Welcome to the next installment of Ranks of the Rejected, where I interview working authors and ask them to bare their literary wounds for your amusement and edification. Make sure and check out the links to these writers’ works and websites. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
Today’s victim . . . er, subject is Rose Blackthorn. I’ve worked with Rose in my role as acquisitions editor through Skull Island eXpeditions, and I’ve gone head to head with her as a writer on numerous occasions at a bi-weekly flash fiction contest out at the Shock Totem forums, where she routinely trounced me and a dozen other writers. Rose is one of those writers whose talent is so great and seemingly effortless, she makes you feel kind of worthless in comparison when you read her stuff. (Gee, thanks, Rose.) She is also a mighty 17th level Rejectomancer who commands the advanced powers Eschew Guidelines and Dispel Writer’s Block.
Here’s a bit more about Rose:
Rose Blackthorn lives in the high mountain desert with her boyfriend and two dogs, Boo and Shadow. She spends her free time writing, reading, being crafty, and photographing the surrounding wilderness.
She is a member of the HWA and her short fiction and poetry has appeared online and in print with a varied list of anthologies and magazines. Her first poetry collection Thorns, Hearts and Thistles was published in February 2015, and is available through Amazon.
More information can be found at the following links:
1. That first rejection is pretty memorable (i.e., it is burned into your cerebral cortex for all eternity). What do you remember about your first?
My first, huh? Well, that requires traveling back in time, way back into pre-history… When I first started submitting for publication, it was a novel. This was back before the internet and email, back when submitting a manuscript meant spending time at the local Xerox shop making copies to send out. Back at that time I didn’t have any friends who were writers, and the only advice I could find was gleaned from copies of the Writer’s Digest checked out from the local library. (Am I dating myself? I think I’m dating myself…) I had sent my manuscript (all 300+ pages of it) to several agents and publishers, and just waited for the offers to roll in. What I got were, as you can guess, waves of rejections. I also got a “We might be interested, if you’re willing to do some editing…” I was thrilled! So, being the naïve little newbie that I was, I forwarded my masterpiece to the ‘book doctor’ they referred me to.
*sigh* Can you see where this is going? Anyway, long story short, I forked out a lot of money for a service that should have been included with a legitimate publishing house or agency, and after all was said and done, they “changed their mind” and didn’t want it, after all. I learned a hard lesson, and good or bad, put my publishing aspirations on hold for a very long time. I didn’t stop writing, but I didn’t submit either. It wasn’t until 2009 that I started writing short stories. That’s when I began submitting again, and I’m happy to say I’ve had a lot better luck this time around! I’ve also been fortunate enough to meet (virtually) other writers, editors and publishers who have taught me so much about being a published author.
2. What do you hope to see in a rejection letter? You know, beyond the soul-crushing doubt and disappointment. What’s useful to you as a writer?
No one likes rejection. But the best kind of rejection to get, is something that gives you specific points as to why you were rejected. The “we liked your story, but it doesn’t fit” may be the absolute truth, but I usually tend to regard that as a “I don’t have time to tell you what was wrong with it”. I realize that editors are busy, and many of them simply don’t have time to write a detailed critique of an author’s submission. But as much as a rejection might sting, having a specific reason that I can look at and possibly rectify is worth more than I can say.
3. Got a favorite rejection? Funny, mean, just straight-up weird?
I don’t even have to think about this one. I received a rejection (for an anthology that I really wanted to be in) that was honestly more wonderful than some of the acceptances I’ve received! Check it out:
Unfortunately, your submission, [XXX] has not been accepted to be included in the anthology, [XXX]. I really would like to thank you, however, for your consideration to be a part of this project.
I appreciate the amount of time and work that you invested in this story and I am certain that you will be able to find a publisher for this elsewhere.
Technically you have written a nice story and I enjoyed reading it. Please know that I am not rejecting this work due to any flaw of your own ability.
Rose, I loved this story a lot. Your opening description of Shannon waking up and surfacing through the water is really beautiful – just poetic descriptions. Great idea and well-executed. You have a talent for descriptive and emotional prose.
I hate to have to pass on this. Yours is one of those stories that, if I had more room in the book, would definitely be in. I simply received a number of other stories which also held positive attributes of their own. Due to the sheer volume of submissions, I am only able to select a small amount which most closely matches the overall character of the anthology. I received about 350 submissions for this anthology. The final Table of Contents, though not yet finished, will probably number about 26 – 29 stories.
Keep writing – You have gained a fan in me, and I look forward to reading more material from you in the future.
P.S. I anticipate a great story from you in the “Ghost IS the Machine” anthology!
4. What’s the toughest part of rejection for you? Pro tips for dealing with it?
There was a time when every rejection was a cause for tears. I tend to be rather emotional, anyway. I could show you the trunk full of pin-stuck voodoo dolls… just kidding! But really, it’s not so bad any more. Occasionally one will still come along that really stings – and that’s usually when it’s one of those “bucket list” markets that you want in so bad you can taste it. Then, if they hold it for a long time, and you end up with a rejection… Well, those still suck pretty bad.
For the most part though, the best thing to do in my opinion, is just find another market and send the story back out again. If the rejection comes with some critique, you might go through and make some edits or revisions. But sometimes it just comes down to the editor – not everyone likes the same things. If one editor doesn’t like your story, the next one very well might. I know some awesome writers, and I’ve read extensively – but I don’t like everything written by the same author, and I don’t always like the things my friends like. So just take the rejection, make a note of it, and find the next place to submit.
5. Okay, tell us about your first or latest acceptance letter.
I’ve had a couple wonderful acceptances in the last month. One was from Pedestal Magazine for a poem, and it really made my day because the guest editors for this particular issue were Marge Simon and Bruce Boston. These two people are amazing writers, and well known poets. For them to accept something I’d written was one of those dancing-around-the-house-while-squealing moments that still come along from time to time.
The other was actually an acceptance for a reprint. I wrote a story for a submission call, and the story was accepted. Unfortunately, the press putting out the anthology had all kinds of issues. There was never any publicity for the book, and it was only in print for a short time. Add to that the fact that no one made any money on it, and it was just a sad deal all the way around. But I really liked that story. I sent it out to a few different places that accept reprints, but wasn’t having much luck – it’s fairly long for a short story at just over 7400 words. So I found another market and sent it out, and waited, and waited. At about four months I finally sent a query. I got a reply back shortly after that they had set the story aside to respond to me, and my query reminded them – and they wanted to accept my manuscript. So now this story will be published again, with a company who has a history of publicizing their magazine, and I’ll get a bit of a paycheck along the way. That’s always a plus!
6) Okay, plug away. Tells us about your latest project or book and why we should run out and buy it.
My latest releases include a short story “A Thing of Beauty” released September 1st in Disturbed Digest #10. This is a sort of post-apocalyptic/dark fantasy that involves mutated monsters, the struggle to survive, and the odd paths love can take.
Another short story, “Obsidian Heart,” was released June 4th in Morpheus Tales #26. This is another dark fantasy/horror involving love and its loss, but it makes me smile… evilly. Take that as you will!
My poetry collection Thorns, Hearts and Thistles was released in February of this year and is available from Amazon.
There are a few other things in the pipeline, but I don’t have finalized release dates for them. My story “Only a Matter of Time” will be included in Not Your Average Monster: A Bestiary of Horrors, coming from Bloodshot Books before the end of the year. This may be the goriest story I have written to date, so if that’s your thing, you won’t want to miss it. A novelette titled “Worthy Vessel” will be released from Privateer Press, tentatively scheduled to come out before Halloween. That’s another new thing for me; it was fun to write, but scary, too. I’m hoping fans of the Iron Kingdoms will enjoy it. I also have poetry appearing in Chiral Mad 3 from Written Backwards and the HWA Horror Poetry Showcase Volume 2.
Thanks for letting me share a little of what’s going on with me right now!
Although this blog is primarily about writing and the business of writing, it also belongs to a giant nerd, and giant nerds like nothing more than to pontificate about their favorite nerdy subjects. So, from time to time, expect to see me blathering on, very specifically, about things like medieval weapons, martial arts, and, sigh, dinosaurs.
Yep, one of my particular areas of nerd expertise is paleontology. I’ve been fascinated with dinosaurs and other prehistoric critters since I was wee tyke. So, as you might guess, the most recent entry into the Jurassic Park franchise, Jurassic World, sent me into paroxysms of nerd rage. Don’t worry; I’m not gonna bore the shit out of you with a tedious rant about dinosaurs with feathers. Instead, I’m going to be positive and talk about a few prehistoric monsters I’d like to see in a JP movie.
The five critters I’m going to talk about don’t get a lot of press, and you’ve probably never heard of most of them. The other thing to keep in mind is that none of the animals I’m going to talk about are dinosaurs. I feel justified in that decision based on the fact the JP franchise has recently introduced prehistoric critters that aren’t dinos, specifically, pterosaurs and mosasaurs. That said, the following five prehistoric animals check all the usual boxes for inclusion in a JP movie. They’re all predators, they’re all the biggest in their particular group, and they’re all really cool.
So let’s get started:
1) Sarcosuchus imperator
This one is a no-brainer for me, and it’s the only one on the list I think might have an actual shot at making it into a JP movie. Sarcosuchus is the largest crocodilian that ever lived. It’s a 40-foot, 8-ton crocodile that, no shit, probably ate dinosaurs. Let me repeat that. It fucking ate dinosaurs. Pretty cool, huh?
The other thing Sarcosuchus has going for it is it lived 112 million years ago, right in the Cretaceous period, and since the Jurassic Park franchise has a serious hard-on for the Cretaceous (not the Jurassic, oddly), ol’ Sarchy should fit right in. In all seriousness, though, crocs make for great drama. They’re some of the best ambush predators around, and, well, you can probably imagine a scene in the next JP movie (Jurassic Galaxy: The Feathering). A lone Velociraptor (Can I just call it a Utahraptor? Please?) comes to a tropical lake, bends down for a quick drink, and BAM! Eight tons of scales and teeth explode from the water, and not even the nimble raptor can avoid the jaws of death. The Sarcosuchus clamps down, pulls the raptor into the water, and both disappear, leaving only a crimson stain on the lake’s surface. Later in the movie, Chris Pratt can saddle up and ride the giant croc into battle against the evil geneticist Dr. Henry Wu and his army of cloned flying raptor piranhas.
2) Andrewsarchus mongoliensis
As I said earlier, a running theme in the JP franchise is new critters need to be the biggest and the baddest. Well, Andrewsarchus is both. The largest mammalian carnivore in the books, Andrewsarchus is big, mean, and really, really weird. Some estimates put this vaguely wolf-shaped critter at 15 feet long and nearly 2 tons. That’s like twice the size of the largest grizzly bear. On top of that, Andrewsarchus had a massive skull with jaws that could produce some of the greatest bite force of any mammal, so it could crack bone with the best of them.
Andrewsarchus hails from the Eocene period, about 40 million years ago. It was one of those times when evolution took a couple of strange turns. For example, Andrewsarchus is a contender for the largest mammalian predator of all time, but here’s the weird part, it’s only living relatives are ungulates. In fact, it’s thought Andrewsarchus had hooves. That’s right, the largest mammalian predator of all time had hooves and is related to fucking sheep. Cool, huh?
I think a giant wolf monster with hooves is just too cool to pass up, and I can easily see them in a JP movie as part of the petting zoo or something.
3) Phorusrhacos longissimus
Yeah, I know that’s a mouthful, so let me simplify it for you. You can just call this critter and its relatives by the totally metal moniker “terror birds.” What’s a terror bird? Well, take an ostrich, cross it with a giant eagle, sprinkle in a liberal dash of baddassitude, and then crank that fucker up to eleven. That’s a terror bird, and Phorusrhacos was one of the biggest. I’m talking about an 8-foot-tall, 300-pound flightless bird armed with a beak sharper than a goddamn samurai sword and talons that’d put holes in Kevlar.
One of the other things that makes terror birds really cool is how long they were around. They showed up in the early Paleocene, like 62 million years ago, right after the extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs. In fact, they were likely some of the first large predators to evolve after the dinosaurs (although, to be technical, terror birds are dinosaurs). They stuck around until as recently as a couple million years ago, which means actual human beings just missed being bird food by a few hundred thousand years.
Phorusrhacos is great for the JP franchise because it’s an actual bird, not one of those silly non-avian dinosaurs, so, you know, you could put feathers on it and not have to worry about the public actually learning something.
4) Dunkleosteus terrelli
What do you get when you cross a giant shark, a tank, and a jumbo–sized staple remover together? You get one of the most badass monsters ever to swim the oceans. Now, I know I could have hit the easy button and chosen Carcharodon megalodon, the massive 50-foot shark you’ve all likely heard about, but I’m gonna get all hipster and shit and talk about a monster that was awesome way before giant sharks were cool.
Dunkleosteus lived a long, long time ago, in the Devonian period. We’re talking like 400 million years ago, in a time where most critters lived in the sea and animals had just begun to colonize the land. Dunkloesteus was the largest member of a group of weird armored fish called placoderms, and it was designed to be a cannibal. Its massive jaws were like a pair of industrial shears, designed to cut through the armored plates of its fellows.
In my opinion, Dunkleosteus is perfect for the JP franchise. It’s huge (30 feet long and 4 tons), looks like a nightmare concocted by a coke-addled Pokémon designer, and they could make up all kinds of shit about the strength of its jaws. I mean, by the time JP is done with it, the government will be cloning them to chew through enemy submarines to get at the tasty meat filling inside.
5) Jaekelopterus rhenania
For my final choice, I’m gonna stay with aquatic horrors and go with a creature that is the largest member of a group of terrifying monsters called sea scorpions. These arthropod nightmares swam the oceans, lakes, and rivers of the world as early as the Ordovician period (460 million years ago) and as late as the Permian period (250 million years ago). That’s a span of some 200 million years, which means sea scorpions are one of the most successful organisms in the history of organisms. I mean, shit, humans have only been around for like 200 thousand years. We’re barely a blip on the geological time scale.
Sea scorpions generally look like someone crossed a lobster with a crab during a really bad acid trip. The biggest, Jaekelopterus, was over 8 feet long with pincers that extended another 3 feet or so. I’d rather face down an entire school of sharks than deal with just one of these things. A shark would at least give you a nice, clean death. One chomp, and you’re done. A sea scorpion would tear you into bite-sized nuggets, giving you the distinct pleasure of drowning and getting eaten alive.
Jaekelopterus and the rest of the sea scorpions would fit right into JP. They could serve the little ones up like lobsters in the overpriced park restaurants, and then feed irritating secondary characters to the big ones to up the stakes and let all the moviegoers know shit just got real.
Anyway, thanks for taking a trip with me down Nerdery Lane. If you share my enthusiasm for weird prehistoric critters, tell me about one of your favorites in the comments.
Ah, the personal rejection letter, that faint beacon of hope in the black abyss of form rejection hell. The personal rejection letter includes a small note from the editor, in his or her own words, that is positive or encouraging. It’s more sincere than a form rejection, and usually indicates the editor believes your story had some merit. I know, it’s still a rejection, but it is a sign you’re on the right track. Personal rejections are much rarer than form rejections, but I’ve found the more I publish the more of them I get. Don’t get it twisted, though; I’m still getting my fair share of form rejections.
Let’s look at an example of the personal rejection from my own (small) collection.
Hi Aeryn, and thanks for the chance to read your work, we really appreciate it.
Unfortunately, ‘XXX’ is not quite what we are looking for at the moment, but you should certainly keep passing it around. It’s a solid little karmic-horror story and was a fun read.
Thanks again, and I hope you find a good home for your story!
This is an example of the personal rejection in its simplest form. In fact, you’ll likely recognize many elements of the form rejection here. The difference is the editor took the time to insert something positive about the work in his own words, and that casts a new light on some of the common rejection lingo.
The line “…not quite what we are looking for at the moment” is one I largely ignore in a form rejection, but I’ll give it more consideration in a personal rejection. Hell, I might even take it at face value. Maybe my story wasn’t a good fit for the issue they’re putting together or even the magazine as a whole but was good enough to warrant a personal response. This is good information because it tells me what not to send this publisher, so when I resubmit, I can zero in on what they do want.
The second standard rejection line in this letter, “I hope you find a good home for your story,” also feels a bit more genuine in light of the editor’s personal comments. He said I should “keep passing it around,” and, well, I’m gonna, and I’ll feel a tiny bit more confident when I do.
The biggest positive thing to take away from this letter is pretty obvious. The editor said something nice about my story. It’s not gushing praise or anything, but it’s enough to keep me from revising the story before I send it out again. This editor thought it was “solid,” the next might think it’s good (unlikely) or even great (really unlikely).
Okay, we’ve talked about the good stuff, but let’s play devil’s advocate. First, there’s a very important element missing. The editor did not ask me to send more work. That’s a bit of a red flag for me, as it’s been present in most of the personal rejections I’ve received. The editor might have felt it was implied by the other things he said, but then again, he might not have, which leads me to my second point. This really does feel like a form letter with the exception of a sentence and a half. There are some publishers that send a personal note with every rejection—kind of an always find something nice to say philosophy. In a sense, they don’t have a true form letter. So is this just a nicer version of a form rejection? Is the editor simply letting me down easy by saying something nice about my story? It’s possible. I’ll never know.
Where to go from here? I think it’s important to stay positive, especially when you don’t have any strong evidence pointing to the negative. So, if you were to receive a letter like this, I think you should take it at the editor’s word. The editor did like the story. He does believe I should keep sending it around. I should take this as a sign to resubmit to this publication with a different story.
Have you received a personal rejection lately? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
Someone recently asked me to write a post about recovering from a particularly vicious rejection. I’m not talking about getting a vanilla form rejection or gentle constructive criticism from an editor. I’m talking about a severe literary beating, the kind of comment or review that cuts your guts out and makes it difficult to write a single word for weeks.
Generally, these rejections are memorable because they come early in your career, before you’ve developed the thickened skin that shields a veteran rejectomancer. The most brutal rejection I remember was a simple comment from another writer, but it was the first piece of true and honest criticism I had ever received on my work. It went something like this.
About twenty years ago, my primary writing focus was poetry. I wrote tons of the dark, angsty crap you write in your late teens and early twenties. I had poems about vampires and werewolves and demons and revelatory shit like how it wasn’t Satan’s fault he was kicked out of heaven because god is an asshole. You know, incredibly hard-hitting, original stuff.
I started going to open mike poetry readings in my home town of Modesto, California to read my stuff aloud. I did that for a couple years, and I got to the point where I was running open mike nights at the Barnes & Noble where I worked. When I was transferred to the Redding B&N, I took my poetry show on the road with me, and again when I was transferred to San Diego.
Surprisingly, those open mike nights were very popular, and it wasn’t unusual for fifty people to show up and read their stuff. My poetry was very well received in Modesto and Redding, small towns that maybe didn’t know better, but when I moved to the big city, where real, honest-to-god writers lived, I got a bit of a rude awakening.
I can remember the first couple of open mike nights in San Diego. They weren’t nearly as well attended as those in Modesto and Redding (there’s actually shit to do in San Diego), but the people that did show up were really good. After that first night, I had inklings I was maybe out of my league. My best poems, the epic ones about the emotional pain of lycanthropy or something, didn’t get anything more than polite applause. No one came up to me after the show and told me how much they liked my work. I mean, what the fuck was going on here?
But the death blow was yet to fall. You see, there was another writer working at Barnes & Noble alongside me, a real writer who had published his work, both fiction and poetry, in some fairly prestigious literary magazines. This guy was good. He never came to the open mike events because he usually worked those nights, and I made the colossally stupid mistake of asking him if he’d heard me read my poetry.
He said, “Yep.”
I doubled down on stupid and asked him, “Well, what did you think?”
I don’t remember exactly what he said (that kind of trauma is hard to recall clearly), but I remember the word “amateurish” was used more than once, and he identified a laundry list of literary sins in my poetry. To that point, I had never had my work reviewed by someone who a) actually knew what the fuck they were talking about and b) didn’t give two shits if I got the hurt feels afterward.
To say I was crushed is like saying my wife’s staunchly conservative grandfather has a few problems with Barack Obama. I was fucking devastated. I had been built up to believe my work was great by folks who meant well but just didn’t have the literary chops to properly review it. Now don’t get me wrong, this coworker wasn’t trying to be an asshole—I asked him for his opinion—and everything he said was spot on. He just had no idea that I was small-city rube who’d never had any real objective criticism. He actually did say some good things about my work, too. I just can’t recall a single one of them.
I couldn’t write a thing for a month after that. Every time I picked up the pen and tried to start a new poem, I felt nauseous, like I needed to begin by titling each piece “Amateurish.” It took me that month to really think about what this guy had said, and in the end, I had to come to grips with the fact that my work . . . well, needed work. I also realized this guy didn’t say I was hopeless, and, hey, there were people who did like what I was writing.
I assimilated his critique—thinking back, it was actually pretty cool of him to break it all down for me like that—and I started revising. My work improved, and I began to really understand the things he’d told me. Then I went in search of more advice. During this time (the practically antediluvian year of 1998), the Internet wasn’t what it is today, so I got actual physical books on writing and read them cover to cover. All of this led to me summoning up the courage to start submitting my poetry to magazines (I’d been too afraid to do that previously). And what do you know? I got a couple published.
My poetry writing days are long behind me, but that first honest critique of my work sticks with me, both the pain it caused me and the good things I learned from it. So here are a couple of things to keep in mind when you get one of those eviscerating reviews or comments:
I hope my little tale of woe has held your interest. Maybe you even found a tiny piece of useful advice in the whole rambling mess.
Got a sad rejection story of your own? Let’s group hug it out in the comments.
Welcome to the first installment of Ranks of the Rejected, where I interview working authors and ask them to bare their literary wounds to the cruel, cruel world for your amusement and edification. Since these authors are putting their rejection out there for you to gawk at, be a pal, check out their books, blogs, and websites—they’re all definitely worth a look.
First up is Orrin Grey, an accomplished author of spine-tingling horror and the macabre. I’ve worked with Orrin a number of times in my previous role as acquisitions editor at Skull Island eXpeditions, where he wrote an excellent novella called Mutagenesis and numerous short stories. He’s a consummate pro, a hell of a writer, and a 13th level Rejectomancer who has unlocked the mystical abilities Power Word: Revise and Enthrall Editor. Here’s a bit more about Orrin:
Orrin Grey is a writer, editor, amateur film scholar, and monster expert who was born on the night before Halloween. His stories of monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, and been gathered into two collections, Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings (out now) and Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts (due out in October from Word Horde). He has also co-edited Fungi, an anthology of weird fungal stories, with Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and he occasionally writes licensed fiction and other odds-and-ends for Privateer Press. You can visit him at orringrey.com or throw money at his Patreon to get behind-the-scenes access to his creative process, such as it is.
1. That first rejection letter is pretty memorable (i.e., it is burned into your cerebral cortex for all eternity). Tell us what you remember about your first.
I have to admit, I don’t think I actually do remember my first rejection letter. It was longer ago than I may care to admit, and there have been an awful lot of them since. From back in the days when we actually sent out physical submissions via snail mail and got actual rejection letters on actual pieces of paper, I kept all my rejections, and the earliest one I could find was a form letter from Weird Tales back in 2003, which doesn’t really stick in my memory, but certainly tells you where my first impulses were when it came to where I wanted to be published. I’ve still never been published in Weird Tales, except for an interview I did with them one time.
2. What do you hope to see in a rejection letter? You know, beyond the soul-crushing doubt and disappointment. What’s useful to you as a writer?
Honestly, if I’m getting a non-form letter, it’s nice when they let me know what didn’t work. Sometimes it really is a case of “this just didn’t fit our needs,” but other times it may be something more specific. I recently got a rejection letter where the editor told me that he liked the second half of the story more than the first. I took another look at it, and, what do you know, I liked the second half more, too, so I ended up rewriting it and pretty much cutting the first half out entirely, and I think it’s a better story for it. That said, my favorite thing I have ever seen a rejection letter do is to go ahead and put “REJECTION” right in the subject line of the email, just like you often have to put “SUBMISSION” in front of your name or the title of the story or whatever. That lets you know what you’re in for as soon as you see it pop up in your inbox and spares you both that moment of heart-in-your-throat hope and that crushing moment of realization after you read the first sentence or so and get to the dreaded “we are unable to publish.”
3. Got a favorite rejection? Funny, mean, just straight-up weird?
I don’t know that I remember a single, specific favorite rejection, either, but I know where I most enjoyed getting rejections from. Back in the day, when I was first getting started in this business, I distinctly remember a former editor at Clarkesworld. Even then, Clarkesworld paid great rates and had an incredibly quick turnaround time, so probably half the stuff I wrote went there before it got sent anyplace else. This editor’s rejections were always personal, vicious, specific, and extensive. I’d frequently get several paragraphs back from just about anything I sent him, often within a day or two of sending it out. There was a joke among some of my writing friends that you didn’t need a workshop or a writing group when you could just send your story to Clarkesworld and get it critiqued for free.
4. What’s the toughest part of rejection for you? Pro tips for dealing with it?
I think it might vary a bit from story to story and rejection to rejection, but I think the thing that helped me the most in dealing with rejections was actually getting to work on the other side a little bit. When I was co-editing Fungi with Silvia Moreno-Garcia, I got to see first-hand how the acceptance/rejection process works from the editorial end, and I learned valuable stuff like that you really do get way more great stories than you can possibly use, and often that tired old phrase from the form letters that “it doesn’t match our needs at this time” is absolutely true. Sometimes you have to reject a really great story because it doesn’t fit into the anthology as it’s shaping up, because it’s too similar to a story that you already bought, and so on. That made it easier to take any rejections I get in stride, and to not take them personally.
5. Okay, tell us about your first or your most recent acceptance letter?
My first acceptance letter I do remember. It was for a tiny (both literally and figuratively) little magazine called Thirteen Stories, and my story appeared in what turned out to be that publication’s final issue, where I shared a table of contents with some other up-and-coming writers of the genre, including a really good story by Gary Fry. Don’t bother looking up my story from there, though. It’s really better off forgotten.
Okay, you’ve got a story ready to submit. Now where do you submit it? Well, first, sign up for a Duotrope account (see my post about that here), then when you find an appealing market, the very first thing you should look for is the “What We Want” section in the submission guidelines. This is the place where the publication you’ve chosen hopefully tells you exactly what kinds of stories they publish.
In my opinion, your targeting needs to be pretty precise when submitting to genre markets. I know it sounds easy. If you write horror, look for markets that publish horror. Duh. But hold up there; if you’re writing King-esque average-Joe-in-a-supernatural-situation horror and you submit your work to bizarro-Lovecraftian-atmospheric horror magazine, you don’t stand much of a chance of getting published. So read the What We Wants carefully.
The What We Want section is the most basic and elementary part of the submission guidelines, and the penalty for FTFFD (failure to follow fucking directions) or SSD (special snowflake disorder) is severe.
Rejectomancy points deducted for FTFFD or SSD: -15 (What’s this?)
Okay, let’s look at a What We Want section you might see in a typical genre mag:
[XXX] is seeking original science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories, regardless of sub-genre.
This is pretty straightforward. This magazine tells us which genres they publish, and they’re not picky about subgenres. This big spread of genres is pretty common in submission guidelines, even if the publication in question primarily publishers only one of them. I think some publishers like to keep their What We Wants vague because they don’t want to pass up a good story if it’s not in their primary genre. That said, you’ll notice the genres this magazine publishes are not listed in alphabetical order. Does that mean anything? It could. If I were to take a guess, I’ll bet these genres are listed in order of preference, so as a horror writer, I might be a little hesitant to send a story here unless it was a mash up of sci-fi and horror or fantasy and horror.
Here’s another, more detailed What We Want that I’ll break up in pieces so we can completely overanalyze it:
We want horror, dark speculative fiction and noir. No specific sub-genres or themes.
This one is a bit more targeted, and what they’re looking for is more tightly focused than the first magazine. The term “dark speculative fiction” actually tells you a lot, in my opinion. They’re not saying don’t submit fantasy or sci-fi, or hell, even a western, they’re just saying it has to have a dark (horror) element. Think Twilight Zone, and I believe you’ll be on the right track.
The next line from the guidelines is:
Avoid excessive gore and sexuality unless it is essential to the story.
You’re going to see this line a lot in one form or another. Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell you much because “excessive” is entirely subjective. For example, I don’t think the gore in Django Unchained is excessive, and I think it is essential to the story. I know plenty of folks who wholeheartedly disagree on both counts. Who’s right? This is a case where you should definitely check out a sample story or two and try and figure out the publication’s tolerance levels.
Don’t get me wrong, I get why these “no excessive gore and language” lines appear in submission guidelines. I can only imagine the crazy, twisted shit some of these poor editors have to slog through because the author thinks buckets of gore and the use of the word “fuck” every six words is edgy. It’s not; it’s boring and trite. That said, I don’t know if the “no excessive” line in the submission guidelines is going to stop a writer for submitting a story like that. Maybe it weeds out a few. At the very least, it gives an editor an ironclad excuse for shit-canning a story without having to suffer through the whole thing.
Okay, now for the easy part, the last line is:
We are not accepting vampire or zombie stories at this time.
Guess what this means? Do not send them a vampire or zombie story. Period. End of discussion. Do not fall prey to SSD and think for a hot second your vampire/zombie story is so fantastic they’ll publish it anyway. Here’s what’s going to happen. The editor will start reading your story, figure out it’s a vampire or zombie story in the first two paragraphs, stop reading, curse your name, and fire off a form rejection. What’s worse, he or she might remember your the next time you submit.
In my experience, the reason magazines put these restrictions in their guidelines—for horror writers, the no vampire/zombies thing is super common—is because a) they’ve gotten a metric fuck ton of the restricted story already, and b) most of them are terrible. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a vampire or a zombie story, it’s just that with all common tropes, most of the good ideas have been done, and it takes something really unique to stand out. There are legions of would-be Stephanie Millers and Robert Kirkmans just spinning out reams of the same vampire romance tale or zombie apocalypse story. How’d you like to be the editor that has to read through piles and piles of that stuff? You wouldn’t, and you’d add something in your guidelines to ensure you don’t receive any more of them.
To sum up, read the What We Want part of the guidelines carefully, and try and match your story to the publication’s preferred genres and subgenres as closely as you can. You’ll increase your chances of getting published, and you won’t lose those precious rejectomancy experience points.
Up next, Submission Protocol: Length-Wise.
I got a rejection letter today. (Send cards and flowers to my home address.) It was the sixth rejection this particular story has received in its current incarnation. After five or so rejections, you can’t help but ask yourself, “Should I retire this one?”
It’s an understandable question. Repeated rejection is no fun, and it can certainly make you wonder if one of your darlings isn’t in dire need of killing. That said, I think you have to look a little deeper before you pull the plug on a story. Here are two anecdotal examples from my own experience, and, as they are from my own experience, you may consider them incontrovertible proof of whatever point it is I am about to make.
I published a story a while back that had received thirteen rejections before it was accepted. It had received thirteen form rejections. Not nice little personal notes expressing how much the editor enjoyed the story but it wasn’t a good fit or informative personal rejections that told me what was wrong with the story. Nope, just piles of “not for us” and “I’m going to pass this time” and “best of luck placing this elsewhere.” Hell, the story didn’t even get a “send us more work” rejection. In other words, it looked pretty fucking bleak.
The thing was, I really liked this story. It was quirky and weird and unlike most of the stories I had written. I had faith in this story. Now, that’s not always a good thing, and that kind of blind confidence in the face of repeated rejection can be an early symptom of SSD (special snowflake disorder). Still, I had a gut feeling the story was a good one, so I ignored my baker’s dozen of previous rejections and sent it out again, this time to a magazine that tended to publish horror on the quirky side.
Bam! Acceptance letter. They loved it. On top of that, it was my first publication with a webzine that I’ve since published with multiple times. They apparently dig my style (poor fools), and I definitely dig them for digging it.
So, what happened there? Why did that story get thirteen form rejections before it found a home? In this case, I think it was an example of poor submission targeting. I was sending the story to publications looking for classic horror tales, and this story absolutely wasn’t that. When I wised up and sent the story to a publication actually looking for the weirder side of horror, I hit pay dirt.
Okay, now the second example, the story that was rejected today. This one is a bit different. It’s been getting rejected, but it’s getting personal rejections and invitations to send more work, only one straight-up form rejection (today). What does that pattern tell me? The glass-half-full guy might say it’s getting close and just hasn’t found the right home yet. Might be some truth there. I think a large part of getting published is actually finding an editor that likes your work. On the other hand, the glass-half-empty guy might say it’s getting close but not landing because it’s a good example of my style but a very flawed story. In other words, revise or retire.
So do I continue to send the story out in its present form? Yeah, I think so. There’s been enough positive reinforcement that I’m going to listen to the glass-half-full guy. This might be just a matter of matching up the story with the right editor and publication. I could be very wrong—the story might really just suck—and there may be another half dozen rejections in my future, but at this point, I feel confident enough about the story to keep firing it off.
What is the take away from my two rambling examples? I think it’s the primary thrust of this blog: rejection, although an unavoidable part of the writer’s life, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re failing. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes you absolutely do need to retire a story or revise it heavily, but ask yourself a few questions before you do. Are you sending it to the right markets? Are you getting any positive responses? The answers to these questions might suggest you do need give this one a rest, or, maybe, that you need to hitch up your britches and fire off that story one more time.
If you’re a genre writer and you’re going to start sending you stories out into the cold, cruel world, your first step should be to sign up for a subscription at Duotrope (www.duotrope.com). What is Duotrope? Why it’s only the handiest, dandiest resource for genre authors on the whole goddamn internet. The front page of Duotrope describes itself thusly:
Duotrope is an established, award-winning writers’ resource, and we’re here to help you spend less time submitting so you can focus on writing. Whether you’re an experienced writer or just getting started… whether your creative leanings are literary or genre, factual or poetic… our listings cover the entire spectrum.
Basically, Duotrope is a search engine for genre markets. You can input search data based on the content of your story (genre, length, pay scale, etc.), and it’ll give you a list of markets that match your criteria. What’s better, it’ll give you some solid info on those markets, like their acceptance/rejection ratios, how long they take to respond to submissions, and if they tend to send personal rejections over form rejections.
They’ve also got a handy submission tracker that allows you to keep track of all your pieces, where you’ve submitted them, if they were rejected or accepted, and so on. It’s really helpful, and it’ll keep you from doing embarrassing, dumbass things like sending a story to a market that’s already rejected it, which I’ve very nearly done. Duotrope saved my ass.
The information they gather on various markets largely relies on authors correctly reporting their submission activity. So if you do use Duotrope, report everything. Report the submissions, report the acceptances, and when you get a rejection letter, fight through the tears and report that too.
A subscription to the site costs you the princely sum of $5.00 a month. Yes, there are other websites that do basically the same thing for free, but, in my opinion, they don’t do it as well. So pony up your five bucks and get the subscription.
Know about another invaluable writer resource? Tell me about it in the comments.
This short collection of flash fiction is published by Skull Island eXpeditions and is part of the steam & sorcery Iron Kingdoms setting, which includes the award-winning games WARMACHINE and HORDES. My story, “Uncommon Allies,” can be found within. It’s a touching tale of violent frog men and savage trollkin putting aside their differences to violently savage someone else, together.
The collection can be had for the paltry sum of .99 cents. Buy it here:
Welcome to the next installment of Rejection Letter Rundown. Today, I’m covering that first baby step forward on the path of rejectomancy, the improved form rejection. If you’d like to catch up and read the first post in this series, click here.
At first glance, the improved form rejection might look like the common form rejection, but it carries an important distinction—it says something other than no. It’s still a no—don’t make any mistake about that—but hidden within this rejection is the first sign you might be making progress with this particular publisher.
Here’s one of mine:
Many thanks for sending “XXX”, but I’m sorry to say that we don’t think it’s quite right for [our publication]. We wish you luck placing it elsewhere, and hope that you’ll send us something new soon.
You’ll notice this letter has many of the same components as the common form rejection. It says the publisher received and read my submission, they’re not going to publish it, and it has the very common nicety of wishing me luck placing it elsewhere. The distinction between the common form rejection and the improved form rejection is the second part of the last sentence, “…and we hope you’ll send us something new soon.”
There is some debate on the improved form rejection, and there are writers who believe the line “…send us something new” in the letter above is just as sincere as the one right before it, “We wish you luck placing it elsewhere.” They’re both just the garden variety niceties you find in the common form rejection. There’s likely some truth in this, and I have no doubt some publishers use this model.
On the other hand, I’ve heard there are publications that have multiple tiers of form rejections. A series of letters that, while still form rejections, offers encouragement or a sincere invitation to submit again. The first tier is the common form rejection. The second form letter (and some even have a third or fourth) is sent to authors whose work shows some promise. Maybe not enough promise to warrant a personal rejection letter (we’ll cover those later), but enough to say, “We’re not entirely opposed to reading another one of your stories.”
So here’s the big question: Is the improved form rejection more often just a common form rejection in disguise? Sometimes, yes, but I’d rather err on the positive side of this thing. Here’s why. I was an editor for a long time, and without exception, I never sent a request, of any kind, to an author I didn’t want he or she to complete. I just didn’t have the time look at emails and stories from authors whose work doesn’t fit the style or tone I wanted. I like to think I’m not the only editor that feels that way.
My reason for believing the improved form rejection indicates you’re making progress comes from my own experience. This is anecdotal as fuck, but, hey, it’s my blog, and around here anecdotal is ironclad proof. I’ve sent a story to a publisher, got the common form rejection, sent another and got the improved form rejection, sent another and got the improved form rejection (verbatim) again, until, finally, after two more improved form rejections, I got a personal rejection that said, “Hey , dumbass, stop sending us your shitty stories.” Kidding! Nah, the editor took the time to tell me he liked my work, but I was just missing the mark, and he offered some helpful advice on how I might improve. I’ve yet to submit again to that particular publisher—I’m thinking very carefully about what I should send—but I certainly felt encouraged by the progress I made, moving up through the various form letters to the pinnacle of rejection, the informative personal rejection (we’ll cover that one eventually).
Bottom line, if an editor requests that you send more work, even in a form letter, they probably mean it. So, go ahead, reload, and fire off another piece. Keep in mind, though, if you don’t progress to a personal rejection, or, even better, an acceptance, or you stop getting the improved form rejection and start getting the common form rejection again, it might be time to give this particular publisher a rest and send your work somewhere else.