Story Rejections and You: Lessons Learned From 700+ Rejections
Updated: Sep 14, 2022
Before I continue with the series on flash fiction, there's a side topic I should probably touch on.
If you've been following my series, you've likely already written a few pieces. You might even have submitted a few, which also means you've probably been rejected. If not then congratulations - give it a few days.
Rejection is a fact of life in short story markets. Remember when I said that flash-specific markets have relatively high acceptance rates? That word "relatively" was doing some very heavy lifting. Here's a comparison of the acceptance rates for a selection of high-profile, SFWA-recognized markets, according to data reported to the Submission Grinder:
As you can see, your odds are better with the flash markets, but you're still looking at a 90+% rejection rate from everyone but Nature: Futures, which only has such a high acceptance rate because their strict standards on length and content means they receive few submissions. Don't think you're clear just because you don't write science fiction - literary and mainstream markets are comparable, if not more selective.
Put simply: If you choose to shop your fiction around, unless you exclusively submit to the sort of markets that take everything, you're going to get shot down. A lot.
A Diet of Rejection
Here's a sample from my own experience of failure: A few days ago, I woke up to find four rejections in my inbox. That's a record, but not too much of an outlier - I've had a few three-rejection days, and a lot of two-rejection days.
Going by the numbers since March 2017, I have an overall acceptance rate of about 3.4%. That translates to 28 rejections per acceptance. There were times (especially in 2018 and 2019) when I was receiving an average of one story rejection every other day - and that's just for the short stories, mind you, that doesn't count query rejections for manuscripts. Count those and it becomes an average of a rejection per day for months on end.
Maybe this is skewed by the markets to which I submitted, most of which were highly competitive - as you can see above, the most popular SFWA markets reject over 99% of submissions. Maybe it's because I don't have any ties into the science fiction community, because I lack a strong brand. And maybe I'm just trash, though you can read what I've done and make that judgment for yourself.
But the best explanation is that the markets are just saturated with stories, so the odds of any particular piece standing out are extremely long. I think Ray Bradbury would be rejected 90% of the time in this environment - and so will you.
As I wrote in the introduction to Cavalcade of Rejection, I've never gone in for the whole "failing was the best thing that ever happened to me" trend. As far as I'm concerned, it's just a replacement for the old rags-to-riches story, the man who started in the mailroom and worked his way up to the boardroom. That kind of thing doesn't happen anymore, most billionaires were born into privilege, and "riches-to-far-greater-riches" doesn't have the same ring to it. If you were never poor, then talking about your failures is the next best way to connect to a broad audience.
The notion is that you're supposed to learn from your failures, but in a creative field that may not happen. No one's ever sure why, for example, a certain film or novel failed; those speaking with confidence are likely making up a narrative based on what they assumed to be true in the first place. So you can't fully trust the feedback, and that's when you're getting feedback.
Most of your rejections will be form rejections. Big markets usually only give feedback if your piece passed through the slush readers (the bitter, unpaid would-be writers employed to screen out the real trash) and reached a certain level of consideration. You may receive dozens of rejections in a row without knowing why, or even getting the information to deduce the reason for yourself.
When you do get feedback, it will come in one of two forms. The first, more common one - especially with large markets - is a gob of flattery wrapped around some excuse. I call these the "Your writing is technically excellent, but..." letters and they are generally useless. The other kind, mostly seen in smaller and/or more literary markets, entails someone just dumping all of the editorial comments into an email and sending it to you. I call these the "10 reasons why you suck" letters, and they may not teach you about the craft, but you will learn plenty about editors.
The Fragile Need Not Apply
But enough antagonism, here's my point: If you try to break into the literary business, you will be rejected, and you need to grow a callus. Many writers never do that. I know plenty of people who react to every single rejection by running off to their friends (or, more pathetically, Twitter's "writing community") for commiseration and a serving of sour grapes - You're just ahead of them, they'll be sorry they turned you down one day - and hey, do you know how often they rejected J.K. Rowling?
If that's you, then you might not be durable enough for the process. You're certainly not going to be durable enough for actual success, which involves a lot of people telling you that you're awful in language less civil than most editors can manage. This is a world full of angry genre fans with a lot of time on their hands, and clickbait writers and podcasters who've found ways to make some easy money by being arrogant pedants. The bigger you are, the more of these people you'll have to deal with - and now is a good time to harden to their words.
If you're going to aim for the big times, you need to be ready to deal with rejection. You need to be the kind of person who deals with a rejection by sending that story out to another market. If you get four rejections, you send out four stories to four more markets. If you get a rejection that includes notes going line-by-line over your story to point out how awful it is...you send it out again. That's the nature of the beast. If that's too much for you, then you can always play it safe - but if you're aiming high, always be ready for those times when you're brought down.
Update: Now that I'm past 1000 rejections, check out the new, up-to-date post.