Learning to Love Your Rejection Letters

By | January 24, 2011

I have a confession to make: I love rejection letters. My heart skips a beat every time one appears in my e-mail inbox, and before I click to open it I revel in the delicious sensation of not knowing what the e-mail contains. You may imagine that this anticipation is due to wondering whether the letter may be an acceptance, but really, I just like rejection letters. In this post I will attempt to explain what it is about story rejection letters that fills me with an odd sort of joy in the hope that you too will come to view this fact of writing life with anticipatory glee instead of what I gather is the usual dread and subsequent soul-crushing disappointment.

Rejection as an achievable goal

The very first guest lecture I attended at Alpha was given by Tobias Buckell, and in it he conveyed one message that has stuck with me ever since: Story submissions are an achievable goal; getting published isn’t. Many beginning writers getting ready to send things out on submission set themselves a goal along the lines of “Get story x published” or “Get a story published by the end of the year.” However, this sort of goal is absolute rubbish, because it’s not really something within your control. All you can do is create the best stories you are capable of producing and send them out. The rest is in the hands of the editors. Toby told us that when he was a beginning writer, he set himself goals for number of submissions, and I think that’s quite a good idea. Every time you send a story out on submission, it means that you have put in the effort to make sure that the story is as good as it can be, you’ve researched markets, you’ve formatted your story, and you’ve carefully crafted a cover letter. If you follow those steps and are persistent in continuing to follow them over and over, I can almost guarantee that you will become a successful writer. It may take a while, but you’ll get there eventually. So every time I get a rejection letter, I know that I’m one step closer to becoming a successful writer. It seems odd, but it’s true.

Plan for rejection.

When you are considering sending out your story on submission, come up with a list of markets to which you plan to submit. Plan to send your story to all of them, one at a time. Don’t think things like, “If this market rejects me, I’ll send the story to the next market.” Think, “When this market rejects me, I’ll send it to the next market.” As you receive your rejections, check off the market on your list. For me, the act of checking markets off my list makes rejections seem like accomplishments, and the only time I’m ever really disappointed (well, mostly) is when I get to the end of my list and have to set a story aside. Remember, rejections are progress in disguise.

Rejections exist on a spectrum.

Many writers and editors warn against “rejectomancy,” the practice of writers overanalyzing their rejection letters to try to divine hidden meaning in the usually generic text. For me, however, a certain amount of rejectomancy is a positive thing. This is because I have learned that for many markets, rejections exist on a sort of spectrum. That is to say that there exists more than the binary of acceptance and rejection, and there are often many different types of rejection letters sent out by each market. Some markets send different forms for different levels of rejection (for example, Realms of Fantasy has two different photocopied forms, the so-called Blue Form of Death [BFOD] and the longed-for Yellow Form of Promise [YFOP]), so getting a “higher-level” rejection is a step up the ladder. Some markets have slush readers who pass stories up to senior editors, so it’s especially exciting to get rejected by a senior editor even if you still get a form rejection because it means that the senior editor at least saw your work. Some markets will send personal rejections (rejections that actually comment on the substance of your story) only if they feel your story was almost good enough. So every time I get a rejection I’m crossing my fingers for a yellow slip, or a sentence explaining why my story wasn’t accepted, or a senior editor’s signature, or a line inviting me to submit something else, because those too can be markers of progress. (Note that rejectomancy is a dicey art best practiced once you’ve had some experience with the various markets or with the aid of someone who does, because you can’t generalize across the board with any of these things. Some markets always provide personal rejections, some never do, etc.)

Putting yourself out there

In conclusion: Rejections are good. They mean you’re putting yourself out there, getting your stories in the hands of editors, and progressing as a writer, even if you’re not getting published. I’ve heard multiple editors tell stories about writers they saw improve over the course of years and many submissions until they finally were good enough for publication, and I’ve heard these same editors tell stories about writers who seemed to be getting better but then dropped off the face of the earth, presumably discouraged by too many rejection letters. If you show promise and you keep submitting, the editors will remember your name and look favorably on future submissions. You might even bump into them at a convention sometime and be surprised to discover that your name actually means something to them, or that they remember your most recently submitted story when you describe it. There’s a lot more to the process of story submission than the always-hoped-for acceptance letters, and the process itself has its own rewards.