“They said my writing was funny, just not ‘Archie Comics’ funny”: How to read a rejection letter

One of my early mentors once told me he’d rather get a handwritten rejection than a form-letter acceptance. It’s a great line. It speaks so well to the kind of personal attention we crave as writers. If we’re in any way professional about our work, we know that editors and agents are so overwhelmed with other people’s writing that any time they dare set aside their work and take up a pen — a pen, in this digital era! — and write us a note, it means we merited their personal attention. We imagine the editor as the teacher in A Christmas Story, derisively dismissing story after story — “You call this a paragraph? Margins! Margins! Margins!” and “Oh, my life’s work down the drain!” And then the editor comes to our little story, a gleaming page in the stack. We don’t get the Christmas Story treatment (“Oh, the theme I have been waiting for all my life!”), because it turns out we’re not quite good enough to publish, and because this is a post about rejections. But our story is good enough to give the editor pause. She leans back in her chair, holds the pages closer to the desk lamp. “Huh,” she says. “This isn’t so bad,” she says. “This writer clearly has whole oceans of undiscovered talent, and if I encourage him in just the right way, he might emerge as the greatest author of our generation.” And she reaches for a fountain pen and her stack of personal stationary.

We are such egoists. We all would rather get a handwritten rejection than a form-letter acceptance.

But I know that my mentor was only quipping when he said that, because he knew it sounded cool. The truth is, there is no such thing as a good rejection. If there were good rejections, we would not every one of us have felt the devastation of a lover touching our cheek gently and explaining that we should really just be friends. Rejection is rejection, and is hurts every single time.

That said, some rejections are less devastating than other rejections, and once in a rare while, a rejection might even hold out some hope. You just have to know how to read the code.

“Thanks, but no thanks.”

Most of the time, you’ll get some variation of “Thanks, but no thanks.” Usually they’re a little longer than that, and they tend to rely heavily on empty rhetoric and passive voice: “I regret to inform you that we are unable to accept your story,” leaving us to dream of gangs of fiction-hating illiterates pinning back the arms of every member of the editorial staff. There’s a mean-looking fellow with scars on his face and rings in his eyebrows and fingerless gloves, the biker at the end of Weird Science maybe, and he’s snarling, “This story is too good for your shitty publication, and we won’t let you publish it.”

This isn’t the case, of course. What we have here is a form-letter rejection, which sounds terrible but which is actually fairly innocuous. On the one hand, it means not only that you aren’t good enough to publish, but also that you didn’t even stand out enough in the masses of submissions to merit any notice at all; you were just another printed page among tens of thousands of pages. But it also means you didn’t stand out in a negative way, either; it means your story was not so terrible that it stopped the reading frenzy so the editor could read it aloud and the whole staff could laugh and laugh at you. I’ve been in that room with the stacks, digging through the slush pile, and I can tell you, sometimes it gets ugly in there. It’s nothing personal, really, but it is a sick reality, as distressingly illustrated recently by the gang at Virginia Quarterly. So sometimes, you’re grateful for the form rejection, because it means you’re not horrible, and since the form letter is so impersonal, you can more easily set it aside — reject the rejection — and get back to the writing.

The personal touch

But sometimes you do get a personal note. Sometimes it’s handwritten and sometimes it’s typed (or e-mailed), but you can usually tell the personal from the impersonal. Usually it’s a comment about the writing itself, something specific, maybe even a suggestion: “The story has merit but the ending feels too pat, too stagey. I wish you’d extended that ending, showed us what happens to Jane next.” Or “I’m not sure I believe the friendship in this story, but that scene at the bar was beautifully written.” This is definitely a rejection, but what you want to focus on is the fact that someone was briefly invested in your story enough to make a note about it, and then — better still — they felt it worth the effort of passing that note along to you. Take the hint, fix the problems, and get that story back out on the market where it belongs.

“Please submit again.”

The best rejections come with this personal note: “Please submit again.” With the ease of e-submissions, I’m half suspicious that this line is sneaking into form rejections, but generally, if you see this line, you should take it seriously, and it’s a very good sign. It means someone’s made a note of your name, that you stood out in a good way and they want to see more. The best of the best will actually ask you to submit the same story rewritten, which means you’re halfway in the door. (You’re not all the way in — I once had a rewrite rejected, so don’t take a resubmit as an excuse to get lazy.)

But this is getting pretty rosy. If only I can get that personal rejection, you think, the world will be okay. I’m one step away, you think. That mentor guy was right after all, you think.

You’re wrong.

“It’s not you, it’s me.”

Sometimes, the personal rejection just confuses matters. One of my favorite lines on the tv show Friends comes from “The One That Could Have Been,” in which an alternate-universe Chandler is trying to become a writer; he enters the coffeehouse and flops on the chair and explains his latest rejection letter: “They said my writing was funny, just not ‘Archie Comics’ funny.”

In my world, the line reads more like “We really liked your story but we’re not going to publish it,” and it’s the most frustrating personal rejection you can get. They might as well stroke your cheek like a lover, smile pitifully at you, and say, “It’s not you, it’s me.”

And the more praise the editors lavish in their efforts to let you down gently, the harder it is to swallow. Believe me. I’ve been there.  (One publication actually sent me their voting records, showing how each editor responded to the story — I got four votes yes and one vote no, and they still didn’t accept it!).

But here’s what you need to know about this kind of personal response: Sometimes editors need to feel good about themselves. They reject a lot of good stuff, and some great stuff, and if they’re going to get any sleep at night, they need to know they didn’t just devastate a good writer. So they let you down gently, they encourage you, they ask for more.

Why? you’re thinking. If the story is good, you’re thinking, just publish the damn thing!  But it’s never that simple.

Most publications receive thousands — maybe tens of thousands — of submissions, and while 90% of it will be wrong for the publication for all sorts of reasons, that still leaves 10% good stuff, maybe 3 or 4% great stuff. And at that point it’s not a matter of taste, it’s a matter of math. The typical lit journal runs maybe 120, maybe 150 pages. If it’s all fiction, that means maybe a dozen stories, on average; if it’s multi-genre, it’s a LOT less, but that journal might be sitting on 100 good stories, maybe 30 or 40 great stories.

You’re at a cafeteria but everything’s delicious and exactly what you want, everything is your favorite food. But there’s only so much room on the plate. And the lasagna shouldn’t feel bad because you picked the falafel instead. Maybe you’ll pick the lasagna next time.

So when you get the “This is great!” rejection, take heart. You’re good — you’re really good — and maybe the next person’s plate won’t be so full. Maybe the next person will have room for the lasagna. You might not be “Archie Comics” funny, but you’re funny. Maybe you’re “Jughead” funny. Try them next.


For a much more detailed examination of the rejection letter, check out Brian Doyle’s excellent article in the Kenyon Review.

Or, to vent some frustration by lambasting horrible rejection letters, check out the terrific blog Literary Rejections on Display.

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