Sunday, June 27, 2010

My All-Time Favorite Rejection Letter

Once upon a time, rejection letters from literary magazines came on slips of paper of different sizes and colors.  I have a sheaf of the 'best' ones--where the editor scrawled either his initials, or something like sorry on the standard 'thanks but no thanks' slip--which I took to mean that someone thought enough of my work to encourage me.

I mean, they see a lot of crap, right? I've read for magazines. It's enough to turn you into Simon Cowell.

My best rejection letter is on pretty, parchment-goldy paper.  This was for a set of poems, back when I was writing poetry regularly.  I won't name the magazine.  The editor hand-wrote me a letter for each set of rejected poems, the fourth one saying, "these came pretty close." Be still my heart!  The fifth one, I decided, would be it. If I didn't get in, it wasn't meant to be.

Helen W. Mallon (he wrote),
The problem here lies not in the technique but in the tenor...As an editor I have made it my position to publish only work that indicates in some way that life is worth living, that existence is a positive process.  Those writings of yours I that I have seen do not fulfill--to my sensibilities--those requirements.  Thank you for your continued interest.

I've been called a lot of things, but depressing isn't one of them.  Well, that was the first time.  I love the fussy tone of this letter. Oddly, my "continued interest" in the magazine didn't continue.  The note made me laugh so much it's probably the one rejection I least minded getting.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


(Vacation Delay: I meant to post this over a week ago...)

Some standup comedian really should do a routine about writers.  The problem is, unless the audience consists of writers, people might not understand it.  

Take rejection letters.  Would a normal person get all excited and happy about receiving a "positive rejection letter" for which she has already, personally, provided the addressed envelope AND paid the postage?  The whole point of an oxymoron like  "positive rejection" is that it doesn't mean anything.  Yet this dry bone, tossed into the mailbox courtesy of a magazine or book editor, is enough to send a writer into canine paroxysms of hope.  Why?  There may yet come a time when someone--anyone--will actually read some damn story that's already been through 1,756 revisions and rejected by 37 magazines. 

In the days before email, most rejection letters from literary magazines were photocopied slips of paper with Readers-Digest-bland messages:  "While we receive many fine submissions, we can only accept a very few..."  DING! DING! DING! The You-Suck-O-Meter sounds its bell, and the Published Writers Club slams another door in the writer’s face.  I suspect that I'm not alone in trying to divine messages from these uninspired missives.  Did an editor scrawl his initials at the bottom?  Delete half a DING from the You-Suck-O-Meter. Did someone take the time to write "thanks"?  A whole DING gone, just like that! Did someone write on the back? (they never do)  If I stick the note back in the envelope and pull it out real fast, will the juicy words appear in some barely legible hand?: 

"Nice work. Send more."

And the filet mignon of rejections?  A personal letter, on letterhead, from the magazine's managing editor, saying that the story almost, just quite nearly, squeaked very close to actual acceptance.  SCO-ORE!!  Well, not exactly. These paper (okay, sometimes electronic) fans of the hope flame have a way of setting a person up for quite a sucko-punch.  Oh, boy! I've got an in! I'll send another story, this time personally addressed to my new BFF, the Managing Editor of Refinement Review (--what was her name?)!!!! 

So you prepare the submission, scan the story for typos, change the gender of your protagonist because you’re seized with the conviction that the magazine might "find it a better fit" (who knows), check story again for typos, re-print it, re-word your cover letter (a fine opportunity for creative writing since you have no new acceptances to add to your bio)…and you wait. And wait. And wait.  And six or ten months later, the hopeful selfaddressedstampedenvelope that you enclosed with story number two (without the SASE they won't get back to you at all) appears in the mailbox.

Don't think don't think don't think, you tell yourself as you enjoy a paper cut in the process of opening it- (maybe email is safer)-because from the skimpy feel of the envelope, your fingers already know that what you're holding ain't a full-sized letter.  DING! DING! DING! DING!  DING! The full Monty from the YSOM...Refinement Review has sent you a form rejection.  But there, on the desk in front of you, is the previous letter from their Managing Editor, whom you have recently added to the guest list to your wedding: "We strongly encourage you to send more work."

This M.E., you conclude, never saw the piece. Or maybe she did. Who knows?  Literary mag editors are, by definition, overworked and understaffed.

The really crazy thing? 

You’re going to keep doing it.  You’ll keep writing and sending out work, probably to that same magazine.  At least that's the kind of crazy I am.  

All of this does, actually, have to do with the promised blog post about how my novel got its name.  Not its title, but a name.  Like Fred.  The point is, writers are sanity-challenged.  After all, when I remembered I’d left my novel manuscript in a hot car in July, I panicked, fearing that it would suffocate.

Fortunately for us writers, most of us have friends who are also crazy.  I mean, friends who are also writers.  When I told my friend Andrew about the hot car incident, he patted the manuscript’s pink binder lovingly.  “Aww,” he said.  “You left Novelly in the car?  Oh, but he looks okay. He’s starting kindergarten this year, right?”

I’m happy to report that Andrew did not call DHS on me, and that a year after the Incident, Novelly is developing…slowly.   He’s going on ten soon.  By the time he’s fourteen, I might even have him in shape for his high school applications.   I mean, ready to send around to literary agents.  He’s leaner than he was, more focused.  Knows what he's about.  

If I keep my wits about me, he’ll grow up just fine.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


When I spent all those nights reading in my closet with a flashlight as a kid, I had no idea a seduction was taking place, that some day I'd be married to writing.

At least women giving birth in the natural way don't have to push out fully-grown adults, but most characters in fiction don't start out as babies.

Last summer, I went through one of my novel-writing meltdowns--I'd just read through the latest draft, 8 years and counting, and wished I'd gone for genetic testing before I started it--and I took to carrying the manuscript around with me in my daughter's old French binder.  It was a pink plastic binder with cheerful doodles markered all over it.  I toted it everywhere in hope of sudden clarity regarding revision, like those sacks of flour high school girls lug around to simulate the omnipresent needs of an infant.

It was July, it was hot, and I drove to meet a friend for coffee.  I decided not to bring the manuscript with me since I was already running late, so I left it on the back seat.

I think J. was talking about Virginia Woolf.  I was seeing her eyes, her pretty face, sipping my whatever, but all I thought about was the novel.  It wasn't thinking so much as experiencing something like a tidal pull in the mind.  The tide hit a rock; I panicked.  "I left the manuscript in the car," I realized, "and I forgot to crack the windows.  There's no air in there. It's ninety thousand degrees.  It's going to die."

I looked at my friend with sagacity.  "Yes, Bloomsbury certainly was one crazy assemblage of post-Victorians," I said.

"Are you okay?" she asked.

"Um. Well."

Fortunately, J. is also in the family of writers, so she didn't question my sanity.    Or maybe she was just showing the kind of tact that normal families, non-writing families, reserve for their crazy cat lady aunt.

NEXT POST: How my novel got a name.  No, not a title. A name, like George.