I like to think of writing as the business of collecting No’s. You can’t be a writer unless you’re willing to be told “No” every now and then. And by “every now and then,” I mean repeatedly–day in and day out. Since I first started writing short stories, I’ve received 173 rejections and 19 non-responses. That puts my career acceptance rate at 13%.
We could also factor in my agent queries, which were about 50 rejections or non-responses.
So, yes. I know rejection. And I know it well. Anyone who writes fiction can tell you the same thing. What’s important is to always know that it’s not personal and that you can learn from rejection letters.
While I have touched on that stuff in the past, I thought today I’d like to share some specific advice I’ve received in my rejection letters. I know that a large number of publications send out form letters, mainly due to the sheer number of submissions they receive, but not all of them do. More than a few do send personal rejections. And some of those personal rejection letters had some great advice that not only helped me improve the submitted story, but helped me improve my overall writing as well.
So here are the four best pieces of advice I’ve received in rejection letters.
Way back when, I had a lot trouble with this. I didn’t realize how often I did it either.
“She was looking at me.”
“I was running from her.”
“I was shooting the cannon.”
“I was painting the wall.”
You get the point. An editor was kind enough to point this out to me in a rejection letter and suggested I ctl-F to find every instance of “was” and replace it with straight past tense. “Was looked” became “looked” and “was running” became “ran.”
It took a little getting used to, but damn, did it help my prose.
2. “The pacing just isn’t good.”
This one was a little more subjective. The editor commenting suggested that the story I sent was too fast in the first few pages. I believe the actually phrasing was “too much action and dialogue, not enough setting.” After that, I read the story over again a few times and decided he was right. That story opened with no real description of the world the characters were in or what they were doing there.
I was able to slow down that intro a bit and add a little more world-building up front, while maintaining most of the action to keep the introductory pages interesting. While this piece of advice wasn’t as quick to fix as the “was” problem, it was still very helpful and gave me something to look out for in that and future stories.
3. “The characters are cliché and flat.”
Okay, I’ll admit that this one stung. It definitely hit me harder than the previous one in this list because while I may have known (or at least suspected) that my descriptions needed work, I’ve always prided myself on being able to write interesting, realistic characters.
The feedback on this story in particular made me sit back and think. And then I figured out why he said that. It’s wasn’t so much the characters that were flat (even though, after I decided to be completely honest with myself, they really were nothing special) but that actions they were taking. Everything they did seemed…clichéd.
I guess this feedback wasn’t actually “advice,” per se, but what it did was help me stop assuming that my characters were so original and interesting that what they did didn’t even matter. It helped me consider their actions and personalities. Were they too generic or predictable? Were they unoriginal or stereotypical?
I struggle, but I do believe my ability to create characters has improved since receiving that rejection letter.
So finally, here is the most important piece of advice I have gotten in a rejection letter.
4. Characters “telling each other things they already know” for the benefit of the reader.
I didn’t know I did this until it was pointed out to me in a rejection letter. And wow, did I ever do it. I think at that point in my writing career, I had been telling stories almost entirely through dialogue. As soon as an editor showed me this, I said, “Yeah, real people don’t talk like this.”
“As you know, Joey, the speed limit here is 55 mph. And also, as you know, mph is the abbreviated form of ‘miles per hour.'”
Okay, it might not have been that bad, but that’s about how it seemed to me after reading that story again. As an interesting side note, this is one of the main reasons I reject short stories at Theme of Absence, so at least I’ve learned that writers who aren’t me also make this mistake quite often.
So that’s it. It’s like I constantly say: Don’t let rejections get you down. Learn from them, resubmit the story, keep trying, keep collecting No’s, and most importantly, keep writing.
What kind of things have you learned from your rejections? Leave a comment and let us know!