Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A Simple No Would Do

Over the years I've had my writer's share of rejection slips. If you're unfamiliar with the process of sending out your writing without having an invitation or agent, it's quite simple: You put your manuscript in a manila folder, add a tasteful cover letter that suggests you know something about the publication, add return postage, and wait for two or three months. When I was in graduate school, the writers would compare rejection slips, boasting of ones that indicated near misses, showing off the ones that came back written, apparently, by a human being.

There were several kinds of slips: simple printed form letters, usually sent as postcards; printed letter-size rejections; quick notes from an editor and signed in ink suggesting that they actually read what you sent; and, if you were lucky, an extended missive with critical remarks about the writing along with reasons why it was declined. My favorite slip came from a little-known university literary journal that had boxes for the editor to check, with witty remarks such as "feet smell", "dog peed on it", or "thanks for the paper cut."

Writers have thin skins, especially this one, and I once was told by an author, since deceased, that I'd never make it if I took umbrage with being kicked around a little. Besides, he said, you could send the same story to the same magazine on different days, using different typewriters, and one would sell while the other drew rejections. If your envelope was opened after a hearty staff lunch, they probably fell asleep reading it. If it landed on a Monday morning, the staff may well be hung over.

To show I have no hard feelings, I'm going to present a selection of my more successful failures from the cornucopia of slips from my over-the-transom submissions.

"Dear Ms. Hyman. As before, I admire the writing, which is energetic and stylish. The story, however, doesn't add up to very much, and we'll have to pass. Please try us again." -- The Atlantic.


"I'm sorry our tastes here are so particular and that I can't take any of these pieces, but the work is vital, energetic and accomplished, and I'd say you're just about to take off with publications. Please stay in touch, I'd be glad to read more." -- Esquire.


"The writing style itself was excellent but the pace of the story was just too slow. You do have a lot of talent. Sooner or later, it's going to break your way." -- The Missouri Review.


(Printed on a stock reply card) "We regret that we are unable to use the enclosed material. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider it." The Editors, The New Yorker (signature and note at the bottom: Sorry, and thanks.")


"Sorry that your novel chapter was not for us. Obviously flashbacks can work well in a novel, but to have so many in the first chapter is a little disconcerting. Thanks for the look." -- Playboy.


"This story came very close. I sent it through four blind readings and while two readers (new persons here) didn't recommend it, our senior fiction editor loved it." -- Prairie Schooner.



"We loved 'Oh, Burning Power...' and want very much to publish it. Please assure us it's available, so we can go to the printer. Many thanks for the story." Paul Lyons, Carolina Quarterly.

But wait for the punchline. The story that the Carolina Quarterly loved and published was written in a single sitting, in a bar, as a satire of the kind of short, hyper-real fiction of the late 1980s that I loathed, and included the use of a character modeled to poke fun at people who loved the genre.

Not long after that, I stopped submitting fiction to the magazines. I won't say I'm bitter, because I'm not. These are rejection slips to die for. But I'm sensitive, and the dead fiction writer who lectured me was right. That a writer should have such little tolerance for caprice, the green fuse that flowers all creative life, is an unlovely thing.


Bill Stankus said...

Start a cult of xylophone playing mutes, or bigamy is always good ... do something outrageous - get on CNN, even the local news and offers will come tumbling in faster than the North Fork of the American River after the snow melts.

Gabby said...

But Bill....the American was just named the most endangered river in America. I think a cult of accordionists on unicycles may be more politically correct. =)

Char said...

I think these editors are the same ones that think Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer are brilliant.

A Cuban In London said...

The real truth of submissions to publications is that youhave to part with some of your good sense and try to see the opportunity in the same way one analyses a driving test. Can I drive? Tick. Can I convince the examiner I can drive? Tick. Can I drive in the manner in which the examiner expects me to drive so that I can convince him that I can drive? If you can tick the last one you will pass your exam. Same with publications, not all, of course. It is not so much your creativity they are after but how well you can tap into their readership. I am surprised that you got turned down that many times, though, I would hold your writing to be far superior to the fustian I come across so often even in the newspaper I buy and read daily, The Guardian (and The Observer on Sundays). Many thanks for another insightful and wonderful post.

Greetings from London.

Starlene said...

Hmmm. My current reading material is the 2009 Writers' Market. While I'm not disillusioned, I am, in fact, very disappointed to find such arbitrary absurdity in my chosen direction. I suppose I'll just have to handle it in that same placating way in which I've always handled arbitrary absurdity. I wish the whole world wasn't so goddamn corporate - i.e. ineffective, soulless, and inefficient. (Excuse my language please; I'm not religious and the word fits.)

Thanks for the sampling of rejection letters...I can imagine the prized place they occupy in your heart. : ) It's nice to see what they can look like, although I'm sure I'll find out soon enough.