How Rejections Tell You to Keep Puckering Up

Yeah, but couldn't you have bought me a drink first?

Trying to place an article about a man who drives nails into his scrotum is a challenge. You have to find a publication that is appropriately (or inappropriately) edgy, but as a writer with an interest in circulating ideas, not so obscure as to not have an audience. And also as a writer interested in circulating cash, you would want compensation, even for a piece that might need to have dark curtains pulled over its stage.

These concerns came to mind the other day when I received a rejection notice for my memoir-style article about a night in San Francisco long ago. I’d attended what I thought was going to be a tattooing display and discussion, but its main event was an S&M demo, where aside from the scrotal crucifixion mentioned above, the artist in question sewed up his testicles over his penis with dental floss, much like a woeful pig in a blanket. Live, naked, onstage, much to my appalled eyes.

The Taste of Rejection
Where I’m going with this is not into any discussion of better choices among an evening’s entertainment (my article does that), but rather the various flavors of writer’s rejections, and how those taste on a writer’s tongue. The image for this post is a shot of my rejection folder, in all its glory. It is two inches high, and weighs almost two pounds. You might think that by my keeping that folder, I have a different—but just as pointed—sense of masochism as my pal with the pliant scrotum. By no means. That pile of “nos” is just a thing writers can step on to be a bit higher on their way to “yes.”

Looking over my hummock of rejections, you can see traces of their evolution over time. Sure, most of them are form letters of the “Dear Author, because of the number of submissions we receive, we regret that we are unable to respond personally ….” variety. But for those publications from twenty years ago where the editorial assistants or (victory!) the editors themselves spent some effort to tell the writer just why something didn’t fit the publication, the “no, buts” are longer and more developed extenuations. In the main, the handwritten rejections from the last few years are brief and pointed. They reflect more of today’s hurried and “next!” pace.

In fact, the letters themselves these days are so much more often little strips of paper, a slight ribbon that perhaps rejects a little more softly, because the “we regret” isn’t followed by the full page’s damning white space of emptiness. And as the evolution of electronic publishing is pushing paper aside, physical rejection letters are fewer seen. The ease of an electronic “no” is hastening their demise. Speaking of demise, I hadn’t gone through my reject slips for years, but in doing so, saw that many of the magazines I’d tried so fervidly to enter have shut their doors for good. Little solace, that.

Aiming High Keeps Your Head Up
But it was fun to flip through my collection, and note my ambition. There’s a partially handwritten, partially printed (from a dot-matrix printer, oh my!) sheet from 1988 on what I pushed that year: Articles to Atlantic, Esquire, Paris Review, Harper’s, Playboy and a host of smaller publications. None of those titans bit into what I was serving, but there was consolation in getting “an intriguing idea” from a Harper’s editorial assistant, and a “It’s a good one” from Esquire. A long handwritten response from a Travel and Leisure managing editor in 1992 detailing alternate publications that might accept my piece that he graciously declined. Even the form salutation from the Utne Reader: “Dear intrepid writer:”

So many of the letters are undated and don’t specifically mention the rejected article or story, so I have no idea what these limbo letters refer to, just a vagabond “no” telling me at some point I mailed, I waited, I hoped, and it was for naught. But clasping hands with those closed hands in my “no” pile are a number of yesses—the extended correspondence I had with Peter Sussman, a San Francisco Chronicle editor, much of it handwritten, about an article of mine he published about my much more extended correspondence with the Jack Daniel’s Distillery. A series of letters from Lynn Ferrin, the late editor of Motorland magazine (precursor to Via) who had been trying to locate me—pre-email address—in the midst of a couple of moves. Regarding my piece on driving cross-country trying to locate a good cup of coffee, she told me, “Out of the piles of unreadable pap that come over the transom every day, by dump truck, suddenly there’s something that stirs my coffee….”

Here’s my message: keep sending your stuff out. I’ve had articles accepted for publication that were years old, that were sent out 10 times. My rejection folder weighs two pounds, but that’s considerably less than the weight of the 200+ magazines, newspapers or books that accepted and published pieces of mine. The reject folder is just a reminder that you have to do the work, and keep doing it. I’ll pass on the advice of Howard Junker, the longtime, former editor of ZYZZYVA magazine, whose typed signature in his rejection letter is preceded by, “Keep the faith.” And whose handwritten note reads: “Onward!”

Onward indeed. Now, what editor is likely to go for that scrotum piece?

Free Your Stories—Put Them in Cages

I futzed away on a tiny short story today for the Esquire Short Short Fiction contest, which honors the magazine’s 78th birthday with a contest for stories of 78 words. Mandated word counts are an interesting exercise: they are both constrained and liberating. Constrained, because if you go 79 words here, you’re out. Also because they force you to examine every branch of your story’s tree, and to see that a careful pruning can open up the air and the light in a tale (as well as a tree).

Word cages are liberating because knowing a story’s boundaries allows you to map it all the more clearly. You chop that subordinate clause there because it droops too heavily with verbiage. You might even have to chop out a subordinate character for the very same reason. (Note: you cannot do this with your relatives.)

Shaping Stories by Word-Slicing
Thus, being told by a child “Tell me a story” can be so much more challenging than “tell me a story with a princess who bets on the horses and ends up becoming a big-wave rider in Hawaii.” Riding the waves is easier when you can see their definition. Also, there is an almost surgical sense of control when it’s evident that you can change a sentence’s flavor just by excising some sagging skin. Even the whisking away of a “that” or an “a” can put more pepper in a phrase.

Which reminds me of the Twain quote: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

War AND Peace? Please Choose
Sometimes writing to a theme and a word count is just plain fun. I have a piece coming out in the Nov/Dec issue of Writer’s Digest, for their “Reject a Hit” page. The challenge is to act as though you were the cruel, benighted editor that turned away a literary classic, and you must do such in 300 words. Like for that handicapping, wave-sailing princess, the theme constrains and liberates. Here’s mine:

Mr. Tolstoy: Re: your “War and Peace” query—my God man, one word: editing! Readers today are busy counting the serfs, polishing their mazurkas and dusting their Pushkin collections. They haven’t the stomach to digest a twelve-room dacha of a work. Think a brightly lit (but slight) tea garden of literature for today’s busy readers, or at most an airy drawing room. And let’s be reasonable—War AND Peace? Confine it to one, and save 350 pages.

Now, some specifics: Instead of the original Petersburg setting, it’s best to confine the whole thing in a tiny village, eschewing all those dreary travel scenes. If I had to read again about the boorish behaviors of a panoply of grubby roadside characters, I’ll scream! Keeping it to a village makes it more like a tidy play. In fact, perhaps this WOULD make a fine play—study your Chekov for pointers.

And let’s avoid all that violence and mayhem; we can’t found literary works on sensationalism, you know. And any drinking scenes have to go—that’s a fusty Russian stereotype that could use refreshing. Perhaps all the villains could be low-level clerks? Everyone hates a clerk. 

You do show some promise with character, though must you go on so? No more interminable sighs for the women, or long-winded hortatory oaths from the men; think clean, declarative, adjective-free sentences. It should go without saying that no women should die in childbirth, ugh! And really—including the French, even if the portrait is unflattering, in a popular novel? No. No French.

In summary, the work shows no small promise—but it’s TOO LARGE! Tighten its belt, shave its unshorn soldiers, pare 10 peasants for every one saved, remove all those fluffy word-curtains and showy emotive splashes and you might have something here. In fact, this might make a perfect piece of flash-fiction. Cut it down to 500 words and re-submit.

You can see it how it will be printed in the magazine here. And if you really want to put some tight wraps on your writing, hie on over to Smith Magazine, home of the Six-Word Memoir project. Every day lots of folks work on putting their words on a diet by posting six-word stories. (Dirty trick: use hyphenated compounds and cheat!) The editors even collect some of the entry categories for publication in books. So get cracking, but remember: six words is a story, seven is a stultifying bore.