How to Get Rejected

…As a short story writer, that is.

I am making a serious effort to get better at short stories; a novel is a novel is a novel, but when I want to get into the fine edge of fiction, I read short stories.  I love them.  Especially horror short stories.  My favorite work of horror is still Stephen King’s Night Shift.  I buy short story collections on a semi-regular basis.  The thrill of reading Greg Egan or Ted Chiang stories for the first time.  Ahhh.  The tragic worlds of Michael Chabon.  Oooooh….

So here I am, writing one short story a week…AND getting a metric assload of rejections.  Psychologically speaking, that is.

There are a lot of things that I’m not feeling to professional about at the moment, but tell you what, I can talk ALL DAY about how to get rejections.

Here are my current stats on the project (begun in earnest on 1 July):

Thirteen stories in the mail.

Eighteen rejections, seven of them personal.

It seems to be snowballing; this month to date, I received seven rejections and sent ten stories out (the seven rejections plus three new ones).  Turns out, more stories = more rejections.  Now that I can announce that I have a book coming out, I include that in all my cover letters; however, this has not appreciably increased my success rate.  Either they like your short story or they don’t, or you’re Stephen King and your crap stories are better than my best ones anyway so who knows whether the name has anything do with it or not?

So here is my (current) set of advice on how to get your short stories rejected.  Perhaps, someday, I can tell you how to get them accepted; I suspect it’ll be doing more of the same until you get good enough at it to talk editors into whatever crazy stuff you can come up with.

1) Write.

Sit down and write.  Take a quick scan through the rest of the post; you notice where it doesn’t say “edit” or “revise”?

Let’s call “editing” the cleanup process–typos and grammar fixed, red shirt in scene one/blue shirt in scene two errors fixed, all words actually mean what you used them to mean, and everything scans well (both out loud and on the sheet of paper).  The kind of thing a copyeditor would do, only without any tact.  Yes, you have to do this; you have to act like a professional if you want to be treated like one.  Try to get to the point where it doesn’t take as long or longer to clean up copy as it does to write it.

Let’s call “revising” the continuing education process of the writer–getting opinions, considering them, making changes to character, setting, plot, etc.  Writers do need continuing education–but if your story doesn’t need it, don’t screw around with it.  It’s a waste of time to fix something that isn’t broken, or THAT WORKS OKAY EVEN IF IT ISN’T PERFECT, SHEESH ALREADY FOUR YEARS ON THREE-THOUSAND-WORD STORY?  WTF IS WRONG WITH YOU???

But I’m not bitter.

There’s nothing wrong with revising, but the focus should be on writing.  You should spend most of your time–not 51% most, but 90% most–on writing new material.  There’s only so much you can fix a bad story while you’re learning to write.  You learn a little bit from revising; you learn a lot more from writing a new story while swearing to get better at whatever sucked in the last story.  Sorry if I told you differently before July, but it’s true.

And once you get better at writing stories, you can go back to your old stuff (if you can stand it) and fix it in no time flat; you’ll be able to see what’s wrong with it and whether it’ll be more worthwhile to fix it or write it from scratch (or write something else).  Juvenalia.  Everyone has some.

2) Format.

Format your story professionally STARTING WITH YOUR FIRST DRAFT.

It’s a hoop through which you, as the trained seal, must jump if you want your fish.  No hoop, no fish.  It’s no more demeaning than wearing shoes rather than bunny slippers to work.  Oh, shooooes, you whine.  Who cares what my shoooooes look like.  Shut up.  You could have written and mailed another story in the time it took you to whine about having to format your story.

This includes your cover letter, if any.

Here’s my favorite:

But if the market wants the story in a different format, I say give it to them.  A lot of short story markets are working on a shoestring and a prayer, and don’t need to spend billable hours TAKING OUT THE TABS AND DOUBLESPACING YOUR STORY.  Jerk.

And why with the first draft, you ask?  Because the time you spend reformatting your story is time that you could be writing, dumbass.  And when you’re writing a lot, you’re starting a lot of first drafts.  And when you’re sending out a lot, the last thing you want to do is accidentally send out the wrong–unformatted–draft.

A word on file names:  Number your revisions, even if you don’t plan to have any.  TitleofStory_1.doc works nicely.  Then create an archive file in the story folder for any outdated revisions AND FILE THEM.  “If only I’d sent the right draft…the one that wasn’t completely retarded.”  Mistake-proof your process NOW.

3) Send.

I recommend Duotrope’s Digest for finding markets.  Use the submission tracker.

Send the story the day you’re done editing (that is, cleaning up, which you shouldn’t do until after you’ve done any revisions, if any).  Do not send more than one story to a market.  Do not send one story to more than one market.  Do not post your story on your website.

I haven’t decided what my particular rejection threshhold is.  I have one story with, uh, sixteen rejections, I think.  When I do hit my threshhold, I’ll consider publishing as an e-story.  More on that later, I guess.

But keep your story in the mail.

The day after it gets rejected, send it out.  (I find sending it out on the same day is sometimes problematic, as even looking at my e-mail makes me want to throw myself off a cliff.  But no longer than two days, if it’s over the weekend, even if you feel like shit.)

Snail mail:  Buy a BOX of 9 by 12s and a BOX of standard envelopes for SASEs.  Keep stamps on hand at all times.  Staple NOTHING as nobody likes to rip open a finger when opening mail.  Use paper clips, not binder clips to prevent excessive lumps in your envelope and on the editor’s desk.

A note on writing for a market vs. writing whatever the hell you feel like, then sending it to a market:  I highly recommend getting in the habit of writing for yourself while keeping a reader in mind (not a market).  If you know who likes your stuff, you can deduce your markets from them.  “Is this for my sarcastic-but-romantic sibling or my evil cousin the accounting detective?”  Someone who is NOT you.  Sometimes you can’t help yourself; “Ohh, this has Weird Tales all over it.”  What happens when it gets rejected?  Death by paper cut?  Pfft.

4) Track.

I recommend a spreadsheet and the submission tracker on Duotrope’s, and a paper file for the snaily stuff.  SAVE all e-mails.

Rejections = tax deductions.

I am not qualified to give tax advice; however, if you plan on taking deductions for your postage, supplies, home office, etc., don’t paper your bathroom in rejections as it may be somewhat embarrassing to have to invite the IRS auditor into your home.

The more stories you have out, the more complex it becomes to determine who has your story, when you sent it (did they forget about you?!?  It’s happened to me before), and, when you get rejected, who you can send it to next without pissing them off because you 1) already sent them that story or 2) already sent them a different story that they haven’t rejected yet but are pretty much guaranteed to reject now.  “Look, you greedy bastard, wait in line like everyone else!”  “Ooops…”

On that story with sixteen-ish rejections, I wasn’t keeping track, because I was bound and determined to get that story accepted before I wrote or submitted another one.


I’m PRAYING that I don’t send it out to someone who’s already had it, or that it’s been so long ago that they’ve changed slush readers and/or records system.  I’ve changed the name of the story several times, too, so that doesn’t help.  I was being an idiot.

Be smarter than I was.  Shouldn’t be hard.


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  1. I’ve had some luck with getting shorts published. I find that if I send to markets that accept simultaneous submissions, I can have that story out to four or five different people and getting a rejection on it doesn’t hurt so bad. If I get rejected from all of those, then I start sending to markets that don’t accept sim subs. Before I do that, though, I often will go through it one more time, because the markets that don’t accept sim subs are often professional markets, and if you’re getting your ass kicked in the amateur market, chances are your story could use a higher polish than you originally thought.

    I also use Duotrope’s tracker and I also keep my subs labeled (under a custom Submissions label) in Gmail, as well as starred, so I can call up the list any time to see who has responded and who has not.

    I had one story, “Dust,” rejected about 10 times before it finally found a home. And it didn’t find that home until I went back and revised the story. It also probably rode on the coattails of another story that the same publisher accepted the previous week. They encouraged me to send them more stuff after they accepted one story, so I sent them “Dust,” and they took it as well.

    • De


      Yeah, 16+ used to get revised every time I sent it to a new market. I did the last one in April and said, “Eh, either it does or it doesn’t.”

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