Saving Your Skull – You Might Need it Later

A well known editor used to tell an anecdote about a writer who submitted a new story just about every month. The stories weren’t very good, but the polite and upbeat cover letters, the consistency of the submissions, the fact that the writer was clearly working hard and not just retelling the same story over and over, all caught the editor’s attention and he found himself almost looking forward to the monthly submissions. He showed one to a friend and remarked upon the writer’s persistence. His friend agreed that the story was ok but nothing exceptional.

A year or so later his friend called him on another matter and the editor said, “Remember so and so? I just bought a story from him.”

Really? Said the Friend. “Did he improve that much?”
“I’m not sure,” said the editor. “I think the sob just wore me down!”

Seems counterintuitive to lead off a screed about abandoning markets with an object lesson on persistence in action, but that’s what I’m going to do. The reason is obvious–abandoning a market, especially a high visibility market in these threadbare times, is a serious matter. It can be a huge mistake. It can also save your sanity.

I’ve used the metaphor of “beating your head against a wall” before, and there’s a reason. Picture our Hopeful Writer (tm, pat. pending), bound hand and foot and placed in front of what looks like a brick wall. On the other side of that wall is something HW wants: a book deal, a sale to a particular magazine or anthology (or a sale to ANY magazine or anthology), a good agent, whatever. There’s no gate. HW can’t climb over the wall, can’t go around it. The only way past it is through it, and there’s only one way to get through. Right. Pick a spot and start hammering, and realize that one of two things is going to happen: either you crack or the wall does. And you have absolutely no way of knowing for certain which.

That “for certain” is where the gray areas start to gather. You can’t know for certain, but you can make an educated guess and it’s in your interest to do so. Does the wall sound the least bit hollow? Did you feel a bit of give, maybe, on its part back around blow 5,277? Is there any skin left on your forehead at all?

Ok, rather than beat the metaphor to death along with your forehead, what signs are plain to read? When you first start out, most if not all rejections are forms. Occasionally you get a scribble, sometimes even a note depending on the market. After a time, though, and if you’re really making progress, the forms become fewer (even if they may never go away). Editors start to feel the need to explain “why” they’re rejecting your latest. Usually they give good reasons, but not always. You start to notice that their explanations sometimes don’t make sense. There’s a reason for that, too–most editors make their decisions on taste and instinct. Once you’re past the competency threshold, they’re looking for a spark of something in that story that tells them to buy, and they can no more define what that spark is than you can. They either recognize that spark or don’t. There may not actually be a reason other than “I didn’t like it enough to buy it.” Ellen Datlow is one of the very few editors I know who will just come out and say so. Most others, once they feel you may rate an explanation, think of the explanation after the decision is already made. If their reasons sound like rationalizations, that’s because they are.

This isn’t Rejectomancy 101. There’s no such thing as a “good” rejection and “no” just means “no.” That does not mean that all rejections are the same. A rejection that says “Send your next” or “not for us, but please try again” really is better than a form. Editors don’t like wasting their time any more than you do. If they didn’t think there was a chance you’d make the grade one day they would not encourage you. They’re in the business of supplying stories and novels to readers. For that they need writers, and they’re hoping that maybe, perhaps tomorrow if not today, you may be just what they’re looking for. You can generally tell when you’ve got an editor’s favorable attention. They may not buy from you today, tomorrow, or a year from now. But they might. The possibility is so close and seemingly tangible that you almost think you could grab it.

And then, sadly, there are the editors who simply will never buy from you. Never. Remember that “spark” I mentioned above? They don’t think you have it. They don’t see any sign of it. If you start publishing elsewhere in very good venues with stories they passed on? Shrug. If you’re nominated for, even win awards? Sigh. No accounting for taste. You will continue to get form rejections from them. If they do bother to give explanations for their rejections they will clearly miss the entire point of the story, even though no one else (including the editor who buys the story on its next submission) seems to have that problem.

It’s not your fault. And you know what? It’s not theirs, either. For whatever reason, you simply don’t connect with them. It’s not that you haven’t studied the market. It’s not that your work isn’t “good enough” or is significantly different in tone or subject matter than stories the editor publishes all the time or, conversely, that it’s “too different.” It’s not even that you’ve run afoul of some unnamed editorial taboo. He or she simply doesn’t GET you, and if you write a dozen books or a hundred stories destined to be classics, they will never get you. That wall is simply not going to crack.

Yet the mantra remains: Nobody Frigging Knows. Maybe you stop submitting to them and your very next submission would have been the one to break through. Maybe the scales will fall from their eyes next year. Maybe. Unlikely, but maybe. Yet if the risk of that is worth it to you just to make the pain and aggravation stop, then do it. Never mind what could have been; it’s an illusion. You make what you feel is the decision that’s in your best interests, but don’t do it in the angry aftermath of a rejection. Do it coldly, after proper thought, being as honest as you can be about your skills, what you’ve tried to do, and what you’ve accomplished. Weigh everything. Is what’s on the other side of that wall something you need, or just something you want simply because you can’t have it? Is your head holding up? If you’re content to beat on the wall for a while yet, do it. But if the situation demands a decision, then don’t be afraid to make it.

There comes a time when the only sane thing to do is save your skull.

2 thoughts on “Saving Your Skull – You Might Need it Later

  1. >>For whatever reason, you simply don’t connect with them.<<

    I think it was John Campbell who said something like this outright to Philip Jose Farmer, and implied that PJF shouldn't even bother sending him any more stories.

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