Learning to love rejection slips

More than a decade ago, in my day job, I took a series of customer service workshops offered by Ouellette & Associates. These were among the finest workshops I have ever taken, and at the time, the represented the only time I witnessed a true paradigm shift in our organization’s customer service. There were two principles they taught us that were particularly enlightening:

  1. Moments of truth
  2. The slogan: “Learn to love complaints”

It is in the context of the second item that I have been thinking of rejection slips lately. When I first started submitting stories way back in January 1993, I was highly influenced by Piers Anthony’s author’s notes. If a story of his was rejected, he considered the editor an idiot. That attitude lasted a few months before I realized that most editors knew a lot more about what makes for a good story than I do. I was just a beginning, I didn’t even have the fundamentals. This was the absolute wrong attitude for me to have. From that point, I started to change my attitude, slowly at first, but I like to think for the better.

There are a couple of things that beginning writers need to understand about rejection slips, the first and foremost being that stories are rejected, not writers. We writers tend to invest ourselves completely in our stories and that makes it difficult to separate the two. But it is crucial because if you are anything like me, you will receive a hundred rejection slips before selling your first story. If you think of each of those rejection slips as a rejection of the writer, not the story, you are in for a rough ride.

The worst kind of story rejection you can get is the form letter. The only valuable information in a form rejection slip is the notification that the story is no longer being considered. It means you can send it somewhere else, but you learn nothing else which can be really frustration. Understandable, considering the volume most science fiction and fantasy magazines deal with. However, even here there are ways to measure your progress. When I started out, nearly every rejection slip I received was a form letter. After three years, I received my first few “personal” rejection slips. I can’t remember whether the first one was from Kristine Kathryn Rusch at F&SF or from Algis Budrys at Tomorrow. But getting a personal rejection was very exciting.

Today, I’d say that 8 out of every 10 rejection slips I get are personal, and that is a measure of some improvement. Editors think my stuff is good enough to provide some feedback and ask to see more stories. How you deal with personal rejections is, in my opinion, one of the keys of being a successful writer and ultimately selling more stories. And this is where that old customer service slogan comes into play, “Learn to love complaints.”

The whole point of learning to love complaints is that your customers (or in the case of writing, editors) are giving you valuable information that can be used to improve your stories. Now, you may not agree with the editor, but that doesn’t make the information any less valuable. For one thing, it gives you a much more clear idea of what it takes to sell a story to that particular editor. And if you are not overly sensitive to criticism of your writing (and I don’t think that I am), it can point you in a direction for further practice, study, or improvement. Let me give a recent example:

I sold a story to Analog back in September (it will be appearing in the June 2011 issue, which hits newsstands in roughly one month). Wanting to keep my momentum going, I sent Stan Schmidt another story I’d written, one I thought was even better than the one that I sold. Eventually, the story came back to me with a detailed note from Stan on why he was passing on the story. Now, I’ll grant that my first reaction was one of disappointment–almost shame. I’d sold to Stan before and now I had a story back from him that I thought was even better than the one I sold him. To steal a line from Asimov, I felt like a fired science fiction writer. That lasted all of five minutes. As I read his letter, I realized things were not as bad as they seemed. What’s more, there was a lot of learn from his letter. In fact, Stan offered three areas in which I could do better:

  1. The story, he said, was barely science fiction. Looking back on it, I see this was true. It might work in other SF markets but for Analog, the science fiction was crucial and the story–essentially a mystery–could have worked without the science-fictional elements.
  2. I made some amateur science errors, such as having people traveling to “named” stars. It wasn’t clear to me why this wasn’t feasible, but brushing up on some astronomy helped me understand why this was problematic.
  3. Stan pointed out some issues I had with commas and run-on sentences. This I recognized as over-thinking on my part. I’d gone back through the manuscript before sending it off and started removing commas because I thought I had too many and they messed up the rhythm of the story as I heard it in my head.

Even if I didn’t agree with all of Stan’s points, it’s pretty clear why learning to love complaints is important. First, Stan wasn’t rejecting me. Second, he outlined very specifically what he was looking for as editor of Analog. He clarified for me what I’d need to do in the future to sell to him again. Furthermore, Stan’s brief critique might be something that I get in a writers group critique–except that it was coming from the decision-maker for the biggest short fiction market in science fiction. It would be silly not to take his advice (which, by the way, was good advice).

When I received rejection slips now (I received one just yesterday), they still sting, but they sting me more because I feel like I haven’t learned my lessons well enough. I have to keep in mind that not all editors look for the same things in a story. If the rejection slips have some useful information in them, that makes the sting a lot less. (Yesterday’s asked me to send more stories.) I can honestly say that the 120+ rejection slips I’ve received have done their part to make me a better writer. I try never to make the same mistake to the same market more than once. New mistakes, perhaps, but not the old ones. I feel like I’ve become a better story-teller and I also feel confident that I’ll sell more stories in the future thanks to what I’ve learned from these letters.

So when you get your next rejection slip, suppress that knee-jerk reaction to call the editor an idiot and take a moment to learn to love complaints. Even if you don’t learn something that will improve your writing, you might learn something about the market to which you submitted the story.