Diary of a Slush Reader: Rejection

Most slush readers are writers themselves and therefore have moments of extreme guilt about rejections. This is especially true for me when the story is close to ready or when I recognize something of my own work in it, when I realize that a problem with a submitted story is one of my own writing habits or tics (generally, this has to do with long-windedness, you may not be surprised to hear).

I have moments of existential fretting about rejections on a semi-regular basis. I am all too familiar with the moment of hope on seeing a response from a journal to which I’ve submitted in my mailbox or inbox, followed by disappointment and attempts at shaking off said disappointment (“I knew they’d reject me”; “Well, maybe one of the others will like it”; “All part of being a writer, isn’t it?”). So when I say no to a piece, I sometimes get this horrible feeling of overwhelming guilt about being the inflictor of the pain I’ve endured (and continue to endure) so often.

But that’s the job.

Sometimes it’s easy to reject a piece. These are pieces where I get the feeling a writer didn’t try very hard – there are tons of typos or grammatical errors or continuity issues. Carelessness will always get a rejection. But honestly, in the days of upfront submission fees, we really don’t get a whole lot of careless submissions. Which means that the vast majority of our submitters are trying very hard, that they want to be writers, that they are opening themselves up to be judged by strangers. It’s not a good feeling to be the stranger who rejects an earnest, hard-working person with whom I identify on a basic level.

So here’s my attempt at restitution: an honest account of what gets rejected and why.

The two most commonly cited reasons for rejection, in my experience, are as follows:

  • Familiarity
  • Lack of character development
  • Lack of context for story

When we say familiarity, we mean that we feel like we’ve read the story – or something very similar – before. Stories that rely on well-known tropes and age-old storylines are almost never accepted, for the obvious reason: they’re not exciting, because we know exactly what to expect. Imagine if every murder mystery ended with the revelation that the butler did it. You’d never want to read one – there’d be no point. The familiarity in our submissions is almost never that egregious, but when you spend a lot of time reading the slush, you get to recognize certain types of stories – the story about the person suffering from Alzheimer’s, the story about the drug addict in a downward spiral, the story about a troubled lover. These stories are very common, which means that in order for them to stand out, they have to turn the reader’s expectations upside-down. It’s not enough, unfortunately, to write a story that’s true to your experiences or observations. To really stand out to a reader who sees a lot of stories, you’ve got to try to anticipate what the reader will expect to see and give them something different. This can be done in several ways: through exceptional and interesting characters, through an unusual perspective, through a distinct situation. I’ll write more about this next time.

The second major reason that stories get rejected is because the characters – especially the narrator or protagonist – are not clear. This issue manifests in several ways:

  • The character’s actions don’t make sense
  • We don’t see enough of the character’s interior thoughts and feelings,
  • We don’t understand the character’s reactions to what’s going on around him

I think that the biggest reason that these problems arise is because the writer generally either knows her characters too well – to the point that that character’s behavior and emotions are so clear that the writer forgets that the reader doesn’t know the character and thus forgets to explain them;  or the writer doesn’t know her characters well enough – she has a concept in her head of what’s going to happen and when, and those events are going to take place whether they make sense for the character or not.

The final common reason for rejection is lack of context for the story. This usually means that the reader is unclear about the nature or history of certain character relationships, background events, or the influences behind their decisions. We don’t need to know everything about every character’s past, but we do need to have a sense that each character has a past, and that that past affects what’s going on in the story’s present. Context is also useful in giving the reader to clues as to the meaning of the story as a whole – why is this story worth telling? Why is it important to the characters in it? In what way does it change those characters?

Sometimes, and this is one of the most frustrating parts of reading the slush, we have to reject stories that we genuinely like. This is where the “nice” rejection comes from (as a writer, I find them as frustrating to get as I find it to send them as a slush reader). These tend to say something along the lines of, “We liked your piece but can’t accept it at this time. Please submit to us in the future.”

There can be several reasons why we send reluctant rejections. There might not be any room left in the upcoming issues for the story. It may not fit in with the stories that have already been accepted for upcoming issues. One reader may go absolutely gaga for it while the others think it could still be improved in some way. Or the readers might see potential in the writer that just hasn’t been tapped in the submitted piece.

Whatever the reason for the encouraging rejection, when we send one, we mean what we say. It’s not just a less harsh way to say no. Depending on the journal and its submission load, you may get details on why your piece was rejection, or you may not. Sometimes journals will ask you to revise the piece and resubmit it. Sometimes they just ask you to think of them in the future. But whatever they say in these kinds of rejections, it’s smart to take those comments at face value. Readers remember the work of writers they’ve liked in the past, and tend to sit up and pay attention when they see submissions from those writers again. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that because many journals are attached to universities and thus have high turnover rates, it’s smart to resubmit to these journals sooner rather than later. If you’ve got another piece that’s ready to be submitted, go ahead and send it to journals who’ve shown interest in your work before.

Unfortunately, rejection is part of being a writer, and part of being a slush reader. But if we remember that all artists are works in progress, and that sometimes journals are wrong, or just not right for our own work, we can learn from rejection. Like one of those giant multivitamins, it’s tough to swallow, but good for us in the long run, if we push on through.

-Rachel


Rachel Wright is a PhD student in Creative Writing at Georgia State University. She has also studied at University College Dublin. Her work has appeared in The Stinging Fly and she was a semi-finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in 2009.

Photo by Brendan DeBrincat

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