A monumental event occurred in my life today. I was rejected by a leading Science Fiction magazine.
You heard (read?) me right. At the top of my inbox, only three hours after I’d checked the online status of my short story (‘Under Review’), a nondescript email arrived with the news that my submission was not accepted.
And it made me happy.
Thank you very much for letting us see “Sleeping Mother.” We appreciate your taking the time to send it in for our consideration. Although it does not suit the needs of the magazine at this time, we wish you luck with placing it elsewhere.
Asimov’s Science Fiction”
Nothing special. Fairly impersonal, no critical advice offered; of course not, because editors don’t have that sort of time to spend on every budding would-be in their slush pile. So why did it strike such a chord?
This is the sort of news that’s meant to knock a writer to the floor with doubt and self-pity. It’s meant to rock your belief in yourself and the skills you thought you possessed. It’ll make you angry with yourself and question why you even bother writing this dumb shit anyway.
Yeah, I was actually worried those things would happen. I knew, after all the online articles and advice columns I’ve read, that it would be highly unlikely for my very first submission to get accepted. I knew to expect a rejection. But I still kinda dreaded it.
Problem is, that kind of dread can lead to inaction, which can be even worse than self-pity. I’ve been writing since the age of at least ten, maybe younger. I’ve got these cute exercise books full of my ridiculous, badly-spelled, early fiction. By the age of fourteen I knew I wanted to be a published author, and I’ve had that goal in the back of my head ever since.
Funny how it’s stayed at the back for so long, where it’s safe and comfortable.
I made some small, tentative steps – short story competitions, writing forums, even the Jack Hansard series has been arguably tentative. Not once have I approached a professional market, taken myself seriously in a professional capacity… until now.
Ultimately, I feel happy with this rejection because it’s my very first one. First blood. A rite of passage. Proof that I’ve crossed some invisible barrier in my head. Proof that, actually, rejection isn’t all that bad. That rejection, if anything, should make you work even harder.
First thing I did was review my manuscript and make changes. Re-read formatting guidelines. Tightened sentence structure. And then I went to the next magazine on my list, and submitted to them. I feel it’s worth a second opinion.
But while I wait for a reply, I’m going to give the story an overhaul, and make it kick even more ass. It might take another ten, twenty rejections, but eventually I’m going to end up with a story that kicks so hard somebody is going to have to help pick the editor up off the floor.
I want to frame my first rejection and stick it on my wall, and it will sit there as a reminder that there’s no reason to be scared of taking that step, because literally the worst thing that can happen is that you make yourself a better writer.
Sure, I know that sounds easier said than done. It’s one of those things that can’t really be taught – only you can make the changes required by improvement, and only you can make yourself want to pursue that difficult road. But there are some small nuggets of advice and encouragement we can share among ourselves. For my money, after a rejection (and, in fact, before you consider submitting anything, anywhere) an easy first step is to check your manuscript has been formatted correctly. It won’t save a poorly written story, but it might stop a good one sliding out from under the editor’s gaze. They do a crap-ton of reading – so make it easier on the eye for them. For an excellent guide, I sincerely recommend William Shunn’s comprehensive, and above all illustrative guide to achieving the industry standard: http://www.shunn.net/format/story.html I’d read descriptions of correct formatting elsewhere, but missed crucial elements until I saw it laid out clearly on the page like this.
I would then recommend reading this article by Sarah Olson for some seriously helpful and down-to-earth advice from slush readers. Even if you’ve heard all this advice before, it’s still incredibly interesting to get an insider perspective. I wouldn’t have guessed that cannibalism themes were apparently so prevalent. Or that starting sentences with ‘It was…’ can be a major turn-off for some editors. They’ve read it all before. Our job is to find the uncommon denominator.
And finally, keep writing, and don’t lose faith. A rejection doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. It might mean you misjudged the market, or you landed the editor who has already read several alien invasion stories that day, or that your work was good, but not the best. So keep writing until you are the best, and don’t let dread get the better of you. And frame that rejection letter. Wear it as a point of pride.