Rejectomancy: don’t feed the beast

Some discussion that went on after yesterday’s post made me think of something else related to slushing/submitting. If you’re a writer trying to break into magazines, I cannot recommend highly enough that you serve a bit of time as volunteer slusher. Ditto spending a bit of time doing serious critique group work. There are some things you will learn by doing both, and improving your fiction is a mere collateral benefit.

What you will learn from the slusher/editor’s/critiquer’s point of view:

Sometimes, most often actually, there is no specific reason for a rejection other than “we can’t use this at this point in time”.

Many-a decent story and its writer’s confidence have been well and truly ruined by the writer’s desperate quest to “make the story perfect” according to feedback.

OK, back to editorial feedback. When I said yesterday that I didn’t comment on a lot of slush anymore*, I realised afterwards that writer whingery isn’t the prime reason, although I do find it very uncomfortable to see people post literal editorial feedback on blogs**. It’s kinda OK if the feedback is positive, but yano, still that confidentiality/trust issue. The feedback was given to the author, and not for the author to blurt all over the blogosphere.

I find it more disturbing when people read far more into an editorial comment than was intended by the writer of that comment. I love JJA’s rejections. Who doesn’t have any “This didn’t grab me” rejections from F & SF? Because the story did exactly that. Not grab him, that is. No reason, because there isn’t one. The editor had slots for ten stories and had to choose out of 200. The editor is going to choose what appeals most to him or her. Nothing more or less.

But it’s not very helpful to writers, is it, because there has to be some magic bullet that, if a big name editor made a suggestion, and then if only you fixed that issue, the story would be great and sell well and win awards.

Uhm, no.

Your best shot at this point in time is to submit the story elsewhere and write another story.

Every critique group seems to have at least one member who forever seems to be revising the same stuff. And while everyone else in the group is politely gnashing their teeth and hoping to hell that this writer would just move on and write something else, the writer seems to be stuck on the “if only I make this story perfect” issue. I’ve seen people fork out money for free-lance editors, FFS. Meanwhile, the work in question only seems to get longer, more stilted and over-written. Revising something to death is sooooooo easy.

So, supposing as slush reader, I said I didn’t like a story “because the character is too passive”. Supposing the writer edited the story to make the character more active. The next editor might say they didn’t think the actions of the character were justified by the plot. Whatever. And so on and so forth. The story may already be dead and over-revised at this point. Was the reason I rejected the story on its first submission really the passive character? In other words, would I have passed the story up if the character was more active? Or was I just looking for a reason that justified rejecting the story? If I’m honest with myself, if that was the only reason, I’d ask for a re-write. No, actually, if that was the only reason and I really, really liked the rest of the story, I’d pass it up anyway.

Could you tell the difference between the slusher fishing for a reason or a we’d-buy-this-if-only comment as receiver of that letter? Would a comment send the writer off into a needless revision “because a magazine said so” or was the rejection merely a matter of personal taste or lack of space?

You will never know. Therefore, the committing of rejectomancy (= the over-analysis of comments on rejection letters) is at best futile, and at worst harmful. As proud recipient of hundreds of rejection letters, I can tell that at times it’s pretty darn impossible to figure out what is part of a magazine’s standard rejection and what is personal commentary. If you get a personal comment, that’s usually good, because it means the story caught someone’s attention, but it doesn’t mean that the story can be made to suit the commenter’s vision.

It may just not be that kind of story.
The writer may not have the type of skills to do it (not meaning a lack of skill, but not being that type of writer)
The editor may be trying to impose too much of their own vision on the story.
It’s irrelevant anyway, because that same magazine will not look at the same story again.

The thing to do with those types of comments is to keep them in the back of your head when writing the next story. Editors and slush readers are usually far too busy to write useful and meaningful commentary on stories they reject. If you get a comment, awesome, but it’s too late for that magazine. If it’s easily fixed, OK, but otherwise, leave well enough alone.

Don’t over-analyse comments. Magazines are in the business of accepting stories, not teaching people how to write.

* I do comment on stories where I can see very clear and fixable issues

** I cannot stress enough that I am not talking about myself, but of the general phenomenon that makes it possible to easily copy & paste the text of a rejection letter in your blog


3 comments on “Rejectomancy: don’t feed the beast

  1. I agree totally. Personally, I never revise according to comments I get on my rejections. I assume that the only reason editors comment is in order to encourage me (and I have, in my time, derived much encouragement from personal rejections!) But, of course, an editor can’t _just_ praise your story, or you’ll be all confused about why, if they liked it so much, they didn’t like it. Thus, in order to praise you, the editor also has to throw some criticism in there.

    Personally, I like Sheila Williams’ rejections. She just throws in a complimentary adjective or two (“nicely-written”, “thoughtful”, etc) and then says, “but it’s not quite right for me.” No need to overanalyze or stress out about those rejections. They’re perfectly clear in saying that the story was better than average, but still not good enough to buy.

    • Exactly. I even prefer the wording “not what we’re looking for” to “not good enough” because that assumes a story can be made better and implies some kind of failure of the writer.

      • Err, I meant to write “…why, if they liked it so much, they didn’t buy it”. And yes, I think “not what we’re looking for” is definitely a good phrasing. It really closes the door. Some people will cling to any kind of hope…

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