Read some old rejection letters the other day. Found them going through one of my famous anonymous boxes – taped to withstand nuclear holocaust but devoid of any hint as to what may be inside. In this case it was: all of my notes from the period in the early 90s when Valerie had convinced me to write romance novels with her – including the first third of one and detailed narrative summaries of two others; several notebooks of observations, ideas, experiments, etc. – none particularly interesting; eighteen 10x13 manila envelopes, each with a short story that never sold, complete with a checklist of publications to which I'd submitted them and all the rejection letters.
Let me first say that I will not be sending any of these stories out again. There are reasons they never sold. But I may retread some of the ideas – use them to launch completely different stories. But I did send each of them to at least six, and in one case nine, markets. I didn't realize then that I was giving up too easily – there were a lot of small and regional markets I didn't know enough to pursue. In my own defense, I didn't have the internet then and finding diverse markets of that type was difficult. Although that's not much of a defense – difficult does not mean impossible and lots of writers did build up publication track records with out-of-the-way and small markets. I suspect it was just lack of stictuitiveness on my part – or perhaps a hubris that allowed me to see only national markets – I don't now recall.
But the rejection letters were interesting reading. Even twenty years ago personal rejection letters were rare. I had one, which I'll get to in a minute. No, the interesting bits were the hand-written notes at the bottom of the form letters – or in some cases on the first page of the story. (In those days if you included a stamped and self-addressed #10 envelope the magazine would send you the rejection letter and first page of the story so you'd know what had been rejected. I assume they used the rest of the mss pages for ceremonial bonfires or something similar.)
"Not enough story here." Mystified me in '92, but now I see what he meant. The work in question was more a vignette or a slice of life than a narrative.
"Good writing." (Several times.) Significant in that one editor would write this and the next would send an unmarked form letter for one story and then they would reverse roles on the next story. In other words, each editor was an individual and each saw my work differently. No absolutes.
"Very, very close!" Both gratifying and frustrating; mostly frustrating. What made it close? What made it miss?
"Enjoyed the story. Totally wrong for us. Read the magazine and send something we can use." Esquire nailed me. Never, ever send a story to a market you haven't read – editors can tell when you don't do your homework.
"Better." This is pretty exciting – it means the editor remembered my name and thought my work was improving. (Or he could have thought I was someone else, but let's not go there.) Fact is, send enough stuff out and editors will start to recognize your name. Remember, every editor wants to discover the next Rowling or Collins or King; they pay attention to who sends them what.
"This is fantasy." Stanley Schmidt, editor of science fiction icon Analog, wrote that on the bottom of a letter rejecting a story about people who could cause things to be by believing in them – things that would break down or disappear if you doubted them. It was a story about self-delusion (I may use that idea for a different story).
Mr. Schmidt's comment led to my only hand-written rejection letter actually addressed to me. Acting on his assessment, I submitted the story to Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine. In a paragraph on the back of the story's first page Ms. Bradley noted a couple of things she liked about my writing (mostly my sentences) but concluded: "If there is an element of fantasy to this story we have failed to find it."
About seven years after these letters and stories, in 1999, an editor wrote "rough spots lose readers" below his pre-printed signature. That insight led me to realize the "dramatic" and/or unexpected scene changes of which I was so fond were more jarring than exciting; they broke up the narrative flow and threw the reader out of the story as she tried to figure out what just happened. My next submission to that editor had solid transitions and eschewed pyrotechnics. He bought it.
My point is that while rejection notes may be maddeningly vague, they often contain useful information. Do not rewrite your story based on what you think the editor might have meant. (And remember different editors will have different takes on, different insights into your work.) Be alert to patterns and recurring themes – if you're getting similar notes from different sources there's an area of your work you probably should examine. By being alert and being responsive you increase your sales and get your name – and your stories – out to the world.