Reply O’ Doom

Sooner or later a writer seeking to be published will receive a rejection slip, or, as I like to call it, the Reply O’ Doom!

I remember my first one.  In college I sent a story to a women’s magazine fiction competition, waited what seemed an interminable amount of time for a reply, and got a lovely form letter.  “Thank you for your entry.  Unfortunately it was not chosen to appear in our publication,” and words to that effect.

I was so green I didn’t even mind the negative response.  It impressed me to get correspondence from a big-time publication.  And I knew about rejection slips already thanks to Stephen King, who said he used to put them on a nail in the wall of his bedroom.  I still have the slip somewhere.  I save all of them; someday, when I become famous, I might like to look back on them and cackle evilly in triumph.  :)  Or just see how far I’ve come.

If the same people worked at that magazine were still there, I doubt they would remember my little story about a woman’s affair with her friend’s son.  I reread it recently.  The writing wasn’t bad, but the story was dull and the characters flat.  I didn’t have anything to say at that age, and I didn’t know anything about what drove married adults to cheat.   I was barely an adult myself.

Now I’m older, though not necessarily wiser (!) and I have a bit more experience under my belt.  Not only that, I know how to seek ways to make my writing better, and I have more discipline.

Most rejection slips are form letters like the one I got.  Magazines, literary journals and agents receive so many submissions and queries they simply don’t have time to hand-write a note on each one or give a bit of encouragement in an email turndown.  Thus the writer has little feedback about why the story was rejected.

So how to prevent this?

You can’t.  If you’re going to be a writer, it’s inevitable.

Things you can do to reduce your chance of rejection include:

  • Presentation.  Check your formatting.  Make sure it’s impeccable and conforms to industry standards.   Look online for help with this.  Anne Mini’s blog Author! Author! is a great resource.  She has a ton of material on formatting (mostly books) and rejection as well, from the POV of Millicent, her exemplar of literary assistantship.
  • Professionalism. Your query should be as well written as your manuscript.  It’s a business letter.  Don’t tell why your story should be published, don’t offer to mow anyone’s lawn or feed their pet python if they do, or to feed them to your pet python if they don’t.   Do I have to tell you to Google “queries” at this point if you’re not sure how to write a winner?  I hardly think so.
  • Pursuit, of mistakes.  Anne Mini advises, and so do I, that you print a hard copy of your manuscript and check it meticulously for errors.  After so much time looking at it on the computer screen, you will miss things.  I just did this last night, while preparing an email query.  Read it out loud to yourself.   I caught three stupid things right off the bat!
  • Pinpoint.  Make sure you’re targeting the right publication or person.   A magazine’s submissions page online will usually tell you to read a few issues to get a feel for the kind of material they accept.   It might tell you who to send submissions to, but if it doesn’t, check the masthead of the magazine.   Agencies might or might not have a website, but if they do, they usually let you know what kind of material they are seeking.

What should you do after your work has been rejected?  Well, it’s tempting to curl up in a little ball and ingest chocolate until you can’t see straight, but the best thing to do is get right off your duff and prepare your next query or submission.   Find another place to send that story and get it right back out there.

The best rejections contain a personal comment.  Yes, they do happen, and it really does take some of the sting out of it.  I sent a story out a while back and it came home with a form slip attached and a nice note the reader had handwritten about a particular aspect of my story she liked.  That’s encouraging.  Someone else wrote a lovely email saying how bad they felt about rejecting it—another positive sign.  I know eventually it will find a home.  When it does, I’ll be happy to share it with you; I think it’s a very nice story.

It’s okay to feel a little punk after you see your SASE in the mailbox, or the header on the return email.   You won’t always know why it happened and that’s okay too.  If you making a real effort to learn the business and improve your craft, someday the “No” might finally be a “Yes.”  Indulge yourself a bit; eat your ice cream or chocolate (a small portion) and then get right back on that horse, cowboy!

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