Cover of You Only Fail If You Stop Writing

You Only Fail If You Stop Writing

That’s the best I can do. If it’s not good enough, it’ll have to wait until I’m better.

(Jo March in Little Women)

One of the joys of writing is receiving rejections. I’ve received more than 500 rejections and look at me: I am a joyful person.

Unlike Gaul, my writing career can be divided into two simple parts. In the 20th century, I wrote science fiction and I was unsuccessful. In the 21st century, I don’t write science fiction and I am unsuccessful.

My 20th-century period was filled with an unrelenting tide of rejections from SF magazines that, though the economics of the game are against them, still exist: Analog, Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction*, and Interzone. The science fiction reader who simultaneously looks to the future and to the past is not only in need of an ophthalmologist, she will happily chant this list of zines that I tilted at as if they were windmills and which long ago suffered a core breach and vaporized: Aboriginal SF, Amazing, Eternity SF, Galaxy, Galileo, If, Last Wave, Omni, Owlflight, Rigel SF, Stardate: The Multi-Media Science Fiction Magazine, Twilight Zone, and Unearth: The Magazine of Science Fiction Discoveries.

* Career rejection leader (30).

I was also weighed and found wanting by the editors of the original anthologies Berkley Showcase, Dragons of Light, Elsewhere, Full Spectrum, Future Bazaar, New Dimensions, Orbit, Shadows, Silicon Brains, Sword & Sorcerers, Synergy, and Universe as well as anthologies that were also magazines that were also anthologies: Far Frontiers, Pulphouse.

And I don’t remember what these were, but whatever they were, it were the 1980s: Cosmos, Questar, Spectrum.

(I sold stories to some of these places, which only proves that a sale is not a safeguard.)

What I’m saying is, I’ve been kickin’ it. My street cred rules. As George Scithers wrote to me in a kindly rejection from 1976: “I think you stand a chance.” He may have been guilty of optimism. In the early ’80s, Damon Knight, after several encouraging rejections, returned one of my stories with a small blue square of paper, one quarter of a full sheet of paper, on which he had scribbled, “Sorry – D.K.”

Peabody’s Improbable History

In the 20th century, if you wanted a rejection, you worked for it. Your manuscript emerged from a typewriter or from a thunderous tractor-feed printer or laborious laser jet. You then went to work on the envelope. You wrote addresses. You found stamps. You made a second envelope to go inside the first one and addressed it to yourself in case your target editor wanted to stuff it with $100 bills. You headed for a mailbox.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, in one humid summer, received 122 rejections. I can’t imagine how hectic this campaign must have been, in an era where you had to roll a carbon-paper sandwich into your non-electric, cast iron typewriter to produce a manuscript and a copy.

I also can’t imagine a world where editors responded so quickly.

In the 21st century, of course, we’ve bypassed envelopes, stamps, and paper. We have instead email and Submittable. Submitting a story is a series of clicks, not a game of inches. We should be singin’ in a rain of rejections. This is not the case.

For example, you can’t buy a rejection from The New Yorker. This is the stated policy at The New Yorker: “If you have not heard from us within ninety days, please assume that we will not be able to publish your manuscript.” (McSweeney’s has the same policy, unstated.) I haven’t received a New Yorker rejection in 20 years, which I suppose is an accomplishment.

But even the zines that embrace the internet and send rejections (Threepenny Review specializes in 48-hour service) do so by email. Brief emails. There are no sheets of odd-sized paper with colorful logos and George Scithers signing off with “Stay wicked!” or Gordon Lish at Esquire scribbling “Show me more” or Shawna McCarthy at Asimov’s observing that “the more I see from you, the more convinced I become that you are not a well person” or this comment from an anonymous editor at Amazing: “Use of gimmick does not make up for story’s unoriginality. Shows some promise, though.”

Here in the 21st century I no longer receive critiques somebody put some thought into, as I received in the 20th century from many editors. Either no one has time or I have devolved.

Print an email? Are you from the ’90s?

Thus there’s not much to add to my collection. “We hope that you will feel encouraged by this short note and send us something else,” an editor writes, in an email that resembles all other emails. “We were impressed by your submission and hope you’ll send something else,” another says in an equally anodyne format.

Even rejections related to NSFW content still looks superficially like yet another email I could’ve received at the office: “It was a delight to read your work. After careful consideration, I was unable to include ‘Clothing: Optional!’ in Erotica for People Taking Blood Pressure Meds Vol. 22. I know your story will not have any trouble finding a home and I do wish you luck.”

Mercy mercy me, Marvin Gaye lamented. Things ain’t what they used to be. Marvin was talking about a wind full of poison and fish full of mercury. I’m talking about something even more serious – rejections. Twenty years from now – when, rather than write a story, an idea will form in our cerebral cortex and a 140-character editorial rejection will pop up inside our retinas nanoseconds later – how will anyone be able to write trivia like this essay?

I’ll do my best. See you in 2043.

Title courtesy of Ray Bradbury.

Originally published in Chunga in 2017