Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me, Part 2: Good Rejections

Texas ObserverBack when I was in college, I sent a submission to the Texas Observer, then as now the leading progressive voice in Texas. In response, I received a personal rejection letter from either Kaye Northcott or Molly Ivins — probably Kaye, since she was the editor-in-chief, but I can’t remember for sure — that said the essay wasn’t quite right for them but encouraged me to keep writing.

All I saw was the rejection. I don’t think I ever tried the Observer again. A personal letter from the editor (or co-editor) of a publication encouraging me to keep writing, and I never followed up.

I was an idiot. OK, so I was young and didn’t have the faintest idea about how to build a writing career. But it was still a dumb move.

By the time I started submitting fiction in earnest, I had learned a little something. Most editors send form rejections because the slush pile is overwhelming. A personal note means they’re interested in your work even if they don’t want that story.

And if they write “send me something else,” for God’s sake, do it!

Rejection sucks. And rejection is a constant in most creative careers. Even big names get rejected at times. I recall an editor — who had accepted a story from me — telling me about the well-known writers she was having to write rejection letters to.

But because rejection is a constant, it’s necessary to pay attention to bits of encouragement. And “send me something else” is the most encouraging thing you can get outside of a contract and a check.

I know people who have received such letters and never followed up, even when the letter came from the editor-in-chief of a major publication. The same people tend to stop sending a story out if it gets one rejection. For some reason, those folks decide that because one editor didn’t want a story, it must be no good.

I know, I know. The proper writer reaction to that is “less competition for the rest of us.” But as someone who wants to see good fiction out and about — after all, I’m also a reader — I am infuriated by those who won’t follow up on the positive rejection and won’t risk getting another one by sending a story out again.

That’s because the people I know who have wilted after one rejection are good writers. It never seems to be the person who turns out unreadable crap who gets discouraged by rejection. And given some of the unreadable crap that makes best seller lists, they have a point. Though — again as a reader — I wish they’d be discouraged.

Personal notes from editors should always be considered a positive, even if you were really hoping they’d buy that story. But outside of “send me something else,” you don’t have to follow the advice they send you. Some of it may be a good thing to remember for submitting to that editor; some of it may not even be useful for that. Editors can be as wrong as anyone else, or else we wouldn’t have all those stories about great writers who were rejected by 37 different publishers before finally achieving success.

But you do need to appreciate that the editor took the time to make more than a cursory observation. That means they see something in your work.

Send ’em something else.

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Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me, Part 2: Good Rejections — 3 Comments

  1. Did I ever tell you about the time I went to the Fairfax Book Festival? They hold it on the grounds of George Mason University, and that year they stupidly held it opposite the National Book Festival in downtown DC, so the place was severely underpopulated. Anyway I was on an SF panel and afterwards I toured the huckster area. This was small and depressing, with tables of used books culled from department libraries, but there was one table manned by a fantasy author. She sat alone at her table surrounded by stacks and stacks of her fantasy novel.

    I looked inside and saw that she had gone with Publish America and, channeling the great Ann Crispin, I asked her how she had selected them. (As you know, Bob, PA is notably scammy. Google on “Atlanta Nights” if you want to know more.) She said she had sent her ms to Tor Books, and after six months she lost heart and went with PA.

    At this moment I should have kept my mouth shut, nodded, and moved on. Instead, like an idiot, I blurted, “But, that was Tor! They’re famous for returning ms fast if they hate it — I know, because they published my novels! If they had your book for half a year, it must have passed the first level — it was sitting in Patrick Neilsen-Hayden’s in-box! YOU GAVE UP TOO SOON!!”

    She looked like I had stabbed her, and indeed I am sure I ruined her day. I still feel bad about it.

  2. In my first writers’ group, mumble years ago, one of the members told us matter-of-factly that a story we had critiqued and liked had been rejected by…I think it was Ed Ferman at Fantasy and Science Fiction. “But he sent a note,” he said brightly, and we all oooohed. Actual contact from an editor who was encouraging (“doesn’t quite work in the end. But send more, when you have it”) was a significant step up the lader.

  3. That’s how I sold my first story. Ed Ferman rejected a story I sent him (as did 27 other editors before I finally sold it, to a magazine that went walkies before it, or my story, ever came out), with a note that said “Be glad to see more.” He bought the next story I sent him.

    –Vonda