The Dues We All Pay
By Mary Rosenblum
Rejection slips sometimes seem to lurk in the shadows, like the boogeyman under the bed. If I send this out, will the editor take it? If she doesn’t, I’ll have to tell everyone that I failed… My story, my article wasn’t good enough. If that kind of worry troubles you ever, you sure aren’t alone. Those early rejection slips are the dragons barring the gate to that ‘published writer’ title, and we’ve all had to slip past them.
The thing is – rejection slips aren’t dragons, and they don’t bar any doors at all. They are simply a polite no-thanks. Occasionally, they are personalized by an editor, and may actually offer you some advice about what that particular editor is looking for, or how they would like to see the that piece you sent in changed. They are in no way a judgement about the quality of your piece overall, or your ability as a writer. Every editor judges your story or query on whether it suits an upcoming issue of the magazine. That rejection slip is a positive thing, not a negative. Yes, it would be nice if that story sold to that particular editor, but you are at least sending your work out. You are a writer and that slip proves it. Publication isn’t required in order to announce to the world, "I am a writer". The intent to publish is the only credential you need, and that rejection slip proves that you intend to publish. Even published professionals like myself earn rejection slips. Yes, we get fewer than we did as new writers, but we still earn them. If you take risks, if you push the envelope of what you are writing, you will occasionally earn a ‘no thanks’ from an editor. It’s merely information. This piece did not work for that editor. Make a note of it, and move on.
New Writer Reality
So how come that editor rejected your fabulous new story that is clearly as good as many others in the magazine? Don’t forget that you are an unknown quantity to the editor when they receive your first query or your first submission. Will this person make good on their proposal and write me a dynamite article? Will I get this story only and never hear from them again? Editors need repeat business from you, remember. When that first story of yours is published, only your mother will buy a copy of the magazine because your story is in there! As you publish more stories and build a following, your name will sell magazines for that editor. So your editor may pass on a story that he might have purchased had you been an established writer, waiting to see if you send him more stories of similar quality. An aggravating Catch 22, isn’t it? But it’s not as bad as it seems. Editors want to be the person with the foresight to discover the next Stephen King or Ursula LeGuin. They won’t wait too long to start buying from you!
Likewise, the nonfiction editor wants a reliable writer who can help him fill those twelve issues per year. If she receives consistently strong proposals from you, she will be assured that you have staying power, that she can rely on you in the future to help make her job of filling those issues easier.
Don’t immediately assume that a rejection from the editor means that the editor never wants to see another piece of writing from you. Far from it. The editor may merely be waiting to see if you’re serious, if you continue to improve with each submission, and if you have ‘staying power’. Keep knocking on that door until it opens!
Learn to Read Between The Lines
Not all rejection slips are equal. Most large circulation fiction magazines, like Asimov’s, Ellery Queen, and Glimmer Train, use preprinted rejection slips. While this seems highly impersonal and mildly insulting to say the least, there is a reason for it. These magazines receive thousands of unsolicited submissions every month, and the editor simply does not have time to pen a ‘no thank you’ to each writer. Most magazines use more than one rejection form, so if you receive a slip with a request to see more work from you, believe it. The message here is that the editor likes your writing, but this story simply isn’t right for him. An actual hand-written note usually means that the editor seriously considered your story, passed on this one, but expects to buy from you at some time.
Why Can’t He Just Tell Me What is Wrong Here?
Those preprinted rejections are one of the most frustrating aspects of ‘new writerhood’. Not only do they deliver the sting of rejection, but they utterly fail to provide us with a clue as to what the editor didn’t like. Why can’t the editor simply tell us what didn’t work? Give us some help here, please!
Well, the answer is that editors are probably one of the most overworked groups of people in the workforce. Not only do they have to get a quality magazine out onto the stands every month, but they also have to deal with marketing and finance people, put in appearances at events, attend meetings, and deal with the ‘slush’ pile of unsolicited manuscripts. I know few editors who manage to accomplish all this within the limits of a forty hour week! Sure, it only takes a minute or two to tell you what they weren’t happy with in your submission, but multiply that by the other 200 manuscripts or queries on his or her desk and the time demand is of a different scale. The editor has no way of knowing that he will ever buy a story from you, and he has already used up half his lunch hour on the slush pile. He’s going to attach that rejection form and toss it onto the ‘out’ box. But if your story or query is well written…he or she will remember your name. Editors are like elephants. They never forget!
Credentials and Information
So don’t let the rejection slips get you down. Treat them as merit badges. They are the ultimate proof that you are writing with a public audience in mind, and are working like a professional writer, sending your stories and queries out to markets. Don’t toss them away. Hang onto them. Make a note as to whether they seem to welcome more submissions from you. If so, make it a point to send your work to that market first. Certainly, if you get a positive personal response from an editor, focus your attention on that market.
Show them off to your friends. How many rejection slips have they acquired, after all? They mean that you’re a writer, that you are working at achieving publication, that you are getting your work out there.
And the next time someone asks you what you do, proudly tell them, "I’m a writer." Those rejection slips prove it.
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