comments that were so subjective I ignored them (the story heavily features baseball and some editors just didn’t like that).

      Reply
  2. Thanks for the writerly words of wisdom, Aeryn! Basically what you and Michael Bracken have said above. I have a couple stories that I think are my ‘best’ (so far), and I keep sending them out. Honestly, I don’t keep an exact running count of their rejections, other than in an Excel file that I could go through and count that data, if I were ever so inclined. I’m still at the stage where I get only a few personalized rejections (30-40% of them?), but even those are not usually terribly specific as to what’s wrong with them. Then there’s one publisher that always gives me specifics everytime a story is rejected, but alas, I’ve not been able to crack their publishing code, so to speak. As much as the control freak in me would like to have some golden number at which to (gasp!) give up, I’m not attaching any numbers to my stories at this point, other than how many I can submit per month.

    Reply
  3. If I get “good” rejections, I sometimes change the name of the story, even, as in a few instances, when I loved the name. I suspect that in the chemistry of the fast-decision slush pile, the title has an inordinate amount of power. If that fails, I tackle openings and endings, in that order. My pool? I have about 40 short fiction acceptances out of 180 submissions, over three years. No major markets, but lots of editors who know their shiet.

    Reply
    • You know, I’ve never really thought about how the title of a story can impact a decision in the slush pile, but it makes perfect sense. May have to consider that on a story or two.

      Reply

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