It’s Not You, It’s Me—And Other Forms of Rejection

Springtime, and I’ve been going through old papers here at my house, trying to decide what to toss and keep. One file drawer holds nothing but fiction—my stories, ideas for stories, friends’ stories, handouts of stories from past teachers…and one big, fat manila envelope marked Rejections.

Why did I keep them? Hey, in college, I knew someone who actually papered a wall with rejections, and I’ve taken the same sort of pride in mine. Most of them are standard form letters, but some editors wrote personal notes, and I have to give them credit for scribbling a few thoughts down for me. Especially the ones from high-brow pubs, like The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Esquire, and a whole slew of literary journals: Crescent Review, Story, Grand Street, Crazyhorse, Glimmer Train (I would still commit a misdemeanor to get into Glimmer Train). And then more obscure ones like Bottomfish, Common Touch, and Dodobobo (?). Yes, I spelled it right.

The editor of that last one sent me a very lengthy, handwritten rejection, which ended with, “Your story is too long. Do you have anything shorter?”

It took you nearly two pages to call me long-winded?

Another said, “We were very interested in your story and had hoped to use it—but found we couldn’t schedule it in a reasonable time.”

Schedule it? Hey, no rush. I would wait for, um, ever.

A third said my story was “Impressive. It came CLOSE. I especially liked the ending. I’m sure you will publish this story, as I nearly did.”

Okay, that one was just cruel.

My favorite was the one pictured here.

rejection envelope 001

This is the original envelope I mailed a story in. Back in those days, I would send printed pages with enough return postage for the story’s return, along with any comments. And I would turn down the corners of a couple of pages in the middle, and near the end (oh, so tiny folds, as not to be noticed). That way, if the story came back, I could see if it the “seal” had been broken, and verify whether it had actually been read. (Anyone else do this?)

Anyway, there was apparently a team of editors at this particular journal, and they all read my story, then passed around my envelope and wrote their “votes” on it—each stating why it was good or bad. Some additional votes were written on scraps of paper that fluttered out when I pulled the pages from the envelope. Now that is a memorable rejection.

Only a few of my stories actually got published—one after getting rejected 63 times. My Rejections folder contains 117 letters—my Acceptance folder six. But I can’t allow myself to part with any of them, since they are evidence of the fact that I actually did do some writing, and spent a fair amount of time working to send that writing out into the world. When I look back some day, maybe I’ll at least be able to say I tried.

Most of my rejections these days are from agents. A few are standard form letters, and some actually give me the equivalent of what I’d guess a handwritten note would be these days—a personal apology and best of luck with some other agent (read: sucker) who might have lower standards.

But I’ll keep trying, keep writing, and no doubt keep getting rejected. It’s all part of the life we’ve chosen, right? And if I ever get my office clean, I may just start putting up that wallpaper.

–Cathy

Soul, Sister

So, I’m thinking a lot about “voice” these days. With the first draft of the two opening chapters of my new tome almost finished, I’m paying a lot of attention to what the writing sounds like, to what kind of world I’m inviting a reader to enter.

For me, voice—that sustainable tone and mood set by the subtle interplay of language and observation—is what makes a story. I’m a pretty charitable reader of other people’s work. I forgive the occasional narrative line bumbles and rough spots, if I feel like I’m reading something that is compelling and authentic, and it’s showing me something new about the world.

Errors and bumbles can always be fixed, and, hey, nothing’s perfect. But voice is different. I think of voice as the “soul” of a story. And without a soul, what have you got? Just a lot of noise.

Let me give a shout-out here to novelist and super-blogger Amy Sue Nathan whose forthcoming debut novel, The Glass Wives, will be published by St. Martin’s Griffin in May 2013. Amy kindly allowed us to post as guest bloggers on her terrific site, Women’s Fiction Writers. We’ve connected with a whole new bunch of cool writers as a result.

So please check out Women’s Fiction Writers and pick up The Glass Wives this spring. Keep the good vibes going round.

— Karen

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