Enduring and surviving rejection is part of every writer’s successful career. Rejection letters can be part of a writer’s toolkit to success. This comes from objectively perceiving them as opportunities in a long process of relationship-building and the business of writing and publishing.
Writers often witness an evolution in rejection letters as they learn more about their craft and about their markets. The ability to recognize the evolutionary steps can be useful in determining your next move in that particular market.
Below I describe one sequence of a manuscript’s evolutionary path. These don’t necessarily follow a chronological path for any particular manuscript; nor am I suggesting that your personal writer’s path will follow this particular pattern. Take these for what they may represent to you for any particular manuscript’s journey to success.
- Lowest form: the form-letter, with no name or signature—you get no information from this except that they’re probably swamped with submissions. File the letter and try them again with another story; you can even play a game of it to see how many submissions it takes to get “recognized”. Meantime send the rejected story elsewhere.
- Next lowest form: Personalized form letter with your name on it and a name and signature on it. Congratulations! You are now a person. And you will likely be remembered when you submit another story here.
- Higher on the Evolutionary Path: a form letter that includes a personalized note about your work and why it was rejected (often with an added comment about the story or your writing). You have made a mark. Try them again!
- Even Higher on the Evolutionary Path: a personalized letter that explains why your story was rejected—this says as much about the editor as it does about how they felt about your story; that they are taking the time to write to you and give you suggests means you are worth their valuable time. You have an opportunity to begin a relationship with this editor. Play fair.
- Highest on the Path: a personalized, perhaps even handwritten, note that specifies why they rejected your piece with suggestions for revision (and resubmission) or invitation to submit another piece. Congratulations! This is the beginning of a relationship. Revise and resubmit.
What Rejection Letters Look Like
As I’ve already mentioned, I’ve received a lot of rejection letters in the many years of my writing career. They’ve ranged from the short card form letter with no signature to the handwritten, per-sonalized letter with inviting comments.
Rejection letters will vary as much as the magazine and book market varies. The larger, busier companies that receive many more submissions over a given time period are more likely to go with the form letter. I’ve heard some agents and edit-ors go this route simply because it is safer for them. One magazine editor lamented to me not long ago that after she had provided a writer whose work she’d rejected with sev-eral paragraphs of explanation, the said writer had responded with an irascible diatribe of her skills as an editor.
Take heart: receiving a form letter like the one above from Zoetrope is very common, particularly from a large publisher. And take it for what it is, a letter that gives you very little infor-mation other than they rejected your story. File the letter and send the story elsewhere.
Some publishers and agents use a checklist, which can provide you with very good feedback (see example below from Challenging Destiny for my short story, Arc of Time which found a home in several places after this rejection).
The next letter that rejected my short story Angel of Chaos (which later turned into Butterfly in Peking) provided enough insight to why they didn’t choose it that I could have gone one of two ways: 1) I could have left the story as it was and submitted elsewhere; or 2) I could have emailed them with a suggestion that I’d be willing to revise if they would reconsider a revision according to their specifications. I’ve done this in the past and published. This time I decided not to because I liked the story the way it was.
One magazine I submitted to gives your story to two independent readers whose comments they include along with their rejection or acceptance. This is great feedback for you! What I found frus-tratingly amusing was that the accolades of the reviewers didn’t guarantee the acceptance of my story. While my story Arc of Time generated very positive comments from both reviewers, the magazine still decided against publishing and the rejection letter gave no reason (see reviewer’s comments below):
Reviewer #1: “I love the way this story is set up, switching back and forth from the different points of view. The “trippiness” is very appealing and works well with the modern/fantastical contrast.”
Reviewer #2: “This was an intriguing and extraordinary clever story. I didn’t have a clue about the jape at the end until I got to the last page. And then it unfolded beautifully. The theological tie-ins were smart and fun and showed either some Mormon extrapolative thought or extreme knowledge of Biblical lore.”
You’d have thought, eh? But they rejected anyway. Below is an example of a form letter with a handwritten comment added along with signature and an invite to try them again. When this happens, by all means, try them again!
Make Rejection Work for You
One way to see your way through rejection is to find ways to distance yourself from your story once you’ve sent it off and to see the whole process of submission-rejection-acceptance as a business. The very best way to do this is to submit lots of stories and to keep submitting them. With novels, this is a little harder to do but you can certainly be working on the next one once you’ve submitted the first.
When I was writing short stories, I kept a list of what and where I sub-mitted, along with the most important item: where to submit NEXT. At any given time, I made sure that I had at least x-number of submissions out there and each story had a designated place to go if it returned. As soon as a story came back from magazine A, I simply re-packaged it and sent it to magazine B. The critical part of the list was to have a contingency for each story: the next place where I would send the story once it returned. I was planning on the story being rejected with the hope that it would be accepted; that way, a rejection became part of a story’s journey rather than a final comment.
I ran my submissions like a bus terminal. A story was in and out so fast it never had a chance to cool off. And, since I had five other pieces out there, I could do this with little emotion. I was running a fast-paced “story depot”, after all. All my stories had to be out there as soon as possible; if they were sitting in the terminal, they were doing nothing for me. Now, ask me if this worked. D*** right! Soon after adopting this process, I started selling. I think several things were happening and galvanizing into sales: publishers were getting to know me; I got more and more familiar with the market and my professionalism paid off.
This article is an excerpt from Chapter R of The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! (Starfire, 2009).
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.