A Great Rejection

Picture by Jose Mª Izquierdo Galiot via Flickr creative commons
Picture by Jose Mª Izquierdo Galiot via Flickr creative commons

I recently received a rejection which reminded me of why, as writers, we shouldn’t let these things get us down:

Dear Mr Knighton,

As an aging romantic, I absolutely loved the story. However, one of my slushers is a former US Navy diesel mechanic with very strong opinions about where the fanboys that make puppy eyes at her when she dresses up in her boiler suit and tool belt can stick it. She’d love to have a beer with you sometime, just so she can give you an earful for having that guy get that that girl in the end.
I’d sit well back. She carries a long spanner.
with regrets,
[name redacted as they wanted to stay anonymous]

 

Personally, I thought that was an awesome rejection. It was encouraging and specific. It makes clear that the reason for the rejection was the tastes of the people behind the magazine, not any fault of mine. I want to submit to these folks again, even if they never accept my stories, because they deserve the chance to have the pick of anything good I produce, and I trust them with it.

As writers, we’re constantly told not to get disheartened by rejections. Most are form emails that don’t tell you why your story wasn’t accepted. You can end up staring at the screen, convincing yourself that you suck. And sure, they’re sometimes a sign that you should improve your writing, but that’s hardly a big revelation – we should all be constantly trying to improve.

If the rejection tells you how you could improve, that’s brilliant. But a lot of the time, the story just wasn’t a good fit, for reasons that aren’t about writing quality. Maybe the magazine had received enough werewolf stories already. Maybe the editor doesn’t like stories with elements from westerns. Maybe there was just a diesel engineer at the other end of the line, with a not unreasonable aversion to being drooled over.

Whatever the rejections, keep at it. Some day you’ll get through.

 

And remember, my new book A Mosaic of Stars, collecting together over a year’s worth of weekly short stories, is out now on Kindle. It’s only 99c for the first week, so go make the most of the bargain.

Birds sailing boats – how much to justify?

I wrote a story in which birds were sailing a warship. It made perfect sense in my head and the writing was up to my usual standards. So I submitted it to a magazine.

The rejection I got was a good one. Positive about my writing and the story while pointing out the things the editor didn’t think worked. Among the she they raised was a question – why would birds bother with a boat?

Captain Beaky tries to work out how to work a rudder without hands
Captain Beaky ponders how to work a rudder without hands

It’s not a stupid question, and it’s not like I didn’t have answers. But I have to admit, there was a certain extent to which that was just the basis of my fantasy and everything flowed from there.

When writing fantasy you always have some point of departure, some way in which your world differs from reality. It’s good for it to make sense, but how far do you need to go in justifying the change? Do you work out how dragons evolved? The astrophysics of your hexagonal planet? The genetics that allows humans and orcs to make little baby half-orcs?

To an extent it’s probably a matter of taste. But how far do you like an author to go, or do you like to go in your own writing? Are you willing to accept a couple of big unexplained differences, or do you need it all justified? Help a poor struggling author to work out where he stands.

Surprising myself

I had the surreal experience this week of being surprised by my own writing.

I’d received a relatively detailed rejection email on a short story, for which I must mention Waylines Magazine, as it was one of the most useful and encouraging rejections I’ve had. Based on their feedback, I started reading through the story, looking for bits to improve. It’s a story that I’ve been trying to sell for years, and that’s been through a lot of re-writes. But I was still amazed to find that I’d completely forgotten about my last revision, which transforms the ending. It was a bizarre, dissociative experience to read something I knew I’d written, and yet have it seem completely unfamiliar. It was a good surprise – it’s a much stronger ending than the original one – and made me laugh rather than weep for my failing memory. Still, it was a little unsettling, like when your arm goes to sleep and it seems like that part of your body isn’t your own.

Has anybody out there had the same thing? Or do you always come back to your writing, as I usually do, with a sense of ‘here it comes again’?

The joy of rejection

As promised, to balance my heady post on success, here’s the flip side – the heady joy of rejection…

It can be hard to stay motivated as a writer when you’re getting a lot of rejections. My Duotrope account tells me that I’ve got an 8.8% acceptance rate for the last twelve months. That might not sound too bad – heck, I’m happy with it – but it still means that for every acceptance I’ve had ten rejections. That’s a lot of people saying no. And yet, one of the things that most motivates me as a writer is a good rejection.

Good rejections are hard to come by. Most of the rejections I’ve received are form emails. I don’t mean this as a criticism – the editors at most short story markets don’t have the time to make it personal. They’re receiving hundreds of submissions, and mine is just one more in a mountain of things they don’t want.

But just occasionally I get a really good rejection. One that tells me what I did right, and more importantly what I did wrong. Just a couple of brief sentences, but ones that really lift me up. Seeing that someone took the time to have a well developed opinion on my story is great in itself. What’s writing for if not to provoke a response? But the content is important too. Knowing that someone else sees a fragment of value in my story, even as they’re rejecting my work. And, less moral-boosting but far more useful, identifying something that I can improve, both in that story and in my wider writing.

Receiving just a few rejections like that helps me face the rest with a smile, and to keep going. So, to the writers of those rejection notes – in particular the people at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, who have never published a single one of my stories but have given me many pieces of constructive feedback – thank you very much.

Persistence

I had a post prepped for today about rejection and then, oh the irony, I had a story accepted. So I thought I’d write about that instead.

(And before you start screaming ‘that’s not irony’, the term irony has different uses in different areas of cultural and intellectual endeavour. The definition of literary irony, for example, isn’t even the definition of irony that some people fail to use correctly. So point one, this may or may not be ironic depending on what irony we’re talking about, and point two, you know what I mean so quit fussing. Now, moving on…)

I won’t get into what the accepted story’s about – I’ll post about that when it’s published. What I want to explain is the journey this story went through to get published. Because this one is about persistence.

I started writing this story in January 2008. The second of January 2008, in fact – when I’m feeling diligent I write these things down. And it was accepted on ninth June 2012, four years five months and seven days later. It was rejected by thirteen different markets, and went through at least three substantial re-writes, all of which made it better. When it got rejected I sent it out again. When I got feedback with the rejection I did a re-write first, incorporating that feedback, and then sent it out again. I kept plugging away until, at last, my little tale found a home.

Not all stories are worthy of publication. I’ve written some real dross in my time. But if you believe in your stories then be persistent, don’t give up after the first rejection, or the first dozen. Write, submit, re-write, and do it all again. It might take time, but you’ll get there in the end.

And I’ll discuss rejection another time.