Category Archives: Submissions

Rejection: Everybody Hurts Sometimes

Rarely Oftentimes, the writing life feels like an uphill climb. First comes the Dear Sir or Madam rejection, then the personalized rejection. Then, the editor gives you personal feedback and/or reasons why they couldn’t publish your work. After that, you cry into a Blue Bonnet-sized bucket of chocolate ice cream and ask the gods why you can’t just be good enough, already. All of that time, all of that work! What you wouldn’t do for a hot, luscious, sexy, multi-paged contract in your inbox. You are the Charles Barkley of the writing world: pretty good, just not good enough to win a championship. You’re a Baby Ruth when all you want is to be a Snickers bar.

I know it may be hard to believe (har har), but you’re not alone. You’re actually in really good company.

Every now and then Pretty much every week or so, I read about a classic or popular book that had been rejected a bajillion times by every publisher on the planet until one said yes. Here is a list of those books, just for you to keep handy. May it bless you and keep you, and may it help pry your fingers off of the tub of Rocky Road.

1. Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen. Rejected 140 times, one publisher claiming it was “too positive.”

2. Dubliners by James Joyce. Rejected 22 times, only sold 379 copies in the first year (James Joyce bought 120 of them).

3. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. Rejected 121 times.

4. Carrie by Stephen King. Rejected 30 times. We have Tabitha King to thank for it seeing the light of day, as she dug it out of the trash when King threw it away.

5. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. Rejected 38 times. Mitchell won a Pulitzer for her efforts.

6. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. Rejected 26 times. Awarded a Newbery Medal.

7. Anything by C.S. Lewis. Lewis amassed over 800 rejections before selling a single piece of writing.

8. The Diary of Anne Frank. Rejected 15 times. Recieved the editorial comment, “This girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the curiosity level.”

9. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter. After receiving so many rejections, Potter was forced to publish the book herself.

But my favorite story of all time goes to Dune. You can read an interesting story from Frederik Pohl here, but here’s the abridged version of Dune‘s publishing history. Frank Herbert spent years trying to get a publisher to pick up Dune, and received about 20 rejections. After years and lots of revisions, he sold the book to a small publisher that was known for mechanical manuals for automobiles and motorcycles. It’s now one of the most celebrated science fiction novels of all time.

Keep your head up, and keep on going. You really don’t know when or from where your big break is going to come.

…And That’s Okay!

The first time I put serious thought into publishing my work was the summer of 1995, at the age of twelve. I’d been writing longer than that, but in 1995 I completed work on my first novel. Naturally, I was very proud of it. I’d given it to my English teacher to peruse, and he told me it was promising (it wasn’t; this was a blatant lie, told in the interests of not discouraging me from continuing my burgeoning hobby, which I suppose makes it okay). My family said it was great, as did some family friends who had taken the time to look it over. All lies, all of them. Either that or these people had seriously poor taste in literature. I’d much rather prefer to believe they were all lying to me.

The internet was a relatively new innovation at this time, one to which I did not have access at home. Our family had recently purchased our first home computer—a 386-something-or-other that ran Windows 3.1, if you dared enter that rabbit hole, but most of the time I stayed in the safe, warm embrace of black-screened DOS and its easy-to-navigate list of ten games I played over and over again. These were simpler times, and the internet hadn’t yet punctured them.

The internet had, however, made its first appearance one street over from mine.

Armed with my rave reviews, and the promise of finding answers to my publishing questions on this new-fangled world wide web, I paid an afternoon visit to a friend’s house. My friend’s mom sat down with me in front of the computer and together we ran a search—on Lycos, I think, or maybe AltaVista?—for how I could publish my first novel. I was no noob; I knew things. For example, I’d written a Star Trek novel, and thus I could limit my inquiries to one publisher in particular—Pocket Books, who had an exclusive deal with Paramount to handle the Star Trek novel line.

I’d been promised answers, and answers I got. And they were very discouraging. I learned that Pocket Books would only accept my novel and give it consideration if I had an agent to represent me. Next, we tried searching for information on how to get an agent, but there were no clear-cut answers to be found. Well, at least some things haven’t changed in the intervening twenty years!

My discouragement struck hard and fast because I had a whole slew of questions about how to make it as a bigtime author, and I intrinsically knew that the answers to these questions, as they related to me, could be summed up in two simple phrases: “You’re screwed. Don’t even try.”

I’ve learned a lot since then, and there’s so much advice I would give to my twelve-year-old self that it’s hard to know where to begin. In short, though, I’m not sure I would offer myself specific advice as I would offer reassurance that I wasn’t, in fact, screwed and that I should, in fact, try—and try very hard.

In the wake of my preteen despair, I remember wondering if all the people around me were lying about the quality of my writing. Future Evan goes back in time and says, “Yes, they are… and that’s okay. You’ll get better.”

I remembering wondering if it was going to take much longer for me to become a published author—after all, one of my favourite writers at the time, Gordon Korman, was published when he was twelve. Future Evan goes back in time and says, “Yes, it’s going to take you a very long time, much longer than Gordon Korman… and that’s okay. It’s not a competition.” It’s pretty easy to see now that Korman was just a hell of a lot better than I ever was at the same age. Seriously, that man was put on this earth by demonspawn to torment me.

I remember wondering if I was writing fast enough. It had taken more than a year to write that first novel, and I knew a lot of writers who were churning out books much more quickly. Future Evan goes back in time and says, “No, you’re not fast enough… and that’s okay. You’ll get faster. Probably.” The truth is, I’m still not writing fast enough today, but then again, what is and isn’t fast enough to compete in the present marketplace is an open question. And it’s highly individual.

In closing, I guess the morale of all this is that I’m not sure I would change anything. When it comes to writing, there just isn’t any shortcut. Over time, there are a number of basics you have to figure out for yourself: you have to find ways to write when you don’t want to, and be productive; you have to lean on the advice of successful people who have already achieved what you are aiming for, and disregard most advice from those who are on a different trajectory entirely; and finally, you have to accept that this process is going to take a lot of time.

Seriously, a lot of time. But if you’re persistent and good—yes, you do have to be good—then you’re well on your way. Keep chugging away, Preteen Evan, you’ll get there yet.

Raindancers

Everyday living for most people can be compared all-too-easily to what drought means for farmers, what the dry seasons meant to American Indians. It’s a barren time full of silence and waiting and subtle, fatalistic dread that nothing is going to happen, that life will wither and perhaps even die. And it’s that need for green, for life and living, which brings comfort and joy and the heights of emotional salvation when the rains finally come. One could make the argument that we read drama and fantasy and horror because we have an inherent, hard-wired need for emotional input—a need for rain.

That’s a writer’s job, at least some of the time. We must don the doe’s skull and bright feathers. We must clothe ourselves in tanned hides and wrap bone rattles about our wrists and ankles. We must dance, sprouting clouds of dust as we stomp our feet and we sweat upon the hard-baked clay of everyday life.

It’s our job.

One of the hardest things writers have to live with is the uncertainty that their dancing has brought rain, sprinkled or poured a little bit of life into a reader’s existence. The truth is that most writers, especially at the beginning of their careers, never find out if their dancing has borne precipitation. There is this gulf—a fundamental disconnect—between writer and reader, one that leaves writers with cracked lips and dusty throats.

I recently had two experiences—more milestones in my career—which gave me tangible evidence that my own dancing was not in vain. Last fall I submitted a short story called Family Heirloom to the magazine Steampunk Trials. It’s a steampunk take on the Underground Railroad where a white widow and a freed slave build an Underwater Railroad in Missouri.

Included in the acceptance email was a very simple accolade, and one I’ll never forget. The story had brought tears the editor to eyes. When I wrote that story, it was with the absolute intention of touching, playing upon the heartstrings of the reader. I intended to bring forth the emotions of suffering and sacrifice, highlight the resolve of an individual to carry on and enrich the lives of the next generation in spite of tragedy.

Because of that first editor’s response, I chose Family Heirloom as the lead in a short story collection of mine that came out this summer. It’s not a best-seller in no small part because it contains cross-genre short stories, which is really a double-whammy against people even looking at it, let alone buying it. And yet, in spite of its uphill battle to gain recognition, I recently received another bit of rain. One of the reviewers up on Amazon said the same thing as the editor: that the story had brought tears to his or her eyes, and that other stories in that volume also had profound emotional effects. A reader took the time to let me—and the world—know that there was rain to be found between those pages.

For a writer, there’s nothing better than that.

So, to all the writers who read this, I can say but one thing: keep dancing. And to every reader, for all the rain you have been given by authors, give them some back. Give them the rain they need in the form of emails and reviews and word-of-mouth praise for the rain that has sustained you.

Drought is a fact of life, but we all possess the means by which we can bring rain to those who need it.

 

Q

Some of My Best Friends Are Editors

A guest post by Joseph Thompson, publisher of IF magazine.

IF_posterLet’s be frank. Writers are sympathetic characters, editors are not. Writers toil in romanticized isolation but get invited to the coolest parties. They create and share every moment of joy and sorrow experienced by not just one character, but by an entire world of their creation. They brainstorm and draft, rewrite and polish, and then one day they mass submit that perfect story to the editorial altars.

And it gets rejected. Again. And again. And again. A few of these rejections will come with well-intended but cryptic comments like “We just didn’t feel this story had enough meat on its bones for how it had been designed,” or “Your story is like a tree with really beautiful branches but no trunk.” An extremely lucky few may come back with a request for a rewrite. The majority, however, will come with nothing but a form letter: We loved (insert story title here), but it’s not for us. Good luck placing it elsewhere.

The editors themselves don’t do much good for their public image. The ubiquitous rejection form letter is on par with a break up text message. It makes editors come across as anonymous, insensitive jerks. Now don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against editors. Some of my best friends are editors. As the publisher of Isotropic Fiction, I work closely with an editorial team whose skills I respect and admire. IF06_100As a writer, I’ve worked with a variety of editors, good and bad, from newspapers and books to literary and genre magazines. And as an editor, I’ve worked with sci-fi writers and romance novelists, journalists, and poets. There are countless essays about what editors are looking for, what their major peeves are, and how you can improve or kill your chances of getting published. Some of my favorite can be found right here on The Fictorians. After you’re done reading my essay, make it a point to check out Joshua Essoe’s “The Editing Hit List” and “Editing FAQ.” But first, I’d like to take a moment to present the contradictory image of the sympathetic magazine editor.

Believe it or not, editors are a lot like writers. They smell the same, hang out at similar cafes, and many editors start off as writers. They may have gotten into editing to help pay the bills or a friend with a managerial bent may have suckered them into the job by saying “let’s start a magazine.” No matter what drew them to the editing, they continue because they want to read what you wrote. Seriously! Editors don’t just read what writers submit. They want to read it.

TheBoneTreeIf you’re a writer reading this, think about the last time you asked your friend, husband, wife, or dog to read the latest draft of your story. Did you notice how their eyes darted toward the door in a desperate attempt to escape? Did they sigh? Did they take your pages only to not have read them a month later? Did they say it was nice? Editors will never treat you like that. This bears repeating: editors want to read your work. You are their raison d’être.

Editors see themselves as midwives in the creative process. When magazine editors open a file, they aren’t looking for perfection, but for some crowning creation that just needs a bit of a push. Like the midwife, the editor is there to help and guide the process, but it’s the writer who has to go through the labor. Unlike midwives who can limit the number of patients they see, editors must deal with dozens of new submissions each day.

Due to the realities of time management, editors match their efforts to the writers’. Form letters are a necessity for many submissions, and what’s written in them is true. Editors are glad to read the work even if the work is not ready for publication. And they do truly wish writers the best of luck in placing it. What the form letter doesn’t say is just as important. PrintWhen a form letter goes out, the work that came in most likely was riddled with grammatical and spelling errors, displayed a total disregard of the publication’s submission guidelines, and/or wasn’t even a complete story. The form letter allows the editor to exemplify a level of professionalism with which the writer may not have treated his or her work.

When a work comes across the slush pile that’s well written but not quite finished, editors begin leaving comments. This is scary ground for both writers and editors. From the writers’ perspective, it can look like editors are trying to justify the rejection. Let’s face it: to a degree the writers are right. Acceptances and rejections are subjective, and the comments are an attempt to let writers know their story was looked at by an editor who gave it serious thought. There’s another side to this, however. When works are good enough to comment on, it means editors want to see that writer improve, and they want to see more by that writer.

IF08_100When dealing with an endless slush pile of submissions, time is always a factor. The need for brevity frequently trumps clarity and civility, leading to the aforementioned cryptic comments. It can make editors seem gruff and unapproachable when they are actually trying to cultivate the craft of a fellow artist. And when comments include a rewrite request, writers should know that request is made in all sincerity. It means the editor wants to spend more time with the writer and the story.

It’s that word, “wants,” that is the key to the sympathetic editor. Regardless of their backgrounds, the majority of editors are there because they want to be. They love their work, which means they love the opportunity to see your work. Editors are very similar to writers in terms of their passion and dedication. They just don’t get invited to the cool parties.

Humbly submitted to The Fictorians editorial team.

LinkedInJoseph Thompson Bio:
Joseph Thompson has published short fiction and poetry, and worked as a journalist, ghost writer, editor, and reviewer. He currently publishes and occasionally edits Isotropic Fiction Magazine.