There’s been a lot of talk online lately about rejectomancy. For those who don’t know, rejectomancy is the dark art of turning rejection into motivation and positive reinforcement. It’s a kind of bloody-minded alchemy of will. As Kate Heartfield wrote for the SFWA Facebook page on the subject:
Now I’m a non-fiction editor as well as a fiction writer, and I understand that rejection is the default, as it would be in any other transaction. When a customer walks past a rack of shirts in a store, that is not necessarily an assessment of the store-owner’s abilities. Maybe the customer is looking for pants. Maybe someone else will buy a shirt.
This is a great analogy and the line “rejection is the default” is absolute gold. It’s really worth bearing in mind two things when submitting for publication:
1. There are hundreds of people vying for a handful of spots, so you are much more likely to be rejected than accepted;
2. Rejection doesn’t mean your story is bad – it means your story is not right for that market at that time. You’re selling shirts while that editor is looking for pants.
Now, of course, repeated rejection might well be a sign that your story is bad. That’s what beta-readers, critique groups, editors and so on are for. As a writer, you absolutely must learn from rejection. Every time a story comes back, give it another read, another polish. Always make sure it’s been through the wringer of critique before you send it out in the first place. It’s in your best interests to only send out your best work, and your best work is not a first draft. Or even a second, third or fourth draft. And the better you get, the more likely you are to succeed with submissions.
You will, of course, get better the more you write, the more you submit, the more you learn. You should always be honing your craft. I know that I’m always looking to improve. I always try to learn from rejection. I’m definitely a far better writer now than I was ten years ago – that’s evidenced by the fact that I can make pro sales now where before I was selling into semi-pro markets, and before that token pay markets, or giving stories away to non-paying markets. Incidentally, you should never do that. I should never have done that. No one reads non-paying markets (except for a few notable exceptions) and you’re really just throwing work away. But, of course, we all do it, looking for that early validation of being published. So go for it, do what works, but try to gravitate to paying markets ASAP. Even if it’s a token payment of ten bucks or a bucket of cold fish or a fucking hat. Get something for your work.
But I digress. Back to rejectomancy. When I say there’s been a lot of it about, I’m talking about things that SFWA post I linked above and then Elizabeth Bear tweeting:
You know, I still get rejections. I got one this week, in fact. I sent the story out again. #fictionfacts
— Elizabeth Bear (@matociquala) July 3, 2015
Right desk, right day, right story, write better. It never stops being true. #fictionfacts
— Elizabeth Bear (@matociquala) July 3, 2015
And Nalo Hopkinson replying with this:
@matociquala I once got 2 rejections in week I was a Clarion teacher. Was hilarious. Shared them w the students. Sent the stories out again.
— Nalo Hopkinson (@Nalo_Hopkinson) July 4, 2015
In fact, those tweets triggered a flood of chat and it’s been Storified here:
Pretty good reading, right?
You didn’t read it? Go! Read it now, I’ll wait…
*flicks over to the other open tabs*
*makes sure no one is watching*
Oh, you’re back? So, that says it all about about rejection and I don’t need to say more. So why am I crapping on about it here? Because that’s what I do. And I thought I’d add some numbers of my own to the mix. A lot of those folks are talking about novels as well as short stories and the same rules apply to both in terms of submission and rejection. But for the sake of numbers, here are my figures for short fiction.
Out of 56 published short stories for which I have rejection figures, I have a total of 238 rejections. That might seem like a good rate at first glance – after all, an acceptance rate averaging a hit for every 4 or 5 submissions would be fucking great! I’d love to have a strike rate like that. But I don’t.
Some of those early hits were non-paying markets that accepted my story on the first try. Zero rejections for that yarn. Which is good on the face of it, but is actually only because those markets are desperate for anything that’s basically literate and a trained monkey could get published there.
There are also several stories on that list which were accepted with zero rejections because they were written specifically for anthologies after I’d been invited to submit. That happens later in a career when you’ve established yourself and your ability. Sometimes editors come to you. It’s an awesome feeling and one of which I’ll never tire. Of course, even then there’s no guarantee you’ll be accepted, but the chances are obviously much higher than cold subs.
So all those with zero rejections are actually skewing the results a lot.
Looking at cold subs, to paying markets, I have a handful there that landed the right home on the first try, but the vast majority have at least a few rejections first. Among those, I have 24 published stories that collected 5 or more rejections before selling. That’s almost half of my published stories that were rejected five times or more. The rest had 1 to 4 rejections, with the handful of exceptions mentioned earlier. But let’s just look at those with 5 or more rejections before a sale.
Of those 24, the breakdown is like this:
8 stories rejected 5 times before selling.
3 stories rejected 6 times before selling.
2 stories rejected 7 times before selling.
3 stories rejected 9 times before selling.
2 stories rejected 10 times before selling.
1 story rejected 11 times before selling.
1 story rejected 12 times before selling.
3 stories rejected 14 times before selling. (Not sure why 14 is becoming a theme!)
And my current record-holder:
1 story rejected 17 times before selling.
That’s right. I have a story that was rejected 17 times and I didn’t give up on it. You know why? Because I’m a stubborn fucker with a skin thicker than a geriatric rhino. You have to be if you want to be a successful writer. But you know what else? That story changed a lot between submissions. It started out as a sci-fi story and sold as an urban horror story. I realised the SF trappings were wrong for that one. I listened to editorial comments. I made it better. And then I started sending it to the right markets for that kind of story.
Several of the stories with high rejection counts had similar changes – massive cuts, title changes, characters taken out or put in. But not all of them. For many of them, the changes were very small, but I just kept on until I found the right desk at the right time. I used rejectomancy to alchemically change those stories from unpublished to published.
Subsequently, among those stories with 5 or more rejections, one won a competition, several were listed on Recommended Reading lists, and a couple were nominated for awards!
That tweet from Elizabeth Bear above is so true: “Right desk, right day, right story, write better. It never stops being true.”
So good. I might put that on the wall above my desk, in fact.
So there you have it. The dark art of rejectomancy. Embrace it. Use it. Learn to love it. Go and read that Storify about rejection again. And whenever you feel down about it all, just remember that some of the greatest books and stories in the world were rejected numerous times before they sold. There’s nothing different about you. Stay strong, be stubborn, thicken your skin, always hone your craft and never give up.