Zen and the Art of Beating Your Head Against the Wall – Once More, With Rejections

I want to talk about rejections for a minute. Yes, no one likes them, but as the Corleones would say, “It’s nothing personal. Just business.” For the most part that’s actually true, though this being the small and feud-oriented family field that it is, it’s not always true, but close enough for the sake of this discussion.

The idea that it’s “not personal” flies in the face of the idea of the “personal” rejection, the one step up from the universally hated “form” rejection. A personal rejection is often interpreted to mean that you’re making progress. Often true, especially when you’re just starting out. Say you’ve gotten ten form rejects in a row from the same editor, but the eleventh gets a “try again” scribble(okay, these days maybe it’s a personal note tacked onto the end of a form macro, but the point stands), and the fourteenth gets an actual note explaining why the editor isn’t buying this one, but also (as before) try again. As Mike Resnick often says, the key word in “personal rejection” is not “personal,” and he’s right. “No” is still not a “yes.” Even so, personal rejections, while considerably short of a sale, are often rightly seen as encouraging signs.

Yet what I’m going to talk about is an exception to that rule. A case where the quite understandable response to a personal rejection would be to never, ever, bother to send that editor another story or novel so long as you both shall live. I’m not talking about the unprofessional, insulting rejection; so long as you’re dealing with people who conduct themselves professionally, those are rare, and why would you deal with anyone else? No, what I’m talking about is far more common type of personal rejection. I’ve gotten a few, and they never fail to send me into a funk of annoyance and regret.

It’s simply this: a rejection that shows beyond question that the aspects of your work that make it unique to you, plays to your strengths and interests, and that may even make your work worth doing to you, to go through the agony and sweat to get the story down in the first place, are the very aspects that the editor finds objectionable. In short, the editor clearly doesn’t “get” you. But there’s a catch to it, and one rejection like that doesn’t tell the story. You have to subject yourself to multiple instances of the same sort of cluelessness before you’re justified in writing off the market completely.

I can hear it now–“I do? What do you think I am, some kind of masochist?”

Well, whether you are or not is completely beside the point, though being a writer in the first place probably places you in the “high risk group.” No, the reason that you can’t make that call after one or two rejections is that you don’t–yet–have enough information. I’ll give you a personal example, since that’s what I tend to accumulate for obvious reasons. There are podcast outfits that do fiction reprints in audio form, and I wanted to test the waters in that medium. So I picked one, read the guidelines, and sent them something I thought was appropriate according to their stated interests. After some months I got a response, with an apology for the delay. The editor pronounced the story a near-miss, and hoped I’d send something else. Which was fine, but the reasons given for the rejection were that there was “not enough narrative action, and too much revealing of character through dialogue.”

Too much revealing of character through dialogue? Funny thing, because that’s what I do. Odds are that anything else I send is going to suffer from the exact same “flaw.” So I probably shouldn’t bother, right?


The temptation is there, of course. For my own part I consider this one of the most distressing rejections you can get. But I’ll get over it, and when I have something else that fits the guidelines, I’ll try again. And maybe a few more times. Why? For the simple reason that, quite often, when an editor gives a reason for a rejection, it’s not the real reason for the rejection. That’s the catch.

No, the editor wasn’t lying. We’ve talked about this before. Editors, or at least the better ones, often feel that they have to justify their rejections, especially for “near misses” and stories that are otherwise of professional grade or knocking on the door. Yet editors reject for a multitude of reasons. It may just come down to the fact that the story didn’t “feel right” for their venue. Or, most often, that the editor didn’t have a strong enough connection to the story, didn’t “like it” enough. All perfectly valid reasons for rejecting, mind you, but let’s face it — they sound kind of lame in a rejection letter, because they are all completely subjective. Editors who care enough want to give solid, logical, quantitative reasons for a rejection, and so they do. After the fact. After the decision is already made. Sometimes what you get is what they’re telling themselves.

After a few more such rejections from the same editor, then maybe you should consider the possibility that you were right the first time and you’re never going to connect with that editor. It happens. If your work has any sort of voice, viewpoint, or distinguishing characteristics, it’s never going to appeal to everyone. That’s better than okay, but you have to work to find the right markets for what you do. Regardless, you can’t dismiss a market based on one or two rejections, no matter how disheartening. Otherwise you and the editor may both lose.


One thought on “Zen and the Art of Beating Your Head Against the Wall – Once More, With Rejections

  1. I agree with every sentence here. We simply cannot allow editors to stop us from writing what our hearts and souls drive us to write–but we can polish and modify and tweak after more research on certain publishers and editors–without selling our creative souls!

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