The Awful Agony of Almost
I have reached a point in my writing career where the majority of short stories I write accumulate further consideration and close-but-no-cigar rejections from pro markets. I have three stories circulating at the moment, each with a minimum of three such rejections. In this post, I’m going to talk a bit about this particular brand of no, what it might mean, and how my perception of it has changed over the years. As always, this is NOT an attempt to call out publications or editors or anything of the sort. This is one writer attempting to read the literary tea leaves and divine what he should write and how/where he should submit it.
First off, let’s see an example of the kind of rejection I’m talking about.
Thank you for sending [story] to [publisher]. Unfortunately, this story wasn’t a good fit for us. Choosing stories is a subjective process, and we have to reject many well-written stories. Please note that we do not accept revised stories, but we wish you the best in finding this one a good home, and we look forward to your next submission.
Our Associate Editors enjoyed this story, and the Assistant Editors liked it enough to hold it for a second look, but ultimately the competition was too strong this month. About 5-7% of submissions reach this stage.
[Specific praise and feedback for story]
This rejection is typical of the type I’m talking about. It starts with boilerplate rejection language, then tells you how far your story made it through the process, and, finally, the editor will often provide a little feedback. I left that off because, as usual, I’m not trying to identify the publisher, story, etc.
Now let’s talk about what we can learn from this rejection and others like it.
- I probably have a sellable story. When a story starts getting these kinds of rejections, I almost always sell it eventually. It just takes a while, but I generally find the right combo of editor, market, and timing. In some sense, these rejections are a kind of sellable story litmus test.
- It really is about fit at this point. The editor will tell you things like “good story,” “we enjoyed it,” and so on. They will then give you a specific bit of feedback that contributed to their decision to ultimately pass on the story. This feedback is, of course, highly subjective and can be contradictory from one market to another. For example, I’ve had one publisher tell me a story started too slow, but they really liked the ending, and another publisher tell me they loved the set-up but thought the ending lacked impact. Neither are wrong in the sense that the story was not a good fit for them and their market for this specific reason, and I’ll remember what the editor likes/dislikes even if I don’t use the specific feedback on the rejected story.
So that’s what we can learn from these types of rejections, and those things remain true. That said, my perception has changed from viewing them as a universally good thing to one that leaves me a little disheartened. Here’s why.
- Long waits. No sim-subs. Most of the markets I’m talking about send form rejections quickly, but if you make it past the first round, you’re looking at two months or longer to get a reply. If you follow the rules like I do, it can be a long wait while the publisher makes a decision. When you start piling up these “almost” rejections, you’re looking at up to a year of submissions to just a few markets. Some markets are starting to come around on sim-subs, and there are some that allow them, but not enough to make a difference. Basically, if one out of ten markets accepts sim-subs, I can submit to the one sim-sub market and still not have nowhere to send the story at the same pro tier.
- A painful analysis. If I’m consistently reaching this point with publishers and getting no further, it may be that I’m simply not writing the kind of work they want to publish. Period. That’s a bitter pill, but it might be the case, especially when the rejected stories are getting published elsewhere. It might also be that I need to up my game that last little bit to break through. I’m at a point where it’s difficult to tell. The stories are receiving positive feedback, and they are getting out of the slush pile, which are good indicators that I’m getting somewhere, but what’s the formula for breaking through? Is the right advice as simple as “Write better”? Or is it as plain as “Write different”? Is it both? Neither? I don’t know.
- More frustrating than motivating. Editors and publishers have to choose the stories that best fit their publication and their readers. This is a tough job, and I understand the tradeoffs they have to make. This post isn’t about them. It’s about a particular author struggle: getting to a certain point with your writing and not knowing if you should keep doggedly submitting as you always have, or if you should change your strategy entirely. There was a time when I found these close-but-no-cigar rejections motivating. They would galvanize me to get that story right back out there. They answered the question “Are you making progress?” That answer was yes. Now that they’ve become more commonplace, they leave me with more questions than answers.
I’m not trying to be a downer here, and I know I’m supposed to be the guy that laughs in the face of rejection and carries on. I’m STILL that guy, but I’m also a human writer trying to figure out how to reach the next level and the one after. In other words, I am not immune to the rejection blues. I thought I’d talk about this particular issue because it’s different than just receiving piles of form rejections. (I’ve been there, too.)
I’m not giving up, of course. I’m just thinking (and feeling) out loud, and my focus is now on figuring out this particular puzzle. When I do, there’ll be a much more positive post to follow. 🙂