Back in the pre-COVID era of our lives, I often attended writers conventions. Invariably, over the course of any event, I was asked a variation of “Why do you keep rejecting me?” numerous times.
It’s a fair question with no specific all-encompassing answer for any writer who asks it. As frustrating as it may be, it really depends on the story.
Many writers, in particular new writers, see the editorial decision making process as a magical black box. Submissions go inside the box on one end. Accepted stories come out the other. The rejection stories are ejected back to the submitter. The machinations a story maneuvers through in the selection process is confusing and often discussed by writers in conspiratorial language.
Stop me if you’ve heard any of these mentioned when dissecting a fiction magazine’s decision making:
- They only publish “big names.”
- They won’t publish you if you have certain political views.
- They only publish friends.
- If I was Donald Trump you would publish my story.
Rejection breeds frustration. Frustration clouds judgment. Your clouded judgment can be detrimental to figuring out why a story keeps bouncing off of publications.
Below are some of the most common reasons why I reject a story.
Failure to Launch
Due to my team’s vetting, all the stories I see are all well-written. Most are compelling. So what separates those I reject versus those I accept?
Most of the time it comes down to your first couple of pages.
It might disturb you to know that I often reject a story after reading only 250 words. In your opening paragraphs I’m looking for your narrative foundation. If your foundation is not built properly, your story will not stand.
As a writer, you need to be aware of the basic elements of a story: characters, plot, theme, tone, setting. For genre fiction, I like to include sub-genre as a sixth element. In a typical story with a typical narrative structure, readers should be given the who (your protagonist), the where (setting), and the introduction of your conflict (the engine of your plot) within the first 250 words. Many stories we publish accomplish this in the first paragraph. Others in the first sentence.
Let’s see how Wole Talabi opens “When We Dream We Are Our God” from Apex Magazine (issue 120):
Today, in a small, quiet room near the centre of the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, I went into the cold darkness of sleep and when I returned to the warm light of consciousness, I had become a god.
In a single sentence, the author has conveyed the following to us:
- Setting (a university hospital)
- Character (likely a student, researcher, or other medical professional)
- Conflict (protagonist has turned into a god)
- Genre (probably science fiction)
Remember, you don’t need to fit everything into the first sentence, but the quicker you orient the reader to your tale, the faster you can push them to the heart of the plot (aka known at The Good Stuff).
Raise your hand if you’ve received a rejection that included the comment “isn’t a good fit” or “isn’t right for us.” Frustratingly vague, right?
When I use the “good fit” rejection, it means that I don’t feel your story matches the content we publish in terms of subject matter, vibe/mood, or style.
Your hard SF story that might be a great fit for Analog would probably not be a prototypical Apex Magazine piece. An exciting high fantasy story may not be right for Apex Magazine but would make Scott Andrews at Beneath Ceaseless Skies a happy editor.
A little market research goes a long way in the world of genre short fiction. I consider a lack of research and market knowledge to be a form of self-rejection. Don’t self-reject!
I’m Mad as Hell, and I’m Not Going to Take It Anymore!
These stories follow a well-established pattern. A person is unhappy with one or more aspects of life—often their job or spouse. The plot meanders until the unhappy protagonist or someone/something instigates action or change. Then something dreadful happens.
I’ve seen a particular variation of this story several times. Angry man wakes up in the morning. Before exiting his bed he ruminates over how much he hates his job and harbors resentment toward his spouse for any number of reasons. His commute to work is filled with swearing and road rage. The alpha angry man berates a colleague who, coincidentally, is enjoying a more successful career even though they have a beta personality.
I am not above being entertained by the misery of fellow humans. But let’s stop with the angry, resentful protagonists. Or if you can’t help yourself, then try subverting the trope.
When I describe these types of stories to a writer, a common, unironic response is “Oh, you mean stories in literary zines?” This might be a slightly unfair characterization, but it does highlight that these kind of stories are too common.
And I reject each one that crosses my desk.
Great Minds Think Alike
One of my least favorite, but most common rejections I send are the “Loved your story, but we already have several in our inventory just like it” variety. These are tough to send because the writer has done nothing wrong. In fact, the story is good enough for publication. But an editor can’t choose too many similarly themed or plotted stories or they’ll have a reader revolt on their hands.
In fact, this happened a few days ago. We had a run of powerful, well-written stories addressing misogyny and patriarchal society come through our slush. Three of them reached my desk. But I felt I could only accept two of them. We already have one similarly themed story in inventory, plus we’re about to accept two more. Misogyny is certainly an important and relative theme to explore, but I don’t want to hit our readers over the head with an editorial mallet. Unfortunately, I had to reject one of the three.
Rejecting a great story because we already have stories with similar themes in our inventory is always one of the hardest, most unpleasant decisions an editor has to make. Unfortunately, it’s also a necessary part of the process.
Themed anthology calls are sometimes the originating source of so many similarly plotted tales. A slush team can always tell when a major anthology has been rejecting stories!
Perhaps the most difficult thing to do when writing is to nail the finale. Crappy endings are a common complaint in literature and television. It’s one thing to have a great idea for a story, and an entirely different thing to have an appropriate resolution in mind. But you can’t have one without the other.
A poor ending can happen when you dramatically shift away from what the reader is expecting or hoping for from your story. As a writer, you construct a set of rules for the reader. This means you need to stay true to your theme, avoid drastic tonal shifts, and maintain character consistency. You also need to tie together your plot threads into a coherent structure.
A recent example of a story failing on all these levels is the HBO series Game of Thrones. SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t seen the final season! Daenerys immolates a city (character consistency failure). Tyrion Lannister is more or less unimportant after all (plot failure). And the mighty Winter King is disposed of by a literal flick of Arya Stark’s wrist (resolution failure).
Perhaps in another essay I’ll do a deep dive with examples of endings that work (and those that don’t). Until then, I do recommend this essay on the topic at Bowen Street Press.
By the time a story reaches my desk, it has been read by at least two other editors. Sometimes three. We receive approximately 1,200-1,400 submissions a month. I usually consider 20 to 30 stories during that window, the others being passed on by either our slush team or our managing editor Lesley Conner. Making the editor-in-chief’s queue is a noteworthy achievement whether or not you make the sale. You’re allowed to feel good about the achievement.
And, most importantly, keep submitting to Apex Magazine!