Thick Skin

A writer has to have thick skin. Not the kind nightly applications of Lubriderm will help. I mean the kind that is like armor against the pointy arrows of rejection. Sometimes it seems those arrows are fired randomly, while other times it seems the editor is taking careful aim at your self esteem. That usually isn’t the case, though it often takes years before you can look back and see that the editor was trying to help.

Case in point, my short story “SKN-3”, which was recently republished in Best New Zombie Tales: Volume 1 from Books of the Dead. Way back on April 30, 1988, (yes, I’ve been at this game for that long and longer), the editor of a small horror magazine rejected the story and one of the boxes she marked on her check-sheet rejection letter said, “We don’t believe this for a minute: implausible.” Man, that hurt. She did say she liked the title, but that was it. There was no other redeeming quality to the story. Ouch.

Here’s a similar one from April 4, 1996, for my story “A Change of Clothes.” The editor wrote a personal note and said, “I find it totally unbelievable …”

Here’s one I still haven’t found a home for. The horror Web site that gave me this rejection is still online and the editor from March 22, 2002, is now a huge name in the genre. Concerning my story “Dead Betty,” he said, “Man I REALLY like this one, but I’m going to have to pass. The sex is just a little “too much” for [name of site].” He goes on to suggest another market for the story that, unfortunately, closed too soon.

The first piece of fiction I ever had published was the short story “Unholy Womb” in The Midnight Zoo magazine issue for Oct. 1993. Since then it has been reprinted legitimately a few times, adapted for storytime at a school I’d never heard of, and copied without permission all over the Web. Before that, though, it garnered a folder full of rejections, some saying it came close, others impersonal form letters from the tiniest genre magazines right on up to Playboy.

Rejection isn’t just confined to my short stories, or the decades of the 1980s and 1990s. Here’s one I got last September 9 when I was trying to get a mass market paperback house to take on Shara and Ulrik. This letter came after waiting for two years and five months. The editor said, “Unfortunately, it looks like my inventory will stay at its high level for the foreseeable future, so out of fairness to you I’m afraid I have to pass on the material with regrets.” In other words, the book sat on a shelf all that time and he never read it. It happens.

The point here is that you can’t let this stuff get to you. If an editor offers advice, give it consideration before you get mad about it. If you don’t agree, send the piece right back out. If another editor says the same thing, though, you better think pretty hard about it. The bottom line, though, is that these editors almost never are looking to reject you the author. The rejection is for the particular piece of work you’ve sent them. That’s all. Sometimes they’ll tell you why, other times they won’t. You just have to move on, keep writing, keep submitting, and always keep improving.

Consider “SKN-3” again. After a long, long time of being angry about the editor calling the story implausible, I finally thought about what she’d said and read the story again with that in mind. She was right. The story had secret underground hideouts concealed beneath wooden crates that lifted by a series of levers and weights described in way too much detail … it was just a convoluted piece of crap and, considering what it’s about, it took itself way too seriously. So I stripped it down, gave it a believable setting and made it read like a comic book. It was still rejected several times. One editor, however, rejected it and said, “But please submit again soon; I’m beginning to really enjoy your work.” Encouragement! Finally, 12 years after that crushing “this is implausible” rejection, Mausoleum magazine accepted the story. Its current appearance in Best New Zombie Tales Volume 1 is its fourth publication.

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