It All Depends On Who You Ask

Submitting your stories for consideration by unknown editors is a scary business. And most often, it results in rejection. A lot of places respond with a form letter that just says something along the lines of: ‘Thanks for sending but it’s not right for us.’ This can be demoralising, but I totally understand that most readers/editors don’t have the time to provide more personalised feedback on the many hundreds of submissions they have to wade through at any given moment.


And it’s good not to take rejections of your writing personally. There are many reasons why an editor will pass on a story, and a lot of them have nothing to do with the quality of the writing.


Sometimes, if you’re lucky, an editor will add some comments on what they liked or didn’t like about the submission and this can be really useful in helping you target your revisions before you send it out somewhere else.


But, it also really depends on where you send it and who ends up reading it. I’ve had two short stories accepted for publication this month, both of which were previously rejected by other places. And those rejections came with rare feedback on what let the stories down – in the view of those editors.


One is a fantasy short story about an elderly queen facing unrest from her subjects.


The editor that rejected it gave the following feedback:


“Our collective opinion was that your writing was tight, pretty much error free, and there were things to appreciate here – not least that this was a story focused on older characters, a(nother) rarity. The fact that, from an arguable point of view, the protagonists are a despotic ruler and the murderous henchwoman who kept her in power could have given rise to quite an interesting narrative arc alone. As it is, the story starts well, but there’s a danger when you begin with a high stakes beat that the text has its emotional peak right up front, and this is basically what we found. More or less from that moment onward, there’s zero conflict in the story: the first person questioned immediately and proudly confesses, the Queen immediately (if for her own reasons) gives them exactly what they want, and then it’s happily ever after. The writing was good, but I’m afraid that alone wasn’t enough for me.”


And he’s absolutely right. The arc of the story starts with high drama and then progresses with lots of conversation and inter-relationships, which I can understand might not work for a lot of people. Based on this feedback, I’ve actually added this short story to my list of potential novels and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into developing the word, the characters and the plot a lot more.


In the meantime, another submission opportunity came up that I thought the story might fit, and actually required me to cut out a fair few words, making it even more sparse and lacking in action. But I didn’t alter the essential arc at all.


This time, the story was accepted, with the following comments:


“The writing is excellent. Really lovely prose. The dialogue is excellent, too. It feels really well rendered and individual to each character. Great work. I love this story. I love that the author chose to set this in fantasy, too, as it works so well and fits the theme. Some really great characterisation. I really enjoyed the interplay between the two main characters. There are some really lovely moments that give you a glimpse into their history without having to be told it.  A great read – the author packs a lot of story into very few words here and presents a big hook of a beginning, an interesting middle, and a satisfying and somewhat unexpected ending.”


So, for this editor, the unusual shape of the story arc was actually a plus point, leading to the story being published in a themed anthology. The fact that I hadn’t written the story with that theme in mind made the acceptance even more unexpected and gratifying.


The second story is a post-apocalyptic sort-of romance about a young woman struggling to keep her community together in the face of harsh challenges.


I wrote it for a very specific anthology call, but the editor rejected it with the following comments:


“This is very well executed, good structure, smart writing, and it held my attention all the way through. the witchy element feels tacked-on, it could be cut and change nothing. Also the stakes seem off – of all the life or death problems a nursing home would have without electricity or supply chains, the complaints about having an extra hour of light to finish a game or a book don’t feel very end-timey.”


And that’s all fair commentary. I particularly own up to the ‘witchy elements’ being tacked on, and actually removed them altogether for subsequent submissions. But again, issues were raised about a lack of high stakes in the story.


Interestingly, the editor that subsequently accepted this story (with the removal of magic being the only alteration) was the one who rejected the first story for lacking in action in the second half. His comments on this one were:


“Thank you for submitting your story, we enjoyed it a lot and I’d be delighted to accept it for publication. It’s a refreshing thing, to encounter straightforwardly positive post-apocalyptic fiction. In this case, I found the two main characters charming and authentic, and the down-to-earth nature of the protagonist’s commitment and her reward just felt… nice!


I’ve never been so happy to receive feedback that one of my stories is ‘nice’!


Anyway, my point is that you can never predict how different editors will react to the same story – or even how the same editor will react to different stories!


It’s always a good idea to look at feedback and think about whether or not you can use it to improve a story. But sometimes, perseverance really is the key and it’s just a case of finding that one person that really gets what you were going for, and appreciates your story enough to agree to publish it.


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