If you’re a writer, odds are you’ve already become familiar with the dreaded form rejection, the pre-written Thank You, No Thank You used by publishers large and small. Form rejections can be a real kick in the ego for a writer, but they’re also a necessary part of publishing. Every day, editors wade through towering slush piles of stories, each tale hoping to find its home in their magazine. Nearly all of them will get a rejection in some form or another, though a lot of them are fantastic, weird, and well-written. Many will go on to get published elsewhere. But that time may be a long ways from now, after many, many more rejections.
The first speculative fiction story I ever submitted was a 15k word novelette sent to Analog Science Fiction. I worked really hard on it, did research beforehand, read an issue of the magazine, and ultimately felt optimistic about my chances of publication. At 8 cents a word, it was the first time I thought I could actually make a living as a writer. How hard could it be? What followed were four months of anticipation, a query sent when I thought my story was lost, and a form rejection politely telling me they would not be paying my rent.
So what solace can a struggling writer find in this steady income of disappointment? Well, for starters, understand it’s probably not your complete lack of talent keeping you from publication.
There are several determining factors beyond just, “Is this story awesome?” First of all, publishers receive hundreds of submissions, and the bigger and more high-paying the publisher, the more stories they get each month. That means they generally have less time to give each story, and once the list has been whittled down to the very best, there’s still not enough room for them all. Great stories are let go. It might be that it doesn’t work well with the other stories for that issue, or that it doesn’t really fit the magazine’s style, or maybe they just have it out for you personally. Okay, that last one isn’t a thing. Not usually…
Being a writer is like playing a big game of Cards Against Humanity. The card reader gives you an interesting prompt, and you think you’ve got a really great card to answer it, but as often as not, you’re unlucky. Your brilliant, subtle, dark humored joke is too similar to the one read before, or too dissimilar, or the reader didn’t get it, or they just didn’t like it. You were so confident, so sure you had it in the bag, and then they went with Bees?
If that seems unfair, remember that the editors are in their own little game, with the stories they’ve chosen from the slush pile comprising their hand. Editors need the very best, because they don’t have the writer’s freedom to keep on trying. Losing means the end, and the internet is littered with the digital bones of magazines that didn’t make it.
Unlike the magazines you submit to–who have to worry about paying writers, artists, editors, and designers–you only have to worry about you and your writing. Like applying for any job these days, getting someone’s attention is partly a number’s game: the right story finding the right reader at the right time. A rejection often means nothing more than try again. No really, try again. And again. And again. It’s disheartening sure, but it’s that way for all of us, even the greats. We are like Sisyphus, rolling our stories up the long, wearisome slope of slush piles, only to have them cast down indifferently. If your story’s as good as you believe, then give it time, improve it, and one day the conditions will be just right. Instead of rolling back down the hill, crushing all of your hopes and dreams in the process, it will find a home and an audience to appreciate it. It will be better for having waited.
So don’t give up (unless you really want to). The perseverance–the refusal to surrender when the world doesn’t offer so much as a shrug to all your imagination and artistry—will mold you into something beautiful and probably debt-ridden: a real writer. Remember, rejection is the guarantee. It’s the tribulation we all must go through. The determining factor is your determination. If you’re a writer—a real writer—you keep at it. You keep writing. Giving up is for hobbyists and your uncle in real estate who keeps telling you he used to write.