It’s The Great Rejection Slip, Charlie Brown!

I love Autumn. While the leaves are turning and falling, and the air is growing brisk, I usually find myself with a spring in my step. Autumn (to me) means new energy. After the long, hot torpor of late summer. A chance to reorganize, make plans, get balls rolling, and remember . . .

Autumn 1992 is when my dream of being a “for real” science fiction writer was born. I was all of 18 years old, and struggling to figure out what I wanted to do with myself. My father (of course) said, “Get thee to University!” Smart words. Sensible words. But I’d just slogged through 12 painful years of primary education. Classwork? I hated classwork. I spent more time curled up on the couches at the University of Utah student union — reading Larry Niven — than I did with my nose in textbooks.

By 1997 I’d been writing science fiction (both original and shared universe) for about 5 years.

No publications, of course. Plenty of rejections. But no publications. I was the proverbial Charlie Brown: wandering from house to house in my bedsheet ghost costume, cut with too many holes. Any time anyone asked me what I had in my sack, I was forced to reply sheepishly, “I get a rocks.”

Part of my problem (in 1997) was that I thought being a successful science fiction writer meant purely checking the boxes: write to A audience and B editor at C magazine, check, check, check, while employing X trope and Y try-fail cycles with Z ending, check, check, check.

I’d then collect my inevitable rejection slips and parse through my stories and wonder how I could possibly be doing it wrong?

The unfortunate truth (as I’ve discovered in hindsight) is that you can literally hit all the notes — like a recital player — and still get rocks in your candy bag. Because as much as you might be fulfilling the letter of storytelling, if the spirit is lacking, chances are slim that your fiction is going to find a receptive editor, or a receptive audience.

Hollywood is perpetually bedeviled by this problem. Because motion picture executives are businesspeople. They too want to be able to check the boxes, and get a reliable result. Every single time. Which often yields films written to committee spec — running down the list, as it were — but which are so tangibly devoid of soul that all the special effects, beefcake, explosions, or cleavage in the world can’t make these movies come alive.

So it is with fiction on the page. You can have your formula. You can be following your trope. You can be putting all the right ingredients into your stew pot, and still wind up with a bland, or overspiced, or burned, or undercooked mess of unready slop. The sort of thing even your dog turns his nose up at.

So what’s the secret?

Well, I hate to say it, but there’s no secret that I’ve ever discovered.

A lot of it boils down to the very thing I wanted to avoid in 1992: hard work. The proverbial First Million Words. Virtually all writers must go through the unglamorous chore of building up their craft skills by writing new books and stories — seeing them fail — then writing still more books and stories, until they (the authors) pass that almost invisible, undefinable point at which their craft goes from high-end amateur to entry-level professional.

For me that mark was crossed at about 850,000 unpublished words, in late 2009. For you it may be less, or it may be more. Mileage varies. I certainly hope it’s less. If anyone had told me in 1992 that it would take me seventeen years just to get my first story professionally sold and published . . . yeesh!

Also, a lot of it can be chalked up to personal (im)maturity. When I was writing stories in 1997 I was still in my early 20s. I’d not lived a lot of life. I could copycat character development and emotion (as I’d seen these things on the screen or read them in books) but the Xeroxing would show. My characters and their reactions would not ring true. They were merely marionettes on strings, and my motions (as the puppeteer) were entirely too obvious. I know this because none of those stories ever sold, and the very few I’ve picked up recently (and re-worked for sale) I’ve had to so drastically re-shape, they’re like brand new.

In other words, now that I’ve been a father for ten years and a husband for twenty, and have been out and about in the business world, the military world, and so forth, I’m much better at rendering people on the page –because I more fully understand how I myself, and the people around me, are rendered. On the inside.

Young writers (and I was one once, so don’t think I don’t know what it’s like to be a precocious teenager dreaming of making the big time) may not be hip to this reality, but I do think it’s a reality just the same. Sometimes, for your characters and situations to grow, you yourself must first do the growing.

Something else: being able to more fully grasp the inner workings of human motivation made it easier for me to see how other, already-successful authors were doing their own renditions in their own books and stories — and this meant I was better equipped to mimic those authors’ techniques.

I’ve cited this piece before, but one of the keystone developmental stories for me was a story called “Arkfall” by Carolyn Ives Gilman. I read that story in late 2008 and it subconsciously influenced my first two professionally published works — “Exanastasis” and “Outbound” — to such a high degree that I can’t talk about building those stories without mentioning “Arkfall” first. “Arkfall” so impressed me on an emotional level that I re-read it several times, paying attention specifically to how I felt, and why. Then when I sat down to do new work, I had that same ethereal channel open in the back of my mind.

I think of it as being similar to how Luke turned off his targeting computer at the end of the first Star Wars movie. I didn’t try to check the boxes or hit the notes. I simply “stretched out with my feelings” and told the story as it seemed the story needed to be told. Which is contra to all rote logic in every “how to write fiction” book you’re liable to ever read. But it made all the difference between me turning in mere recital performances — hitting the notes, but lifelessly — and creating stories that were capable of impressing both editors and readers.

(NOTE: “Exanastasis” won me the Writers of the Future award, and “Outbound” won me the Analog magazine readers’ choice award; and has been reprinted many times. Thank you Carolyn Ives Gilman!)

Now, none of these ruminations will cheer the long-suffering writer who is at the 250,000 or 500,000 word mark — mired in rejections, and wondering if (s)he isn’t just fooling him or herself. Likewise, none of this is liable to put a smile on the face of eager self-publishing authors who are putting all of their first, original works on-line — and wondering why audiences don’t flock, why the dollars aren’t flooding in, etc.

The truth is, your stories probably just aren’t there yet.

I know mine were not. For many years.

And that’s okay. Honest. It is. I’m not trying to tell you it’s a fruitless effort. Nor am I trying to discourage you from working on your stuff.

I’m just trying to say that there’s no shortcut. Good cooks and good writers share the same thing with good musicians and good painters: lots and lots and lots of practice.

The difference between a chef making a brilliant meal, and an amateur kludging together a recipe from a cook book, ought to be obvious to all of us who have ever kludged a pie or a stew or a holiday dinner, and wondered, “How come when I do it, it comes out all wrong?”

The chef has honed his or her skills.

And so it is with writers.

So keep after it. Keep getting rocks in your candy bag. That’s the way it works. Those rocks mean you’re doing the work. They provide an “againstness” to which you can apply yourself. Making the editorial grade is a high bar. A worthy gauge.

And if you’re apt to skip the editorial trick-or-treat altogether, by going directly to indie, there’s still no escape from having to work on your chops — to the point you can tell a story that moves people emotionally. As an indie author you might create a tale filled with sound and fury, but if in the end your readers get done with your work and say to themselves, eh . . . then your book or story won’t get passed on via word-of-mouth — arguably the single best, most effective PR in the history of history.

Like I said, there are no shortcuts. And checking the boxes . . . is not enough.

Rocks in your bag? Actually a good thing.


14 thoughts on “It’s The Great Rejection Slip, Charlie Brown!

  1. I sometimes wonder if my quick path to sales (so quick, I hesitate to say) has a lot to do with the fact that I was 47 years old when I really started writing seriously. In the 30 years in which I basically gave up on fiction (writing maybe a story every five years or so), I had a successful career as a software developer, software development trainer and speaker, and software development author. I had a successful software development comic strip and a 500 page UML book to my name. And I added 30 years of maturity and experience and reading. I also saw two business fold (not mine, my employers), and I worked with people around the world. I think this all broadened my perspective. I categorically DO NOT want anyone to take a 30 year hiatus like I did; but I do think it had its benefits as well as drawbacks.

    I also wonder — no, I don’t wonder, I KNOW that 30 years as a gamemaster did a lot to hone my skills as a storyteller. For 30 years, my best friends in all the world(s) tried their best to kill me. I learned to think on my feet!

  2. I’ve been thinking about this blog post and figured I would offer up my own humble experiences that echos what Brad has said.

    My first short story was awful. I had a half decent idea, but I tried to “check the boxes”. Not only that, but I tried to make it fit a magazine’s submission guidelines for word count. As a result, the ending was rushed. It wasn’t just awful, it was hideous. Still, I submitted it. Unsurprisingly, it was rejected. Today, I actually feel like I need to email the poor reader to apologize to them for sending it.

    Just a couple of years later, I wrote another story. The only “rule” I kept in mind was conflict. I made sure there was tension everywhere I could manage. I simply told a story with plenty of conflict. While there is a battle raging, that wasn’t the conflict I was striving for. No, I had my protagonist and the mayor of a post apocalyptic village have issues with one another. I had an unrequited love interest create tension. Things like that.

    I told a story, and between that first story and that one are light years worth of difference. Now, I haven’t sold that other story. Not yet anyways. The difference is, when I’ve been rejected on that story, I don’t feel guilty looking back on it. It may not be ready, but it’s definitely a much stronger story, all because I just told a story and didn’t worry about so many “rules” and items on a checklist.

    I really believe the secret to making a sale – and again, I say this as someone who hasn’t done that yet – is simply to tell a good story and then send it to markets that are interested in that kind of story. If that’s true, then it’s not rocket science 🙂

  3. Pingback: Putting In Your 10,000 Hours | Ferrett Steinmetz

  4. Great honest post. And hopefully an eye-opening post to newer writers. It’s going to take longevity—a lot of longevity.

  5. Fantastic post. You are so right. My creative writing tutors at university tried to dissuade me form growing straight from BA to MA level without a gap. They tiptoed around the subject but basically I was too young. I hadn’t lived enough to *understand* Sure, I had imagination, but making your characters *real* means knowing and understanding more real people. And living. And reading. And writing. A LOT. I

    I’m further on now, feel like I’m getting somewhere, but I know even now there is a long way to go. But I love every step.

    Thanks for this post. Definitely worth a re-blog!

  6. Reblogged this on The Path – J. S. Collyer's Writing Blog and commented:
    Some great advice in here. I’ve touched on some of these ideas before. Becoming a writer is a journey, one you only come to discover never ends once you’ve been travelling for years. But do not be discouraged. It’s hard work but the commitment is worth it. It means you are giving your work and yourself to be the best you possibly can be.

  7. Yup, yup, yup. Couldn’t agree more. If I counted up all the writing i’ve done its probably in that 800-1000k bracket, but I wonder how much of that I can truly attribute to useful ‘learning’ writing?

    Do you think there is some magic point where publishability suddenly jumps up? I don’t think so, and obviously skill continues to increase. but this linear growth crosses the publishable barrier at that 1mill mark.

    My 1st novel is coming out in a few months via an indie publisher. We’ll see how it goes and whether i’m ‘up to scratch’.

    (PS I know its an old topic. Haven’t been back here in a while so catching up!)

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