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A Web Site Devoted to Rejections

A blogger has created a web site that is about rejection letters.  He discussed my posted rejection letter (and labeled it "mean").  His original post and the comments are here.

I've been involved with an unending discussion about rejectomancy since I discovered discussion groups on the Internet, and although I've changed my mind about many things, my thoughts on reject letters has pretty much stayed the same:  Every rejection means, "mail the manuscript again."

It doesn't matter if it is a tiny form comment that has been rephotocopied so many times you can hardly read it, or if it was a brutal dismissal of the work (once I got a form reject where the editor had scrawled at the bottom, "Why don't you try telling a story next time."  It reminded me of Kurtz's comment from Heart of Darkness: "Exterminate the brutes!"), or if it is a lengthy, kind and instructive comment.  Unless there is a request for a rewrite, a reject just means mail it somewhere else.

The best piece of advice I ever received came from a rejection letter. It was from George Scithers when he was doing Amazing Stories. He said, "I hope while you were waiting to hear from us on this one that you were working on your next." He also pointed out that I'd substituted "breath" for "breathe" in the first paragraph.

If all a writer wants is validation of being a writer, anything less than total praise can be crushing. But when a writer gets serious and really wants to improve, then honesty, even brutal honesty, is what he/she wants.

According to the story, Harlan Ellison, when he did Clarion one year, went around the room on the last day telling each writer what he thought of their talent. He told a couple to keep with it, but he told the rest they were hopeless and should quit. You can't get much more brutal than that! One of the writers he told should give it up, though, was James Patrick Kelly, who has gone on to win numerous awards in science fiction.

Kelly wanted to write more than any criticism that was thrown in his way. So he learned from what Harlan had to say and ignored anything that sounded hurtful.

A rejection letter just means that the manuscript didn't work for that editor on that day. The writer shouldn't take anything at all from it. If the editor offers advice or criticism, the writer can listen or not. It's the writer's choice. But it still means the manuscript needs to go elsewhere, and that's all it means.

In the meantime, hopefully, the writer was working on something else.


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 6th, 2007 04:46 pm (UTC)
It was nice to see him being polite when you showed up and were polite yourself.
Jul. 6th, 2007 05:34 pm (UTC)
I thought that was civil on his part too.
Jul. 6th, 2007 04:49 pm (UTC)
L. Sprague de Camp once wrote about having a standard response whenever some hopeful asked "Should I be a writer?" The explanation was that, if the person honestly needed someone else's opinion, if they weren't bound and determined to write no matter what anyone said, then the correct answer was always "No."

I've seen people fly into rages over the wording of a form rejection slip, for pity's sake. I mean, we've all gone through rejection, continue to go through rejection, will continue etc., and it's never going to be fun. But if there's a greater waste of time and energy for any writer than agonizing over rejection, I don't know what it is. I like Esther Friesner's attitude best. She says when she gets a rejection it's "Your loss, Toots" and the story goes back in the mail. An attitude I try to emulate whenever possible.

Jul. 6th, 2007 05:35 pm (UTC)
I've always liked Esther Friesner!
Jul. 6th, 2007 05:16 pm (UTC)
Normally I won't touch Interdrama with a ten foot pole, but he did mention he wanted people to have a sense of humor...
Jul. 6th, 2007 05:38 pm (UTC)
I always got very helpful and inspiring comments from Scithers, too.
Jul. 6th, 2007 06:12 pm (UTC)
Scithers and I corresponded for years, sort of. I'd send him manuscripts, and he would reject them. In my cover letters I have a tendency to remark about the last issue I read or about things I saw in Locus that were relevant. After a while, he started adding comments to the rejections about stuff other than the story. It was an odd pen pal arrangement. After dozens of manuscripts, he finally bought one from me. I think we were both happy.
Jul. 6th, 2007 09:03 pm (UTC)

I prefer rejections that give me something to go on. "No thanks," while politically correct, is kind of a let down. ;)
Jul. 6th, 2007 11:57 pm (UTC)
Jesus, can we say, "arbitrary?" I guess one person's dream letter is another person's nightmare.

My personal favorite (and my first!) rejection letter came over a year after I submitted the story. I'd long since given up on it, and was too dumb to send a follow-up. The letter was basically, "Agghhhh!!!! So sorry we're late!! Unforgivable!! By the way, your story was good, but not suited to us."
Jul. 8th, 2007 12:47 pm (UTC)
Good info.

I don't think it really helps for someone to tell a writer to not become a writer. Seriously, breaking their balls only goes so far and not all personality types do well with it.

Besides, most people who write will have their ups and downs and think of giving up. That alone tosses a lot of them aside.
Jul. 8th, 2007 08:10 pm (UTC)
Most folks would agree with you. Harlan is not particularly nurturing *g*.
Jul. 17th, 2007 10:21 am (UTC)
I was astonished at the reactions on the website you refer to. I thought your letter was helpful and encouraging, and if I received it I would be extremely grateful. Fifteen minutes' voluntary unpaid work is not negligible.

One reviewer on Youwriteon, the unpublished authors' website I'm a member of, pointed out the same fault to me; that I sometimes repeatedly started consecutive sentences with He or She. I was pleased to be made aware of it, made changes at once, and no longer do it.

People serious about writing (and being published) want to learn and improve.

Lexi Revellian http://lexirevellian.blogspot.com/
Nov. 8th, 2007 10:46 pm (UTC)
Jim, I got to this by somebody coming to my blog somehow and I seriously thought you were referring to me when I read the "Harlan Ellison - you'll make it, you won't" comment (before getting to the end to see it was Jim Kelly and Harlan Wrong - which is definitely a different year). I have told people about the "you'll make it, you won't" episode at Clarion, and I do think it was the last day, and he did it similarly to a girl plucking petals off a daisy, going around the room ("He loves me, he loves me not).

I heard mine repeated back to me at WFC this past weekend, which was maybe what inspired whichever internet searcher showed me this connection. Harlan said "yes - maybe" to me in 1984. And I have heard people be very upset about this practice, which he obviously made quite an annual practice of for these groups. And - clearly he was spectacularly wrong about Jim, and I'm sure he must have been wrong about a tremendous number of others because one cannot say who'll "make it" or won't based on one week of Clarion. One cannot assure that the "you'll make its" want to make it, in the case of one person he gave the "go ahead" to at my Clarion. I attended a less-than-stellar year in my case, so I don't think it was Harlan's "yea" or "nay" that would have made anyone successful or unsuccessful and to me, the obvious factor was one we know well: Persistence. And ya know, maybe you might get an inkling of that from one week at Clarion, and maybe not.

And today, if he'd said no, would he have made me quit? Absolutely not. At age 21? Well, I quit for eight years even with his "go ahead."

So that's that for that.
Nov. 9th, 2007 12:46 am (UTC)
Hi, Amy. I talked to Jim about this once, and he said Harlan's position was that if a person can be talked out of writing because of someone else's criticism, then they are not tough enough to be a writer. Jim said Harlan felt his actions were actually kindness.

Of course, I don't think so. My first encounter with a science fiction pro, though, was with Ed Bryant, who was also a Harlan Ellison offspring. I had a half hour one-on-one story conference with Ed at a week-long general writing conference I went to. This was before I'd sold anything, or even really started submitting, but I'd won a short story contest, and I was an English major, so I was pretty full of myself. Ed started the conference by saying, "If I tell you this is unmitigated shit up front, then everything I say afterwards will sound better, right?"

We decided at the end of the conference that the story wasn't "unmitigated," but that it was still bad. Furious, I rushed to a book store to buy something by this Ed Bryant person and then confirm how off base his advice was by looking at the undoubtably awful stuff he wrote. I picked up a copy of CINNABAR. Oh, my god. Ed Bryant was an amazing writer.

I run into him often at Colorado conventions. We talk about that first meeting every once in a while. He doesn't remember saying what he said, but he did tell me he gets that way at the end of a week-long writing conference.

Edited at 2007-11-09 12:47 am (UTC)
Nov. 9th, 2007 10:22 pm (UTC)
I've heard other people share what Jim P K did about Harlan too, Jim V P (I got so confused reading that - I was like Jim - no, Jim - Jim!). And I've heard other writers of older generations make similar comments.

It may be generational because I'd never even considered saying anything of this type to anyone, including (or maybe - especially) remedial English writers who were still working to write coherent sentences. I know Ed Bryant a little bit, too and he's anything but mean and hard-nosed. I think they were honestly brought up, or matured in an environment where you were "doing someone a favor" by telling them "fuggedaboudit." There've only been hundreds of movies and books and even TV shows about unlikely people becoming successful against all odds - and since that's a "fairy tale" that seldom happens in the real world, I can see where the "doing them a favor" idea comes from.

That said, I've been around long enough to identify a two important common qualities among successful writers -- persistence and professionalism (especially among ideas, or what one chooses to write about, how, when and why).

In fact, because I think you have all those things, Jim (so Ed was WRONG WRONG WRONG ha ha) I'll share what I've come to understand in the past 3-4 years. The process started with writing a media tie-in novel and weaselling out of the followup so that another person could take on that awesome task (but I edited it anyway). I've spent the last 5-6 years writing virtually any project for which I thought the money and terms were fair and reasonably favorable. I did this mostly because I needed the money, and it's paid for a lot of important things. It certainly assisted me to save money that was essential after Anthony died.

Now, things have changed to the point where I can write my "own work" again. And I'm no longer the last fairly decent unagented writer out there, selling all kinds of stuff without assistance.

And I've been writing this same book for four years. I've rewritten a certain portion of it at least six times, and it even changed GENRES. Because of the story I wanted to tell, because of the world around me, and because I was listening to people and responding to what was going on all around me. I'm just about finished and just by doing the book, I've accomplished what I set out to do four years ago, when I was trying to recover from those darn media books.

I've changed everything I do, and the way I do it so completely. I don't think I'd have ever gotten too much farther doing the typical "Amy" stories that I spent the better part of a decade learning how to write. It was an obsession, perfecting the sort of thing I was doing and the type of clockwork story that I wanted. Now, everything is so open, and I have a "picture" in my mind of readers, and imagine what they would enjoy reading, and that's what I want to write, and what I do write.

I probably would have said "you'll make it" to a writer at Clarion if I were Harlan - but more likely, "You're a wonderful writer and you have so much to say - so many wonderful stories to tell." And heck, I say that all the time anyway.
Nov. 9th, 2007 10:29 pm (UTC)
Click and . . .

Jim, I didn't read that other post about YOUR rejection letter, thinking from the overall topic of your post here that it was a rejection letter you'd received, not one you'd written!

The topic of those replies to your rejection letter (kind and helpful, but probably a mistake, since individual feedback to less-sophisticated writers invokes anger, rather than gratitude, for the most part) is what I'd call "The Angry Slush." Maybe if I have time I'll do a blog post about my Angry Slush tales. That'll get 'em going!

(If you're a new writer reading this, "Angry Slush" refers to permanent slush pile denizens, many who've been doing this for YEARS, whose writing never changes or improves because they have something wrong with them. And they are often very angry. About rejection, and many other things. And they do strange things. They are Not You.)
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )