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


From the slush minion’s diary #13: confidentiality

This is a hard one, and a subject I offer here for discussion.

Supposing I received in the slush a story which I think is absolute crap or which annoys me for a reason, and I then jumped on Twitter and tweeted “Haha, here is yet another [insert reason why story annoyed me]”

The author of that story is also on Twitter, and sees my response. The author recognises the story and is offended.

Hell, yeah, the author has every right be offended. As far as I know, when you submit a story, you enter into a voluntary agreement that the venue will write back to you saying stuff about your story, most likely “we are unable to use this story”. You do not give permission for the slushreader to jump onto social networking and lampoon your submission in front of millions. I do, seriously, not submit to editors who tweet their slush, and fortunately most seem to have understood how offensive it is to do so without the author’s express permission, for example if it’s a blog contest or something where social media posting is part of the package.

OK, no we agree on that, let’s consider the next step.

The author receives a rejection with some comments on the story. The author is a bit pissed off because the slushreader seems to have totally misunderstood the story or it is clear that the slushreader hasn’t even made it past the first paragraph.

So, the author jumps on Twitter to vent frustration about this fact, thereby breaking the equally voluntary agreement of confidentiality between the magazine and author. How could this be harmful? After all, authors are underdogs in this game.

Ok, supposing you were an author trying to get an agent, and an agent is kind enoughh to make some comments on either your query or your manuscript. You find the comments annoying and say so on your blog or Twitter. When the time comes to send out your next manuscript, that agent might see it, remember your name, google it… and come up with the stuff you said.

I think there is a fine line. While I agree that some stuff (rude comments or hideously long response times or other beating about the bush in terms of contracts or payment) is tweetable, I think it is only OK for an author to tweet literal personal rejections if the author is happy not to sell anything to that particular venue.

I, for one, as slush reader, hate seeing the comments I thought were personal rejections being tweeted around the twitterverse, and have stopped making those comments for that very reason. I make the comments with an assumption of confidentiality, in other words, that the submission process is a conversation between the magazine and the author, and that it only acceptable to be aired publicly if the conversation breaks down.

What do you guys think?

Rejectomancy: why are editors rejecting your stories?

Rejectomancy = over-worrying about rejections, trying to analyse, no-matter-what, why the editor didn’t buy your story, a compulsion to ‘learn from each rejection’ in order to find the holy grail to publication.

ASIM 53 has gone to print! This finishes up another editing project. Being on the other end of the rejection process gives you some insights on why stories are bought and why they’re rejected. Apart from the regular slush reading gig, this is my second editing project, and the more I’m involved with editing, the more I realise that the acceptance, or rejection, or stories is a pretty random process.

Just to be clear, at ASIM, stories that have been ‘approved’ by three slush readers go into a pool from which editors, sometimes several editors at the same time, can choose for their respective issues. These stories have already been vetted against standards of grammar and plotting.

Why do I choose one story and not another?

Of course, the story has to be well-written. But, actually, more important than well-written is a kind of spark. If the story has enough spark, I’ll put up with a certain level of pedestrian writing. I want spark.

And, here comes the rub, what is a spark for me is not a spark for someone else. And that someone else can also be an editor, who would have chosen a completely set of different stories. I like hard SF (there is some of that in the issue), I like space opera (some of that, too), and I like concepts that make me laugh.

A good number of the stories that I looked at and didn’t choose will be returned to the authors with a rejection letter that says that the story was good enough to go into the pool and may well sell elsewhere. There will also be reader comments. Each of these comments are the opinion of one person. They may not even be the reason that the story was rejected. The reason that the story was rejected may not be that the story wasn’t any good. It was just that no one felt any spark while reading it.

A rejection means one thing, and one thing only: the editor couldn’t use the story at that time.

Whatever the rejection letter says does not matter. A line like ‘please consider us for your next story’ may be standard for that magazine. Or it may not. Either way, it means nothing. Regardless of what the letter said, you’d likely send them something else anyway. You may think you’re getting closer with that publication, but that doesn’t mean you’ll actually sell something there. It doesn’t matter whether the editor says this or that, or whether you got through one round and was passed to the editor-in-chief. It doesn’t matter that they kept your story for a month where the average rejection time is two weeks. It doesn’t matter…

It just doesn’t matter.

They didn’t buy your story. At this point in time, your best hope is to send the story elsewhere and send that particular magazine another story.

Some data points from my own stack:
magazine 1: first story I sent them got a personal rejection. I’ve been unable to raise a peep from them since.
magazine 2: never received anything except form rejections. Then a sale.
magazine 3: I have a string of (quite rare) personal rejections longer than my arm, but cannot seem to sell anything there.
magazine 4: two rejections, then a sale
story 1: everyone likes this story. I have a string of almosts from every big magazine. Still unsold
story 2: my WOTF non-winning finalist. Do you think I can sell this story?
story 3: sold on first submission

These data look random, because they are random. Editors are people, and they have preferences. Preferences are not set in concrete and will change from issue to issue. They will depend on what else is in the issue.

Stop worrying about the meaning of rejections. Just send the story somewhere else, and write another story.

Will your story get rejected on typos?

Writing post today. As usual, leave it, or take it with a good dose of NaCl and humour.

Sometimes, you can hear people cry out: ‘but surely magazines don’t reject a story because it has a few typos!’

Well–uhm–no, they don’t. And yes, they do.

First: define ‘typo’.

‘Tyop’ is a typo; ‘amking’ (making) is a typo. This is one of my bugbears, by the way. ‘Frpm’ is a typo.

‘Then’ instead of ‘than’ is not a typo. ‘Your’ instead of ‘you’re’ is not a typo, and neither is ‘affect’ when it should be ‘effect’.

A typo is something the fingers did that the brain didn’t intend the fingers to do. It is clearly an accident. The second lot of ‘typos’ are lazy-arse excuses for writers’ poor grammar skills. Guess which are likely to get you rejected?

Genuine typos tend to be one-off occasions in an otherwise clean document. Excuses for typos tend to breed in dark corners. If there is one, there are almost certainly more. There are exceptions, of course, and some stories are good enough to excuse a very low level of this kind of poor English. One thing you should remember about exceptions, and that is that they as a rule never, ever apply to you.

Mostly, excuses-for-typos tend to be symptomatic for other style problems, such as chronic over-writing, word repetitions, trying-too-hard writing or flat writing. They are never the sole reason that a story gets rejected, because they rarely happen in isolation.

In other words, if you have grammar and style bugbears, catch them, squash them or shoot them and incinerate them. Your grammar skills are like the screwdriver in a tool kit: you can use it to fix things, lever things off, or bash things, but you don’t notice it until it’s missing and then you can’t do the job.

Motto of the day: don’t leave home without a screwdriver.

are you reading too much into a rejection letter?

On the back of yesterday’s post, I participated in #zinechat on Twitter today. This is a regular scheduled chat organised by Jaym Gates, and which usually includes at least one prominent magazine editor. Topics relate to anything to do with short stories and the magazines that publish them.

The subject of rejection comes up frequently. Why stories are rejected, how to improve your odds, etc.

One of the things that strikes me is that when a writer gets a rejection, he/she automatically assumes that there must be something wrong with the story. If a story gets rejected quickly, that’s probably correct. Any comments you get from an editor at this stage are golden. Things like ‘didn’t like the main character’ or ‘the end fizzled’.

When, however, a magazine informs you that they’re holding your story for further consideration, it means that obvious hurdles do no longer apply. It also means that any comments you get if the story is rejected don’t mean all that much more than the editor scrounging for a reason to reject your story. In this case, the story is no longer at fault. I could be that the editor (usually someone different from the slush reader who passed your story) didn’t like it as much as another story, or the magazine is simply full, or the editor is looking for a different type of subject matter or style to complete an issue. Or a magazine has accepted a similar story recently.

So I feel you need to be a bit careful with rejections like that and not read too much into them. That’s why I prefer simple and short rejections, without embellishment or fake empathy. All a rejection means is ‘we won’t be publishing this’. Nothing more, nothing less.