We’ve all heard it before. “You know (insert best-selling book title) by (insert best-selling author’s name) was rejected twenty times before someone took a gamble on it, and look how that ended up.”
This is the mantra for the aspiring author who keeps telling themselves that they’re sitting on an absolute winner of a story. If only someone would take a chance on them.
But the chances are, if you are said aspiring author, you are gonna get some rejections along your magical literary journey. But how do you deal with them? Do you scream at your computer screen as you read that rejection email?
“Thanks for submitting, but it’s not right for us at this time. Good luck with your future writing career.”
“Yeah, whatever, I hope your publishing company or website goes bust, you narrow-minded, incompetent, dunno-what-you’re-talking-about moron.”
Not that I’ve ever thought or said that, ahem.
But once that initial disappointment has vanished, and it does so very quickly in my experience, you pick yourself up and move on to the next one. Maybe the next editor won’t be a talentless idiot (not that this bothers me, you understand).
I’ve been writing short horror stories for around five or six years. When I first started out they were just a poor man’s Lovecraft in both style and substance. And back then, most responses from webzine editors were pretty standard. And by standard, I mean standard rejections.
And these, I find, are the most aggravating.
I know and appreciate that these editors must be extremely busy reading story after story from amateurs with a computer and a few paperbacks, but it can be a little annoying when you don’t get any constructive criticism back from them. Even if it’s just a simple, “I liked the feel of it, but it’s not what we’re looking for.” Even that would be something. Sometimes you get the feeling they didn’t read it from the lack of feedback (although I’m sure they did, of course). And I’m not moaning about this, it’s the way things are.
Then after a while I got my first acceptance! “Oh yeah, this is the start of my whole career, look out, World!” Well, not exactly. The story was OK, more of a moody piece of flash fiction, but it was progress! The editor was very helpful and changed a couple of bits here and there before publishing it, but I was off and running! This editor also offered a couple of pointers on my Bio, as well as steering me in the direction of Duotrope. If you haven’t heard of this website, it’s a great place to find massive lists of sites accepting stories and the sorts of things they’re after. It also helps you to log what you’ve sent where, which is handy. I find it much easier to keep track of than keeping notes in my journal, the one made from human skin.
After submitting more and more stories, not only did I begin to see patterns in the rejections (for example one of the stories was rather shite and I sort of knew this going in but after a number of ‘no thanks’s’ I scrapped it. It’s still on the hard drive, one day I’ll make it awesome!), but the news didn’t seem as heartbreaking. I was getting used to it, almost expecting it. My shoulders were growing broader by the day.
I also became a lot more accomplished at sending the appropriate email along with the story. I began to write them with a lot more confidence. “Yes, I am a writer, this is my latest story,” as opposed to “I don’t know if I’m any good or not, but please give me a chance. Pleeeeaase.” OK, I didn’t sound that desperate but you get the point.
Cut forward a few years and I was still getting the rejections all right, but the acceptances were creeping up, slow and steady. I knew that my writing was getting better, I was beginning to find my own voice, and this helped, obviously. But I do believe that the determination to just keep on going was the major factor in it. Surely that was what made the writing better. It is easy to think, after that first, second, or third story written is constantly rejected, that you’re no good and should try something else like, I dunno, origami or some shit. Not that you shouldn’t think like that, of course.
But after a while, when I’d send off a story and it got accepted, my self-deprecating side would stop and say, ‘They’ve accepted this? Does this website not print very good stories then? Why are they accepting this one? It must be pretty crappy story.” But then the other side of my mind would kick in, asking whether I should have sent this story to another site, one with so-called ‘higher standards’. If this website has accepted it, should I not have aimed higher?
That sounds terrible, I know, and I’m not knocking any of the sites who have published one of my stories. I am eternally grateful for the opportunity and still do check in and read some of their new stories on offer there.
There have also been times when I’ve written a story and decided not to send it to the place that has rejected me in the past, just in case they do it again. There’s a kind of fear there and I tell myself “best to play it safe.”
And although this may seem like a cowardly way to work, I do believe that this is good advice, in a strange sort of way. The more you write, the better at it you’ll become. I’ve read that a hundred times, and it’s so true. So sending off your early writings to places that, say specialise in new writers and are a little more forgiving with amateurish prose and plots, is the way to go whilst you are perfecting your craft. If you do this for years then eventually you’ll be on your way to appearing in that magazine you’ve been a fan of for ages.
Playing the long game, sort of.
Think of it like a young journalist, one with tons of potential but no experience. They take that job with the local paper that caters for stories about lost cats and delays on the buses. If they do their job well then in five or ten years they’ll be there covering that big story about a rigged election, or an environmental disaster, or the first man on Mars, or whatever.
So rejection is a good thing, embrace that savage beast. Tell it that it won’t defeat you. Hell, grab it by the throat and slap its big ugly face a few times. One day when you’re being interviewed on that primetime show you can regale them about the time you were rejected by that now defunct magazine. The interviewer will be shocked and laugh, along with you, at how they must have been narrow-minded, incompetent, dunno-what-you’re-talking-about morons.
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