Rejection is part of every writer’s life. Not the good part, I would add, but a part. I’ve been wanting to write about it for awhile, because it’s something I feel like I’ve learned a little about over the past many years, but I it’s also an area where I feel I’m still learning.
One of the ways I’ve learned about rejection is by being an editor at Level Best Books. Just as we often have insights into our own writing when we’re editing someone else’s work, I’ve learned something about rejection from rejecting. So today, I’m going to look at what I’ve learned about rejection from the outside in—as an editor. And I’ll look at how I’ve experienced rejection from the inside out, as a writer, in my next post.
When I first started writing, I was aware, as everyone is, about the fantastically bad odds of having any single story or novel accepted for publication. But for some reason, in my head, I thought that most of what was getting rejected was probably dreck. I figured, once they get rid of the 90% of awful, it’s a race among the remaining 10% as to what actually gets bought.
But that hasn’t been my experience at Level Best at all. Let’s look at the pile of stories we get every year.
Let’s say they are a hundred stories submitted. There are actually more, this year it looks like a lot more, but round numbers are helpful. And let’s say we’re looking to fill 20 open slots—which is typical.
Roughly 10% of what we get actually is awful. Awful to the point where you wonder why people put postage on it. Wrong genre, wrong word count. Written with crayon on paper covered with drool. But honestly, this a tiny percentage of our submissions.
The next 20% will typically be beautifully written character studies that go nowhere, or plot-twisters in which amazing things happen to people we care nothing about. In some ways these are the most heartbreaking because they are usually by the least experienced writers and we are always looking for that new voice. But these stories often have such great raw energy and show so much imagination that you just know that if the author keeps working and developing, he or she is going to be really good one day.
The next 20% are stories that suffer from what I call premature submission. They’re heartbreaking, too, because you know if the author had held onto the story for just a couple more days, he could have filled that plot-hole, fixed that inconsistency or tightened that scene. We don’t have time to do any developmental editing, but it is always sorely tempting to do so in these cases. These are good stories from good writers.
So then we’re done. We’ve eliminated 50% of what was submitted. But we still have 50 good stories and 20 slots to fill. Now we’re faced with trying to put a book together. We need long stories and short stories, dark and light. We need some established authors who we know can help us sell copies (after all, we don’t want to just print your story, we want to get it into the hands of readers) and we always include a few first pubs. We need male and female authors from each of the six New England states. When people used to ask me how to improve their odds of getting into the anthology, I would say, “Move to Rhode Island,” but this year we had several excellent submissions from the Ocean State so I need a new joke.
And remember, there are four of us. While I think the world would be a better place if everyone shared my taste, sadly it is not so. I’ve done this long enough now that I’ve seen stories I loved get great reviews and award nominations. And I’ve seen stories another editor loved and fought for, that I was kind of meh about get great reviews and nominations. We editors have been together long enough we mostly agree, but if another editor is fighting hard for a story, I’ve learned to listen. And that often means something I love has to go.
So here’s what I want you to take from this, if, like me, you are scribbling away at home, wondering if you are crazy.
- 50% of the stories we get we would very happily publish. We have to turn down 30+ stories that we love.
- 70% of the stories we get are good stories. Really good stories. Some may need a little more time or care, but they all have the potential to be really good.
- 90% of the stories we get are from people who either are now, or could potentially be really good writers.
So when we say, “we can’t use your story this year,” it means exactly that. It doesn’t mean, “You’re a talentless hack.” It doesn’t mean you should take to your bed, or take up macramé, or take cyanide.
So that’s what I’ve learned from being an editor. Really, really good stuff gets rejected. For all kinds of reasons. I don’t know if you find that encouraging or discouraging, but it’s certainly helped me.
I think that’s very encouraging, and I appreciate this look from the other side of an editor’s desk. I’ll be sharing it. The question I and some writer friends have been bandying about is what about the drool-covered subs? Should those writers be sent a different letter than the ones that wrote things that broke your heart? Is there any way, in other words, for someone who should keep going know that she’s in a different camp than the over-salivators?
The answer for Level Best is “yes” and “no.” 90% of rejected authors will get the same form letter. The reason for this is time, exacerbated by the pressure we feel from social media to let everyone know simultaneously. But we do pick out a few–maybe half a dozen–a year to write to personally. These are often stories that were very, very close or that we absolutely loved. During the submission season, we also occasionally encourage people to send something in that just missed last year if it hasn’t been published in the interim–no guarantees.
But be assured, a form e-mail doesn’t mean the story is bad.
When Susan Oleksiw asked if I’d like to sit on the editor’s side of the desk at LBB, those many years ago, I knew it would be a learning experience. I didn’t realize how hard writing those rejection letters would be. There was one writer who kept submitting, and we kept waiting for the “right” story for our collection, and then he gave up and went away, and sadly, we never got it. The hardest part is rejecting those very good stories, knowing the authors won’t believe us when we say that it’s just not right for the collection. Sometimes, it isn’t. Sometimes we would write to a promising author and offer to help, but get no response. Once in a while, a story would be resubmitted and it would be improved, just as we’d hoped. And as you note…everyone has his or her own taste.
What can an author take away from this? Keep on believing in your work, and once you crawl out of the corner and lick your wounds–start sending it out again. If any editor gives you some advice, consider it seriously. Try to be an optimist. And in our own small, tight community, where we’re all also friends and colleagues, don’t think that a rejection of a story is a rejection of you. We’re still in your corner. We still know you’ve got talent, right, Barb?
And by the way, I am very jealous that you were able to get stories from Rhode Island. I all but went around knocking on doors. Congrats.
I’ve also learned: Never listen to music while reading a rejection letter. It makes the whole process worse. Of course that might also be my taste in music and not apply to something like The Strokes or Twisted Sister. Seriously, this was very enlightening not only because I’ve been accepted and rejected by Level Best over the years, but by the emphasis on the idea that some things are ‘not now’, but with polish might be ‘next year’.
So right Kate. That’s part of what motivated me to write this. Every year I’ve done this we’ve rejected stories from really good writers. (That’s how you felt some of those years when you rejected me, right? 😉
And John, we do take a serious second look at stories. That’s why the submissions guidelines say we’ll look at a story a second time. Mark Ammon’s Fish Award winner was, as I recall, a second-timer.
Pingback: Rejection—Part Two by Barbara Ross | Maine Crime Writers