Anatomy of a rejection letter.


So – I got a story rejection in my email last week.

I haven’t really been sending out stories to publishers for long enough that I’m used to this yet – if you ever do get used to it. Still, it was a fairly nice rejection, both gentle and constructive, so I think I’m going to try dissecting it a little to see what I can learn and how I might be able to improve the story and do better next time.

Thanks very much for sending this story to _______. Unfortunately, it’s not quite right for us.

Could be standard boilerplate, or maybe not – nothing really worth sinking my teeth into there, at any rate.

I found the pace of the opening somewhat slow, in part because of the amount of Samantha’s commentary and reflection.

Okay, so we’ve got three flaws mentioned here, rapid-fire. Slow opening, too much commentary, too much reflection. For reference, here’s the opening of the story as I submitted it:

“Wake up, your highness.”

I blinked, feeling disoriented. For one thing, even though I’d been travelling quietly from Chica to Bismarck for nearly a week at this point, it was still a bit of a new and disconcerting feeling to be waking up not in my bed back in the Palace in Carolina, or a guest apartment somewhere else equally elegant. Here, in this fairly small city in northern Dakota, (or was it a large town?) my hosts had tried to be very generous with the quarters they provided to a Princess of the family of Brussard, the Heiress Royale no less, but I could tell the difference in little things like the thread count of the sheets. Still, it wouldn’t do to complain at a moment like this.

More significantly, though, the voice that had wakened me – it was a familiar voice, but not one that I was particularly used to hearing first thing in the morning. That disconnect wasn’t one that I could figure out for myself without waking up a little further, and then I smiled with pleased recognition. Tom Danter is the first man I’ve ever known whose voice I’d *want* to get used to hearing first thing in the morning, all my life, and that’s the best way I can think of explaining how I feel about him. That’ll have to wait for a little while – we’re officially courting, but as much as Tom loves me back, he’s told me that officially asking for permission to marry me is something that he’s not quite ready for. It’s too bad. Another thing that’s too bad was the worried, concerned look on Tom’s face, which pretty much ruined the warm, fuzzy, and happy feeling that I got from seeing him.

So, yeah, not too much happens in all of that. Somebody tells my MC to wake up, and she blinks. Everything else is very much ‘reflection’ – a reflection that I’m trying to show the background of the story in, through Samantha’s eyes, and letting her comment on her leading man in the story. Is that too much to fit in there, all up front? Maybe I should just have her wake up and react to Tom, and put some of that later? I’m not sure.

I didn’t find her voice as engaging as I’d like, mainly due to inconsistencies in her diction and vocabulary that made it difficult to get a handle on her social station, attitudes, or time period.

Again, this is a fair comment, but one that I’m not really sure how to deal with, because the time period is a bit hard to establish well in a 5500-word short story. (This story is based on the same alternate world as ‘The Long Way Home’, focusing on the big sister of my heroine from LWH.)

Here’s a passage that’s probably pretty good at showing both my editor’s concerns and what I’m trying to do. It’s an expository dialog between Samatha and Tom:

After a few minutes of driving along what seemed like a fairly isolated back road, though, I did feel like I wanted some sort of conversation. “Okay, don’t talk to me about it as if I’m dumb or anything, but I’m not quite sure I understand about the Brotherhood of the Wolf. If they’re not all wolves, why do they call themselves that?”

“I’m not sure that I know all of the details myself,” Thomas admitted. “There are something like five thousand gray wolves living in what’s now Montana-Wyoming, and nine out of every ten of them are as intelligent as people, capable of learning human languages – and some of them are clever enough with their paws to fashion and use rudimentary tools. One of the major factors in the revolt of Montana and Wyoming and their secession against the Dominion of the – well, of your grandmother and your parents, Samantha, was the wolves taking the side of the seditionists and attacking known supporters of the Brussard family.”

“Alright, I’m with you so far,” I agreed.

“Afterwards, in the decision-making system that developed in Montana-Wyoming, the Wolves became the focus of a power block – generally, the ones who most distrusted any contact with the Brussard Dominion and just about any contact with outsiders. The term ‘wolves’ has come to be used to describe anybody from Montana-Wyoming who agrees with them, be they lupine, human – or of any other species. There’s also the Sons of Helen, who are cautious and don’t to lean too much in either direction, who currently make most of the decisions, and the Yellow Stones, who are generally fairly moderate and believe in the idea of opening up more friendly relations with the Dominion.”

“Right,” I said, because this part I was a bit more familiar. “Mother sent us out to Wyoming to meet with the Yellow Stones to assure them of her friendly disposition towards an independent Montana-Wyoming, and to ask if there was anything that we could do to help increase support for the Yellow Stone platform in Montana-Wyoming, so that we don’t always need to worry about raiding parties from the wolves or what have you. I think I understand more.”

“Okay, so if you’ve got it all figured out, could you tell me what I’m doing here?” Tom muttered. I looked over, assuming that at first he was joking, but some honest frustration was easy to read on his face. “Seriously, I mean – you’re here to get some practice with diplomatic negotiation as the Heiress Royale, the firstborn daughter of the firstborn daughter, destined to become Queen yourself some day – and because sending you is a great sign of respect to the Yellow Stones from Queen Neveah. But me…”

So, overall – where to from here? I still like the idea of setting short stories in the Brussard’s world, even though it’s a complicated one and hard to explain quickly. Since I can’t get a handle on what should be changed in ‘Samatha and the Wolves’ to change it, I don’t think targeted rewrites will help. I think that I’m waffling between trying to rewrite it over again from the start and seeing if it gets any better, or putting it aside and starting again. But neither before JulNoWriMo is done!

So, what do you do with your rejection letters?

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3 Responses to Anatomy of a rejection letter.

  1. Brittany says:

    I haven’t started submitting yet so I don’t have any rejection letters, but from what I’ve heard, you’re lucky to get personalized rejections! Well, I’m not sure about literary magazines or wherever you send your short stories, but at least you got personalized comments.

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  2. AP Roberts says:

    Personally, I don’t send out a lot of work because I usually find something that needs changing as soon as I go to send it out. But the rejections that I have gotten I use to my advantage.

    If there are notes in the letter as to why the piece was rejected and I agree with the notes, then I rework my piece to see if I can fix them.

    If there are no notes and it is just a form rejection, then I try to figure out why it is a form rejection. (ie word count too high, fantasy to a sci-fi mag, etc)

    If I can’t figure out a reason, then I decide they had so many wonderful stories that they were flipping coins to decide what to accept.

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  3. Sorry about the rejection. I’ve found they get easier over time. If you’ve got other pieces at other markets, one rejection is not a big deal, because there’s always hope. So send out more! That’s my vote.

    It’s really great that you got such detailed feedback. Even a sentence or two is a whole heck of a lot.

    When I get a rejection, if I really, really like the story, and I’m confident in it, I give it a quick read through to check for typos / areas to tweak, and I send it right back out into the world again, figuring that maybe that editor / magazine just wasn’t right for it.

    Sometimes I’ll submit stories that I’ve taken as far as I can at the time, but that might need some reworking. Often the insight into how to make a story stronger comes immediately after I hit the “send” button or drop the envelope in the mail box. Yeah…anyway, when they come back, I usually set aside some time to do a good, solid scrub-and-edit.

    Detailed feedback is super rare from an editor, but I would use it to change the story if it seemed like good advice to me.

    That may require a rewrite, but why not? If you like the idea and you think some parts of the story are working well, it would be a shame to trunk it.

    Besides, it’s just more fodder for the Consistent Editor’s Club!

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