To continue the thread from Friday’s post: I didn’t give up submitting my science fiction stories to professional magazines after my first rejection for “The Laws of Chaos.” I had completely forgotten about that story until I dug out my old story file on Thursday night. I haven’t had the guts to read it, but even without reviewing my likely abominable teenage writing, I can tell you why it was, and should have been, rejected: the ending reveals that it was all a dream, a horrible, horrible dream. In other words, it was all a cliche, a horrible, horrible cliche.
You may find this hard to believe, but when I resubmitted it to Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Gardner Dozois rejected it, too. Shocking, really.
But I was persistent. Just for example, on October 29, 1985, IASFM rejected “Democracy”:
I thought it was particularly kind that Mr. Dozois did not add “In your case, it was all of the above.” That would have been wrong, of course; my spelling, even in high school, has always been pretty good (unlike my handwriting).
The hits just kept on coming, but really, what did it cost me? Some paper (which I “borrowed” from my parents, anyway), but not much, because my stories were always very short, because (1) I had read that shorter stories were easier to sell, and (2) I had a very short attention span. The cost of envelopes and postage. Some stories I sent in cheap plastic report covers, because I thought it made them look more professional.
The only real cost was my time, and I didn’t count that, because I would have been writing anyway. I could have written more, I suppose, but I had the usual high school student distractions: friends, girls, a demanding after-school job at a local newspaper, and writing for an underground high school zine loosely modeled after The Weekly World News. So when it came to fiction writing, I was productive, but not prolific.
I kept writing in college, but I definitely slowed down. I moved to a new city (Chicago), had much harder classes which I occasionally had to attend, fell into theater and later the newspaper, and met the future Mrs. Unfocused (then known as Unfocused Girlfriend). I still wrote, on a little electric typewriter/primitive word processor, with a two-line screen and a 2K memory, which meant I could type for about two pages before I had to print, instead of my father’s old Royal. I still sent the stories off, but not nearly as often as in high school.
Apparently, this was no great loss to the science fiction publishing world. From my freshman year, here’s a January 14, 1988 rejection from Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact for a story called “Exposure”:
The IASFM and ASF rejection slips acted as FAQs for authors. Why was my story rejected? What can I do to improve my story and my chances of getting published in your magazine? Every time I received one of these forms, I reread it as if it would tell me something new. I did try, I think, to follow the advice contained in the rejections. I was young, undisciplined, and, in the immortal words of Homer Simpson, “Lord help me, I’m just not that bright.” I’m perfectly capable of making the same mistakes over and over again.
I think the biggest problem with my writing in high school and college (aside from a lack of an original plot, sympathetic characters, or interesting dialogue) was that I refused to even consider editing a story once I finished it. I had read that Robert Heinlein never rewrote anything (Robert J. Sawyer lists this as Heinlein’s Third Rule of Writing: “You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order”). Ladies and gentlemen, I am here to tell you that I have read a lot of Robert Heinlein novels and stories, I feel like I know Robert Heinlein, and I am no Robert Heinlein. If 13 years of drafting briefs, motions, and nastygrams has taught me anything, it is that for me, rewriting is not just a good idea, it’s the law.
But I didn’t know that then. In the next day or two, I’ll post my last rejection slips.
Nice for you to provide those form letters to read. Even if they are from 20 years ago, it’s still stuff to look out for when writing a story.
I remember when I sent my only short story to OnSpec, they were small enough to provide a critique. I would love to fix and resubmit that story, but it’s on 3 1/2 floppy and I don’t have access to a floppy drive right now.