I wrote a short story some time back (as in almost 2 years ago) as part of an assignment for a writing class I was taking. I knew it needed some polish, but I felt like I spent too much time in it to be objective about it, so I set it aside for a while and worked on some other things.
Fast forward a bit and eventually, I came back to it. I thought the story was good, but a bit long so a-chopping I went (writing short is definitely much harder for me than writing long). I pared it down somewhat but at just over 4,000 words, it was still on the long side. Nonetheless, I felt if I cut it too much more, I would lose some essential parts and would end up needing to do a complete restructure. The prospect of taking it apart and rewriting it meant that it was more likely it would end up as a desk drawer story, never to see the light of submission.
So I left it as it was.
I just decided to take a chance and submit it to a handful of magazines and journals to see if I could get any bites. I started with a list of 5 and figured if there were no takers, I’d try another list of 5. And then another list of 5 more. Then re-evaluate.
The first rejection rolled in within a reasonable time – long enough for me to think that they might have read it (although they could have taken one look at the word count or topic or anything else and said “Nope”). It was a form letter, but at least they let me know.
The next one came in with “not a good fit”, which might be just a way of saying that the piece was good, but the tone, style, or topic didn’t go well with what they needed. Or it could have been a nice way of saying that they thought it was terrible. Who knows?
The third one was comforting, even though it was still a rejection. Just this little snippet made me feel that my work wasn’t totally lacking in redeeming qualities:
We enjoyed the noir ambiance of this period piece
OK, that’s a rejection I can live with.
Then the kicker. The fourth one, man that was a doozy. It happened to come on a day when someone made a critical comment to me about my appearance. Over the past year, I’ve gained about 15 pounds (I have my excuses of course) and they made a remark about it. Believe me, I was very much well aware of this fact before they pointed it out to me. I’ve struggled with my weight for most of my life and although they didn’t mean anything by their comment, it still bothered me.
Anyhoo, later that day, after I had already gone through self-criticism over the extra pounds (and yes, I know I shouldn’t let that kind of stuff bother me, and mostly I’m OK with it, but it just struck a nerve I guess), Rejection #4 arrived in my inbox and just put a feather in the cap of the whole day.
Here I am, almost 2 months later and it’s still hard for me to look at. You see, they were kind enough to offer me some points of criticism on what they didn’t like – and I do mean kind since most times, you’re lucky if you get a form letter – but I would have appreciated it if a few comments from their reviewers had been a little less unfiltered. Meaning more constructive and less crushing. But oh well.
I thanked them for the feedback – after all, we all need that if we’re going to improve and it was nice of them to take the time to provide it – and then I sat, thinking “My story is crap.”
From there, it was a quick jump to “Maybe all of my writing is crap”, which soon spiraled into “I’m a talentless hack.”
My takeaway was that they really really didn’t like my story at all and maybe just might have loathed it.
That’s not necessarily true, but it felt true.
Once I was able to steel myself to re-read the email, I noted that several of them commented that they liked the story concept, and none of them had the same criticism on what they didn’t like. One found the dialogue lacking. Another liked the dialogue but not the “text around the dialogue”. Another didn’t feel the main character’s motivation. And so on. Only the way I’ve written it here is the nice version…they didn’t exactly mince any words with their criticism.
So what can you do except dust yourself off and carry on?
I got busy with work and other things, but started compiling my list of the next 5 places to submit and toyed with the idea of re-writing the piece if all of those came back with a no.
(Careful readers might have noticed that I submitted to 5 magazines and haven’t yet mentioned Rejection #5.)
Just a few weeks after the deflating fourth rejection, I heard back from the fifth place and last place I submitted to in my first round.
I had to read it a second time for it to sink in, but these words were like a balm to my slightly bruised writer’s soul:
Thank you for your submission. If it’s still available, we would love to publish it.
I didn’t for a moment worry about seeming too eager – I replied with a resounding fist-pumping “Yes!” less than 2 hours after receiving their email.
I felt affirmed as a writer – someone saw enough story magic in my piece that they wanted to publish it. And I felt on top of the world in that moment.
And that’s how my longish short story, Poets and Killers, is now set to be published in Issue 6 of Rind Literary Magazine.
What I learned from this experience is:
- Rejection hurts and some rejections hurt worse than others.
- Thinking about all of the stories I’ve read about famous authors whose work was rejected over and over (yeah, I’m thinking of you, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Margaret Mitchell, Agatha Christie, and others) only helps when I’m not looking at a somewhat soul-withering rejection of my own.
- Thinking of those same stories I just mentioned really helps when the emotional dust settles – I can either quit or continue to submit but only one of those paths will actually help me as a writer.
So that brings me to the end of my post with a happily ever after and a sought-after publication credit.
Until I submit my next piece and brace myself for rejection once again…