A rejection is an opinion, not a death sentence (part one)

“The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.” – Norman Vincent Peale

One-point-two million words.

Two-hundred-and-seventy stories.

Six editors.

Why sign up to write six stories in six weeks without knowing a single thing about what you were going to be asked to write? Well, one answer is, to see if I could do it. The other answer—the real answer—was that what I really, really, really, wanted was the feedback.

I went into this expecting to sell nothing. As a first-timer, I knew that the likelihood that any of my stories would make the buy pile was going to be extremely low. And I was fine with that. What I wanted was an insight into the editorial process of some real pros, people who have been doing this for decades.

When you want to learn, learn from the best.

So what exactly did I sign up for, beside the time-crunch and terror of writing six to-be-determined stories in six weeks? I signed up to read everyone else’s stories as well, and then determine which stories I would buy.

The rules were very specific. No discussion of the stories amongst ourselves. Our opinions didn’t matter. The only opinion that mattered was the opinion of the person writing checks. This is something that writers should tattoo on the inside of their eyelids, preferably in bright glow-in-the-dark neon colors, lest we forget.

The first thing I learned was that I could indeed write a story in a week and on a subject I had absolutely no interest in. I mean none. The first topic was “superstition” and it had specific guidelines, including one for uniqueness. In other words, if you sent in a black cat story, it was going to have to win the cat-fight with all the other black-cat stories.

After some research, I picked a Japanese superstition regarding numbers. Four is for death. Nine is for pain. That’s why Japanese hospitals don’t have rooms with the number four in them, just like buildings don’t have thirteen floors here.

Feb. 25th, 2018

Summary: Inherited from a Japanese ancestor, the superstitions about the number four (associated with death) and the number nine (associated with pain) have come to life for twin sisters. Each finds her own way of dealing with the pain and loss that define their lives—one with meds; the other with something more risqué.

  • Editor 1: was pulled in on the second try; opening was off-putting
  • Editor 2: title does nothing for the story which is really well done; very interesting; ending comes too fast; needs a longer ending, could have written another thousand words (limit was 6000, I had 6027)
  • Editor 3: liked it; needs better development; liked family situation; bought the secret, but not why the father kept it secret
  • Editor 4: held interest; if the curse was understood, what was the value of holding it secret?
  • Editor 5: original; on target; would buy with rewrite if she had room for the word count
  • Buying editor: liked the idea of superstition from other cultures; prose was good (pulled specific lines he liked); still a no buy

I was not surprised that it was not bought. First of all, I struggled with this story because it had an unreliable narrator and I could absolutely see why the opening would be off-putting. And I totally agree about the title — titles are hard and I threw in the towel and just went with the obvious yet obscure (I do that; some people have accused me of oblique writing).

I also totally agree with the ending coming too abruptly. I knew the editor for this one was going to be tight-fisted with the word count, so I found myself up against the limit, and didn’t write a proper validation. If I’d only known that I could push up against 7000…

What about the other forty-four stories? Well, I’m not going to give you specifics, as they are not mine to give, but I will give you a wrap up of the decision-making process.

The editor already had three stories that he’d reserved space for. The rest of the word-count, he wanted to spread out through as many stories as possible. As the editorial panel went through the stories, several stories with problems went on the “strong maybes” and “maybes” list, while others that were not problematic went into the “no” pile.


So the first take-away is that it’s as much about taste and preference as anything else. In other words, a rejection is not a death-sentence. It is an opinion. An opinion that matters ( when the person is writing checks), but not a death sentence and not a reason to get upset that your story didn’t sell. Even well-received, well-crafted stories didn’t fit the bill for one reason or another.

Those stories that didn’t go into the “no” pile, went on the board under “strong maybes” and “maybes.”

Then the editor went down the list and filled the rest of his word count with a preference for shorter stories, including ones that would need major rewrites. He rejected an excellent long story because saying “yes” to such a long story would mean saying “no” to several short stories, and he wanted as many “flavors” as possible in his anthology.

So, let me re-iterate: a rejection is an opinion, influenced by many factors totally outside your control and knowledge. It is NOT a death sentence. I can vouch for the fact that no one died, even after being told to their face, and in a room full of other writers. In fact we were told up front, don’t send your stories to other markets until the week is over, as the editors may want them for other anthologies. In some cases the editors rejecting the story even told the writer what markets the story should be sent to.

Other factors that influenced editorial decisions:

Was your story one of the first ones they read? If so, they might put it in a read-again pile once they have them all, because at the beginning, they just don’t know what else they are going to get. Sometimes a second read works in your favor; other times, not.

Was your story memorable? Unique? Did it fit?

Was your story formatted correctly, or did you make the editor work really hard? Each hurtle you throw in the editor’s way is a reason for them not to keep reading. Really. Honest. So learn to format, punctuate, and use grammar. In other words, be a pro. And if you’re not a pro, fake it ’til you make it by at least working on the mechanics and aesthetics so that you’re not taxing precious editorial time and patience.

Ugly truth:

Some editorial buys were made purely for commercial reasons, i.e. the author’s name on the anthology would sell copies. This includes a story with problems. Why? Because this is a business, not a vanity project. Is it fair? No, but it IS reality.

This is one reason why it’s hard to learn JUST by reading—this goes for anthologies, magazines, and probably everything else being published today. Unless you know the inner workings, you won’t know why something is there. Just because you don’t know the name of John Q. Writer doesn’t mean that his story isn’t in there purely for commercial reasons. Your story of the same caliber probably wouldn’t have made it in. Or John Q. Writer could be really good and worthy of study. You just don’t know.

Basically, even in the world of letters, there is a senior varsity and a junior varsity. The senior varsity gets more leeway because their names sell tickets. So they get away with doing things you can’t, whether their writing is “good” or “bad.”

Beautiful truth:

I would be remiss not to mention two lovely ladies who came to check on me after my story got rejected (Leah Cutter and Laura Ware). It was an unexpected, but much appreciated, show of concern and camaraderie—the veterans of these workshops do look out for the newbies. I was really touched. Thank you, ladies.

Part Two.