Note: this is a guest post by a friend and fellow fiction writer, Howard Cincotta. He’s a former State Department writer and editor who lives in Falls Church, Virginia. Over the years he’s assembled an impressive set of rejection slips for his poems, stories, and novels.
For a writer, rejection slips are like battle wounds. They can be worn as badges of honor – as long as you live to tell the tale in the subsequent glow of victory, or of publication.
Which is why we cherish the stories of the rejections delivered to famous writers – or at least published ones – by editors and publishers as clueless as the ones reading our stuff today. As in calling Jorge Luis Borges “utterly untranslatable,” or telling William Faulkner, “Good God, I can’t publish this!”
Faulkner, in all fairness, can be a tough sell – but telling Stephen King about his novel Carrie: “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.”? Or my personal favorite, advising Tony Hillerman, author of the celebrated mysteries set on the Navajo Nation reservation, to get rid of all the Indian stuff.
Comforting tales, but note that all depend on one fact: the writers go on to triumphant success. Not necessarily so for the rest of us, where a rejection is often simply one in a chain of similar rejections, with no assurance that your story, poem, or essay – no matter how deserving – will ever see the light of publication. As Clint Eastwood snarls to Gene Hackman in the film Unforgiven just before shooting him, “Deserves got nothing to do with it.”
I have stories with 15 to 18 rejection slips attached to them, and that’s a modest number compared to many. In a mournful essay from the November/December issue of Poets and Writers (“In the Absence of Yes,” available in the print edition only), writer M. Allen Cunningham mentions a story with 37 rejections! And this is someone who has published two novels.
Rejection has a painful finality about it – “Thank you but no … no matter how good, not good enough.”
Well … except when they’re not final. This is the curious category that can only be described accurately with the oxymoron “positive rejection,” where the rejection notice carries a note along the lines, “We’d like to see more of your work.”
Cause for quiet rejoicing? Maybe. Clearly your words have somehow registered with at least one editor beleaguered by the onslaught of manuscripts. I’ve received several such missives. Handwritten notes in the case of Zoetrope and River Styx, a variant of the form letter from Asimov’s.
The most interesting was a printed rejection from one of the big literary guns, AGNI, published by Boston University. “Thank you for the opportunity to read your work … writing lively and interesting … isn’t right for us … please consider sending other work in the future” – and then in bold type: “This is not our customary rejection slip.”
Well. You may rest assured that I submitted more stories to AGNI, and to all the above publications. And received only standard rejections.
There’s one other curious subcategory, I have discovered – the rejection slip that feels like a quick consoling pat on the back. Mid-American Review, out of Bowling Green State University in Ohio, often prints its rejections on bright red and blue paper, and over the years, one or another of its editors have written simply, “Thanks, Howard,” on them. So does someone at Hayden’s Ferry Review, published by Arizona State University. Are they suggesting they liked the piece, at least in part? Or only acknowledging a byline that they recognize? (Or a darker thought, could they possibly be writing ‘thanks’ on all their rejections? Say it isn’t so, Ashley!)
I’ve submitted repeatedly to both Mid-American and Hayden’s Ferry, without success, and yet those little notes keep me coming back. Go figure.
Today, hard-copy submissions and printed rejection slips are giving way to online submission systems and e-mail responses. Rejections will continue unabated, of course, but I wonder if e-mail won’t curtail the number of positive rejections that writers receive. There certainly won’t be any “Thanks, Howard” scribbled at the last second as the piece of paper goes into the self-addressed stamped envelope that you so thoughtfully provided with the manuscript.
I’ll miss those handwritten notes – the small wave in the crowd, quick squeeze of fingers. In lieu of an acceptance, of course.
Note: here’s a bit more about Howard Cincotta. He’s actually published stories in the Tampa Review,, Every Day Fiction, a Midwestern SF and fantasy magazine, Aoife’s Kiss, and a Northern Virginia literary journal, Clerestory Press. He has written four novels, as yet unpublished. The latest concerns a man who drives at night talking to the ghost of his dead wife and is titled The Circumnavigation of the Beltway.