Rejections As A Way Of Keeping Score

I have something north of 450 rejections to my name at this point and that doesn’t even count my dating days. I used to keep much closer track and could have told you the exact number but the combination of relative success and having had a couple of agents in the mix over the years has rendered that both much harder to do and less urgent. I still treasure my rejection letters, of course…

Is that sound of gears stripping I hear? I think it might be since that’s often the reaction I get to that statement, especially amongst writers. It’s a concept that seems counterintuitive but is in fact one of the most empowering ideas a writer can have, and I know whereof I speak on the rejections front.

I mentioned my total above. Let me add a couple more numbers now. I sold my first short after 96 rejections for various shorts and novels and my first book after about 360.

Rejection happens. It hurts. It’s also a point of pride, not something to be bummed about. Here’s why:

Finishing and submitting a story means you’re in the game and you should be proud of that. Rejections are a measure of finishing and submitting a story—you can’t get one without the others. So, getting a rejection means you’re in the game. Be proud of that. How many people do you know who say they want to write but don’t? How many who start things and never finish them? How many who finish, but won’t send something out?

So when you’re feeling down because you’ve gotten a rejection, remember you’re in the game, pat yourself on the back, and write another story.

And so on. That’s how you win. Oh, and don’t indulge in rejectomancy.

That’s the art of reject divination, or trying to figure out what the editor or agent really meant from the few short sentences of the rejection letter. By and large it is a fruitless and frustrating pursuit, especially with form letters. Even with personal rejections it’s not a great idea, though some of those can be quite clear. That’s because what a reject means at the editorial end is very simple:

This story did not work for this editor on this day. That’s it.

The best illustration I’ve ever had of this principle comes from a mistake I made, emphasis on the word “mistake,” as in do not do this.

One of my rejects is for a story later sold to that same editor at the same magazine with no rewrite. At the time I had something like 25 stories out making the rounds. When you have dozens of stories going to dozens of magazines and anthologies with wildly different response times, careful bookkeeping becomes very important. I’m pretty good at these things and keep a spreadsheet with pages arranged by story, by market, and by editor. Unfortunately, I somehow failed to log the particular rejection in question (a personal). It was from an editor who had bought other stories of mine and who was actively looking for me to submit more–he told me so at World Fantasy a few weeks later.

He asked me what I was sending him next. Having failed to log this particular story, and having forgotten he’d rejected it, I mentioned the title, gave him a two sentence pitch and promised to drop it in the mail ASAP. So, I did that. Then about two weeks later, I stumbled on the rejection in my to-file stack and realized what had happened. Aiee! I thought. This was and is a significant faux pas. So, I quickly banged up a note admitting to and apologizing for my mistake and offering to pull the story. It crossed with the acceptance and contract in the mail.

Same story, same editor, different day, different result.

I am not suggesting that anyone should resubmit a story to an editor who has already seen and rejected it, far from it. I screwed up. I also got lucky.

The moral of that story is: reject = not for this editor on this day, send it on to the next editor.

A reject doesn’t mean the editor thinks you suck or anything else of that nature. It means you started a story, finished it, sent it out, and someone didn’t buy it on that particular day. But tomorrow’s a new day and the only way to get an acceptance is to keep on plugging.

Oh, and final note, by way of a public service announcement from the archivist who archives my papers: Don’t throw those rejects away, they might be an important part of a success story some day.

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  1. 1. Lynne Thomas

    Your archivist says: Hear, hear!

    Rejections tell a story about the context of the market in which they were created. That’s important information for the historians working with archives, who may not have any other way of getting a feel for the market 100 years from now, particularly as more and more of this information moves online, and may not be saved.

    *steps off soapbox*

  2. 2. James MacAdam

    Great post -thanks!

  3. 3. Joe Iriarte

    I only recently started saving my rejections. (Mostly because I recently started getting the sort of feedback that makes me think I’ll eventually start getting actual sales, and so now the rejections seem romantic–a tale of not giving up and of overcoming adversity yadda yadda.) Man do I wish I still had all of them, going back to when I was a teenager trying to sell articles to Dragon. How cool would that be?

    This summer at Worldcon I met a couple of brothers who had sold their first novel to Tor. One of them is a teacher, like me, and he mentioned how he had put all of his rejections up for years on a wall in his classroom, so his students could see how he was trying, how challenging it was to break in, and how he was not taking no for an answer. What a cool lesson it must have been for them when he got that “Yes.”

  4. 4. Kelly McCullough

    Lynne, thank you.

    Everybody else, what Lynne said.

    James, you are most welcome.

    Joe, thanks for adding a fabulous story.

Author Information

Kelly McCullough

Kelly McCullough is a fantasy and science fiction author. He lives in Wisconsin with his physics professor wife and a small herd of cats. His novels include the WebMage and Fallen Blade series—Penguin/ACE. His short fiction has appeared in numerous venues including Writers of the Future and Weird Tales. He also dabbles in science fiction as science education with The Chronicles of the Wandering Star—part of an NSF-funded science curriculum—and the science comic Hanny & the Mystery of the Voorwerp, which he co-authored and co-edited—funding provided by NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope. Visit site.

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