12 June 2021

Walk It Off

A few years ago, a semi-prominent literary journal rejected a story I'd submitted. Nothing unusual there, either my rejection by semi-prominent literary journals or my wince when the email arrived. Rejection stings. You walk it off. Several months later, the journal apologetically emailed again and, citing submission manager software issues, wanted to be very clear that my story had been rejected. Right, as if the first rejection and subsequent non-appearance of my piece hadn't dialed me in.

You walk off a two-fer the hard way. 

The journal meant well, of course. And actually, I don't remember which story wears this badge. This spring, I was restoring backup files onto a new laptop after its predecessor met a laminate floor at speed. A cat was involved. This cat. She knows what she did. Anyway, I was restoring my Outlook file, and here was a rejection letter folder, an entire archive of every submission gone down in flames. Why the hell was I holding onto that mojo? What if Marie Kondo found this out? 


I've been writing short stories for ten-ish years. I'm not a prolific submitter because I'm not a prolific writer, but ten years is sample size enough. I've been form-rejected and non-responsed. I've gotten emphatically fast rejections and rare gems with improvement feedback. Every one needs that moment where you grit past it. The skin thickens. The savvy grows. There are tons of great writers submitting, way more than elite market slots. I learn that intellectually, but writing isn't purely intellectual. I walk things off.

It's how this world spins. Look, I'm currently open for acceptances, but a certain submission onus is on me. Rejections, then, have a major silver lining, once understood as part of the process. Processes not involving cats can be influenced. On some level, controlled. As in, rejection letters--and even better, rejections avoided through honest pre-assessment--are growth checkpoints. 

Question 1: Was the story in fact ready to submit? 

Once, after a rejection from a darn competitive anthology, I discovered what I'd submitted had editing notes still in the manuscript. Yikes. If ever a piece deserved to get rejected and then re-rejected by surprise attack, here it was. 

Root cause: I'd somehow screwed up final version file names. The clean version, as formatted precisely to specs, shot me its j'accuse from the hard drive. Only time this has ever happened, but the process gap had wasted my time and worse, an editor's. You can bet I added checks to my elaborate submission ritual.

Question 2: Is the story any good? 

Okay, a reject. It's been walked off. But it's just possible, isn't it, that what I submitted wasn't a stroke of literary brilliance soon awash in laurels? Yes. Yes, it is. 

From Kenner!
(by way of Pinterest) 

It's also possible I did my job. That I put a strong effort together which simply got outmuscled by something better. Tip of the hat. Or my piece didn't gel with a particular editor. Maybe the story needed more time before it should've gone out. Deadlines happen. Maybe I would change a minor this or that, but time waits for no writer. If I'm proud enough of where a version stands, off it goes before a window closes. If back comes the rejection, I walk that off, more and more happily. I mean, it's not like Catzilla demolished my laptop, right? Here are fine story bones free to find a better form. I'll have at those manuscripts again and with fresh perspective. Since 2013, I've gotten 10 stories into AHMM (1 forthcoming) and 5 into Mystery Weekly (counting their upcoming anthology). Earlier, easy-baked versions of these stories racked up 29 rejections elsewhere. 

Question 3: How Sure Am I About Question 3?

I'm a trained finance guy. I keep spreadsheets. With numbers on them. One number is what I used to call a hit rate. That is, of the stuff I write, how many pieces have legs enough that I'll sweat the sweat and bleed the blood necessary for publication quality. 

In those ten-ish years, there are 81 short stories that I admit to writing (a handful of unpublished wrecks have been disowned). 35 have been published or are awaiting publication. Another 6 are new prospects for tidying up. That leaves the other 40 having a sit-in on my hard drive. 

A troublesome 40. Some feel as strong and stronger than the published stuff. Some, well, I don't want to talk about it. But most are tweeners, a possible salvage job with effort. Maybe, but how realistic is that salvage? How much effort would it take versus, I don't know, writing another story? Ten years of rejects is teaching me cruel honesty in my true hit rate, as time-delimited. 

Example: I wrote a flash piece last summer. Started it around 9am. Around noon I understood this thing had flaws. By early afternoon, those flaws were better described as a dumpster fire. Even Ann Lamott would've cringed and said this was no first draft to chase. By dinner, I finished it and filed it away forever in some subfolder oubliette. Hopefully, the cat got it.

Second example: In 2018, I wrote a piece that, to this damned day, I think might be the most darkly funny thing I've done. Its rejection history suggests otherwise. One editor thought it was a traditional horror piece. I've got nothing against horror, mind you, but it's not a genre I reach much, let alone understand the story markets. I'd already misread my own piece and its real fit. 

Sorry, story. Trap door time.

Hey, at least it won't make me walk off another double rejection.


  1. I could paper a room with all my rejection slips or print-outs of rejection emails. But at least I've never gotten the rejection letter that (supposedly) French writer Philippe Djian got (for "37°2 le matin", a/k/a "Betty Blue"), where the editor said it was the worst thing he'd ever read, and he would make certain that it never got published anywhere.

    Meanwhile, yeah, you gotta have grit. And I've found that sometimes I have left AWFUL editing errors in a story, and sometimes it's just not that good, and could use rewriting, etc. So, I sulk for a couple of days, and go out and kick rocks into the ditch, and then I sit down and do it.

    Oh, and never give up on a story if you really like it and you really think it's good: I wrote "Zoo Story" and it took 20 years to find a home. At AHMM.

    1. I have been known to sulk. Not long, but a definite sulk. Almost always a rejection does a rushed story a favor, though.

  2. A great piece, Bob.

    Yeah, rejection hurts, especially when it comes very quickly or very, very, very slowly. I had about 60 rejections before I sold my first short story in 2006, and my average story still gets 5 or 6 rejections before someone recognizes its intrinsic beauty and charm.
    Yeah, the rejections are almost always form letters/email. I remember one really helpful and encouraging letter (years ago) that explained why the publisher rejected the story, and made helpful suggestions. That story still hasn't sold (I also have about 30 of those).

    Your questions are important and cut to the core, too. The killer is that writing is so subjective that one editor may hate a story, another may love it, and a third may see something in it you didn't even intend to put there.

    Congratulations on the upcoming Mystery Weekly and Alfred stories.

    1. Thanks much, and double thanks for commiserating / encouraging.

  3. Great post, Bob--I agree on all points. I think the main thing is, as Eve said, never give up. If you believe in a story, keep sending it out. Like several other writers I know, I received dozens of rejections from EQMM before ever selling a story there.

    Keep up the good work!

  4. Bob, my favorite rejection was the one I got from The Pennington County Jail. Seems the editor violated his probation, got sent to jail and had his mail forwarded to said institution. But, the jail had rules and therefore rejected my short story manuscript, requesting that in the future I not send mail consisting of more than four pages. Fortunately, because I already knew the editor's past, I submitted the story under a double alias and used an undercover PO Box for the return address. Had the jailers known who really wrote that story, they would have still been laughing.

  5. Agree on every count. Rejection never becomes easy, but the best response is to ignore it and keep submitting. I've learned that I'm a poor judge of what story will be accepted or not, so I just keep sending them out and cross my fingers.

    1. Thanks much, and keep at it.

      Once I know a market, I have a good sense of whether a piece is for them. Or with AHMM, I'll write specifically toward their tastes if that's the story target. That helps the odds, but in the end, it's just submit and hope.

  6. Good piece, Bob--and a helpful reminder that rejection is just a part of the writing life!

  7. Rejections are a routine part of a writer's life. As Susan advised above, I tend to ignore them and move on. Great article and you get extra points for including a picture of Zelda. And please don't try to blame and laptop mishaps on sweet Zelda with the angelic face.


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