Rejection musings

As a writer, an editor and a publisher, you really get to see the rejection process from all the angles. I’m not sure it makes you wiser about the whole rejection situation but, at least for me, it doesn’t make me worry about my work not being good enough when one of my stories is rejected.

Today’s post was prompted by Harry Markov, writing in his blog about a rejection, in which he said:

Even if it doesn’t elicit tears, the rejection sends the message ‘you are not there, yet’ and nobody wants to hear that. After all, we are all special snowflakes.

I suppose I agree with the special snowflakes bit…but I have trouble agreeing with the comment of ‘you are not there yet’. This is because I am aware that your story may well have been rejected for several reasons, and many of them not involving the concept that you’re not there yet.

Maybe you have sent your short story to a themed anthology, and even though you have followed the guidelines perfectly, the story jars with the others in the anthology (this is a reason why I have always struggled with anthologies that accept stories before the deadline date, as how can you, as an editor, know how the book is going to look until you receive all the submissions?) and this means that no matter how good the story is, it’s not going to make it.

Two examples of this over at Morrigan Books, are: a story that was easily one of my favourite submissions for our The Phantom Queen Awakes anthology, from an author whose work I adore. Her story really didn’t gel with those already in the book and we were forced to reject it. The fact that I have asked if I can have the story as a new story for a collection we will be publishing is testament to the quality. In no way was this a ‘you are not there yet’.

The second was a sub for Voices, our hotel anthology. Both Amanda Pillar and I liked the story but felt it was lighter in tone than the others in the book and rejected it. That story will feature in an anthology, entitled ‘The Mammoth Book of Best British Crime‘ and I can understand why. Great story, didn’t suit Voices.

These are decisions made from an editor’s perspective but what of the publisher? What does he/she reject and why?

Easier decision here as it all comes down to sales and marketing and the industry as a whole. Well, that bit is simple, the getting all that right is another matter…

Anyway, it may be that this is just not the time for another zombie novel, much as you think it is prime time, and even though your zombie novel is brilliant, it’s not now it should be published. The argument for there always being a place for good quality fiction is sound but at the end of the day the publisher is not OK about going out of business to prove that point (I suppose given this year’s disappearance of several indie presses, this can be argued too).

For good or ill, this is how I see it when my beloved story/poem/novel is rejected. It wasn’t the right time, it didn’t fit the anthology, etc. This is a sound way to deal with form rejections, as if the publisher hasn’t deemed that the stories deserve a critical analysis then how can you know why they are being rejected?

If they tell you why it is and they inform you that ‘you are not there yet’, then send it off somewhere else and when it’s accepted, you can hope they see your story on another website/magazine/anthology!

Or you could see it as a personal rejection, be all maudlin about it and lose valuable writing time…

It’s basically up to you isn’t it?

About Mark S. Deniz

English teacher, writer, editor, publisher, reviewer and blogger. Founder of publishing company, Morrigan Books and imprint, Gilgamesh Press and editor-in-chief for review site, Beyond Fiction. Also cycles, plays floorball, listens to lots and lots of music, reads a ton of books and tries to fit in some TV, film and writing too. View all posts by Mark S. Deniz

26 responses to “Rejection musings

  • RJ

    ‘The Dust, The Dry Heat…etc.’ had been rejected left right and centre before you picked it up.

  • pattyjansen

    I think it very much depends on what stage in your development as writer you’re at. I think that if you get nothing but straight form rejections over a large number of submissions, it’s reasonably safe to conclude that you need to work on your craft. But when you start getting maybes and editors hold your stories for a long time, then you know you’re at a level where no doesn’t necessarily mean that a story is no good.

    That said, when you’re developing, you have no idea where you’re at, craft-wise, because you have no benchmarks to measure yourself against (lacking much in the way of previous sales), so you can interpret a rejection either way. I tend to think that it’s dangerous to veer towards the extremes of the spectrum. A rejection might mean the story has a flaw. It might also mean the story didn’t fit. Send the story somewhere else. Rinse, repeat. If, after three to four submissions, you still have no positive noises about the story, you may assume that the story may need fixing. Or you could just try fixing it and see if a changed story elicits a better response.

    I don’t think it’s black or white.

    • Mark Deniz

      Yes, something I didn’t expand on there was the difference between a published writer and one who has been sending work off without acceptance for some time.

      And yes, I agree, it’s difficult ground but rinse and repeat is a good mantra!

      • pattyjansen

        The other thing about not having published at semipro+ level before is that you often have no idea where your work fits, and which editors may like it. You try to read, but knowledge of markets (and editors) is something built up over a long time. Basically, you don’t yet know where your work belongs and how to gauge whether it might belong, and you don’t have a track record with each magazine/editor that tells you that they might just like your work.

        Most established writers tend to send work off to certain markets, but it has taken them a lot of rejections to find out which those markets are.

      • Mark Deniz

        And how well do you know those editors and their preferences/dislikes etc.? I remember reading about Jay Lake getting a rejection the other week and I was sat thinking “But that’s Jay Lake, how does that happen?”

        That knowledge of markets is nigh on impossible, as the second you think you have it you can guarantee the rug will be pulled. It’s these kinds of variables that make it tough for the editors and publishers too, as they also get rejected: the editors by the publishers and the publishers by the paying public.

      • pattyjansen

        The knowledge wouldn’t be absolute, ever, but you have a much better idea than you did when you first started out.

      • Mark Deniz

        Yes, very true. It’s basically like the whole writing process itself. We’re pretty much flailing about in the beginning, then we find our feet and start writing better stuff, then we let other writers read our stuff and comment *gasp* and then we start sending our work out there.

        Over time we find our ‘voice’ and then editors and publishers get a feel for that voice.

        It’s very scary but very exciting too!

  • Andrew McKiernan

    A story I wrote specifically for Voices missed out too; and I’m not in any way complaining here, just trying to support what you say in the post. The story was culled from the final short list because some of the events portrayed didn’t fit with other stories already selected for Voices.

    That story went on to be accepted by the very next place I sent it and was then shortlisted for both Aurealis and Australian Shadows Awards as well as reaching the Preliminary Ballot for the Bram Stoker Award.

    • Mark Deniz

      Yes, another cracking story too. We debated over that one for quite a bit before rejecting it. And you’ve reminded me of another for Voices too, penned by David Conyers, which I loved but which we agreed didn’t work with the book. I think that went on to bright things too!

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  • R. Scott McCoy

    One reason that you touched on, is market research. Many writers send their work out with no knowledge of the markets they are submitting to. I love Duotrope. One of the things that is tracked is the % of personal responses. If you receive a form rejection from a site that only gives out .0012% personal rejections, then you shouldn’t be surprised that you received a form rejections. Also, sites with less than 1% acceptance rates are probably not the markets a developing writer should target.

    I’ve heard new writers say that they alway target the pro markets first. After all, why settle from the outset? I’ll tell you why. Because there are precious few pro markets and the majority of them take pro writers for all or at least most of their slots. Also, the acceptance %’s are the lowest and the waiting times usually the longest.

    Writing is hard. A new writer needs some feedback, sure, but that new writer also needs an acceptance to raise moral and keep them writing. I’m not saying you should find a free zine with a 90% acceptance ratio just to make yourself feel better, but if you start off at the pro markets when you have never received an acceptance, it could take you 2-3 years to work your way down to a semi pro market that loves your story, or cares enough to give you the feedback you need as a new writer. My 2 cents as a writer, editor and publisher.

    • pattyjansen

      For this reason, I used the tactic to not send anything to a pro market until I could sell something to a semipro market. You need a bit of a boost in confidence every now and then. People say that you should start submitting at the very top. That is true for a writer who has sold previously, but for a writer who hasn’t, it’s probably better to start somewhere in the middle. Words for a new story are cheap, confidence isn’t.

      • Mark Deniz

        And it was only recently I was talking to someone about Jeff Vandemeer’s advice of the ‘top down’ method of submitting, which was to submit to the pro markets first, as chances of rejection are higher but response times are usually faster.

        I think all the ideas have merit and, dare I say it, flaws and it depends a lot on your confidence, which actually has nothing to do with writing…

  • Mark

    I find I deal with rejection in two ways, depending on the tale in question. If I’ve just written something on spec and then tried to find a market, it pains me to get it rejected but I’m much more pragmatic. If I write something specifically for a market/anthology/whatever and that gets rejected, it really does feel like the end of the world for a while.

    • Mark Deniz

      See, here’s a very interesting point because there is a world of difference in these two. I mean if you’re sending something off and you hope it gets published (as we all do) then that’s one thing.

      If, however, you’ve seen the advert for that Cromwellian crime anthology[1], where all the stories have to feature Cromwell in some way and it’s going to be published by a publishing company you admire, then you are going to be a bit miffed when it is isn’t accepted. Not only because you wrote it specifically for that but also because you now have a more difficult story to sell somewhere else…

      [1]Of course I have an idea forming now…

  • kvtaylor

    It is difficult at first not to take rejections personally, I think. For the first couple of months I was on the submission-go-round it was kind of like being a teenager again: everything that got rejected meant I sucked and other melodramatic things.

    But soon after I realized exactly what you’re saying up there–possibly helped my actually seeing the product of my first acceptance. (See what I did there–Voices is awesome!) Then it got better.

    Now, writing acceptances and rejections for my own little project, I’m even more certain. I can’t say how many great stories I’ve already had to turn down just because of fit issues. It seems so unfair, but… agreed!

    • Mark Deniz

      Yep, I think the second you get into the rejecting mode of the publishing world it makes you understand why you are not being accepted as a writer as much as you deserve😉

      As a writer you only see the cold hard fact that your story wasn’t wanted by a publisher, and not why that might be (even if we receive a clear mail explaining why).

  • Lisa Kessler

    This is a great blog Mark!🙂

    I had a story rejected for the Phantom Queen anthology and I really liked it! LOL But I did realize the setting was probably too modern judging by the guidelines…

    So in my mind, I took the rejection as a verification that my story just didn’t fit the guidelines enough. I certainly didn’t take it as my story wasn’t good enough.

    But then I am an insecure writer… So maybe it isn’t so good… Ack! LOL

    I’m only kidding… Sort of… 🙂

    But seriously, as a writer you’re going to see SO many rejections and most of them have very little to do with the “quality”. Writing is very subjective and publishing is a business. If they’ve already bought a book on a similar topic to your own, you get the pass letter.

    You can’t waste time taking it personally. You’ve gotta move forward crafting more prose!🙂

    Thanks for the editor’s angle Mark!

    Lisa🙂

    • Mark Deniz

      See, and I remember that story too and I had already rejected it before I finished reading it, because of the reason you mentioned, the modernity of it. Even if I had thought it was the best story of those submitted we wouldn’t have published it (which is a fair point, considering that my favourite isn’t in the anthology) and so when you get your rejection mail, it’s going to be an interesting conclusion that you haven’t made it yet, especially when you have been accepted by the same publisher in the same year…;)

      And the subjective argument is probably the biggest angle there, as we are all readers and consumers, even as editors and publishers. I still love Michael Ondaatje and dislike Terry Pratchett when I’m an editor. I still like things that my co-editors don’t and vice versa, which makes for even more variants when you look at the Morrigan Books pool for example.

      Oh I could go on…;)

  • RJ

    I’ve just started subbing again (as my health waxes and wanes Subbing is first thing to go and the last thing to start again) and I’m trying the top down method. I’m doing pretty well for personal rejections. I also find rejection far easier as I’m not really expecting to be accepted as I know how much they get and how few they take.

    I got rejected for the Phantom Queen. But in fairness to Mark when I got the story back I realised it was rubbish. (An object lesson in why I shouldn’t write under the influence of strong painkillers. 🙂 )

    • Mark Deniz

      Ah, I don’t remember rubbish being quite the word we had for it😉 in fact if I look at my notes…it actually made it to our second phase (one of 22 stories) and I graded it a 7 out of 10…

      Not bad for rubbish eh?

      Keep me posted on the top down method though as I’m curious as to how you do!

      • RJ

        Heh. It was really flabby. When it came back I thought it needed at least a third cut out and you were right to reject it.

        Keep meaning to blog the subs. I’m currently looking for somwhere that might take a flash piece about Zombie sheep*.

        *Honest! I think it works too.

  • Ian Stackhouse

    That, my friend, makes a lot of sense. In all forms of life we face rejection, but there’s usually a good reason for it.

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