Rejection II – Turning down acceptances

As a writer, dealing with rejection is something you need to cope with if you want to get published. However, sometimes I found myself in the position where I had to reject an offer and withdraw my story. It didn’t happen very often, because when you’re new to publishing, you’ll jump at every opportunity to be published, but it did happen several times.

Here’s my experience:

1. Something is wrong with the contract

If you use the Submission Grinder, sometimes you’ll see a warning that a publication has problematic contracts, or you’ll hear other writers complaining. I am no expert on contracts, but I believe every writer should learn how to read them and see the red flags. The good place to start is the SFWA website and their model contracts. If you feel uncomfortable with the contract, you should seek advice (more experienced writers will often be able help you) and try to negotiate it – new, amateur publishers can sometimes be too grabby, and you have every right to protect your work. If it turns out that you can’t agree with the publisher, you should walk away. Even if it’s just one story, a bad contract can hurt your career.

2. Something’s wrong with the editor

When this scenario happens, it’s hard to say whose fault it is – sometimes the editors are inexperienced, or too invasive, sometimes the writer is too stubborn to let go of their vision of the story. My rule of thumb is this: if someone wants to buy my story, I’m guessing it’s because they like it. A few changes here and there, some tweaking and clarification are fine. Bigger changes that require serious rewriting, but will make the story stronger are also fine – if I have the time and skill to do them. Changes that make me uncomfortable, feel wrong or I believe miss the point of my story are not fine. Most editors will let you stet their suggestions or negotiate some other way around the problem. If you cannot reach a satisfying agreement, and the publication has more than one editor, you should ask to work with another one. If that’s not possible, you should consider walking away. A mangled story will not hurt you as much as a bad contract, but publishing something you’re not 100% happy with will seem like a missed opportunity and a waste of a good story.

3. Grabby contests

I’ve also had bad experience with contests and I’ve learned to be wary of them – they’re a great way to scam the writers. The prizes may look great, but always read the rules carefully – sometimes they will state that just by submitting your story, you’re allowing them to use it or modify it in any way or for any purpose they want. You should never agree to assign any rights just by entering the contest.

I admit that each time I withdrew my work, I felt a pang of regret. Opportunities to get published sometimes seem few and far between, and when rejections swamp your inbox, you’d sign a contract with the Devil just to get your story out there. However… when I look back, I know I made the right decisions. Not getting published hurts, but getting published by someone who scams you or destroys your work is much worse.

Rejection, Rejection

According to The Grinder, my short fiction stats for this year are:

  • 75 submissions
  • 3 acceptances
  • 67 rejections

And that’s pretty average for me. I tend to submit my stories to magazines whose acceptance rates are 1% – 3%. I’m still trying to figure out what kind of stories the editors of those magazines prefer, so there’s much fingers-crossed submitting which results in rejections at least once a week.

I should be used to rejection by now, right?

Well, yes and no. Submitting is an act of hope, and having that hope dashed always stings. But I’ve seen many discussions on the types of rejections and their advantages/disadvantages, so I thought I might add my two cents.

Form Rejections

Fast Form: a quick no-thank-you rejecting your story in a matter of days (or sometimes hours).

People sometimes get offended if they get rejected that quickly, but I understand that the first slush read often takes less than 10 minutes, and I appreciate a quick no. If we’re not compatible, let’s not waste each other’s time.

Semi-fast Form: up to 60 days.

This is the average and my attitude depends on the Grinder data. If I see a mountain of submissions and the red wave of rejection progressing slowly, but steadily, I’m happy to wait. But if there’s a limited period for submissions and the rejection wave is not moving after its end, I get grumpy and feel my time is being wasted.

Slow Form: over 60 days.

There are cases when I’m OK with this: if there’s a long submission window, and the editors state in advance they’re not going to reply before it closes (this is typical for anthology calls). Or if the market is only open once or twice per year, so everybody submits at the same time and they get hundreds of submissions.

However, if there are no hold notices and my story is in the queue for more than 60 days, I start stalking the Grinder to see if the queue is moving. If I get to 90 days without a reply, that market loses its spot on my list of priorities. And if all I get after 90+ days is a Formy McFormface, I’m disappointed.

Personal Rejections

I’m not a fan of personal rejections. Some writers like to get a feedback on their story and learn why it was rejected, but as it is often quite subjective, I prefer to skip it. Most personals I got ranged from mildly confusing to downright offensive, showing me that my story simply didn’t click with the readers. I very rarely found it useful.

However, there are two types of personal rejections that I appreciate:

Quick, Positive Personal

This is usually a form with a sentence or two added by the editor saying what they liked about the story. Not very useful, but extremely kind. There’s one editor who writes such lovely comments in their rejections I want to track them down in RL and hug them.

Slow, Thoughtful Personal

This one is rare, and, despite its usefulness, it tends to hurt. It means the editor took the time to read and analyse your story and send you the feedback that can actually make the story better.

I appreciate it, but it makes me feel I was close to selling the story but blew it because I wasn’t good enough.

Reject that pathetic loser!

This year, I also had the opportunity to co-edit Ghost Orchid’s anthology “Beyond the Veil”, which – for the first time in my life – put me in the position to reject (and accept) stories.

I’ve learnt that rejecting stories is messy. When reading other people’s work, I tend to doubt my competence all the time. Who am I to judge if this is good or not? Do I get this story or do I completely miss the point the author wants to make? Does it fit my vision of what it should look like?

The bottom line is – words are an imperfect tool for depicting the worlds we built in our heads. What you mean to write – or what you think you wrote – and what I get from it can be two very different things. It’s wonderful when the writer’s intentions match the editor’s expectations and a great synergy happens. But when it doesn’t, I’m left wondering how close or how far a story is from what I want and need.

It all boils down to my personal judgement in the end. If the story is reasonably well-written and if it fits the theme, then the difference between an acceptance and a rejection is my personal feeling. Do I like this story? Do I find it original, challenging, thought-provoking, shocking? Does it fit the other stories I’ve chosen? How does it make me feel?

I understand this is both good and bad. It’s bad because there’s probably nothing wrong with the story and some other reader might love it. It’s good because – well – there’s nothing wrong with the story and some other reader will love it.

So, when an editor says “it’s not you, it’s me”, it’s true. I used to think this was a lie, I believed there must be something inherently wrong with my rejected stories. But being the one who rejects taught me it was really much more about the editor’s expectations and needs.

Variations on Death and Love

I have two pieces published this month and they’re both about death. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

The first piece is an article, Danse Macabre: Equality in Death in Medieval Istrian Frescoes published in The Deadlands. This wasn’t the first time I connected my art history knowledge with my publications in speculative fiction magazines, but it was the first time I wrote a non-fiction piece about my own cultural heritage. If you want to know more about medieval representations of death and about the role of death as the great equalizer, read the article. Also, the frescoes are amazing.

Party like it’s 1474

The second piece is The Collector, published in the September issue of Cossmass Infinities. This one is not really about death, although the main character is Morana, the old Slavic goddess of death (who is, BTW, also the MC in my dark fantasy novel I’m querying right now). My main focus in this story is on migrant workers and on how hard it is to leave your country and your heritage behind, even if you are a deity. It sucks to be a foreigner, far from the people who believe in you, metaphysically or otherwise.

The story is on the Must-Read Speculative Short Fiction list on Tor.com, where Alex Brown wrote an amazing review:

We’ve all read tons of stories about Death gods and soul collecting, but there is something special about Jelena Dunato’s story that stuck with me. Morana, an ancient Slavic pagan deity tied to death and winter, travels to Italy to retrieve the soul of a dying elderly woman. But the woman’s house becomes a battlefield as other Death gods seek to claim the woman’s soul. I think what I appreciated the most was how Dunato threaded in the complexities of being a migrant in a place that needs your labor but does not care about your life, where ties to family and land become both stronger and more tenuous.

This month I’m also collaborating with the wonderful  A.R. Ward on Ghost Orchid Press’s new anthology, Beyond the Veil. This one is not about death, thank goodness, but about love. Queer, supernatural love. Send us your stories, we are eager to read them.