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NOTE: The following article is the text for a speech given at Northern Kentucky University's High School Creative Writing Awards ceremony on May 19, 2003:

 

There’s a word that we all learn very early in our lives, from the first time you reach for something:

“No!”

            (YET ANOTHER NOTE: The above and all centered text was the Audience Participation portion of the talk. Imagine a card being held up and the audience shouting out the word.)

    “Sally, you need to come here right now!”

   “No!”

    “I mean it. Come here right now!”

    “No!”

    “If you don’t come here right now, you won’t get any of this candy!”

    “No... I mean, OK!”

‘No’ is also a word that anyone who’s interested in pursuing a writing career had better get used to. One of the side hobbies that nearly all aspiring writers have -- even if they don’t want to have this particular hobby -- is the collecting of rejection slips. Rejection slips are the ultimate “No!” that all writers must become used to hearing.

I’ve published eighteen novels and probably two dozen or more short stories and a few assorted other things. Like many of you, I suspect, writing was just something I always did. I wrote stories and poetry through high school and college -- not because I had to write them because of assignments, but because there were these characters and stories in my head and I wanted to get them out. I was finally convinced, late in college, to start sending them out to actual markets. I thought they were pretty good stories -- okay, I’ll be honest. Egotistically, I thought they were great stories, even if now I look at them and shudder -- but you know what the answer was from the editors to whom I sent my poor literary children?

“No!”

Exactly. Now... editor and writers are, rather like parents and children, natural enemies who are forced by a cruel world to live and work together. The editor’s job is to take your carefully crafted words -- the ones over which you’ve slaved and bled and sweated -- and tell you that they don’t care how hard you worked, it’s still not good enough. (Rather sounds like a parent, doesn’t it?)

They tell you this in the form of rejection slips. Now, there a whole hierarchy of rejection slips. The first and lowest form of “telling you it’s not good enough” is the “form rejection slip.”

Here’s one of my form rejection slips, from a magazine called The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, or “F&SF” -- back when it was edited by Ed Ferman. I collected lots and lots of these, from all sorts of various markets. This one says:

    "Thank you for showing us the enclosed manuscript. We regret that it does not fit the present needs of the magazine. Your submission has been read by one of our editor. Unfortunately, the large number of manuscripts we receive does not permit us time for personal comment. Sincerely, The Editor."

That’s it. It’s pre-printed and unsigned by human hands. A form rejection slip means that your manuscript probably never made it past the first readers, perhaps never was read beyond the first page. However, because I was an aspiring writer, I managed to dredge some hope from these pieces of paper. Hey, they thanked me for showing them the manuscript. They didn’t say it sucked, they said it didn’t fit their present needs. They didn’t tell me to never submit again...

Still, it boils down to the one word..

“No!”

The second level in the rejection slip hierarchy is the “form rejection slip with a personal comment.” Now when you get one of these babies, you know you’re moving up in the world! Here’s my first one: it’s the same F&SF form rejection slip, but on this one Ed Ferman scribbled, in pencil, these words: “Well done -- try us again.”

I remember that when I read this, my pulse quickened. I walked around the whole day grinning helplessly. “’Well done -- try us again.’ Ed Ferman personally wants me to try him again...”

I did, of course -- I sent him the very next story I wrote. He rejected it, with a form rejection slip and no note. For the record, I have never sold a story to F&SF. Ever. The hope that I felt when I saw that pencil scrawl was crushed.

Now, even higher up on the rejection slip pantheon is this: the personal rejection letter. No form. Not even a form with a pencil scrawl on the bottom. No, the personal rejection letter is written by the editor to you, and you alone. Here’s one of the first one of these I received from Ben Bova, who was then editor at Analog.

    “Dear Mr. Leigh (All his other ones would start out “Dear Stephen”): Thank you for giving us the opportunity of looking at this manuscript, but I have found it not quite suitable for our present needs.”

Now, so far this isn’t much different from their form rejection slip, except that it wasn’t a slip -- it was on their letterhead paper and it was typed, not printed. And... Ben had added a second paragraph:

    “I rather like your style of writing and suggest that you try us again. Sincerely, Ben Bova.”

Ben personally signed the letter. Wow... That “no!” barely hurt at all... “Ben Bova likes my style of writing” -- I’ll bet I said that to myself a hundred times that day. “He wants me to try him again...”

Now... once you start getting personal rejections from a particular editor, you generally continue to get them -- you usually don’t get demoted back to the form rejection slip. You might think this is a good thing, but editors tend to be blunt in their comments and now they’re directes... Right. At. You. Like these:

    “Dear Stephen: Sorry, but you’ve broken one the most important rules of good story-telling. You have to let the protagonist solve his own problem...” (Ben Bova)

    “Dear Stephen: Nobody is going to wade very far through all those incomplete sentences. I’m sorry.” (Damon Knight)

    “Dear Stephen: Sorry, but no. I kept waiting for the story to start, for some point to it all to emerge, but it didn’t.” (George Scithers)

    “Dear Stephen: [The story] had some good elements.. but the story didn’t start until page two, and nothing particularly interesting happens until page six, which is too long for a reader to have to wait...” (Jessica Amanda Salmonson)

Sometimes, you’d rather just get a form rejection slip. At least they say “Thank you...!” And in the final analysis, a personal rejection slip still says this:

“No!”

I understand now -- though I didn’t understand it then -- why my early stories kept getting rejected. They were really, truly mediocre stories. In fact, reading them now, I find it hard to believe that the editors didn’t write me a note (on the bottom of the form letter) saying “You should immediately consider a career in the food service industry.”

Luckily, writing is no different than any other craft: if you practice, you get better.

Let me give you an example from “Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews & Rejections” (editors: Bill Henderson & André Bernard. New York: Pushcart Press/W.W. Norton & Co., 1998): On page198, there’s this anecdote: “Before William Saroyan (who became one of this country’s most published authors) got his first acceptance he had a pile of rejection slips thirty inches high, perhaps three thousand in all...” That’s a lot of paper. That’s a lot of effort. And a lot of practice and persistence on the part of William Saroyan. Heck, he has a much bigger collection than me.

Now, you might be curious to know if, once you reach that lofty pinnacle of “being published,” if you have rejection slip immunity. You don’t. For instance, when I told my most recent publisher, with whom I’d published three science fiction novels, that I wanted to write a fantasy and asked if they’d be interested in seeing it, I was told -- emphatically -- this:

“No!”

I’m now with another publisher.. Having a history of publication doesn’t give you rejection slip immunity -- if there were a shot for that, every writer in the world would be lining up to get it. In fact, you may be destined to become a writer that English professors the world over will be inflicting on their students a century from now, and you’ll still get rejections.

Books we consider today to be classics, by writers that most critics and teachers now tout as excellent and worthy of literary study, have been rejected. No one is immune to the dreaded single word. For instance, what do you think an editor had to say about THE JUNGLE by Upton Sinclair?

“No!”

Actually, the editor was a bit more aggressive, saying “I advise without hesitation and unreservedly against the publication of this book. It is fit only for the wastebasket.”

Here are some more true examples (all of these are quoted from “Rotten Reviews & Rejections: -- you really should go buy the book!):

THE BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI by Pierre Boulle: “A very bad book.”

THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY by Oscar Wilde: “It possesses unpleasant elements.”

POEMS by William Butler Yeats: “I am relieved to find the critics shrink from saying that Mr. Yeats will ever be a popular author. I should really at last despair of mankind if he could be... [The books is] absolutely empty and void. The work does not please the ear, nor kindle the imagination, nor hint a thought for one’s reflection.

THE WAR OF THE WORLD by H.G. Wells: “An endless nightmare. I think the verdict would be ‘Oh, don’t read that horrid book...’ “

ANIMAL FARM by George Orwell: “It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA” o... r“Highly advisable not to publish... Another thing: it would be less offensive if the predominant caste in the fable were not pigs. I think the choice of pigs as the ruling caste will give offense to many people...”

(And just so you note the theme here that editors believe they have their fingers on the pulse of the American reader...) THE GOOD EARTH by Pearl Buck: “Regret that the American public is not interested in anything in China.”

THE PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN by James Joyce: “It is too discursive, unprepossessing, unattractive, and ugly things and ugly words are too prominent... At the end of the book, there is a complete falling to bits. The pieces of writing and the thoughts are all in pieces and they fall like damp, ineffective rockets.”

LORD OF THE FLIES by William Golding: “It does not seem that you have been wholly successful at working out what is an admittedly promising idea.”

THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK by Anne Frank: “The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift the book above the curiosity level.”

SARTORIS by William Faulkner: “If the book had a plot and structure, we might suggest shortening and revisions... My chief objection is that you don’t have a story to tell.”

And a final example, which gets the award for bluntness: LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER by D.H. Lawrence: “For your own good, do not publish this book.

In the end, we can take solace in the rejection of CATCH-22 by Joseph Heller. Here’s what the editor rejecting the work had to say, presumably to Heller’s agent: “It is always possible that a reader who goes in for this zany-epigram stuff will think that it is a work of genius, and of course he may be right. But from your long publishing experience you will know that it is less disastrous to turn down a work of genius than to turn down talented mediocrities.”

Let’s repeat that last line and say it slowly: “...it is less disastrous to turn down a work of genius than to turn down talented mediocrities.”

All this should tell you that the necessary components you must have if you wish to have a writing career are: a thick skin, persistence, dedication, and a belief in yourself. If you get rejected -- and you will -- there are two possible reasons. One is that your work really isn’t good enough. The other is that it’s such a work of genius that the editor has trouble recognizing it.

And we all know which possibility a writer will believe, don’t we

In traditional professional publishing, editors have ultimate control over whether your work ever sees the light of day. But if nothing else, the preceding litany should tell all of you one thing: that despite their god-like position in the publishing pantheon, editors are no different than any us. Their opinion matters, but it’s still just one person’s opinion, and they can and will get it wrong. That’s why, when you get a rejection slip, you should immediately put that story or poem or novel back in a new envelope and send it out again to another editor... because that editor may be smart enough to recognize your work for the work of genius that it is, because maybe, just maybe, that editor will answer with one little word.

“Yes!”

Hey, you never know!

 

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