Rejection Slip Review: Lessons Learned

This is the way time slips away from me: it has already been two weeks since I posted my last rejection slips, promising to come back with a post about what I’ve learned from reviewing them 16 years after I stopped submitting. (If you’re looking for the posts with scans of and about the rejection slips themselves, the first one is here, the second one is here, and the last one is here.) Let’s get the most important lesson out of the way, because I think we all got the same message from the Aboriginal Science Fiction rejection slips:

1. Don’t write in Alpha Centaurian.

Writing in Alpha Centaurian is a bad idea, and not just because most word processors have serious trouble rendering the 7,462 life-sized, animated pictograms that make up the standard Alpha Centuarian alphabet. I think perhaps the editor of Aboriginal S.F. was attempting to use humor to make a larger point: your writing, if you intend to submit it to an editor of a publication anywhere in the English-speaking world, should evidence some familiarity with the English language. You do not want to suffer from, as the editor of Asimov’s put it in his form rejection letter, “an obvious lack of basic English compositional skills on the part of the author.”

If that box had been checked on my rejections, I think I would have been too embarrassed to post them, even anonymously.

2. You’re going to get rejected when you don’t think you deserve it.

When I started this little trip on the Way-Back Machine, I had no intention of reviewing the stories I had written; I was interested in the rejections, mostly as a trophies from my misspent youth. Some people have their high school football jerseys, or science fair awards; I have rejection slips.

Digging through my files for the rejections without at least glancing at the stories themselves was nearly impossible, though, and looking back, I can identify numerous flaws in each just from memory, without reading more than the title. The question now isn’t why they were rejected; it’s why they weren’t rejected and the rejection slip stamped “AND DON’T COME BACK.”

Yet when I wrote these stories and submitted them to various magazines, I don’t remember thinking they were clunkers. I didn’t finish “The Laws of Chaos” in my sophomore year of high school and think, “Man, what a godawful cliché, and badly written to boot. I wonder how much Fantasy & Science Fiction will pay me for it?” No, with my limited experience at the time, I thought the story was pretty good.

As I start writing again, I am trying to hold onto this thought. I should not expect everyone — or anyone — to like something that I have written just because I like it. But I think the corollary is also true: just because I’m convinced that something I’ve written is crap, doesn’t mean that everyone — or anyone — else will think so. I need to keep my expectations reasonable and have a certain measure of humility about my work (especially considering that I’m coming back to fiction after a 15 year absence and by my own admission everything I wrote before my hiatus is awful), but I shouldn’t try to be my own critic. There are plenty of other people willing to take that role, such as Mrs. Unfocused.

3. Try, try again.

For more than 15 years, I guaranteed that I would never be a published author, because I simply stopped writing, let alone submitting anything for publication. I kept thinking of myself as a someday writer, as in someday, I’ll sit down and write something. I always thought of myself as a writer, which was odd, because I never wrote anything. I’d jot down story ideas, as if I might soon write them up, but I never, ever did.

None of that is the fault of the editors who rejected my work. Not one of them discouraged me in any way from submitting again or from continuing to write. It was my own inability to stay focused on any particular goal, even if it was one I really, really wanted to achieve, that led me away from doing what, in my head, I always wanted to do. It has taken me until now, staring over the precipice at 40, to realize that if I don’t start, I’ll never get there.

Mur Lafferty, of the I Should Be Writing podcast, said in one of her recent episodes (I’m paraphrasing), “I may not be the best writer, but if the best writer gives up and I’m still in there plugging away, I’m the one who’s going to make the sale.” I can live with that, and meantime, I can actually write the stories that go with all of the ideas I’ve been noting on index cards all this time.

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4 responses to “Rejection Slip Review: Lessons Learned

  1. Great post! I think a lot of people are their own worst critic. It does make you paranoid about letting other people see anything. Let alone a publisher.

  2. In her wonderful, classic work, Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande urges writers to develop a split personality — the sensitive, creative artist and the practical, unemotional accountant. The artists does the writing, and the accountant picks up the mail and finds the rejection slips. In my career as a writer, I have found this to be necessary, because for a variety of reasons, rejections do come.

    Your original dilemma reminds me of Harold Abrahams in the movie “Chariots of Fire.” Previously undefeated, he has lost a race, and he states, “If I can’t win, I won’t run.” To this, the love of his life replies, “But if you don’t run, you can’t win.” So definitely keep trying.

    And if you want any help polishing your work, pick up William Zinsser’s classic, On Writing Well. That and Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and I think anyone can be a good enough writer to make it into print.

    Good luck.

  3. It happens to us all. Keep writing!

  4. Excellent post.

    By the way, you’re on Whatever‘s Whateverette list!

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