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Writing: The Process of Rejection

Anyone who wants to be a writer should not even bother if they can’t handle rejection. Rejection is a big part of the picture and it’s your work, the very words you may have sweat blood and tears to create that gets rejected. Some people, especially first-time novelists treat their creation and more endearing that Dr. Frankenstein regarded his monster. It is their baby and any time you want to remove a piece or say it is flawed (in a critique) or reject it outright, then you are rejecting their child. Sometimes you’re pulling limbs off of their child and how could that be; it’s perfect and formed from the cerebral loins of your love?

But them’s the breaks. You win some and you lose some. If I had to give a recipe for writing and getting published it would be 30% writing, 50% perseverance and 20% resilience, to withstand the rejections. So it is, that you must withstand the rejection and is probably why many people don’t become successful writers. That and learning to write well of course.

Often when starting out a writer will get a form rejection letter or email from a slush reader. This means the story didn’t make it to the second tier, the main editor or the second round. Some publications run on committee and a piece has to get all yeas or nays to decide which way it goes. The slush reader can therefore reject a story that the editor might actually have liked. But it is not for the writer to circumvent the process and try to get to the editor past the readers.

Depending on how the system is set up, either the editor divvies up the submissions to the slush readers or the readers get them first. There are actually two ways to get past the slush pile…eventually. One is to write exceedingly well, get your stuff noticed and bought. The other is to meet the editor at a convention or other event, chat with them (without being pushy) and see if they will let you/invite you to submit to them. In those cases, you should mention in your cover letter where you met them and something about the conversation.

It won’t guarantee a sale but it might get you a personal rejection. There are also some editors who read everything that comes to them and therefore they will always do the rejections. Ellen Datlow was one and there are others. And sometimes an editor will ask for a rewrite but then reject the piece if the rewrite doesn’t do what they’re looking for. As a reader for Chizine in poetry, we’ve asked some writers to rework their poems and we never hear from them again. Being accepted by Chizine is a rare thing since there are four issues a year and about four poems per issue. I’m surprised that someone would take it so lackadaisically and pass up the opportunity for publication.

The other end of submitting work is the waiting. Most markets list their guidelines and say it takes 3-4 months to reply or 6-8 weeks or something  with an end date. A writer who starts sending query letters before that date just annoys the readers. After that date, it is fair for a writer to query and ask if the piece is still being considered. Sometimes when I do this, I get an immediate rejection, which makes me wonder if it triggers some guilt button with the readers and they just toss it out of their sight.

This happened last night with a college publication that was more than a month overdue so I send a short, are you still considering this. I received within hours, a rejection that said sorry for holding this so long but we’re going to pass. So did they read it, or did they just toss it out of their way? I don’t know and may never know. Queries do sometime prod the editors to take a look.

If a query gets no answer, then it is up to the writer to decide if they want to wait forever or submit their writing elsewhere. I don’t even bother to withdraw a story because if I can’t even get a polite response, then I’m not wasting any more time. I usually send the piece out again, making a note that I never received a response.

Any publication that has taken more than three months past their projected return date without so much as a notice will have to expect that they’ll lose good stories and poems. An editor should never get mad or upset at a writer who has moved on elsewhere because the market didn’t meet its written requirements and expectations. Just as writers should respect the guidelines of each market (even if they’re ungainly and tedious) so should an editor respect the needs of writers and that they can’t leave their story with a market indefinitely.

I have two stories (soon to be three) with markets that haven’t responded in over a year, after several queries. In these cases I’ve submitted elsewhere. Should I hear from them (as opposed to hearing they’ve gone out of business) then I’ll be surprised. Some of these markets used to be reliable but because of the economy or something in the lives of the editors, they have stopped responding. The worst length of time I had for a rejection was seven years: really at that point the editor should have admitted defeat and started afresh.

The fastest I’ve had a rejection was within six hours. Sometimes those are the worst. You don’t even have a chance to build up hopes of a sale. But then maybe they’re the best because you haven’t built up expectations. Still, I’d love to believe that all of my stories are hard choices, held till the eleventh hour, and then accepted, rejected with reluctance. We can all dream, can’t we?

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Living in a World of Rejection

Everyone gets some form or rejection at some point in their lives. If you’re fairly well balanced, you can take it in stride, maybe momentarily sad/disappointed/angry but you move on.

However, to reject seems a much harder action for some people to commit. Take the thinner side of relationships–that is, dating. How many times has it happened that someone says, “I’ll call you,” when they have no intention of ever calling? Or the slow disappearance of the person you’re dating, who can’t manage to say, “I’m no longer interested,” but instead becomes distant, talking less, laughing less, making love less or with less passion?

Really, who is being fooled in such relationships? Not the one being dumped slowly, unless they’re in complete denial. And if you haven’t learned by now, a slow dumping is much more wounding and demoralizing than a sudden one. Though that shouldn’t legitimize never calling again but still having the guts to say, “Look, this just isn’t working out,” or “I’m really more into my book than you,” or whatever. It comes down to communication.

However, I believe there’s often ego tied up in this that people don’t realize. “Oh, I couldn’t tell him/her I don’t want to see them anymore. It would crush him/her.” Yeah, I’ve been reduced to ashes every time some guy never called. Give me a break. Ego ego ego. Not needed. People survive, they move on. They continue to live their lives. Someone I’ve dated is not all-important in my life. (A longer live-in relationship could be a different story however; more time is invested.) If you’ve only had a few dates with someone, be decent and say it’s not working. Don’t be a worm wriggling away without the guts to say anything.

Which gets to the real point of this. Writing. I’ve been rejected so many times I cannot count. I used to say I could paper a house with rejections and a bathroom with acceptances. I think I could now paper a good-sized bedroom with acceptances. But the point is, a writer lives with rejection all the time. And it’s not just because personalities don’t mesh (well, maybe sometimes it is), but it’s more personal; it’s one’s writing that gets rejected.

Writing can be the blood and soul of a writer. A good writer can separate enough to take constructive criticism. A writer can also be completely emotionally unstable and think that you’re ripping the arms off their baby any time you say anything against their perfect child. That’s not a good writer, who will never get the perspective to see what is wrong with a story. That’s a crazed writer who might, from time to time, write well, but only if they can take criticism.

Still, no matter how professional you are, how gracious, how open and noble, how thick your skin, it can get to you. The perseverance of most writers is akin to beating your head against a wall with a nail sticking out, knowing it’s causing you to hurt and bleed, but still doing it, hoping you can pound that nail down. What gives first? How prevalent is depression amongst writers? Ask them.

Writing is not for the weak at heart. Over the years and the many workshops/writers groups I’ve been in I’ve seen people freeze up. Some never write again when they find out their perfect child has a flaw to some people. Some are closet writers, writing away, but paralyzed to submit or let anyone view their work.

And there you go; submission. A writer must be submissive. Passively and meekly sending in stories and poetry to the mighty god-editor of doom, awaiting the call or the casting out. You must submit your writing and submit to the will of others.

Now, when you look at the aberrant or colorful personalities of past writers: Dylan Thomas, Hemingway, Oscar Wilde, Lord Byron, to name a few, is it any wonder they turned out the way they did? And of course one can ask: does writing attract the unique personalities or does writing create them? Does a writer who has experienced the numerous rejections by editors become more compassionate in rejecting people in a relationship or less? Does the one condition have any correlation to the other or is it strictly one’s personality that dictates the way of rejection?

Whichever it is, the rejector should always reject gently and clearly, whether in a relationship or in writing (there are always exceptions). And anyone considering the life of a writer better be ready to face rejection and realize that nothing is perfect in the world to all people. Something can be rejected a hundred times before it is accepted (even true for relationships but not with the same person–that’s stalking). So here’s to a thick skin, persevering and weathering the rejections.

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Writing: The Sad State of Poetry in Speculative Fiction

Waaay back, when I first started to get serious about writing, I wrote poetry. Okay I started writing poetry at the angst-ridden edge of twelve, and shelved much of it until my twenties. Eventually though, my poetry grew up and ventured into the world.

My first professional sale was for a whole $1.45 and yes it was a science fiction poem to Star*line. I continued to sell a poem here and there for usually five bucks and a copy of the magazine/book. Then I hit it big and sold a poem to Amazing Stories; $36 USD. Wow! And from that, I was invited (they actually contacted me) to join the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA), THE professional organization for science fiction writers throughout North America. (I  don’t think I’d ever heard of SF Canada way back then.)

Thirty-six dollars and SFWA membership. SFWA works on a third of the pie idea. Three pro sales makes you a real writer. One or two-thirds makes you an Associate. You still pay the same amount but you get fewer privileges and can’t vote for the board or the Nebulas. What does it get you? That may be a different post but there is a wee bit of prestige, a very wee bit if you stay Associate forever.

I’ve sold more poems and stories since then, but everything must be speculative obviously for SFWA’s requirements. The publication that your piece appears in must meet the demands of a high production number, be a long running publication, pay pro rates, be American (and a few, very few Canadian magazines), etc. for membership qualification. Oh and poetry, well SFWA decided to drop it like a hot potato. No longer can you become a member on poetry alone. Not even if you’re the best poet in the world. Bruce Boston is probably the best Speculative poet out there. Certainly the most well-known. Canada’s own Sandra Kasturi is no pale shadow either. And there are numerous more.

But here’ is thesad state of the beleaguered poem. Someone got it in their head that because a poem is a hundred words or a hundred lines then why, it’s gotta be easy and fast to write. I’ve spent days, even months writing a poem (in some cases, years, but not constantly). I doubt it was any poet who said, scrap the poems from SFWA. And if three measly poems were just too few for a full membership, then why not make it six or nine or a dozen? Nope, SFWA allows stories, novellas, novelettes, books, even flash fiction in the right circumstances (though I hear that’s iffy) but poetry. Ick. That stuff is for intellectuals pontificating down their noses. Who reads it?

And really, that is part of the problem, isn’t it? Who reads poetry? There is a small point here that I believe poetry is part of the old bardic tradition and really is meant to be heard and seen. Look at poetry slams (a discussion for another day). Many people read it…sometimes, for it to still be bought in some places. But enough? And poetry, well it’s unfathomable, bizarre, esoteric. And spec poetry has just gotta be worse. Doesn’t it? I mean aliens in a story gives you time to paint an elaborate picture, but a vignette? Well, we don’t have time to look at that.

Sigh, there was an era where everyone was taught to read poetry. And what is “The Cremation of Sam McGee” if not speculative poetry? Poetry doesn’t have to be unfathomable or above people’s heads though I’ve had the most straightforward poems rejected by editors who said their audience wouldn’t understand them. Say the poem is confusing but don’t lower the intelligence of your readers, please.

Oh and did I mention that speculative fiction is the worst paid genre out there (except, would you believe, erotic fiction)? Yes, I can write a poem and receive $100 for it from Descant, or a story for a lit mag and get anywhere from $100-$1000, or I can write an article for anywhere from thirty cents a word to a dollar and more. Sure ,there’s a range but if you’re writing poetry and speculative poetry, well you really are the dregs of society. Not even as good as the tentacle waving scum of speculative story writers. No sirree. You’re filler on those pages that don’t have a story long enough.

That is the sad sate of speculative poetry. Alas. And this attitude is often held by those who have never written it or tried to understand it. SFWA has some pretty old-fashioned ideas that makes me wonder on the value of continuing to be a member when I’m a small time Canadian writer.

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Writing: Rejection Letters

On one of my writers’ lists we started discussing rejection letters. These have ranged from the ones that say, “I love your novel but have no idea how I would market it,” to form rejections.

In the range of rejections I’ve received is the acceptance letter from a new magazine that said they had “excepted” my story. I thought they had rejected but they hadn’t. Though the magazine didn’t make it to the first issue, I did get paid.

I have had many form rejections along the vein of “Thanks for your submission but it’s not right for us.” Fairly banal and doesn’t tell you anything of why they didn’t accept your poem or story. I have had the form rejections that are annoying and less than helpful. They’re usually the ones that say something like: “Thanks for your submission but we have decided not to accept it. The reason we reject pieces could be grammar, spelling, we’ve seen the plot before, flat characterization, not enough conflict, the editor was drunk, the editor hates stories about X, bad phase of the moon, we’re not paid enough to care, we don’t like you or your little dog too, etc.” Okay, maybe they don’t say all of these things but they may as well because, really, it’s a shot in the dark for any one of the reasons.

Asimov’s used to have a super irritating one for slushpile authors. It inspired me to write a poem about it that Starline published. I gave Gardner Dozois a copy when I met him at a convention, and I did eventually get out of that slushpile and that annoying letter. There have been a few that were downright insulting and snobby. Why editors think they need to do this to authors, I’m not sure but it usually bespeaks of nonprofessionalism in the magazine too.

I received one from a humor publisher done in the form of a breakup letter. I’m sure they thought they were being cute and funny but I would have rejected it for not being humorous at all and I found it more annoying in its coyness than anything else.

Some rejection letters use a checklist where there are boxes with such things as: plot has been done too often, grammatical issues, not enough conflict, characters flat, dialogue unbelievable, etc. The editor then checks the boxes  that pertain to your submission. Many of these letters also have the box that says, just not right for us, which is a valid reason. These rejections are marginally better because they may give you an idea of what doesn’t work in the story. I haven’t seen any of these for a while now. Either I’m getting personal rejections or the places I send work to just don’t use them.

The best rejection is one that says something about why the editor is rejecting a piece. Although this can often be subjective and once in awhile, downright stupid, (editors are people too) more often it will give you an idea of what is stalling the piece. An example of receiving some information and trying to correct the story is displayed by this one piece that I have never managed to sell. It takes place on an alien world with insectoid and larval creatures. I’d send it to one magazine and would be told the story was too alien and the reader couldn’t relate to the creatures. I’d rewrite and send it out to another magazine and receive back a rejection saying my aliens were too human. I did this for a bit, always having it rejected. Then I didn’t bother to rewrite the story in between the submissions and sure enough, one editor would say “too alien” and another “too human.” I’ll probably never sell that story until I’m a famous chestnut. So rejections must be taken with a grain of salt.

In the writers’ group, most of the writers said they’d prefer an informative rejection. Sometimes that rejection, after editors have held the story for a second reading, seems to be less preferable, but then it means I’m getting close. A no-no is to write back to editors and lambaste them for rejecting your piece. Professionals take it as part of the process and we chalk the annoying ones up to part of the experience. I always try, as an editor, to give a reason for rejecting as it hones my own skills and I know how much writers appreciate it. And so far, I have had letters of thank you but no one calling me names for rejecting their piece of genius.

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