What the Editors Mean, Part 2 -- Rejection
by Brian Plante
So, you've successfully decoded the buzzwords in the market (see last month's column, "What The Editors Mean, Part 1" ) and sent off a story to some magazine. Weeks go by and then, in your mailbox, you receive a reply. Unless you're some kind of freak, those first few (maybe hundred) responses will be rejections. So you read the letter, hoping they'll tell you why they didn't want your literary masterpiece, but instead of telling you what's wrong, the rejection letter is vague. And that's putting it mildly.
How, then, can you improve your art when all those rejection letters couch their advice in terms that are as clear as mud? When you've been doing this for a while you'll get better at reading between the lines, but for now, here's my cheat sheet to decode some of the familiar phrases from all those rejection letters. Not that I receive lots of rejection letters myself, but I've, um, seen lots of 'em that my friends have received, you understand.
"Please forgive this form letter," means they probably didn't read your story all the way through. If it is a larger pro magazine, the editor may not have seen your story at all -- it may have been bounced by a screener. The first thing you need to understand is the difference between a personal rejection and a form letter. The tipoff is usually in the salutation. If it says "Dear Contributor," then it's probably just a form letter. You and ten thousand other writers received that same letter, so don't try to read too much into it.
If they send you guidelines instead of a response, don't sweat it that you totally blew it. Sometimes that just means they didn't have time. It's just another form letter.
If the letter shows some sort of personalization (e.g. the salutation includes your name, and the letter is hand signed by an editor), then it may be an actual response to your story. I say may because it could be a macro-reject. These look like personalized replies, but the editor just types your name and hits a macro and his word processor spits out the same text for everyone. You'll know for sure it's a macro-reject after three or four replies come back from this market with the same exact message. Don't try to read too much into these rejections either -- they're not much different from form letters.
In between the form letter and the personal reply is the check-off rejection form, where the editor just places tick marks next to one or more of several common reasons for rejection. This is better than a say-nothing form, but not nearly as good as a personal reply.
If you persevere, eventually you'll receive real, personal replies to your stories. And still you don't know what to make of the vague wording. Did the editor like it or hate it? Was it a near miss? Here are some key phrases to look for:
"Seen too many stories like this," means you probably followed the guidelines well -- too well, just like 95% of the other submitters. While the editors may tell you what they want to see in their guidelines, what they really want to see is something original (but not so original that it's too out there). Stick to the guidelines, but also try to bend the rules a bit and be original.
"The pacing is too slow," probably means the editor got bored and gave up on it before the end.
"Characterizations were too weak," means it didn't grab the editor. Again, he might not have actually read to the end of your story.
"Too predictable," probably means your story just wasn't interesting enough. Most of the things you read in any magazine are somewhat predictable. But if your story is told in an interesting manner, with a few surprises, even the hoariest cliché may still find a home.
"Not right for us," or, "inappropriate subject matter," usually means that your story strayed too far from the guidelines, or it may also means your story just wasn't interesting enough. Never mind about sending a horror story to a SF magazine -- if it's a good enough story you can sell it anywhere. A really great story can defy the guidelines
"This story came very close," means you should send it off immediately to another market. Maybe even that same market that just rejected it, if you can see a few changes that might make the difference between "close" and the acceptance. Beware, though, if this market always says your stories came close but nobody else is interested.
"Please try us again," means send them something else soon, and mention in your cover letter that they said so. Some markets have tiered responses -- the bad stuff gets a flat out no , the better ones get the try again reject. Your next story may get some attention there, so take them at their word and get them another story.
"Too expository," means you explained too much. It's probably better to underexplain with most markets. Too much explanation takes the reader right out of the story. When you do need to explain, it must be woven into the fabric of the story, not just dumped into your story in great chunks. This is one of the great skills to be learned -- how to tell without being too obvious.
"Tighten up your prose," means the editor got bored and probably didn't finish reading.
"Not gripping enough," or "didn't grab me enough," means the editor was bored. Yeah, he probably didn't finish reading that one either.
"Apologies for taking so long," means they hope the 9-month wait won't deter good writers from sending more stories. It will, but they're doing damage control here. Be happy they consider you to be a writer worth apologizing to.
"Read a few issues before submitting again," means they need paying customers and will probably be out of business soon.
"Generally consistent and often clever." If you recognize this phrase, it doesn't mean anything. Everyone got that one at that particular market, which has been defunct for some time now. It was a macro-reject.
"We're overstocked," means there's no room -- for you. Big Name writers may still be able to slip in, but if you have to ask, it ain't you.
"Clean up grammar," or "inappropriate format," or"review the basics," means you should be ashamed. Occasional errors in grammar or formatting can be excused if the story is strong enough (after all, the market will clean up those things if they buy it) but if you made errors so egregious as to draw attention to themselves, then you're not doing your job.
"Too wordy," means it was not interesting enough. Lots of writers are wordy, but if all those words are interesting, no problem.
"Alas," means the editor is sorry he has to reject your great story. Yeah, right.
"Our readers are picky," means the editor is picky. Sometimes it may be something totally unexpected. Who knew Editor X didn't like alternate history stories with alien protagonists?
"All submissions are being returned unread," is a lie unless the market has gone belly up, regardless of the excuse they give as an explanation. A going concern will still look at the right MS by the right author, no matter how full their inventory. If you have to ask, it ain't you.
"Best of luck with it elsewhere," means the editor doesn't want to see this one again, regardless of any praises he may have heaped upon it -- send it someplace else.
"The material enclosed has been given careful consideration," means a slushpile reader had an average of 30 seconds to judge each of the 300 manuscripts he was given to screen that day. Yours wasn't judged good enough to bother showing to the real editor.
"Thanks for giving us the opportunity to look at this," means you didn't get the bottom-of-the-barrel rejection. Keep trying this market.
Well, that's all for now. I hope this helps any prospective writers out there. I'm sure I'm missing a lot of other common rejection phrases, but if you think of any, drop me a line and I'll be sure to include them.
Copyright © 2000 Brian Plante Count=6737
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