By Eli Ryder
Let’s talk about rejection.
We hate it, okay? No way around it: we do not like telling people no. If we had our way, every story in our inbox would be mind-twistingly brilliant and we’d only have one response for every story we ever see: Yes.
But that’s not the case. Stories have problems. Stories get rejection emails. We have to send those emails, and each one hurts a little. And I know how getting them feels. My personal collection of rejections is taller than the stack of pancakes I eat in order to forget about my collection.
I’m going to do something here I wish other magazines would do. Not to suggest anyone else is doing anything wrong, but how many times have you wondered why your writing is being declined? After all, you’ve written, (hopefully) revised, (hopefully) had your right-minded friends work through your stories with you, and still, the dreaded declination email.
I’ve always wanted to ask what the hell I was doing wrong, so, in the interest of answering that question:
Maybe the most common reason we turn a good story down is that it doesn’t align with the aesthetic goals of the magazine. We’ve said no to very competent horror, crime, science-fiction, and literary stories that don’t do anything new in their genres, or don’t play in more than one, or don’t blend elements, etc. What we’re looking for are the stories that bend boundaries, rethink them in surprising ways, and leave something new in their wake.
Our first piece can tell you quite a bit about our tastes. First, it’s clearly not your typical essay. Nonfiction, sure, but more manifesto than essay, and poetic in its litany. Skirts lines, is what I’m saying. And, it’s hard to read that and then not carry around a fiery ball of writerly motivation for a while. It’s got enduring emotional impact, which arises from the things that blur its generic categorization. Works on all levels for us. Our second piece ran a week ago and exhibits some of the same qualities. It’s a little strange, a little nebulous, a lot interesting and assembled well. That’s right up our alley.
We’ve also said no to stories that might at some point be great but are in early stages of development—good ideas that aren’t working yet. Maybe the structure doesn’t yet support the idea, maybe the dialogue is too expository, maybe the prose is imprecise. These are the stories whose ideas are worth the work it would take to make them great but have not yet benefitted from that work. Call them green bananas, under-baked, or whatever you want. Ultimately, they’re just not done yet. And as you’re likely aware, it’s tough to know when to keep tinkering/overhauling. A good indicator is a rejection, sure, but that’s what we’re trying to avoid. So, keep digging, keep shaving, keep polishing. Then put it away. A day, maybe two later, open the document again and maybe have a friend read it. Then start over. Repeat.
And, of course, there are the stories that won’t work, ever. Ask yourself if your story is obviously and/or un-inventively derivative of something that already exists. If the overt or subtextual social messages in the story oppress or exclude. If there’s a reason for the violence. If your protagonist has any redeeming qualities, or if you’d like to punch your protagonist in the face even after the supposed moment of change. If the story is your own fantasy of revenge/success/atonement slapped onto a page. If the answer to these things is yes, scrap that story, call it practice, and move on to something else.
Should I mention proofreading? We edit what we publish, and I don’t imagine we’d decline a story whose only issues are grammatical, but still: if Word throws a colored or squiggly line under something, fix it. The obvious exceptions include stylistic choices that serve the story, but the mistakes—yeah, fix those. And make sure the stylistic choices don’t read like mistakes. We’re more concerned with the emotional content of a story than its mechanical prowess, but since manipulating the mechanics of written language is part of creating the emotional impact we want to publish, it’s important to use those tools at a professional level.
Last point I want to make: I just reworked and sent out a story I’ve been working on for two years. Its first iteration earned high praise from my brilliant professor during my MFA work, and then was subsequently denied by something like eight magazines. I took those in the teeth, ate my comfort pancakes, and then reworked it again. Declined by three more magazines. Reworked and subbed again. It was shortlisted for an anthology—editor said he loved it, italics were his, not mine—then ultimately rejected.
Reworked again. Subbed again. Rejected.
Reworked. Subbed. Awaiting response. Prepared for rejection. That’s how it goes. If your name isn’t Stephen King, and mine isn’t, there’s no such thing as automatic sale. That dude can bang out a novel in six weeks and it gets worldwide hardcover distribution and John Cusack leading the adaptation before anyone realizes how bad it is. Looking at you, Cell.
I bring up my own experiences because I want you to know you’re not alone. We’re all chipping away at the gates, trying like hell to wedge our way into the “published” club with some longevity. Rejection is part of that.
So, write, fix, sub, then write better. Same advice you’ve heard over and over. Why am I telling you, then? Maybe sometimes I need to hear it more myself. It’s a tough boat to row, this writing thing.