Rejectomancy and Its Discontents
Today, in a discussion with fellow writers over Tor.com’s decision to close to unsolicited fiction submissions, I said the following thing:
Well, they’ve got a story from me that they’ve been sitting on for seven months, so here’s hoping!
No less than eighteen seconds after saying this, I went to my e-mail inbox and found a rejection from Tor waiting for me. For some people – perhaps some of you reading this – this seems like some kind of cosmic karmic response to the vocalization of my hopes. “Ah-ha! You should never have said anything! Then it wouldn’t have happened!”
Now, as I’m presuming most people are (loosely) rational creatures, I think most of us understand that the real world does not operate like this in any way, shape, or form. My decision to speak or not speak some combination of magic words does not alter space/time; that rejection was coming to me one way or another. Still, it is very tempting to think that way. “If only I did X and not Y! If only I hadn’t told anybody! If only I had told more people! I should have crossed my fingers before I answered the phone!”
“Rejectomancy,” or the collected term for the superstitious habits of authors seeking to make sales and avoid rejection, happens all the time. It happens because publishing is a world predicated on failure – for every successful submission, there are dozens of rejected ones (probably). For every author that “makes it” there are a hundred who don’t. This process is hard on the ego. If you want to be a writer, you need to face rejection and failure with two unblinking eyes: it’s coming, so figure out how to deal with it or find a different profession. The thing is, rejection letters often seem so arbitrary and you so often seem to have no power over them. We authors are victims of the capricious whims of editors the world over! Woe is us! If only there were some mystical way we could feel that we have agency!
I know! Wear those lucky socks! Don’t start a story with rain (ever)! Only check your writer e-mail on Wednesdays! Only submit stories on a Tuesday afternoon! NEVER WRITE IN ANYTHING BUT COURIER! Etc., etc, etc..
The thing is, though, all that stuff is total bunk. It does not, in fact, give you any power. If it makes you feel good, fine, but don’t go around pretending the world operates on supernatural principles that orient themselves solely around the arbitrary choices of one individual. We merely write fantasy, we ought not live there.
If you want to feel like you have some control over your writerly destiny, the first thing to do is work on getting better at writing. That story that got rejected? You can do better. You should do better. Go out and learn how to do better. Write a new story. Send that one out. Repeat.
Also, just because some editor didn’t like your story doesn’t mean that story is bad. Not in the least! Once you get to a certain level of skill (what I would loosely term “professional quality”) – once you are writing stories that are on the same level as the stories you read in the major publications – well, then, sometimes it’s just plain old luck that decides the rejection or acceptance. Sometimes the editor isn’t grabbed by the ending – not that it was a bad ending, they just didn’t really like it. Sometimes the editor just bought a story very similar to yours. Sometimes you’ve caught them on a bad day. Sometimes they have in mind a theme for the next issue and you don’t really fit. From our end, there is often no way to tell if this is the case.
So, if you get rejected, by all means give the story a once over. Ponder on whether or not you can improve it. If you can’t – if you know this is your best work (at the moment) – send it out again. Turn it around. Rejections might sting, but that’s a sting you need to learn how to deal with. Now, if wearing fuzzy socks every time you send a submission helps you, then go right ahead. But always remember: publishing isn’t magic, it’s a business, and a tough one. The best way to win is to keep playing and up your game, and no superstition will ever trump that.