Getting rejections is a normal part of sending out your writing (or at least it is a normal part of sending out MY writing). As such, it really doesn’t bother me. I think this is because before I even wrote my first word, I spent months researching online anything I could find about writing short fiction professionally. One thing that came up time and time again was that you can’t take them personally, everybody gets them by the truckload, even established pros. They really mean nothing. (Don’t believe me? Go read this story about someone who accidentally sold a story to an editor who had already rejected it.) I don’t know if it was because of this foreknowledge or just some aspect of my personality, but it just doesn’t bother me.
Anyway, there was only one thing that bothered me about the rejections: the lack of feedback.
I’m a firm believer in sending your stories to the highest paying markets and then working your way down. You never know who is going to buy your story. If you start anywhere but the top and then you sell that story, you’ll never know if you could have done better. The worst case is that you get a rejection. Well, see the above paragraph to know how much that bothers me.
The downside of this strategy is that the largest markets receive the most submissions. So not only are your chances smaller, but they also don’t provide you any feedback with your rejection. Usually, they just send you a form letter.
This was sort of frustrating due to the fact that I know my stories aren’t the best…but I want to improve them. If there’s something wrong, I want to know about it, so I get better with the next story. So I spent many an hour complaining about the lack of feedback.
That was before I became an acolyte of the arcane art of rejectomancy. See, it turns out that editors frequently send encoded messages in their rejection letters that give you clues about the reasons you were rejected. Once you have several rejections from the same editor, you can compare them and find subtle differences in the wording. Correlate that with hundreds of others online and you start to discover that some editors actually have different form letters that mean different things.
For example, one might say, “I’m afraid it didn’t catch my interest” which means your opening might be too slow. Another might say, “I’m afraid it didn’t hold my interest” which means the reader got a little farther into the story, but it bogged down in the middle. There are magazines that send color coded slips which indicate how far your story made it (i.e. blue means it was rejected at the first reading, yellow means it made it to the second reading, etc.) And all of this is on top of other indicators, such as a rejection addressed to you personally or a rejection signed by the editor. Basically, any minor variation on that particular editor’s standard could be (and probably is) good news.
Now, of course you can get bogged down in rejectomancy, reading too much into little things. But I discovered something amazing: as I went back through all of my old rejections, it turns out that there was a wealth of knowledge to be found! And further more, my rejections tended to be the “good” rejections, or the ones that people generally agree mean that your story made it pretty far into the process. The “your story didn’t work for me” kind, that tend to indicate the story itself is okay, but just wasn’t what the editor was looking for on that particular day.
Furthermore, as I went back through all of them, I found out that editors had often included a sentence or two that was very specific to my story, which I had glossed over the first time. Basically, I saw rejection and that’s all. But on second reading, there were actually specific comments: “good characterization” or “focused too much on the premise” or “liked the core idea, but it went on a little too long”. Things that usually confirmed what I already thought about the story anyway.
So it turns out, the information was there all along, right under my nose! All the information I could ever care to know, if I just investigated a little bit.
This does beg the question however: why the obliqueness? Why don’t the editors just say what they mean, instead of having an elaborate code? I think there are a couple of (justified) reasons for this. First off, sometimes they did say, very directly, and I just ignored it. Second off, they might do it simply to amuse themselves. This doesn’t bother me; rejecting story after story has to be boring. It’s almost like an inside joke.
Finally though, I think what it mostly comes down to is the fact that editors are people too. They don’t want to tell people bad news, especially since they don’t know how any particular person will take it. So write a more-or-less neutral rejection letter so nobody gets too upset. Then, the people who are really into it, the ones that will take the time to dig deeper (the rejectomancers, if you will), will discover the secret code and get the feedback they are desperately looking for.
It’s almost like a test to see how much you care. If you don’t care, then rejection is rejection and that’s that. But if you do care, then you can gain some useful information.
What you do with that information is, of course, up to you.