Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I Miss Rejection Slips

Maybe I'm weird.

When indie writers talk informally, one thing they seem to agree on is that it's nice to be free of the dreaded rejection slip. We all have funny war stories about the rejection slip that came back so fast it must have been mailed before they even saw the story, or the form rejection printed on the back of a subscription slip, or the many strange reasons for rejection. ("We don't publish religious fiction" when the story has nothing religious about it at all.) Or my favorite, the manuscript returned without a slip at all, just the word "No" penciled on the top of the first page.

Me? Rejection slips are probably the biggest thing I miss about traditional publishing.

When I first started, I heard that you have to acquire at least a hundred rejection slips before you get published. It was just a random number, but it seemed about right when we all compared notes. We all first published when we were at least getting in the upper double digits. Maybe 70 or 80.

Sometimes one of us would get a lucky break earlier, but then it often took longer to make the second sale. Even those who delayed submitting stories so that they would be better writers still found they had a lot of rejections to collect. (Although it went faster, because they had a lot more stories to submit, and when they got rejected, they could follow up quicker.)

We saw rejection slips as a badge of honor, like scars of war wounds. It was a posture, a way to display toughness and take the sting out of it... but in reality it's a lot more than that. And I think underneath we all knew that.

Rejections don't make you a better writer. Not directly. Yes, some editors send suggestions toward revision, but unless they offering to buy the story, those notes are of limited value. Because unlike writing class, the real world is not built on an absolute scale of quality. Editors look for stories that suit their markets. They make suggestions that suit their magazine but don't necessarily suit anyone else's. Still you learned something from them.

But what you really gain is maturity. Seasoning. Forget the badge of honor, forget the individual little lessons and realize that rejections are also progress markers. They're like hatch marks on a fighter plane, or the marks a mother draws on a wall so her children can see their growth. They just say that you've done something. It's what you've done that makes you a better writer.

What have you done?

1.) You wrote. You can't acquire a lot of rejections without writing a lot of stories.

2.) You did research to find markets to send stories too -- thereby becoming knowledgeable about what is available and popular.

3.) You studied writer's guidelines for those markets, and you checked out what else they published... so you became aware of what readers were used to and what they liked, and what was old hat and what was new.

4.) You took a second look at any story which was rejected to see what could have gone wrong -- not so you could revise it, but so you knew what to do better next time. And a lot of rejections means a lot of looks at each story.

5.) You talked to other writers, especially those who had successfully sold a story, and you got their opinion on why that editor didn't like that story which seemed perfect. In other words you got advice relating to your story, not just your pricing and marketing and where to advertise (which is the advice most indie writers seem to seek from each other).

Note that all of those things focus on your writing and on gaining a wider perspective of how readers react to it. You learn to see you work from other points of view, and to recognize who your audience is. And not just on a theoretical basis. Instead of getting wisdom as a summary of truth, you see it in detail in it's infinite variety.

And you get to see it in action. In all that variety, in all it's extremes. This is what it really means to be sophisticated. We tend to pretend that sophistication is the the acquisition of certain sophisticated attitudes, but what it really means is that you have a lot of experience that allows you to more quickly see how something new works. How to look past the surface and poke it with a stick in just the right place to make it jump the way you want.

While I think surface sophistication is highly overrated, real sophistication -- knowing how the world works and having a lot of in depth experience -- is to be prized above chocolate. Prized above chocolate, bacon, and oyster sauce (which is the bacon of the Asian world -- it makes everything taste great).

Self-publishing has traditional publishing beat in terms of the rewards, but it just does not compare in terms of gaining experience and sophistication. Part of the problem is that it's too accelerated. It's great for the advanced writer, but for the beginner, it's a terrible way to learn. You don't have to do any of the things listed above before you have your work out there in the world. You only have to write one thing, and you can publish it without learning anything except how to format.

So if rejection slips are a badge of honor -- which show what you've done and that you've behaved heroically and professionally in putting your work out there in front of a specific critical audience -- then you have to think of self-publishing as an act of faith. You don't know what's going to happen. You don't know if anybody will notice it or read it. It's like leaving your manuscript on park benches and wondering if anybody will notice, or if they'll just throw it away. You kinda, sorta learn from the experience, but it takes longer and the lessons are more vague.

Every now and then indie writers become frustrated at the the whole uncertainty of the business. They see readers looking at us with mistrust, and hear the criticism of old pros and reviewers -- most of which is vague so it's hard to tell how much applies to their own work -- and they think, it would be nice to have some sort of independent seal of approval. Maybe we could have an organization of some sort to certify things? That proposal always gets shot down, because in the end, who's going to create and run and set the standards for such an organization?

In the end, the debate about that is pointless, because we already have a system by which we gain experience and get a seal of approval.

We call it "Traditional Publishing."

You don't have to give up on indie publishing to realize that traditional publishing still has a lot to offer the writer... especially in short fiction. Or even articles and poetry and jokes. There are markets out there for your work. If you can break into them, they will not only pay you, but they will give you exposure to a new audience....

And they will give you rejection slips.

No matter what kind of writer you are, you haven't really proven yourself until you've collected at least a few rejections.

Tomorrow I'll talk about how to find some of those markets so you can start your own rejection collection.


Anonymous said...

Comments from the editors can also be of limited use because after all they are merely a quick squib based on initial reactions. Fording through the slush, they do not have the time to give it an in-depth analysis.

Indeed, I have heard of comments that effectively told the writer that the editor had lost interest very quickly (info useful in itself) because it revealed that the editor had read only the first pages.

And I have gotten opposite critiques for the same story, unrevised: the idea was cliched; the idea was strikingly original but I didn't do enough with it.

The Daring Novelist said...

Oh, yeah.

Then there is the story an editor sends back for revision, and you don't change it, and send it back to him and he says "Perfect!" (Not that I recommend doing this.)

Then there was the time I sent a very straight-forward cooking poem to a "homey" type magazine. The rejection said "we don't publish explicit material." I suspected that this person had a very dirty mind about symbolism.

But there is nothing you can do about that. (Hmm, maybe I should have sent the poem to a dirty poetry magazine....)

Ed Robertson said...

I don't like receiving individual rejections--I wanted to sell that story there, damn it--but I'm in complete agreement that the overall rejection process is a useful experience.

It teaches you that success takes time. It teaches you that most people will be indifferent to your work. It teaches you that if you keep sending it out there, it will find a home somewhere. Basically, it teaches you the lesson of the Hitchhiker's Guide: Don't panic.

I never intended it to, but the process has resulted in an indie author's survival kit.

The Daring Novelist said...

"Indie author's survival kit."

That's a GREAT way of putting it. Yes, the confidence and persistence that the old system gives you is exactly what you need to survive the new system. It really really really helps to have been through the rejection process.

Izzy DM said...

I love this site! I'll be back to peruse, which I, sadly, just learned means to read closely. In the meantime, I have a deadline to make, and most likely another rejection slip to acquire -:).