27 February 2018

Rejected!

Michael Bracken
by Michael Bracken

I have every rejection I’ve ever received.

All 2,552 of them.

When I began writing in the mid-1970s, conventional wisdom—whether true or not—was that a collection of rejection slips would prove beneficial were the IRS ever to audit my taxes. The very existence of the rejection slips proved I was writing with the intent to earn money and not as a hobby, even though I was operating at a loss. These days my taxable net profit on freelancing proves the point far better than my collection of rejection slips, but I can’t stop myself from collecting them.

Though today’s rejections are nowhere near as physically varied as the ones I once received through the mail, I continue to print out emailed rejections and file them with all the other rejection slips, which now fill most of a filing cabinet drawer.

JUST SAY NO

I received my first rejection slip from Fantasy & Science Fiction in September 1974, just as I began my senior year of high school, and I received my first personalized rejection—a quarter-page typewritten note with a handwritten addendum—from the editor of Multitude in May 1976, less than a year after high school graduation. I had progressed from form rejection to personalized rejection in only seven submissions.

Of course, a personalized rejection still means “no.”

The typing is mine,
the handwriting is Sam's
My goal was to collect acceptances, not rejections, so I persevered: A single rejection the first year, four the second, 34 the third, and a whopping 74 the fourth. They came in all sizes and shapes, from scraps of paper containing a simple scrawled note (Sam Merwin, Jr., rejecting a story sent to Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine) to four-color full-page form rejection letters that cost more to print than I earned from many of my earliest sales.

Most rejections provided little information beyond the preprinted message. Others contained checklists where editors, by one or more strokes of the pen, identified the way or ways my story failed to engage them. Still others provided handwritten words of encouragement: “Not bad,” “Fine writing,” and “Try us again.”

O'Neil De Noux fails to recognize
the genius of my early work
The best—though they were still rejections—were the long notes and letters providing detailed reasons for rejection and providing suggestions for improvement. Sometimes, they even provided lessons on writing: Gentleman’s Companion editor Ted Newsom’s page-and-a-half letter on the value of writing transitions rather than using jump-cuts springs to mind, as do several letters from horror anthologist Charles L. Grant and several incredibly detailed, multi-page letters from Amazing Stories editor Kim Mohan. (Note: I placed two stories with Ted Newsom and one with Charles L. Grant, but I never did place one with Kim Mohan.)

And one rejection, from Mystery Street, may have been my first encounter with fellow SleuthSayer O’Neil De Noux!

THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON REJECTIONS

During the 40-plus years I’ve been writing, my stories have been rejected by 71 mystery periodicals—the five that existed in the 1980s and 66 more since then—and an uncounted number of mystery anthologies, including both print and electronic publications. (Note: In “Poster Child,” my recent guest post at Something is Going to Happen, I actually name the many mystery periodicals that have come and mostly gone since I began writing short mystery fiction.)

I’m unsure if a multitude of rejections indicates when I’m having a good year or a bad year, but I received 204 rejections in 1991 (I received 84 acceptances that year). On the flip side, I received only three in 1989 (I received four acceptances that year). More recently, acceptances and rejections are near equilibrium: 39 rejections vs. 37 acceptances in 2017; 35 rejections vs. 45 acceptances in 2016; and 31 rejections vs. 42 acceptances in 2015.

Though the majority of rejections are in response to short story submissions, mixed among the many early rejections are those for articles, essays, fillers, poems, and short humor. I was shotgunning the market back then, trying anything and everything, and hoping something stuck. (And not every rejection generates a rejection slip—Woman’s World, for example, does not send rejections—so I’ve received more rejections than rejection slips.)

Rejections mess with your head. Being told no 2,552 times is quite disheartening. Some writers give up after the first few dozen. Other writers receive rejections and only become more determined. Many writers play rejectomancy, attempting to read between the lines of every rejection. (Aeryn Rudel, in his blog Rejectomancy, which I follow, attempts to decode and rank rejections into various tiers, from “Common Form Rejections” to “Higher-Tier Form Rejections.” Though most of Aeryn’s data comes from the horror, science fiction, and fantasy markets, the information he provides is both entertaining and informative.)

REJECTION-FREE IS THE WAY TO BE

Were it not for the lessons I learned from those long, detailed rejection letters, I may have become one of the many would-be writers whose shattered egos and unpublishable manuscripts litter the literary highway. Lack of ability quashed my music career and my artwork never gained traction, so I focused my creative energy on writing and, over time, began to accumulate acceptances: 1,584 of them (more than 1,200 are for short stories).

That’s one acceptance for every 1.61 rejections and, yes, I’ve kept every acceptance letter, postcard, note, and email. Those I file with hardcopies of my manuscripts and, when I get them, with copies of the actual publications.

I had a hot streak a few years back, when almost everything I wrote sold on first submission. My ego expanded exponentially, but then I realized something I should have realized long before that: If everything is selling, I’m not challenging myself; I’m taking the easy path to publication.

So, I began writing stories that stretched my abilities, either by working in unfamiliar genres or by submitting to higher-paying and more prestigious markets. The acceptance-to-rejection ratio shifted, and not in my favor. I placed a few stories, and just in time because two of my sure-sale markets ceased publication and several anthology editors with whom I worked stopped editing anthologies.

So, as I continue stretching my abilities and my stories continue facing the submission gauntlet, my rejection collection grows, taking ever more space in my filing cabinet. Luckily, so does my acceptance collection.

A trio of recently published stories survived the submission gauntlet: “Plumber’s Helper” in The Saturday Evening Post, My Stripper Past in Pulp Adventures #28, and “The Mourning Man” in the March/April Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. (Note: Joining me with stories in this issue are two other SleuthSayers: R.T. Lawton and Robert Lopresti.)

24 comments:

O'Neil De Noux said...

Up early this morning to see I rejected a Michael Bracken story during my brief stint as an editor in 1992. This is worse than waking up to find a rejection slip in my email. Damn.

janice law said...

A good reminder that even successful writers rack up the rejections!

It is important to remember there is no arguing with taste _ or lack of it.

Eve Fisher said...

At least today's rejection slips are generally either "no" or very nicely worded. And on-line, so that they don't pile up in the wastebasket and tempt you to paper your room. Or your garage. Or your outhouse...

Alan Orloff said...

Great post! I wonder what your record is for story with the most rejections that eventually got published?

Art Taylor said...

As always, an insightful and entertaining post, Michael. I used to keep a box for rejections, slowly watching them pile up--but then stopped keeping track. A move maybe? The box got lost one way or another and I discarded the practice. Then I started a spreadsheet for stories, charting submissions, rejections, etc. And THEN started using an online system that I don't use anymore and.....
But your points about rejections are all good ones!

Deborah Elliott-Upton said...

As always, a great article, Michael. You are giving me hope. Those rejections can sting. I needed to be reminded that even very talented writers aren't always appreciated for every piece they submit. We need to keep going like you!

Michael Bracken said...

All is forgiven, O'Neil. I sold that story to another publication.

Alan, I'm not certain which story had the most rejections before finally selling, but one came to mind as a likely candidate: "I Can't Touch the Clouds for You" was rejected 28 times between April 1975 and its publication in the July 25, 2005, issue of Sun. I received $200 for a 1,000-word story, and that more than compensated me for all the stamps, envelopes, and paper I used over the years.

Eve and Art, saving all those rejections provides an interesting historical archive, not just of my own failures, but of letters and notes from editors and publications that are no longer with us. For example, until I was looking through all the rejections, I had forgotten about O'Neil's brief time as a mystery magazine editor.

Janice, rejection stops some writers. Those of us too bullheaded to stop in face of rejection are the ones who often go on to long careers.

Melodie Campbell said...

I think you may have a record for both rejects and accepts, Michael! But your ratio confirms what a terrific writer you are. And it's amazing that after hundreds of publications, we still get the occasional rejection. I'm currently cursing Asimov mag for rejecting a story I felt sure was for them. Cross-genre is a bitch. Time to try a new market.

Richard Krauss said...

Thanks for sharing the inside story of your success, Michael. Fascinating--and congratulations on all of your acceptances, including your three most recent!

Michael Bracken said...

Rejections do sting, Deborah, but once they reach critical mass no individual rejection stings quite so much. What's critical mass? I'll let you know when I reach it.

Melodie, toss in an extra curse or two for me. I've never managed to place a story with Asimov's. I haven't tried much in recent years, but I have a great many rejections from George Scithers, the first editor, from back when it was a brand new publication.

Thanks, Richard.

O'Neil De Noux said...

Another note about rejection. In my February 16th column, I mentioned a story of mine had been published alongside a story by Ray Bradbury in AMERICAN WAY: In-flight magazine of American Airlines. Bradbury commented on his story, saying it had been rejected by a number of science fiction magazines before being accepted by AMERICAN WAY. I still can understand ANY editor of ANY SF magazine rejecting a Ray Bradbury story in 1995. And it's a great story. It's all so subjective.

Terrie Farley Moran said...

Wonderful, wonderful column. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences.

Steve Liskow said...

Amazing post, Michael. I remember Chris Offutt saying he decided to cope with rejection by trying to gather 100 of them in a year...but he sold a story before he reached his goal.

I stopped counting at 750 for novels and SS combined, but I could go back and check my spreadsheet. I know my most rejected short story was 23 (two stories were tied) and one novel had over 100 under different titles and revisions before I got it right.

But I'm falling farther behind you again, Michael. I only have four rejections this month and six for the year.

Michael Bracken said...

When even Bradbury can't place everything first time out, what choice do we have, O'Neil?

One novel with 100 rejections, Steve? Even I'm not that masochistic.

Thank you, Terrie. I've enjoyed re-examining my career in this and previous SleuthSayers posts. Usually, I'm looking forward, but re-examining how I arrived at this point has been fun.

Jeff Baker said...

Yes, I get majority rejections, Michael, but I just sold ("placed") a story that I'd had rejected a bunch of times before and that I'd sent out again only because I try to always have something out in the vast, slushy world! Again, Michael, thanks for the reminders that even the pros get rejected!

Robert Lopresti said...

Good one, Michael. I threw out all my rejection slips years ago. Did you ever get one where the rejection was handwritten ACROSS THE FIRST PAGE OF YOUR MANUSCRIPT? I got that a few times, back when you had to type them all out on a freaking typewriter.

Occasionally someone will say: "YOu get into Hitchcock's all the time. It must be nice not to get rejected by them anymore." And I laugh bitterly.

You might enjoy this: http://criminalbrief.com/?paged=155

Mary Sutton said...

Heh, I just got one yesterday. I used to save them, but I don't any more. I don't need the negative energy.

A friend of mine says to aim for 100 rejections a year because it's proof you are submitting. And the chance of acceptance when you never submit is 0%.

Mary/Liz

Michael Bracken said...

Jeff, "placed" a story implies that no money will exchange hands. I've had a fair number of "placements" in my day, and many of them are just as exciting as actual sales.

Robert, back when actual pieces of paper traveled back and forth through the mail system, my mss. came back in all manner of conditions. Some had rejection notes scrawled across the front page, a few had actually been copyedited (at least through the first page or so), and some appeared to have been used as placemats, ashtrays, and litter boxes. I've even received other authors' manuscripts back in my envelopes. (Possible the most unusual was one I almost didn't see—a rejection note penned on the inside of the envelope's flap. If I had slit the envelope open, as I usually do, I might never have seen the note.) Enjoyed reading the link you provided!

Mary, though I've hit those kind of numbers more than once, I don't strive for 100 rejections a year. I just try to write the best I can, submit to the most appropriate markets, and keep moving forward.

Jeff Baker said...

I said "placed" because I don't have a contract yet and have no idea whether they pay (I'd have to look it up!) and don't know if the anthology is actually going to materialize or not! :) Oh well! As Rod Serling once said: "That's the way it goes!"

Jeff Baker said...

Oh, and I forgot to mention; a friend of mine wallpapered his upstairs with rejection letters!

Debra H. Goldstein said...

What a great post. it reinforces the old "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." In this field, it is so easy to crawl back in bed or under a rock when rejections come, but your track record balanced by your many successes is exactly the encouragement the rest of us need.

Robert Lopresti said...

"Used as a litter box." Oh my. I never received another writer's rejection slip, but I once (not too long ago) received their contract!

Gigi Pandian said...

This is exactly what I needed to read today as I dive into finishing two short stories in which I'm pushing myself out of my comfort zone!

Michael Bracken said...

Well, Jeff, I'll keep my fingers crossed that "placed" turns into sale and that the anthology does materialize. Alas, sometimes they don't. Fellow SleuthSayer John M. Floyd and I have stories in an anthology due out last year that was postponed to this year, and I have a story in an anthology due out (according to the contract!) last year. It still hasn't shown up on the publisher's website.

Debra and Gigi: I'm glad I could provide a bit of encouragement.

Robert: Every time I receive something from an editor intended for another writer I wonder what someone else received intended for me.