Thoughts on Rejection
Recently, a few things on the blogosphere have got me thinking about my semi-abandoned ventures into short story writing. I’ve spoken very negatively about short story writing as a career move in the past, and I still stand by those sentiments-- if you want to make any kind of actual attempt at writing as a viable career path, I honestly believe you have to be some kind of masochist to go the short story route. Not that the novel route isn’t difficult in its own right, but the short story path is just inefficient-- it’s like the difference between walking to China and dragging yourself there with your lips.
That said, I think I learned an awful lot in the nearly two years I spent trying to sell short stories, and I think that for the most part, these things have made me a better writer. First, the technical aspect: you learn how to take rejection. When I was just beginning submitting, I believed that editors were the anointed gatekeepers to the realms of all things wonderful and desirable, and once I could show them that I knew the Secret of Writing (don’t ask me what I thought that was-- I didn’t know, I just believed I had it) by offering a publishable story, they would recognize me and admit me into the ranks of the sanctified Published. And so I sent my stories out, eager and excited, and I got them back, sometimes flat-out rejected, sometimes with ‘good, but...'s, and sometimes with ‘die in a fire and never darken my doorstep again's. And each time one of those came, it hit me like a blow to the gut, that tumbling feeling of infinite falling, like the ground has given way and there’s nothing but a pit of failure awaiting you for the rest of forever.
But I persevered. I believed in my writing. I kept editing and sending out. And I made a sale or two. The sales seemed like they should usher me into the club, but they didn’t change a thing, and each rejection made me question myself more and more. Did I just suck? Were these stories I was so proud of really awful? If not, why else did they keep getting thrown away so callously? Then I got a rejection from Gordon Van Gelder at F&SF, to me one of the holy grails of short fiction selling. For those who aren’t plugged into the short fiction markets, getting to Gordon is an accomplishment in and of itself-- J.J. Adams, the cruel F&SF slush god, bars the gates and guards them closely (of the six or so stories I’ve sent them since, not a one has made it to Gordon’s desk). The rejection basically read along the lines of “nothing wrong with this story, but ultimately I decided it wasn’t for us.”
And that was all there was to it. He read it, said “this is a fine story,” and decided not to publish it. It seemed so unfair... I had written a story that was publishable! Publishable in his magazine! His magazine, which could (I believed) pole-vault my career to new heights! How could I not get in? How could they just deny me like that?
So I did what any good writer would do: I sulked on it for awhile. But it made me really think about these magazines for awhile, and the way they’re run. And finally it dawned on me that editors were just readers who happened to publish their favorite pieces. Nothing less, nothing more. And we’re all going to encounter readers who don’t like what we write at one time or another. And (hopefully) we will find the readers who do love what we write, and we will find readers all across the spectrum in between. Submitting to an editor/agent is choosing one reader at random (well, with some education, hopefully), and betting that they will be one of the ones who likes the story.
But it’s more than that. Because the editor/agent is doing more than looking for something that they can recognize as meeting a certain X level of proficiency or entertainment-- they’re looking for something they are going to put their own name on. Something they can take ownership in. Something they want connected with them personally, and something that expresses something about them personally (because why would you put your name on something if you weren’t invested in it?) Basically, when we submit, we’re hoping not only that the editor/agent will like it, but that they will be such a big fan, they will want everyone to think about them when they think about your story.
I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but that makes the rejection process go a lot easier. The editors, the agents, they aren’t rejecting me, they’re just saying that they aren’t the perfect audience for my story. And maybe the perfect audience won’t have their own publishing house, but it doesn’t make the story worse for it; it’s just happenstance. That’s the nature of rejection-- sometimes things just don’t find the right ears for them, no matter how good they are. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. It just means you have to keep writing until the right piece hits the right place at the right time. And it will happen. That near miss finallly did catch the right ear, ending up getting published in Ideomancer, which I think was the perfect home for it. So just give it time, and don’t give up.