Thursday, January 31, 2013

On Writing: Rejectomancy

I could paper a small wall with rejection letters.
Thanks for submitting STORY X, but …
Thank you for submitting your story, "STORY P", to FANCYPANTS. Unfortunately ….
Thank you very much for letting us see "STORY Y." We appreciate your taking the time to send it in for our consideration. Although ...
Thanks for sending STORY Z” to PUBLICATION Q. While it isn’t …
◘I got this one on my birthday: Thank you for sending us STORY T. We regret to inform you …

Most of these are form letters, crafted to sound simultaneously grateful, apologetic, and encouraging. Thanks for trying, buddy, but not this time. Maybe someone else will like it. Keep us in mind for when you write something good. If you didn’t know it was boilerplate, you might even be fooled and spend the rest of the day walking around with a contented smile on your face.
But the truth is, my story — my baby — probably didn’t make it past the intern. Happy birthday and, while we’re at it, Merry Christmas (Thank you for letting MONKEYPARTS consider your story. Unfortunately …”) and Happy New Year (Thank you for submitting HARD WORK & PAIN. While we won't …), too.
I could spend hours looking at that metaphorical wall, trying to puzzle out why certain stories keep coming home with their tails between their legs and attempting to summon the strength to keep writing. The Urban Dictionary calls it “rejectomancy”: The art of analyzing a rejection letter (particularly one received upon submitting a short story to a magazine) in order to elicit a positive or self-assuring message hidden therein.
I have two things going for me. 
Every time I log into Duotrope, the site offers me encouragement: Congratulations! Your acceptance ratio is higher than the average for users who have submitted to the same markets. It’s cold comfort — and, fortunately, only uses two exclamation points — but it helps. Some poor guy has an even thicker rejection folder than I do? Drinks are on me!
But even better are the chinks that appear in the wall. Every once in a while, I get to peek behind the boilerplate. It’s like seeing the face of god and learning what he/she/it expects from me.
◘A simple postscript: P.S. The ending wasn’t as strong, for me, as the lead up to it. -- J & M
◘I’m afraid I found this SF horror story a bit too predictable, alas. – Gordon V.
◘The explanation of the technology threw me off - people who read sci fi KNOW what you mean when you say words flashed across someone's retina. We don't need to know how it's being done. – Lucy
◘We all very much enjoyed reading it, but in the end some of us felt that there wasn't quite enough tension in the plot, and it wasn't really speculative enough, to carry the story all the way.  -- Djibril
◘We are going to pass on your story, even though I really got a kick out of the ending. –pc
◘It was interesting, and amusing, but it just isn't PUBLICATION, in style or tone. – Nicola
After a couple of boilerplate rejections, I usually sit down with the story and ask it to tell me its problems. Sometimes I make changes, sometimes I don’t. When personalized rejections come, I squeeze out every ounce of critique and advice I can. I revise, send the story out and cross my fingers.
My rejectomancy tells me I’m getting close.


  1. I went through this ten years ago, and for the first time in my life I stopped writing altogether because of it, thoroughly demoralised. The comment that caused that was: 'The author writes really well, but . . .' But what? I gave up. Until I learned that you can self-publish on line and let the world judge! So here I am.

    1. Thanks for posting, ET. I'm not at the despair and demoralized point, yet. I've made a few sales; I'll make more. It's kind of like playing a game of "Battleship," sending out those queries in hopes of getting a "hit." I like your website, by the way. I've known quite a few folk who've gone the self-pub route, and really liked it. I wish you best and piratey luck.

  2. Paper that wall, Rob, and keep writing and submitting.

    1. Thanks, Beth. If I can get enough layers going, I won't have to worry about insulating the room.

  3. My favorite pair of rejections for one of my first set of crime novel rejections contrasted one another. One house didn't much care for the plot, but enjoyed the dialogue; the other liked the plot and thought the dialogue was flat. I sent them to my original mentor, Dave Gresham (graduate of Iowa) and he pointed out all the grammatical mistakes in the rejection letters.

    I think it gets tougher and tougher for first publications ... it certainly is much tougher today than a dozen years ago ... but I'll always recommend sticking it out via traditional publishers vs. ebooks. It's always up to the author, and some self-pub books (very few) have started legitimate writing careers, but ... at least for the forseeable future, the credibility factor will always side on traditional publishing (whether it makes sense or not).

    A great forward to my favorite crime novel of all time (The Friends of Eddie Coyle) was written by Elmore Leonard about my favorite crime writer of all time (although he hated being called a crime writer), George V. Higgins. It is an invaluable forward wherein Leonard describes how difficult it was for him and Higgins to get published and how they had to wait for agents/publishers/editors to catch up to them. Eddie Coyle was rejected by 29 agents ...

    Hang in there, brother. You know you've got the goods.

    1. Thanks, Charlie. Hopefully the agents/publishers/agents catch up to me before time catches up to my science-fiction.