It’s Not The End Of The World (Even If It Sometimes Feels Like It)

So, I just received a rejection from Gordon Van Gelder at the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction this afternoon. It’s actually a personalized rejection, the first I’ve ever gotten from M0F&SF. In it, Mr. Van Gelder says he “thought this story was interesting and the prose style good, but overall, the story didn’t generate enough narrative tension for [his] taste, alas.”

I should be encouraged by the fact it’s a personalized rejection. These are incredibly hard to come by, especially from M0F&SF. I actually sent them a story back about two years ago, one of the stories I wrote while I was still in my first Master’s Degree program (for my M.A. in English). It was some dystopian S.F. story. I had the shitty luck to send it at a time when editors were trying to find less dystopian stories because this was around the time Obama was being elected, and we were coming to the tail end of a horrible decade. I think editors thought people would be less interested in dystopian stories because things were looking up, right? And who can blame them for thinking that way. Surely, readers would get sick of doom and gloom and want to read something uplifting for a change.

Well, so much for that. The Hunger Games Trilogy exploded and the world went to hell, among other things. I’m sure there’s plenty to discuss about dystopian fiction and audience expectations/desires, but that is a whole ‘nother set of posts waiting to happen.

A scene from a popular documentary of the future, sent back in time for past audiences to learn from. Thus far, it has not gone well.

(For the record, I’m not making excuses for why my previous story fizzled on impact, and believe me it did. I know fully well the real reason my story failed to make an impact on editors was that, in comparison to the work I’m writing now, it was an incredibly clumsy story. I just bring up the bit about dystopian fiction and the then-current attitudes about possible changes in reader preference to make the point that the current climate of culture and publication patterns is also relevant when submitting stories.)

Back to the story at hand: the previous story I submitted, the dystopian one, received a patented quick rejection from then-Assistant Editor John Joseph Adams, aka My Nemesis* (I actually respect the hell out of the guy for all he handles on a regular basis without, seemingly, going insane, and I love Fantasy and Lightspeed, the two magazines he edits now; I’m just determined to one day get him to say “yes” to one of my stories). Just a quick “didn’t work for me” and that was that.

This time, however, I got a personalized rejection from Mr. Van Gelder. In the larger scheme of things, this is a step up. It’s the second story I’ve sent to this publication, with a markedly different type of response between my first and second submission (divided by a few years and lots of personal development, of course). And, I tell myself, he did respond positively to the story in general and the writing. He just thought it didn’t generate enough conflict, be it external or internal (I read “didn’t generate enough narrative tension” and interpret that as “the stakes weren’t high enough,” basically). So, this is not a total loss.

If so, then why does it feel like one?

I’ll be honest: this has torn me up a bit. And keep in mind, I’ve been getting serious about my writing for a few years now, since my freshman year in college eight years ago (granted, I only got serious about getting serious in my senior year, about five years ago). I’ve had rejections by now. I was rejected by six different MFA programs before I got in at Stonecoast. I’ve been rejected by ten or so different publications, many more than once now. I’ve been lucky enough to get more positive rejections from some publications lately, but still, a rejection’s a rejection. It is what it is. Nothing personal, certainly, on any editor’s part. They’re just doing their job. They’re not out to stomp on people’s hearts.

I’m well aware that the only reason it feels worse to me is because of reasons on my end:

  1. I’m a fan of Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I buy it on newspaper stands whenever I can, which usually involves leaving West Plains for bigger cities. Once I get an e-reader, I plan on getting an electronic subscription. (And, by the way, they just started offering electronic subscriptions, for those of you print-averse. Check it out immediately.)
  2. This story is really close to the vest for me. I’m a firm believer that everything I send out should have a little piece of me in it, as mentioned to me by the exceedingly wise Will Ludwigsen**. Still, the story I recently sent out is much closer to me than other stories I have written. By extension, a rejection of the story feels like a rejection of myself. I know damn well that’s not the actual case of what happened. It’s just one of those situations where my head will have to tell my heart to stop freaking out already.
  3. This story has also already been submitted to other publications I admire: Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Fantasy Magazine, etc. There’s always a bit of anxiety when you’ve got that checklist of dream publications lined up and you keep dashing them off one by one, getting more panicky with each dash.

So, what can I take from this? What could I, or anyone else, learn from this experience, this rejection that stings the most of any I’ve had in a long time?

A few things, actually:

  1. Like the title says, it’s not the end of the world. One rejection doesn’t guarantee a hundred more. Keep writing. Keep learning. Personal comments from editors are gifts, especially if they’re as specific as the ones Mr. Van Gelder gave me on my story. Turn on the critical mind and get to work making it  better. Turn on the creative mind and write more stories.
  2. The fact that I care so much about the fate of this story means I’m in the right line of work. If I don’t care about the fate of a particular story, maybe I shouldn’t be sending it out in the first place.

So, I’ll just suck it up, say thanks for reading, Mr. Van Gelder, and get to work, hoping that the next story will be the one where he, or anyone else, says absolutely, definitely, yes.

*If anyone can’t tell, I’m being sarcastic/affectionate in referring to JJA as My Nemesis. Seriously. I don’t need anyone to take a hit out on me, thank you. Chances are My Nemesis would do it himself, while editing ten stories at once.

**This comment paid for by the Committee to Prove Will Ludwigsen’s Brilliance to the World, which may not necessarily be engaged with Mr. Ludwigsen per its activities.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “It’s Not The End Of The World (Even If It Sometimes Feels Like It)

  1. procrastin8or

    A nice commentary on rejection. As a writer you have to develop pretty thick skin. Best of luck next time though.

    Personally I think there is always a place for dystopia novels in good times and in bad times. Whenever I’m feeling happy with the world I don’t necessarily just want to read how everything is fine and dandy. I’m surprised that magazine editors that people do as a rule.

    • Thanks for commenting! It’s true, thick skin is a must. The key, I think, is to just keep working and use rejection as extra motivation.

      As for dystopian fiction, I would agree with you. I think there’s always a time and place for it regardless of what’s going on in the world at large outside the fiction. It just gets harder to ignore the impact of dystopian fiction in times where vast amounts of people are dissatisfied with the state of the world (although, when has there ever been a “perfect” time in the history of the world, come to think of it?). I won’t go so far as to say that the desire for more optimistic stories was an explicit mandate from magazine editors. Around that time, however, I do remember a lot of Internet discussions and blog/website posts by people in the industry who were hungry for more stories that challenged or ran counter to dystopian fiction (or, more specifically, the pessimistic commentary frequently associated with dystopian fiction).

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