If you’ve been submitting short stories for any length of time, then you’ve likely developed a fairly thick skin when it comes to rejections. After you hit triple digits, those form rejections, filled with not for us’s and doesn’t fit our needs’s, kind of lose their sting. They’re pretty easy to take in stride, and it’s not too difficult to move on and send that story somewhere else. But in my experience (after well over 300 rejections), there are three types of Nos that can really take the wind out of your sales if you let them. Let’s talk about them, what they might mean, and how best to deal with them.
What it is: Some markets just take longer than others to get back to you. Sometimes the wait can exceed six months or even a year with some literary markets (and one or two genre publishers). Generally, a long-wait form rejection is not preceded by a shortlist letter or really any other communication from the publisher. If you do get a shortlist letter, well, that’s more example number two.
Why it’s tough: Even though I shouldn’t, even though I know better, I can’t help but get my hopes up a little when a submission starts getting long in the tooth. The theory that the longer a publisher holds a story the more likely it is to be published doesn’t hold much water in my experience, but for some reason I can’t help thinking that maybe THIS time it means something. So, invariably when that form rejection comes after 150 days, it’s more disappointing than if it cames in a couple of weeks.
What to do: I usually follow the same protocol with a long-wait form rejection that I do with any form rejection. Without any specific feedback on the story to prompt a revision, I log the rejection and send the piece out again, right away. I might be somewhat hesitant to submit to the publisher again, especially if they don’t allow sim-subs.
What it is: A rejection preceded by a shortlist letter. Sometimes it’s not a shortlist, but a second round or second read notification, but it’s essentially the same thing–the publisher has indicated your story is of interest and has made it past the slush pile at the very least.
Why it’s tough: Unlike the long-wait form rejection, you get your hopes up with a shortlist rejection for good reason. The publisher has straight up told you they like the story, at least enough to give it a second read or seriously consider it. If that shortlist rejection is from a prestigious market, say one you’ve been trying to crack for years, then your hopes soar even higher. That, of course, means they can reach terminal velocity before hitting the pavement when that rejection shoots them out of the sky.
What to do: With a rejection like this, you have to look at the positive (because it is mostly positive). If the story was shortlisted, that means two things. One, this publisher probably likes your work and wants to see more of it, and, two, you probably have a good story on your hands that you should immediately send out again. The one caveat here is if the shortlist rejection gives you valuable feedback on the story and the editor points out something they think needs work. In that case, if you agree, then it might be time to revise the story, but you can do so with the knowledge it’s probably close to where it needs to be.
What it is: A personal rejection where the editor relates, in detail, what they didn’t like about the story (or your writing). There is often some positive feedback as well, but in my experience these rejections can go a bit heavier on things the editor doesn’t like. It’s important to note these rejection aren’t mean-spirited, and the editor is trying to give constructive feedback. I’ve yet to get a rejection where I thought the editor was being intentionally hurtful. I’m sure they exist, but I doubt they’re very common.
Why it’s tough: It’s never fun to read what someone doesn’t like about your work. It’s especially not fun to read a lengthy rejection where the editor spells it out bluntly and exhaustively. I don’t care who you are, that stings.
What to do: First, put the rejection aside until you’re in a more objective headspace, then go back and read it carefully. More likely than not, you’re going to discover a couple of things. The first is the editor has done you a service. They’ve clearly indicated what doesn’t work for them with the story, and that’s something you can use for future submissions. Also, they’ve probably hit on some things that DO need work in the story. It’s always helpful to get that kind of feedback. The second thing you might realize is that, well, this is one person’s opinion, and it’s possible that some of the things they’re calling out in your story are stylistic mismatches. Let me see if I can better illustrate that last point:
I don’t like Doctor Who (probably gonna lose some followers over that). I don’t think it’s a bad show, but it is decidedly not for me. I find it a little silly, over-the-top, and just weird for weirdness’ sake. Now, I know from talking to fans of the show that those same qualities are part of the reason they like it. Also, because those elements stick out for me, I may be unable to appreciate the show’s other qualities as much, like its boundless creativity, good acting, and generally upbeat tone. Now imagine I write Doctor Who-style stories, and I submit one to a magazine that is more like The Expanse or Altered Carbon (or some other gritty, realistic sci-fi). There’s a damn good chance I’m going to get a rejection, and if the editor gives me specific feedback about things they don’t like, some of it might be because our tastes and styles are completely mismatched.
Now this is not to say that every thorough personal rejection is because the editor simply has a different taste in story than what you write. We’re all capable of writing a clunker or sending a story out before its ready or a hundred other things that can result in this kind of rejection. So when you get one of these, try to be objective as possible, realize the editor is trying to be helpful and not hurtful, and see what you can learn from their feedback.
So those are three types of tough rejections I’ve encountered. What about you? Tell me about your tough rejections in the comments.
Of these three, it’s the Short List Rejection that I still find hard to cope with because even though I try hard not to get excited about anything until it’s actually happening, being told I’m on the Short List got my hopes up. The other two I find to be so frequent and so common a part of the biz that I don’t have much trouble just shrugging my shoulders, submitting the story elsewhere, and continuing to bang away at the current WIP. Which I think is pretty much what you should always do when rejected.
The shortlist rejection SHOULD be the one that bothers me the most, but I admit the third one can get to me on occasion.
There is a corollary to the third type that really bothers me. Some journals will forward uncurated comments from first readers. Blunt is fine, but these can be quite mean-spirited and offensive, often revealing a carelessness in reading and an undercurrent of bitterness and likely burnout on the part of the readers. Extra points for everyone giving the piece a numerical score. Receiving one of these can be so infuriating that it’s very hard to go past the emotional upset and appreciate the potential kernels of truth in the feedback.
I’m not sure what the benefit is in routinely forwarding these to all authors. Perhaps they are useful in internal magazine procedures, but basically pouring large quantities of bile at your prospective authors can’t be a good thing. Otoh I know some people don’t believe feedback is honest unless the receiver has been reduced to a quivering puddle, so I guess they love this.
I think uncurated is the key here. In my experience, raw unfiltered feedback from first readers tend to be all over the place and is sometimes contradictory. Not always, but I’ve rarely found it be particularly helpful.
On the other hand, when the editor has curated the comments and sent them, they’ve usually been very helpful. Some of this, of course, is going to depend on the size of the market in question.
I’ve got a Christmas story out (since July) with a magazine I know will reject it because it will have selected its Christmas stories by now. I know I’ve got through the first read, but waiting for that ‘no’ email is still hard.
Pingback: Short walk #86 – A short walk down a dark street