Last night I received the 45th rejection for a story I think is one of the best I’ve written. A number of its rejections have been of the personalized, please-send-us more variety (the Rejection Wiki sorts rejection language into tiers, journal-by-journal) and the story has been so repeatedly thoroughly reworked that for now I’m not going to revisit it unless requested to. Nonetheless, 45 approaches my record, and old fears quicken—what is it that I don’t get that others’ stories are doing to get accepted and lauded and I’m unmoved by? Maybe I’m not only a bad writer but also DON’T GET PEOPLE…
Testing that theory against freshly rejected drafts, I was usually able to find things that had to be fixed, and soon. The resulting revisions were indeed sometimes breakthroughs. Distant from composition, I better perceived pieces’ whole arcs, and what I’d set out to write seemed inessential next to actual words. I was willing to jettison anything. Many revisions were ill advised, lines cut, details added needlessly, throwing off momentum and meaning. Often I was second-guessing editors who’d made no suggestions. Suggestions can be fraught, too; “not enough tension” is as much about the reading experience as about what to do to change it. “What does the character want,” “what’s the heart of the story,” all such formulations are necessarily clumsy attempts to isolate elements that, when stories are really working, are experienced inextricably from one another. I’ve several times cut subplots that seemed to me to lend the depth and color that made their stories unique but raised no stakes, added nothing to a main character’s central drama. I’m still not sure if cutting them made the stories “better,” but it made them more like The Way We Write Now. It took me far too long to be able to accept that though I might have read multiple issues of a journal, might subscribe to it and think I understand its editors’ leanings, I might have submitted a perfectly fine story that’s simply not to their taste, or that, as the default rejection that so many journals use says, is “not for us.”
I kept for some years all the rejection slips I’d received before journals switched to electronic submissions. Shenandoah’s slip, on thick, smooth paper, was nice enough to use as a bookmark if I’d wanted. The note is formal and remote—”although the poems, story, or essay in this submission don’t quite meet our immediate needs”—but someone took the time to hand-write “Thanks for trying us!” Mid-American Review thanked me by name, and the reader signed her name below the typed “We wish you every good fortune.” Personalized impersonal, a good combination. You can re-create and appreciate the time taken for you, the thoughts spared in a hectic process.
One journal’s letter, with my name and the sender’s scrawled in, said, in bold:
please believe me when I say we would enjoy reading your work in the future. This is not a come on or an idle gesture.
Another, a slip of paper, was cautious and formal:
Because our staff changes from year to year, feel free to submit again as our editorial tastes shift.
I read some rejections’ brisk “we’ve decided against this one” and want to get right back to work on the next one. “It’s not quite right for us” suggests more discomfort saying no than I feel receiving a no, and makes me think the same piece might be entirely right for someone else. “We must pass” or “we cannot publish the work you have submitted to us” conjures an editorial staff so steeped in quality that they’re unable to spare a decision for writers mistaken in what the staff could (it’s a matter of ability, not choice) publish.
I entered a number of contests in the first few years I was sending out work. The Iowa Review’s rejection was a gracious nod from a conversation I didn’t know enough to join in:
Our choices, of course, reveal at least as much about us as about you and may chiefly expose our limitations as readers.
Some journals sent a subscription form along with their rejection:
[journal x] has a distinctive literary style that cannot be conveyed through description. Simply put, you have to read it for yourself to know what kind of work we favor.
I’m confident that at that point I needed more than reading their journal or any number of journals for my writing to merit their serious consideration, but reading them more regularly would’ve been a start. Other replies—well, what can one say to this:
Even though your story was not chosen as this year’s winner, we extend to you a heartfelt thank you for entering our competition. By submitting your entry fee you not only helped pay the expenses of this contest, but also provided scholarship monies for deserving candidates. […] Please consider entering our competition again in the future.
I’m reminded of my advice to composition students who put “provided excellent customer service” as a bullet-point on their resumes. Less may not be more, but more may not say what you want to say.
Any piece can only be revised so far from its DNA, I think. Many pieces are best filed as lessons learned and moved on from. Sometimes a piece doesn’t need to be different, it needs different readers, and everyone is better off if it’s rejected and has another chance somewhere that appreciates it. I think often of Louis Kahn’s formulation about finding what a building “wants to be” (60):
The Kitchen wants to be the Living Room.
The Bed Room wants to be a little house by itself.
The car is the room on wheels.
How do you know when pieces are “done”? Short answer: when they’re going to press or are in the posting queue. But really, they’re done when anything you do seems to throw them off balance more than sharpen them; when you can no longer find a way in, and they seem to exist separate from you, no longer yours to tinker with.
This post was first published on sarahwrotethat.com and incorporates an earlier post of October 1, 2011.
Photo: Sarah Malone
“Esherick House.” Great Buildings. www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/Esherick_House.html
Kahn, Louis I. Louis I. Kahn: Writings, Lectures, Interviews. Edited by Alessandra Latour. Rizzoli International Publications, 1991.