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On Rejection

(Going to shift blog format for a few weeks to focus on the anthology I'm editing and will be Kickstarting in March-April.)

I want to share a few words on rejection, more specifically what it means to be rejected by a publisher, though the process of selecting stories and poems for Tomato Slices reminded me a lot of my experience on dating sites.

A while back, an author in my network divulged that a rejection always read as “you suck” to her.  Enough other people expressed agreement that she’s clearly not alone in this feeling.  But particularly after my first experience as an acquisitions editor, selecting pieces from a professional slush pile, I wanted to let other writers and aspiring writers know that was rarely the case.

My initial co-editor and I are both writers, so we’ve both felt the sting of rejection, and yes, rejection sucks.  But that doesn’t mean you suck.

So why do authors get rejections? Here are some of the reasons we rejected submissions. (We had over 200.)

1. Authors generally don’t get rejected, submissions get rejected.

I’m a writer too; I get it.  You pour your heart and soul into your art, so it feels like a personal rejection when someone says “no thank you” for your story or poem.  But for the sake of your sanity, try to internalize that your story is not you.  Just because a publisher rejects this submission does not mean they will automatically reject every story you send or even a revised version of your current piece.

Since I knew some of the people submitting, I skipped names and cover letters as best I could and went straight to the first paragraph of most submissions to be as unbiased as possible in my votes.

There are exceptions.  Editors are people who sometimes have irrational prejudices as well as rational concerns about working with certain authors.  The most brilliant authors are sometimes very difficult people to work with.  My co-editor had the unenviable job of mailing out the rejection e-mails and therefore dealt with most of the reactions, but to my knowledge there was only one that boiled into an actual issue.  The irony is that we had every intention of accepting this author’s story, but there was a miscommunication.  Instead of asking for clarity, they became insulting and refused to accept my explanation or apology.

It’s fine to speak up when you think something is wrong, but even when you’re justly hurt or confused, you will catch more flies with honey than vinegar.  By contrast, other authors we asked to make changes and even some we rejected were very accommodating and pleasant, and yes, that makes me more inclined to want to work with them again or in the future.

2. Failure to follow instructions.

We had fairly broad guidelines for this anthology because we wanted to celebrate eclectic forms of expression.  However, we did require that the submissions feature a tomato in a significant way.  We had a deadline and specific website where submissions needed to go.

Happily most of our submissions followed the basic guidelines, but there were a few who failed to include tomatoes.  Some that e-mailed us instead of using the submissions form.  There were also a couple authors who had trouble with the website, so they contacted my co-editor and got permission to e-mail her due to technical issues.  This was okay because they got permission first, but unsolicited e-mails or poems posted in forum replies simply weren’t considered.

There was another case where an author submitted a poem with a lot promise, but it was not quite what we were looking for.  He was given some very specific instructions on how to get his piece included, ignored all of them, and sent us a second version which was not as good as the first.

It’s perfectly fine to withdraw a submission if you don’t want to make the requested changes to your piece.  We’re very aware authors have other options and can respect a decision to walk away, but passive aggressive reactions don’t help anyone.

3. The submission requires more work than the editor or publisher is willing or able to put into it.

There were several stories and poems we received that contained some lovely and creative ideas, but they were not quite up to professional standards.

Many poems had a brilliant line or two or started with a fantastic idea but then meandered away from it.  If this wasn’t an anthology on a fairly tight timeline, there are several submissions I would have liked to have tried refining.  But unfortunately that wasn’t realistic for our schedule.  Grammar and spelling are not unimportant, but the odd misspelling is far easier for an editor to fix than poor flow, meandering narrative, poor word choice, or plot holes.

Most of the submissions that we accepted were submitted with a fairly high level of polish and only required minor editing, if any at all.  As many of these pieces are fairly short, we accepted fifty-two of them.  So we occasionally passed over very creative pieces for pieces with better clarity that would require less time investment.

4. The piece just doesn’t fit.

Doesn’t fit covered a significant percent of rejections, and this was what reminded me most of internet dating.  You can meet a guy who is a great person, but things just don’t click; there’s a lack of chemistry or significant philosophical differences that spell disaster for long term partnership.  Yet you still recognize they’ll be a great catch for someone else.

We had several pieces that were written at a professional level or very close to, but for one reason or other did not fit our anthology.  Some of it had to do with how significant the tomato was.  This was sometimes hard to judge, but I started using the rule of thumb that, if I could remove the tomato reference without affecting the story, it probably wasn’t significant enough.

Because this was an anthology, I was also concerned with how certain stories would fit together.  For example, we got three very well written stories featuring the same theme, two with similar endings, two with very similar relationship issues, and all using soup as a metaphor.  Individually, any of these stories would be fine, but in the same anthology, I was worried they would read as redundant.  So I tried to choose the one that was most on theme.

Poetry was very tricky in this area.  We had lots of poems with nearly identical themes, so uniqueness and clarity of theme along with strong word choice were very important to selection.  After 20 to 30 poems on growing tomatoes, a poem about a tomato rotting stood out as a welcome change of pace.

The best anthologies I’ve read have pieces that work together tone wise, so while we wanted to display a spectrum of creativity, there were a few submissions that were just too something or other to play nice with the other pieces.  I remember one story in particular that was rather brilliant in its way, but a little too heavy and esoteric for our quirky tomato theme.  This sort of thing was a question of nuance, so there wasn’t a good way to set specific “write this, don’t write that” parameters, particularly since it was all relative to the types of submissions we received.

5. Chemistry…or editor’s pet peeves.

Art is subjective.  Repeat that to yourself over and over.

The responses for my first novella included some people telling me the writing was amateur and others talking about how charming and well edited it was.  The more stylized and unique or controversial your piece is the more polarized people’s reactions to it will be.  It takes experience and experimenting to figure out when to listen to advice and when to ignore it.

I could write a list of my pet peeves, but there’s always that one story that flies in the face of your pet peeves and proves that they sometimes work.

In many ways, it was very helpful to have a second editor during the selection process.  Not all acquisition editors have the luxury of a double check or second opinion, but anthologies and contests often have teams of judges.

Because Amoeba Ink is a small press, I wear multiple hats and had to consider how well pieces fit with our company policies and objectives as well as fit together for this project.

Amoeba Ink aims for a degree of social responsibility, and apparently, I’m more of feminist than I thought I was.  I rejected two to four pieces based on their treatment or depiction of women.  My co-editor wasn’t always bothered by the same things I was, but with two female editors we were probably a little more sensitive to such things.  We had enough pieces we mutually agreed upon, that a firm “no” from either of us meant a submission was out.

I’m very sensitive to foul language; my co-editor was fairly comfortable with it.  My co-editor has certain pet peeves regarding tense or rhyming which don’t bother me so much.  We reviewed and voted on each piece as they came in.  Those with 2 nos were rejected more promptly, because as much as rejections suck, we know they suck more after waiting months for a response.  2 yeses were almost guaranteed in, though we held back acceptance e-mails until the deadline was over and we could make sure we had a reasonable page count.

We spent hours and days debating the maybes.  In the interest of compromise and keeping the Anthology down to a reasonable length, a few pieces I really liked were rejected, and My co-editor agreed to let some stories she really liked go.

So a rejection may mean one of any number of things, but unless you’ve been hostile, it probably doesn’t mean “you suck”.

Over all, I was very pleased with the quality of submissions we had and may consider doing another anthology in the future.


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