I having started submitting again. Tentatively. Carefully. But it’s been a few years since I sold something (Melanie) and quite a bit longer than that since I submitted regularly. (It’s true I am not a short-story writer at heart. Much prefer long-form. But I do have a few.) Like everyone else that tries to publish short stories I have that clenched-stomach fear of submitting, but it’s not from what you think.
This will undoubtedly surprise a few people, but I work very hard on trying to stay optimistic. It is not natural for me, and I’m not great at it. And even when my attempts work, it’s less a YAY BALLOONS AND PUPPIES sort of optimism and more of an understated “I will fail, but what can I learn from it?”. (Frequently what I learn is “this will never work and therefore no one will love me” but that’s a separate blog entry/therapy session. I told you I am not good at optimism.) But as an approach it usually leads to me trying again.
Graphic design very much prepared me for the world of submitting fiction. Nine out of ten clients, even when trying to be objective, go for the design that they simply like the best. Often they will make decisions based purely on their own preferences, even when that goes against already established brand guidelines. There’s nothing that a designer can do about that. You design a solution, you present your reasons, and you work with the response you receive. It’s not personal; it’s not even a comment on the quality of your work (most of the time). It has everything to do with who is sitting on the opposite side of the desk.
And fiction is the same way. No matter how well you write, no matter how good your story is, if it doesn’t do anything for the editor then that’s it, rejection, and it’s rarely personal.
Well, of course sometimes it is personal. We all have rejection letters that are rudely, obscenely personal, especially those of us who identify as female and/or POC and/or LGBT trying to write in genres that aren’t welcoming to us. I am not dismissing those experiences. But again it’s not about the work; it’s about who is sitting on the other side of the desk. Right? So I should be good at dealing with it.
We all have helpful rejection letters, the ones we savour, the ones that give us reasons that we can digest and mull over and use as direction for future work. Those are the best ones, because they point to actions that can be taken. Most people agree that the worst ones are the form letters that say nothing of consequence, even politely. Was it rejected because they didn’t like it? Is it badly written? Badly edited? Or because they already purchased three vampire stories in a row and yours was just too late in the queue? TELL ME WHAT TO DO, MAGIC VOICE, AND IT SHALL BE DONE.
I certainly have my share of those. They were disappointing, but they weren’t what made me stop submitting. It was something weirdly more disheartening: the lukewarm rejection.
“And with so many other wonderful stories in my inbox, I can’t quite justify sending a solid – but not tremendously exciting (to me, anyway) story onto the next stage.) Best of luck with this in other markets.”
I think that one is my favourite, because it’s just such a jellyfish compliment: it looks pretty but there’s a nasty sting. The rest of the lukewarm rejections were less interesting. Most were along the lines of “your story is good, it’s just not for us”. “It is a well-written story but we need to pass on it regardless. Best of luck in your next market”. When it’s one rejection, it’s easy to brush off: the client didn’t like it. It’s not their cup of tea. Oh well. Move on to the next market. And that’s what I’d do, because, as I said, I work on being optimistic.
But when it’s the 10th rejection in the same vein? The 25th? When you have an excel sheet full of them? What do you do then? Something is wrong with the stories, or with the markets. But I can’t change the markets. So I have to change the stories. Except that they say what I want them to say, and everyone says so far that they are solid as-is. What do I do then? How do I change what doesn’t apparently need improving? And yet it does, because no one is biting. How do I improve on “solid but not tremendously exciting”? I don’t write to be exciting, I write to be thoughtful. Is it me, or the markets? But if I can’t change the markets where do I send it next?
Combine those years of unactionable rejections plus a serious depression and you get a plethora of reasons to not bother any more. And so I didn’t.
It occurred to me many years a later, with a few novels under my belt, that what I like to write is a lot like my bookshelf. Yes, SF&F novels, but also a lot of biographies and memoirs. Histories and historical fiction. “Literary” fiction (ugh) and “chick lit” (longer ugh with more feeling) and weird genre amorphous novels. Plots that meander and avoid neat endings, characters that are morally ambiguous and refuse to define themselves by one characteristic or two. Very little that could be described as “tremendously exciting”, but whose contents linger in the mind long after you’ve written them.
The best compliments ever, the ones that I cherish the most, are the ones where people come back after reading it, several weeks or months after, and drop in casual conversation: “I was thinking about your story again last night while I washed the dishes”.
Thing is, the people who have said that to me have not been generally people who read a lot of SF. They’re the ones who hardly read any SF at all but who tried some of my fiction anyway either because they are friends and supportive or because my work was adjacent to something that brought them in (anthologies and blog links and the like).
So I wondered: what if it is the markets that are wrong? Wrong for me?
So I started looking more at non-genre journals and magazines, the ones that are open to a bit of anything, who don’t mind genre but who don’t specify it either. I hope I can garner a bit more success there, but even if I don’t, I hope that I can still keep moving forward with my novel-writing and not let it get to me too much. I want to keep swimming, even if I don’t know the way. Nothing submitted, nothing printed.
Wish me luck.