09 October 2018

Some Reasons Short Stories Get Rejected

by Barb Goffman

Whether you're a seasoned writer or a first-timer, submitting a short story to any publication probably involves anxiety. You wouldn't have written the story if you didn't enjoy doing it. You wouldn't have submitted the story for publication if you didn't hope it's good enough and want the editor to say yes.

Hearing that someone else likes your work is validating. Knowing that strangers will read your work is invigorating. Telling your family that you made a sale is good for the soul.

But not every story sells, especially on first submission. Editors usually try to be kind in their rejection letters, at least in my experience. They might say that they got a lot of submissions, and  many of the stories were wonderful, but they simply couldn't take them all. Or they might say that your story just wasn't a good fit for the publication, but please don't take it personally. Or they might say that they received a very similar story from someone else and simply couldn't publish both in the same book. It's this last type of rejection I'm going to focus on here. It sounds made up, doesn't it? Like an excuse.
There are all kinds of rejection.

And yet ...

I can tell you from personal experience that authors sometimes get very similar ideas. Sometimes this might be expected, especially when anthologies have narrow(ish) themes. For instance, Chesapeake Crimes: They Had It Comin' (which I co-edited) received a bunch of submissions involving revenge. (No big surprise.) A call for stories for a culinary anthology might result in a bunch of submissions involving poisoning. A book that wants weather-related short stories might receive multiple submissions about folks who are snowbound and someone is murdered.

But even when an anthology's call for stories is broad (let's say, the editor wants crime stories with a female protagonist), you can still end up with several similar stories under consideration. One reason could be that authors are subject to the same national news, so it would make sense if several might be inspired by the same news story, especially a big one. For example, I'd bet there are lot more #MeToo-type stories being written and submitted now than three years ago.

Authors also might be inspired by other industry successes. For instance, when vampire novels were all the rage, I knew several short-story authors writing about vampires, too. These authors weren't necessarily following the trend just to be trendy. Instead they were taking advantage of the trend to write about something they were interested in and that they thought they could sell.

I imagine that when novels with unreliable protagonists became big, more than one editor received short stories with unreliable protagonists, too. Perhaps some authors were following the trend, but I bet others simply were inspired and wanted to see if they could pull off an unreliable narrator, as well.

There's nothing wrong with any of these scenarios, but you can see how editors might end up with two similar stories to choose from. Or more. They all might be great, but an editor likely will only take one because he doesn't want the book to be monotonous.

And then, of course, there's the weird scenario, when two authors respond to a very broad call for stories with an oddly similar idea that isn't inspired by the news or trends or, it seems, anything. These two authors were simply on the same wavelength. This scenario is what made me decide to write about this topic today.

When Bouchercon put out its call for stories last autumn for the anthology that came out last month (Florida Happens), they asked for stories "set in, or inspired by, Florida and its eccentricity and complexity. We want diverse voices and characters, tales of darkness and violence, whether they are noir, cozy, hard-boiled or suspense. Push the boundaries of your creativity and the theme! Note: the stories don't have to actually be set in Florida, but can be 'inspired' by itso a character can be from here, it can be built around a piece of music about Florida; etc."

That's a pretty broad theme. With that theme, I wouldn't be surprised if they got a bunch of submissions involving older people, since Florida is where many people retire. And I wouldn't be surprised if they received a lot of submissions involving the beach or the ocean, since Florida is where so many people vacation. But what are the odds that two (or maybe more) authors were going to submit stories about missing cats?

And yet, that is nearly what happened. Hilary Davidson wrote one such story. Her story in the anthology, "Mr. Bones," is about a missing cat. My story in the anthology, "The Case of the Missing Pot Roast," involves a missing pot roast. But as originally planned, that pot roast was going to be  ... yep ... a cat.

If you've read my story, you can imagine how changing the pot roast into a cat would make the story incredibly darker. It was the darkness that got to me. When I was writing and reached page two of the story, I knew I couldn't do it. I couldn't write the story as planned with the object going missing being a cat. (Sorry for being vague, but I don't want to spoil things if you haven't read the story.)

Thank goodness for my unease, because I like the story much better with the pot roast. It makes the story lighter. Funnier. And it turned out that using the roast likely increased my chances of my story being accepted because I wasn't directly competing with Hilary Davidson (who wrote a great story). Indeed, imagine if I had gone through with my story as originally planned. The people who chose the stories would have had two submissions involving missing cats! And they likely would not have taken both stories.

So the next time you get a rejection letter and the editor says, please don't take this personally, take the editor at her word. You never know when someone else has an idea quite similar to yours. The world is funny that way.

31 comments:

janice law said...

Good advice- coincidences sometimes do happen.

Paul D. Marks said...

Well, you know what they say, Barb: Great minds think alike. So it's easy to see how more than one person would come up with the same or similar idea. But I think your change to a pot roast was a very tasty one :-) !

Art Taylor said...

Hi, Barb --
Nice post here—and so true! When I edited the Bouchercon anthology a few years ago, the final round of stories--cream of the crop--included several that overlapped so much in terms of character (older protagonists there too), plot (lots of men who did women wrong and deserved to pay), or theme (supernatural was a trend) that I ended up having to weigh some of them one against another to see which would make it and which wouldn't, because I wanted to keep diversity across the board on character, plot, theme, etc. Hard calls, and good stories that unfortunately didn't make the cut.
Thanks for sharing.
Art

Barb Goffman said...

They do. I remember a year I had an idea for one of the MWA anthologies, but I couldn't pull the story together. If I had, the editor would have had two very similar stories to consider --something I realized after the book came out--with a story just like the idea I'd had.

Barb Goffman said...

Nice on the tasty. Thanks, Paul!

Barb Goffman said...

Thanks for sharing this experience, Art. Similar submissions likely happen far more often than people think.

Steve Liskow said...

Great post, Barb.

It has to be frustrating for the editor, too, liking two similar stories and having to find a reason to dump one rather than the other.

In my case, "great minds..." probably isn't that applicable. And going back through my records (which doesn't take very long), I only see ONE story that sold the first time out, and that actually WAS for a themed anthology.

My biggest peeve (yeah, still, after all these years) is the story I send off...and never hear about until the anthology is out or several issues of the magazine have appeared without it. In this age of automated replies, I'd even prefer an auto-rejection to nothing. If someone said to me "we had another story similar to yours," I'd try to change it somehow if I could.

joshpac said...

Well said, Barb! I haven't gotten to the Florida B'con anthology yet, but I'm looking forward to reading your story and mentally substituting a cat for the pot roast!

Eve Fisher said...

I always try not to take a rejection personally. I may weep and mutter and chew a hanky, but I don't take it personally...

No, seriously, I can understand how there would be a lot of similar ideas floating out there, especially with a themed anthology. We are special - but we're not always THAT special,

Barb Goffman said...

Steve, I get your frustration about not hearing back. I've never been in a situation where I've been overwhelmed by submissions--maybe there might be a circumstance in which I wouldn't respond to every request, but I have a hard time believing it. For the anthologies I've worked on, we always make sure that the people whose stories aren't accepted hear it from us before they see other people celebrating their good news. It's just courteous.

Josh, once you see where the story ultimately goes, you'll see the problem. That said, once I switched to pot roast, the story morphed. As is, it couldn't work with the cat. The pot roast really opened things up story-wise.

Eve, that is exactly right!

Earl Staggs said...



Even after all these years, Barb, a rejection still hurts. Every time I get one, I kill
myself.

Fortunately, I'm a quick healer, and it doesn't take as much time as it used to to get over it and send the story somewhere else.

Rejection letters are simply a part of the process if you're a writer, and one acceptance wipes out a whole stack of them.

Vicki Batman, sassy writer of sexy and funny fiction, blogger at Handbags, Books...Whatever said...

I had a rejection about a short, saying they'd had a similar one. I shelved and rewrote at holiday time, then sold it. You never know. Hugs, vb

Elizabeth said...

I sold two flash stories & when I submitted a third story to the same editor a couple months later, he rejected it, but said he wanted to see more stories from me. The next one I sent he also rejected, but again asked for more. So in August I sent another, which was accepted. I'm 3 for 5 with that editor!

Robert Lopresti said...

I remember the producers at Star Trek: TNG saying that after Silence of the Lambs came out they got dozens of scripts about serial killers being transported on the Enterprise.

On the other hand when Animal House was a hit movie all three networks (there were only three back then) promptly put on series about fraternities. What makes that interesting is that the two which were not based directly on Animal House were both based on scripts the networks received long before the movie came out. They just dug through the piles until they found them.

Back in the 1980s I loved Rod Serling's Twilight Zone Magazine. I never sold them a story but one rejection said they liked my story but it was too similar to one they had already published (in an issue I had somehow missed). They told me, if it was any comfort, I had told the same story in half as many the words as the other one. Ah well.

Tonette Joyce said...

I'm glad the cat became a pot roast! Without thinking about the story, I laughed out load at the thought of trying to rework a story about a cat to one of a roast. I am glad you didn't take the story too far before reworking it; it could have been a nightmare.

O'Neil De Noux said...

Good information. I have a blog about rejections in an upcoming SleuthSayers and I'm happy to say it is unlike yours. Again, good information from you.

Melodie Campbell said...

Good uplifting post, Barb. I particularly like this: These authors weren't necessarily following the trend just to be trendy. Instead they were taking advantage of the trend to write about something they were interested in and that they thought they could sell.
I've been hit by the similar story gremlin: or rather, a similar background gremlin. About 1 year after The Goddaughter came out, another writer I know had a book come out with a similar mob background. People were coming to me and saying, "Look look! She copied you." Now, we're both with trad publishers, so I know her book was largely written before she had a chance to read my published book. I remembering being so darn glad that my series came out first. And glad that it's still continuing!
So it does happen.

William Ade said...

Hi Barb - great post. I have a number of short stories, both crime and literary out to a large number of publications, so rejections coming about every week. I recently received a personal rejection from an editor and I was so appreciative that she wrote, I replied thanking her profusely for taking the time. I think she was equally appreciative receiving a note of relative kindness from a frustrated writer. We're all human, doing the best we can.

Marilyn Levinson said...

Great article, Barb, and I rarely write short stories, though I plan to one of these days.

Barb Goffman said...

Earl, you're right--one acceptance can be so exhilarating it can make up for a lot of rejections.

Vicki, that's the way to proceed. If the only reason a story is rejected (and of course you can't know it's the sole reason but still) is because the editor had already taken something similar, there's no reason to think another editor won't buy that story right away.

Elizabeth, if an editor requests more from you, that's a good sign. I don't think they do that with everyone. Congratulations on your good track record with this editor.

Rob, that must have been so frustrating to come so close to selling to that magazine--but still nice to know they liked your story.

Tonette, while the basics of the story didn't need much adjustment from cat to roast, the story developed differently than envisioned once I made that change. So yes, I'm glad I made the decision so early on to make the change.

O'Neil, thanks! I'm looking forward to reading your take on things.

Mel, those types of things happen all the time. Frustrating that people could think someone is a copycat when the author had been working on the book for years before the work they "copied" came out. And that is why it's always nice to be first.

Bill, we are all human. It's so easy to take things personally, but sometimes, a rejection isn't personal at all. I'm glad to hear you're still plugging away. Your tenacity is inspiring.

Barb Goffman said...

Thanks, Marilyn. Good luck when you go down this path.

Leigh Lundin said...

Barb, I experienced my own brush with an ultra-similar plot, where brush means slammed by a train, the J.A. Konrath. You can read the story My Pal George (it's 37 words short) and find Konrath links here.

Barb Goffman said...

Nice flash piece, Leigh. (The Konrath link doesn't work though.)

Leigh Lundin said...

Yikes! I'll have to track a fresh link down, Barb. Thanks.

June Shaw said...

Great ideas, Barb. Thanks for making us realize this can easily happen.

Sandy Cody said...

Nice post - a reminder that writers have more in common than we realize.

Judy Penz Sheluk, author said...

Great post, thanks Barb

Sandra Parshall said...

Oh, how I wish book publishers cared as much about originality as short story editors do! The market is awash with cookie cutter novels that follow a trend. Some of them even have similar cover art. But short stories can still surprise us. Good post, Barb.

Barb Goffman said...

Thanks June, Judy, and both Sandys, for stopping by and for your kind words. I'm glad to be helpful.

Adam Meyer said...

I thought this was very enlightening Barb - thanks for sharing your experience and ideas on this!

Barb Goffman said...

I'm glad it was helpful. Thanks for stopping by, Adam.