Friday, June 12, 2009

The Business of Rejection

At some point in their careers most writers will face rejection. It’s an inevitable fact of life.

The reasons for rejection are many and varied – sometimes (in fact quite often) it boils down to poor market research on behalf of the writer, sometimes it’s to do with the nature of publishing, sometimes it’s simply that the editor wasn’t in simpatico with the story and sometimes (just sometimes) it’s because the story just wasn’t very good.

Leaving the last point to one side (after all, no one want to admit that they have written something less than sparkling) how does one avoid the pain of rejection?

First and foremost, of course, it’s important to be certain that your story is right for the market: there is little or no point in sending a horror story to a science fiction magazine, for instance, or submitting a sex ‘n’ violence piece to a market which is aimed at a younger audience. Similarly there are certain markets which just won’t entertain certain overused tropes (vampires, serial-killers, stories where the whole thing turned out to be a dream) so it always pays to be familiar with the guidelines and, better yet, to read the magazine. This kind of market research is much easier these days since the majority of publications have some kind of online presence and becomes simplicity itself when submitting to ezines.

A more difficult one to pin down is the lack of simpatico between editor and story. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the story is a bad one just that, for whatever reason, it didn’t appeal to the editor. This rather falls under the heading of Human Nature.

Of course it can also fall under the heading of Market Research as well. If a market is looking for a particular type of story with a certain type of protagonist then the story simply has to conform to this or be rejected. The Sword and Sorceress anthology, for instance, has a very clear cut set of guidelines which conform to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s basic analysis of commercial fiction: “A likable character overcomes almost insuperable odds and by his or her own efforts achieves a worthwhile goal.”

Now as an analysis or basic plot formula this is extremely elastic and covers a multitude of plots and characters, but at the same time also excludes a multitude of plots and characters (not that MZB was dismissive of other types of fiction and her essay “What Is A Short Story?” is a particularly fine one. Which you can find here:

But then there is that indefinable something, that gap between editor and story that no amount of good writing, well crafted plot and characters or good market research can overcome.

It might just be that, despite the story’s qualities, that another similar tale has just been accepted. It might be that the story is in some way at odds with the editor’s personal viewpoints and beliefs (I’ve had a fantasy story rejected because the principal character was a slaveholder), it could even be something as simple as one too many typos in the manuscript.

It’s hard not to take rejection personally. Most writing guides will advise you to try and develop a thick skin – this is very good advice. On the other hand, if your skin becomes too thick you feel nothing. And if you can’t feel you can’t write (leastways, that’s my opinion).

Of course, there’s no magic formula for avoiding rejection. Even a story as brilliant as Harry Harrison’s ‘An Alien Agony’ took a while to find a US publisher (and since has gone on to be reprinted many, many times) simply because it’s central idea was considered too shocking or too controversial for the times (the early 1960’s if memory serves).

Ultimately, if the standard ‘thanks, but no thanks’ reply comes winging its way back to you, the only thing to do is swear a little then send the story out again, and again, and again. If it’s a good ‘un it’ll find a home eventually.

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations on being able to only swear a little!

    Good summary on rejection -- I always smile when I see MZB and rejection mentioned in the same breath. She gave me my best one ever.(After stating she didn't have time to write but a form letter, she proceeded to dismantle my story in 3 paragraphs. And she was right. Mostly.)

    Actually, I rarely swear at rejections any more, although I tend argue with their inanimate form, letter or screen, as some people do with a television set.

    I think my level of thin-skinnedness are directly proportionate to my expectations for a story. The more I believe in a story, the more defensive I will be if it's rejected (Sigh. OK. WHEN it's rejected... the times I've sold a story on first try are in the minority.)

    And I endorse fully your calls for researching your market. Just like getting overly angry at a rejection, submitting to the wrong market wastes time and energy that none of us ever have enough of.

    And on that dangling participle, I'll end.