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Posts Tagged ‘rejections’

The question comes up fairly often, and it came up today: How far afield can an author go from established facts and still keep an audience? This is similar to our last discussion, but different. Here the question is not why some people like an author so much they will let her get away with (literary) murder, but how far an author can stretch the truth–or more specifically, how many times in one story?

I once had a story rejected because it contained Too Many Wonders. (It was capitalized in the rejection letter. I can show it to you.) The complaint was that the story had too many fantastical elements when it should have depended on one major speculation. And if that’s how the editor wanted to run his magazine, then he was right to say so. Honestly, it wasn’t the only problem with that story and he wouldn’t have taken it anyway, but I had sent in a lot of stories by that point, and I think he was trying to be encouraging. I sold the story much later, but even then the editor asked for significant changes (and he was right).

But I see stories all the time where there’s more than one speculative element! you say. And you, too, are right. If your story is set in the future, practically all of the elements will be speculative in nature. (Ironically, my story was set in the far future. Didn’t help.) The relevant phrase here is “practically all.” There’s one thing that doesn’t change, that can’t change, and that’s the human element. No matter how many changes you make, your characters have to be identifiable to present-day audiences. (Unless you’re Fred Pohl. Then you can do anything you want.)

The problem with Too Many Wonders is that they distract from the characters. I once heard it said that SF is the easiest thing to write because you don’t need characters; you can depend on gadgets and aliens and exotic settings. That is, to use a polite term, garbage. The idea of SF is to use the fantastic to explore real-world ideas without seeming to, thus allowing the author to make a point without hitting the reader over the head with relevance. (Or it can just entertain. But the best SF, the best literature, does both.)

Regardless of whether it’s serious or fun, a story should make a point. And the only elements that inhabit that story should be those that help to make that point. I thought my story fit that description, and my long-ago editor did not. You see who won that argument. So when you ask why a story should only have one speculative element, the real question is, why does it need more?

Answer that question to determine which editor will read your story. Answer that question well, and many people will read your story, over and over again.

#SFWApro

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Have I ever mentioned that being a writer can be frustrating? I don’t mean writing–that’s hard–but being a writer. I mean, there are so many factors that are beyond your control.

Just recently, I received a story back from an anthology. On the face of it, this story and this antho were made for each other. What they wanted, what I’d written…a perfect match. But it came back anyway.

Now, if the story had simply been rejected, that’s how it goes. Maybe it wasn’t good enough. Even if it was as good as I thought it was, there could be a hundred other submissions just as good (or better), and from authors with bigger names. You take your shot. That’s how you paper your walls with rejections.

But no, this one came back as “really enjoyable, would have been great, but we’ve decided to go in another direction.” Argghh!

Clearly, the editor has the right to reject any story he wants. And the editor has the right to assemble his anthology any way he wants. There could be a dozen valid reasons why a story–even if it is a perfect fit for the published guidelines–might not fit into the final product. Guidelines are just that; they’re not rules, just an explanation of what the editor wanted at the time he wrote them. They change. We know that. It’s part of the game.

But it’s frustrating. Because while you can learn to shrug off rejection, it’s the “almosts” that hurt. (One of the common problems up-and-comers experience is the rise in the number of personal rejections. You start thinking, “How can I come this far and still fall short?” But if you put in the work, you get past that, too.)

I like knowing that my story wasn’t (entirely) at fault. I like hearing that someone enjoyed it, even if that enjoyment didn’t serve my own ends. But gosh how it hurts to know that you did everything right and you lost anyway. And if it hasn’t happened to you, it will.

On the bright side, I can now send this story elsewhere. (In fact, I have.) Maybe I’ll sell it for even more money. (I’ve done it before.) And if I do, and it wins awards and gets optioned for a TV show, that editor will think, “I let that one go. Oh, well. I couldn’t use it. It’s part of the game.

“But it sure is frustrating.”

#SFWApro

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I’ve recently devoted a couple of posts to advice that new authors get which may or may not be worth its weight in gold. After all, everyone agrees that there are no real “rules” in writing–except when there are. (Seriously, no. 3.) What I thought I’d like to do this go-round was offer some tips that I’ve come to value over time. These aren’t rules, so you don’t have to worry about following them. On the other hand, they might make your life easier.

  1. You don’t have to write every day. Stephen King says you do, and he probably knows more than me, but, really, you don’t have to. It would be great if you could, and you should want to, but it simply isn’t practical. We have spouses, kids, work, hobbies, friends, lives… Unless and until you’re writing full-time to support yourself, don’t feel bad if you take a day off. Or the week-end. Burn-out is a real thing. Which brings us to…
  2. If the story isn’t coming to you, walk away from it. Writer’s block is real. Staring at the screen for an hour in mounting angst isn’t going to make the words flow. (Unless that’s your process. I’ve even seen it work a few times.) But while writing should be work, it should not be combat. It’s okay to get up, take a walk, play with the dog…exercise is a great way to free your mind. But don’t feel you’re goldbricking if you take time off to charge your batteries. (See no. 1.)
  3. Do whatever you want with your first draft, because no one will ever see it. (This comes courtesy of Anne Lamott, who wrote the greatest writing book I’ve ever read, Bird by Bird. I know this isn’t a list of rules, but trust me, buy this book.) You don’t show anyone your first draft, because (a) it’s going to suck, and (b) knowing no one will see it gives you the freedom to put down any old garbage, in the interest of getting the story written. You can always edit it away, and who’s going to know? How many drafts did Tolkien take to write Lord of the Rings? Beats me, what difference does it make? You only get to read the final version.
  4. Trust your instincts. If you feel a passage isn’t working while you write it, your reader isn’t going to like it, either. Feel free to trash it. I once had to delete and re-write the first 20,000 words of a novel. It hurt, but I went on to finish the book, which wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
  5. Don’t expect perfection. You won’t get it. Eventually, you reach the point of diminishing returns. Let someone read your third draft. Submit the story to some markets. See what happens. And get started on a new story. One of the best ways to deal with rejection is to know you already have something even better working.
  6. Don’t get discouraged. You will, of course. It’s inevitable. It can take years (decades!) to sell even a single story. Even when you’ve done that, there’s always another step to climb, another plateau to reach, another market to crack. Take a breath, look behind you, and see how far you’ve come. (Or try re-reading some of your earliest stories, if you dare.)
  7. Defy rejections with persistence. Send that story out again. And again. And again. I’ve sold stories to top-paying venues that had been rejected two dozen times. I sold one story that had been rejected 44 times. “Never give up. Never surrender.”

The classic image of a writer is a loner crouched over his desk in a freezing garret. It may be classic, but it’s not true. You’re not alone. We’re all in this together; we understand what it’s like. And take one last tip from me: It never gets any easier.

But it’s worth it.

ETA: There are no original ideas, and somebody is almost always writing the same story (or blog post) as you, possibly better. Case in point.

#SFWApro

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I’d like to win a writing award some day.

This is hardly news; every writer wants to win an award someday, except for those who already have, and I am fairly confident in saying that they want to win more awards some day. There are, of course, writers who say they don’t care if they ever win any awards, but I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if they did.*

I don’t feel bad about this; to be honest, nothing I’ve done has merited such treatment (although a few years ago, when the Hugos were being manipulated by block voting, I did think that I had an eligible story which was equal to anything the block voters were putting up). In fact, I have my doubts that I ever will write something that special. Which is why it’s a darn good thing it’s not up to me.

I’m sure that many writers have finished a story and thought, “Damn, that’s good, even if I do say so myself. This could actually get nominated for something.” (Actually, we all say that pretty much every time we finish, but occasionally we recognize that it might just be more than fantastical thinking.) More often, though, I think that we write something hoping against hope just to get it published, and when it is nominated for an award–let alone when it wins one–we are stunned because we don’t think it’s good enough.

I mean, face it, we never think it’s good enough; it’s never really done. There is always a verb to be made more tangible or a sentence or two to be shaved (and I actually sold a story after just such an operation), but part of the trick of being a real writer is to know when to let go. After all, if it’s rejected a few times, you can always go back and edit then. But to think it’s not only finished, but award-worthy? That’s beyond most of our capabilities. Writers are the worst judges of our own work.

And that’s why it’s best that other people nominate us for awards. The best award, anyway, is having people buy what we write. Maybe we even get fan mail. But we’re writing to be read, not for trophies.

Still, it would be nice, some day, to stand at that dais and thank my wife, my readers, and my tenth-grade English teacher. Just don’t ask me how that might happen, because I’d be the last person to figure it out.

 

*There is a continuing topic question in the community: Would you rather be known as a commercially-successful writer or a critically-successful writer? There are about twice as many answers to that question as there are writers.

 

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There’s a thing that writers do that no one else does. Okay, there are a lot of things that writers do that no one else does, but I’m only going to focus on one. Writers try to learn from their failures.

“Wait a second,” you say immediately. “Everybody tries to learn from his mistakes. It’s part of growing up.” And that’s very true, but writers do it a little differently than other people. First of all, they don’t grow up. Second, they don’t make “mistakes,” they have “failures.” Because writers live In that charmed humanities-major world where there is no one right answer, there is only the answer that will persuade an editor to buy your story. (And if no one likes your story, then the editor has made a “mistake,” not you.)

But more often than not for most of us, we don’t persuade the editor. And that’s when we try to learn from our failures. This is called “rejectomancy.” There is more than one way to do this, based on whether we have received positive or negative feedback. It gets really complicated when the negative feedback is “negative” as in the it-doesn’t-exist sense. Let me explain.

The easiest form of rejectomancy (also called rejectonomy, although that implies too much scientific method for most applications) is when you get a personal rejection. The personal rejection will tell you flat out–or in a way the editor believes is clear, in any case–why the editor didn’t choose your story. Maybe it’s the story, maybe it’s an extrinsic factor like your story was too similar to one the editor just bought last week. If the reject cites a flaw in your story, you can take it for what it’s worth and edit or not as you please.

The next easiest is when markets allow you to follow your submission’s progress through the editorial process. Some use submission systems which let you track where you are in the queue of submissions. (See Lightspeed.) If stories near you in the queue are being rejected (which you track through the Submission Grinder or Duotrope), you can expect that your response will come soon. When it doesn’t, then the rejectomancy starts. Am I being held over? Do different slush readers respond at different speeds? At least in this case you don’t worry so much your submission was lost. At this point, the rejectomancer and the rejectonomer are pretty even.

Then things get murky. Say you get a form rejection. A form rejection tells you nothing, right? Well, not to the practiced rejectomancer. (Here’s where the rejectonomer gets lost.) He has followed his story’s progress. If it took longer than the average, he may well presume his story was held over and handed to higher editor; this is particularly true when the story took a lot longer than usual. Some magazines even use coded rejections. Bear in mind the rejectomancer doesn’t know anything. It’s all guesswork–but it’s comforting guesswork. On the other hand, an average or quicker rejection becomes a sad occasion. It’s an occupational hazard.

Finally, there is the “negative-negative” response. Most markets still have no way of tracking submissions from submitter’s side. But you can still gauge how submissions are faring in that market by watching the Grinder or Duotrope. Are subs younger than yours being rejected? If so, it’s nail-biting time. Either you’ve been held over, or your story was lost. (Things used to be worse; before the Internet you had no idea of average wait times, nor any way of knowing if you ms. was lost in the mail, unless you included a postcard with your sub that the magazine could send back when it opened the envelope.)

In the end, of course, you only know how you’ve done when someone buys your story. Then rejectomancy gives way to reviewomancy, which is a highly dangerous art shunned by all serious practitioners. Until we’re alone, and no one can see us. Then we read our reviews. Because we’re never done with rejectomancy. Whether it’s with editors or readers, we just can’t help ourselves; we’re more confused by this writing stuff than you are.

#SFWApro

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There is a lot about writing that is not peaches-and-cream. There, I said it. Writing is not only difficult, because it all comes from inside you, and there are no rules, and nobody can really tell you when you’re doing it right (but boy, can they tell when you’re doing it wrong), but it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating to try to write a story when the ideas won’t come, or the words won’t materialize, or you have the ideas and the words but you just don’t have the time. It’s frustrating to wait–wait for that last draft to cool on your windowsill, or for your beta readers to get back to you, or for an editor to answer your submission. (Murphy’s Law of Submissions says the editorial staff will take an extended vacation the day after you submit your story.) And it’s the Most Frustrating of All when you have finally written a story that even you are satisfied with, and your reading group (which includes Real Writers) tells you this is one time you’ve nailed it–and you can’t sell the darn thing at a discount with a bonus goodie bag.

Self-serving example: in 2010, I published a story, “Grinpa,” in Daily Science Fiction. Diabolical Plots listed it as one of the top 10 stories DSF published that year, which, considering DSF publishes about 250 stories a year, is pretty good. So you would think, as I did, that when the time came, I could sell “Grinpa” as a reprint and make a little extra cash.

And you (and I) would be wrong.

And that’s the frustrating part about it. Even if you write the world’s greatest story, it has to persuade an editor (and usually a slush reader before that). And editors have particular tastes. They have specific needs, in terms of tone, length, subject matter. More than once I have had a story rejected because it was just too similar to something the editor had just bought, or run in a recent issue. How many times an editor has liked a story but sent back because it was the wrong length, or too “niche,” is impossible to know. Sometimes they tell you; usually they don’t.

And it can make you crazy, especially if you really like the story. But in the end, there’s nothing to be done. Nothing, of course, but hope the next editor will have the right space available. And will like your story. And didn’t run a similar story by Robert Clarke Asimov the month before.

Yeah, writing is frustrating. But at the same time, new markets open up all the time. These days, you often have to debate whether to sub a story to a market that pays 3 cents a word, or wait a few months to see if a new pro-rate market opens up (which they seem to do regularly). And every new editor is a chance to hit that lottery number, with a story that has the right opening, and the right tone, and maybe even pays decent money. And if he’s not, there’s always another down the line.

One of my favorite stories received 35 rejections over two decades before it sold. But it sold, and for good money. Was the end result worth the frustration of all those rejections? No. But did it feel good to know I had weathered all that frustration and never gave up?

Oh, yeah.

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We all know that writers accept as a fact of life the form rejections with which we paper our walls because we can’t afford insulation, and which we collect by the hundreds while waiting for that Big Break. I did, Stephen King did, and there are thousands out there doing it right now. Getting that first acceptance letters in the mail is cause for frenzied celebration with a bottle of cheap rotgut and maybe a Big Mac if the check is large enough. (Oh, wait–there’s no check? I get paid on publication? There goes my Big Mac.) And of course our debauched sojourn into the land of rose petals and congratulatory Presidential telegrams comes to a sudden end when we find that selling one story does not make the rejections go away. Such is the life of the writer, the pendulum swinging between two extremes (although it spends far too much time at one end of the spectrum).

But there is a lesser-known part of the spectrum, a grey area where writers can, against all odds, take some measure of solace, some crumb of artistic nourishment, where failure is not so pointed, albeit just as poverty-stricken. This is called the “personal rejection.”

If you have the extreme misfortune to be involved with a writer, you may have heard of these “personals.” (This does not mean he’s putting ads in the paper!) You may understand that, to a writer, receiving a personal rejection is almost not a rejection at all. It means an editor liked the story enough to separate it from the pile of dross (and there’s a lot of dross) and include a small, individualized note. Perhaps it says, “Liked the opening, not the ending,” or “I kind of like your writing. Please send more.”

Now, this is still a rejection. The editor doesn’t want the story. But the difference between a “This doesn’t fit our needs,” and “Came close,” is like the clouds opening up after 40 days of rain on your ark. God may not have reached down his hand to you, but at least he’s glancing your way.

Non-writers have a hard time with this. They see submissions as a win/lose proposition. But writers (real writers) are in it for the long haul, and this kind of encouragement can lift your mood all day. I still remember my first personal, even though it was a very long time ago. So if your writer friend is looking, well, less put-upon than usual, and he says it’s because he got “a good rejection,” don’t look at him like he’s lost his mind. (That ship has sailed.) It just means that on a scale of one to ten, today wasn’t a zero. And that will do for now.

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