I received a rejection letter the other week that cheered me up.
You see, I'm transitioning from media tie-in writing to original fiction and the two industries play by different rules. Media tie-in is for the most part write-for-hire. The way it usually works is the book packager or game developer or whoever the deciderer is lets it be known she is looking for thus-and-so. We writerly types then pitch ideas or proposals illustrating how we would handle the thus and the so. The deciderer picks the one(s) she likes, contracts are inked, and we write stories that are even better than we promised and a mere three point four eons later the amount we'd agreed to in the contract is rendered unto us.
The process is more streamlined in freelance writing. The writer writes a story, mails it to the market, and waits to find out if the editor wants it. (There are some markets, like BattleCorps, that invite unsolicited stories but they're the exception.) I know this is how most writers do business. It's how I started out. But I still feel as though there's a step missing. (And not knowing if the story will be bought while I'm writing it feels a bit odd.)
The reality is chances of a sale are pretty slim. Fiction doesn't sell magazines the way scandal and true-life stories do, so there are fewer and fewer magazines looking for stories. Prestige print markets, like The New Yorker and The Atlantic receive several thousand submissions each month, of which they can purchase only one or two. Online markets are growing, of course, but competition is still fierce. All of which means the short fiction writer quickly develops a collection of rejection letters – and eventually learns that not all rejection letters are the same.
Ninety-nine percent are form letters. Given the volume of manuscripts they receive each month, editors can not take the time to include an explanation of their decision with every story they reject. Thus the form "Thanks for letting us see your story, but …" letter. A form letter does not mean your story was bad or that you need to rewrite it. It just means that the magazine could not use your story at that time. Don't agonize over what you should have done better; print a fresh copy of the ms and mail it to the next market the same day.
A form rejection with a handwritten (actually hand-scrawled) phrase across the bottom led to my first sale. He wrote "rough spots lose reader" and I knew what he meant. I was fond of "dramatic" scene changes, and the editor was telling me the jarring transitions were throwing readers out of the story. That story I did rewrite (a rarity for me); I smoothed out all the transitions and resubmitted (with a note saying it was a resubmission and why) and the editor bought it.
Two of my most confusing personal rejections came from the late Marion Zimmer Bradley. Both came attached to the copies of the stories I'd submitted to her fantasy magazine and both mss showed evidence – including words scratched in the margins – that she (or someone) had read them closely. The first story was about people who could change reality to fit their beliefs – reality altered to fit its nature was controlled by those with the deepest convictions; conflicts between faiths shaped the world. The note, signed MZB, said "Very well done but if there is an element of fantasy here we have failed to find it." The second letter was longer – a full page critiquing the story, which she evidently liked but could not use. However the critique had nothing whatever to do with the story I'd submitted (the ms to which it was attached). I know that at least one other writer out there somewhere has had the exact same experience.
My favorite personal rejection came from Esquire five years ago and came nearly six months after I'd submitted (normal turn-around for editorial decision is three months). The editor loved the story, and wished he could use it. What's more he said he wasn't the only one. The long delay had been caused by the editors hanging on to the ms trying to find a way to fit it in. In the end they'd decided it just wasn't quite right for Esquire.
As I've been writing and mailing original short stories, my collection of form rejection letters has been growing. Which is why the personal note cheered me so. It wasn't much. The editor wrote that the story was well done, citing a touch she'd liked, that she liked my narrative "voice," and that she wanted to see more from me. From a busy magazine that must reject hundreds of stories a week, a personal note like that is huge.
Never take a rejection as a defeat. It's a step in the process. Writers are people who get past rejections and keep moving forward.