The following piece appeared in Red Herrings 741, the bulletin of the Crime Writers’ Association, August 2018.
It can be devastating. You’ve worked hard on a short story or novel for days, weeks, or even years; you’ve sweated blood and tears and put into your creation every ounce of what you think goes to make up a great piece of fiction. Then you launch it into the dark abyss of the marketplace and wait, and wait… (And the time you can spend waiting is a travail faced by writers young and old, but that’s another story). Eventually comes the editor’s response – in days of yore the dreaded stamped, addressed envelope, but more likely these days the even more impersonal email: “Thank you for submitting your Great Work to our magazine. Unfortunately, we have decided not to publish it. Either it was not quite right for us or we’ve just taken tales with a similar theme, or any of a half dozen other reasons…”
Rejection is part and parcel of being a writer – but it’s wrong to assume that it’s something that only beginning writers face.
In the course of my thirty year career as an author – initially science fiction, and these days both SF and crime – I’ve weathered hundreds of rejections. In the early days they came with swift and depressing regularity. When I started submitting my work, back in the early eighties, I posted very short crime tales to the now defunct London Mystery Magazine. The editor’s response was fast and definitive: a form rejection: Thank you for submitting your story to the London Mystery Magazine. Unfortunately, etc…
I wrote and submitted over a hundred short stories between 1978 and 1987 – as well as a dozen very bad science fiction novels. (One of these, the proposed first volume of a series, was submitted to a publisher in London and rejected by an editor who, many years later, set up his own literary agency… and now represents me – a salutary lesson to every would-be writer.) Gradually, as little by little my skill increased, the form rejection slips ceased and I received – oh, joy – personalised rejection letters along the lines of, “While we enjoyed certain aspects of your Great Work, we felt that in terms of characterisation…” etc.
Thus encouraged, I battled on.
And then, in 1987, I received from the science fiction magazine Interzone the much-awaited missive ushering me into the hallowed company of Published Writers: “Dear Mr Brown, we have all read and enjoyed your story “Krash-Bangg Joe and the Pineal Zen Equation” and, subject to a cut and a little line by line editing, would like to purchase it for our magazine.”
Oh, the ecstasy, the relief! Years of hard graft and hope had finally paid off. I had joined the ranks of my literary heroes, and only success, fame and fortune would automatically ensue. Gone were the days of rejection…
Or so I thought.
I was naive, as I learned over the course of the years that followed.
It’s a sad fact that, unless your a best-seller whose editor dare not reject a word you’ve written, as a jobbing freelance fiction writer you will receive frequent rejections – especially if you persevere in writing short stories, that beleaguered form in these days of dwindling markets and increasingly paltry fees per word.
Since 1987 I have published a hundred and fifty short stories, mainly in the SF market, as well as sixty-odd books – thirty science fiction and crime novels, a dozen novellas, as many collections, and a dozen or so books for children. And I still receive the occasional, and salutary, slap in the face of rejection.
Because I love short stories, I continue to write them. I turn out around eight or nine a year and succeed in selling perhaps six. But it’s a fact that most of my stories are rejected by the first magazine or anthology to which I send them, and sometimes by the second and third. But if I believe in the story (and after six rejections I might take another long, hard look at the piece and decide to retire it from further consideration), I’ll send it out until it meets it fate.
If there’s a moral to the tale, it’s this: whether your a tyro or a jaded pro, you’ll be rejected – it goes with the territory. But, as I never tire of telling beginning writers, the only way you’ll fail is if you let the b******* grind you down, and you stop writing.