I had a rejection letter this morning. It said that although a short story I'd submitted was being rejected, that didn't mean it was "bad" (their quotation marks). To be fair to the publication concerned - Used Furniture Review - they did go on to say that my story just wasn't right for them and that they'd like to see more of my work. My lesson to learn from this: research your market properly. Nonetheless, I stared at the word "bad" for some time, gripped by various flights of paranoid fancy. I forced myself to concentrate on the realist who was clinging on in the background, saying the same thing over and over again: of course it's not "bad", because I wouldn't have submitted it if it was, would I? And in this case, no, I can quite honestly say the story isn't "bad". But…
Just how much of the work we send out isn't really "good"? When we click send, what exactly are we sending out? How big are the question marks? And do we really care?
I've been on the other side of the fence for a few months now, working alongside Claire King as a Fiction Editor for The View From Here. During those months, I've been musing quietly to myself on what I'm learning from my new role about writing stories and submitting them. This particular rejection – the unusual wording of it – made me decide it was time to share my thoughts.
Okay, I'm going to swap between editor's and writer's hats a few times to try and figure out why we get rejected.
When a story is good, usually it grabs me by the throat. There are also stories that sneak up on me from behind, getting better and better, but there are less of them. Every time I start reading, if I haven't been grabbed by the throat, I'm hoping the story will be the kind that creeps up from behind. Mostly, they are not. Now, before I say more, like any other editor, I am a subjective creature. I'll admit to that. There's always the small matter of taste. But I want to like your work. I want to love it.
As the years go by, I find I abandon more and more stories as I write. The questions that push me to leave the stories at the wayside are these:
Why am I writing the story I'm writing?
What do I hope to achieve?
Is it a story worth telling?
These are questions I ask myself long before I consider submitting. In the past, I didn't ask these questions. I silenced voices of doubt. I said instead: I wrote it, I put effort into it, so even if I'm not really sure whether it says much that needs saying, I'll send it out.
Okay, but say I decide my story is worth telling. Why do I then, sometimes. send it out before it's ready?
I've done it so many times and I don't know whether it's comforting, or depressing, to realise I'm not alone. And I am most certainly not. The thing is that the duff opening line, or the baggy middle you can't see yourself when you've only just finished the piece, sticks out a mile to anyone else. And it's not just inexperienced writers doing this, there have been some very impressive biographies accompanying stories that have made me think 'if only you'd put it aside for a while and come back to it…'
I've worked in the film business for years and I used to blame my own tendency to submit too early on that: screenplays are blueprints and often you're not allowed to 'finish' them yourself. There's always someone who wants to fiddle and tell their own story vicariously from the other side of the desk. But actually, I don't think it's that.
So why do writers submit too early?
I think we fear using our own critical faculties – the story becomes a hot potato we want to pass on to someone else for a 'yes' or 'no'. Judging for ourselves is hard work. It will almost certainly mean, yes, a rewrite. And worse, I think that, all too often, instead of the important questions, 'Is this story the story I want it to be? Is it going to move my readers, tell them the things I want to tell them?' we ask, 'Am I good enough?'. This can lead to paralysis… so faced with the wrong question, we decide it's best not to ask questions at all. And we submit…
We're seeking an odd range of things as writers. Just like anyone trying to do anything, I imagine. One of the things we're looking for, even if it's indirectly, is the approval of others. We want them to like our work. But this should come after we've finished writing the best story we can. Unfortunately, the approval monster has a tendency to come and start tapping us on the shoulder long before we're done. This is very interesting, because it seems to me, that it's the very same inner critic that tells us we're not good enough, that's making us send work out when it's not ready to submit. A nasty double bind.
So… now with both caps on, some practical suggestions:
Research your market well. Your work can be good but unsuitable…
If you're just starting out, find a way to get feedback. I used to submit short stories and flash fiction to Zoetrope Virtual Studio for peer review. It was a very useful forum - and I'm sure there are many others like it. You can build up a network of other writers who'll offer you critique if you do the same for them and you'll learn to look at your own stories with a more critical eye as time goes on.
Please proof-read – and this goes for some very experienced writers. I read one story recently where the main antagonist was introduced twice in the first paragraph. This was not submitted by an inexperienced author, far from it, in fact. If you haven't bothered to read through properly, the message I receive is that you don't think our publication is worth more than the effort you have(n't) managed to put in.
Exotic locations, crazy fantasy for the sake of crazy fantasy, thinly disguised autobiography – what you experienced may have been awful, but it isn't necessarily a 'story' – these things do not necessarily impress all on their own.
Multiple submissions that all arrive at the same time, using different names but the same email address, will not be taken seriously.
And lastly… the most important of all:
If you don't move me in some way, I'm not going to accept your story. This doesn't mean your story has to be earnest – by no means - and I don't have to 'understand' everything about it, but it has to elicit an emotional response. Make me laugh, make me cry, make me stare in wonder, but please, whichever it is, make me feel something.