Rejection Letter Revisited

The following is a personalized rejection letter I received from Every Day Fiction back in 2011. You might be asking yourself why I’m publicly displaying my failure. The answer: I learned from it. Someone in my writing group learned from it. And maybe – just maybe – you can learn from it, too. At the very least, it can be a comforting reminder: Rejection happens to everyone – not just you.

Dear Gretchen Bassier,

Thank you for your submission to Every Day Fiction. I regret to inform you that we are unable to use it at this time.

Very competent prose here, and I liked the buzzing of bees metaphor that you used throughout for Allison. The switcheroo was obviously a nice twist, especially in light of that fact that the attributes given to the other “patients” were all very reasonable and dark-edged when the roles were reversed. This is a close story for me, because I like the twist and enjoyed the flow, but I wanted something a little more from it. I wanted the twist to lead to some other plot development, such as figuring out what was behind the locked doors (the wail from beyond was a foreshadow begging for more). This doesn’t go much further than introducing the switch and then ending, giving it a “first chapter” feel.
— Joseph Kaufman

The prose is pretty solid, except I noticed a typo at the very end with Brute instead of Bruce. The author sets the stage nicely, and this has a very cool Shutter Island sort of feel to it. That said, I’m concerned that this plot has been overdone and that it won’t feel fresh enough to our readers.
— Sealey Andrews

The story was well told and gave the reader many things to be curious about. I liked the imagery in the piece and the use of figurative language in the beginning of the story with the bees. Though I’m left confused- I’m not sure what has happened at the end and think it would need to be played out better for the reader to understand. I get the feeling it is some kind of twist- but I don’t know what the twist was.
— S. A. Ross

Great introduction that really draws the reader in. This story has some good description, too, and the beehive metaphor works.
While the initial dialogue is useful in a show-don’t-tell sort of way, it’s not very unique. This story could start shortly before the forbidden door appears with just a quick summary.
But then things get interesting! Bruce is terrifying and poor Shiri has issues. The perspective totally flips.
This ends up nicely.
— Shelley Dayton

There’s sometimes a fine line between stories that challenge readers preconceptions (which done right, are good) and those that seem to be set ups for trick endings. Here it’s “they’re not really staffers, they’re patients!” The other readers are mixed on this; my feeling is that this one isn’t quite what we’re looking for. I’ll send it along for a final opinion.
— John Towler

Well written with interesting characters, but I’ve seen this twist before (and the reverse of it too, that the “patients” are really staffers), and since the point of the story seems to be the twist itself (rather than character development or a plot beyond the twist) it left me slightly flat.
— Camille Gooderham Campbell

Breaking It Down

As you can see, there are six different critiques in this rejection letter. A six-critique rejection letter is highly unusual, and I think it speaks volumes about EDF’s commitment to helping writers – especially new ones – succeed. I’ve yet to encounter another magazine where every reader takes the time to write detailed comments on every single piece submitted. To this day, it still amazes me.

The reviews are, as one editor mentioned, very mixed. Almost every reader had a different reaction to the story. If you look closely, however, you can see two common threads: 1.) Several readers had seen this plot twist used before, and 2.) There wasn’t enough substance to make the story complete. These are the main two reasons that the story was ultimately rejected – lack of originality, and lack of change.

Re: Lack of Originality:

I once heard a published novelist say that book editors claim to be looking for fresh material, but they’re really not. Novel publishers want something safe. Something proven. Something that will sell. Otherwise, it’s too much of a gamble. And that makes perfect sense – for BOOKS. Short story publishers, on the other hand, are a completely different species. When it comes to short stories, fresh, edgy and innovative are all the rage. Magazines can afford to push boundaries and try new things because there are typically multiple stories per issue – if one particular story flops, there are plenty of others to make up for it. Many mags actually have lists of plotlines and character types they see too often. Read these lists carefully. Read ‘em and heed ‘em.

Re: Lack of Change:

This is exactly what I was talking about in my post The Whole Story. I said I had rejection letters to prove my point, and now you’ve seen one of them. A story isn’t a story without change. Characters need to grow. Stuff needs to happen. There’s only one magazine I know of that doesn’t require a complete story. I think it’s called Vignettes, and I’m pretty sure my story didn’t even qualify as one of those. Remember: A twist ending, on its own, does not a story make.

Hurts So Good

The awesome thing about getting a personalized rejection is that you know exactly why your piece didn’t make the cut. The sucky thing about personalized rejections: you know EXACTLY why your piece didn’t make the cut. Gone are all the little lies you try to tell yourself about why your undeniably incredible story somehow got rejected. No more “Maybe the slush reader just got dumped by her hot boyfriend” or “Maybe they only read the first paragraph and didn’t really give the story a chance.” It wasn’t the slush reader, and it wasn’t an unfair partial reading. It was the story.

That said, not all of the news was bad. They didn’t say I was a crappy writer, just that this particular story didn’t work. In fact, you may notice that most of the readers followed the feedback guidelines I talked about HERE, including positive comments to balance out the criticism. Some nice little nuggets for me to cling onto until the rejection-burn wore off.

And this one did sting – I remember just feeling frozen as I sat there reading the letter for the first time. Kind of crushed, actually. I took it personally (which it never is) and became defensive, wanting to explain some of my creative choices, like the reason I included the handshake scene, or that fact that the “typo” was actually intentional. I had the letter all planned out in my head. I can’t tell you how pathetically grateful I am that I never actually wrote or sent it. Besides being unprofessional and sounding like a whiny two-year-old, it would have accomplished nothing except to annoy the people who spent valuable time trying to help me. Above all, it would have damaged any future chances of being published by the magazine. Thankfully, the intelligent portion of my brain took charge, and I wrote a simple note thanking the staff for their detailed comments.

Now that I’ve had a bit more experience with the submission-rejection cycle, the big “R” isn’t such a troubling thing to find in my inbox anymore. I just sigh, feel bummed out for a few minutes, and then move on. Every now and then, there’s one that I can’t quite shrug off. Usually it’s only when I a.) really thought I had a good chance, b.) really love the magazine, and/or c.) don’t have many/any other submissions out there. I can’t do much to curb a.) and b.), but c.) is an easy fix, and there are a few other things you can do to minimize your trauma and handle the big “R” like a graceful pro:

Some DOs and DON’Ts

DO stagger your submissions, making sure you have several pieces out to several different mags (I like to call this “Keeping Hope Alive”)

DO let yourself feel a little sad about rejection, especially if your hopes were up, BUT,

DON’T EVER act on the urge to defend your work to a publisher who’s already said “no”

DON’T get your hopes TOO high (if you can help it)

DON’T obsess over waiting for one particular result – learn to let each one go and move on to the next project

DO write a “thank you” note if you are lucky enough to get personalized feedback (UNLESS the magazine’s guidelines discourage it)

DO send the same piece to five different markets at once (if they all allow simultaneous subs), but…

DON’T send the same piece to eighty different markets all at once – after the first wave of comments comes in, you may want to make changes before sending the piece out again

DON’T get so caught up in submissions and rejections that you forget why you started writing in the first place

And, above all, DON’T let rejection stop you. If writing is in your heart and your blood and your dreams, then YOU ARE A WRITER. Use criticism to feed your fire, not douse it. Try, fail, learn, get better.

Keep writing.

-Gretchen

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One thought on “Rejection Letter Revisited

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