Under the Tower of Rejection: A Story’s Odyssey

We hear it all the time from writers, writing teachers, and the trade magazines: if you’re going to submit your stories or book manuscript for publication, learn to handle rejection. Develop a thick skin. Learn to discriminate among rejection letters, because there are bad ones, so-so ones, and very good ones. Glean what you can from them, and live to submit another day.

I thought it might be interesting to chronicle the journey of what I believe has been my most-rejected short story. This odyssey took place mostly in the time before everyone was using e-mail, and before most editors wanted anything to do with electronic submissions. So this story made its trips back and forth, back and forth across the Pacific in battered manila envelopes; it came back coffee-stained, just like in the stereotypes, to be printed out and sent forth anew. May this account of its rocky road to publication serve as encouragement to any who labor in the trenches, who plod onward because writing is what they do . . . and especially to those who wonder “Do I have what it takes? Will my writing ever see the light of day?” To all who love the arranging of words on paper — to all who would sell your words that others may read them and have an experience and see in their heads the pictures you see — I say: Persevere! Don’t give up. We continue to learn, and the road we’re on leads somewhere. The bottom line of my entire experience so far is this: Things happen when they’re supposed to, in the order they’re supposed to. Be the best you can be. Keep loving stories, keep loving people and life, and keep writing.

This is just about the season when, in high school, we would start marching band practice. In the sweltering heat of the middle of August, we would gather on the football field to learn the new half-time show. In that era, they were written for us — the music and the marching choreography — by a well-known professor / marching band leader from a university. As the football team grunted and crashed into each other in the distance, we band members would practice keeping our intervals measured as our lines swung and crisscrossed. With sweat stinging our eyes, we went through the bars of the Spanish Opener or Spirit of the Bull eighty times, ninety times, first just learning the movement on the field, then doing it with horns in our hands, then doing it as we played.

It’s quite a different thing to play on a marching field or in a parade than it is to play in the band room or in a concert hall. I suppose it’s something like the difference pilots feel between landing at an airport and landing on an aircraft carrier on the high sea. When you’re marching, your feet hit the ground, bam, bam, bam. The mouthpiece is going all over the place, mashing your lips, chipping your teeth. And none of that can affect your sound — if you’re playing a long, unbroken note, it has to be long and unbroken. If you’re a trombonist, you have to watch that you’re not whacking woodwind players in the back of the head with your slide. You have to keep your horn up parallel to the ground. You have to see the notes printed on that little flapping paper clipped just beyond your mouthpiece as you watch other moving people from the corners of your eyes — and oh, yeah, you’re supposed to watch the conductor, too. You’re burning up during the August practices, but you’re freezing during first-period band class on mornings in October and November, and at the late-season football games, your toes are nearing frostbite in those hard black shoes. You have to play loud enough so that the people in the stands hear more than drums. (I think that’s why there’s such a high burnout rate among marching-band clarinetists.)

Anyway, we had the best band teacher in the world, whose name was Jim Smith. That was really his name; it’s not an alias. In his marching band uniform, he looked exactly – exactly — like the band leader in the Funky Winkerbean comic strip (Harry Dingle?). Anyway — here comes the point of my story — we’d be slogging through this routine for about the third day, tired and irritated and wishing it were the beginning of summer instead of the end. And then Mr. Smith would order us to do the routine better each time. Don’t just mindlessly go through the motions the same way again and again. Every time you do it, he’d say, try to improve something. Concentrate. Or, as he would famously yell through his megaphone: “Find it! Find it!”

Mr. Smith’s patience and dedication, his excellence and attention to detail are still with me as I walk the writerly path. Don’t give up. Don’t go through wooden motions. Do it better each time. If a section is rough, take it home and practice it. If a section in your story is rough, spend the time — work the problem out. Write what you mean. Be conscious of what you’re putting on the page. Find it!

I also have to say this about Mr. Smith: he was one of a very few of my teachers who came to my local book-signing when Dragonfly was first released. He is a prime example of how the very best teachers teach much more than the particular discipline of their profession. They teach with their whole lives.

ANYWAY (I may have to pay the Pun Fund there for a very long, tangential story, but Mr. Smith is more than worth it. . . .) — here’s the journey of my most-rejected short story, “Under the Tower of Valk.” I’ll keep the editors anonymous so that I can quote from them.

1. First Submission: January 21, 2000

No response. On May 19, 2000, I sent a follow-up query.

No response. I waited until June 27, 2000 — well beyond the magazine’s posted response time, and then sent a last-resort follow-up by e-mail (a radical step with that magazine in those days — the editors were still pretty touchy about having their e-space invaded).

June 30, 2000: E-mail response from the editor: “O Frederic: No record at this end of either your manuscript or your follow-up inquiry. To save further time, and to avoid the risk of putting still more paper into the placid waters of the Pacific, I suggest the following: convert your story into a pure text file. Mark the beginning of any italics/underlining with ** and the end of any italics/underlining with *  Indent each paragraph five spaces; and Just In Case, put a blank line after each paragraph. Remind me, at the top of the e-mail, that I asked you to do this. Then (preferably) paste the text into the body of an e-mail to me — or if that doesn’t work, attach it to an e-mail to me. I look forward to your story.”

I did as I was told and re-submitted the story his way.

No response. On August 9, 2000, I sent a follow-up query by e-mail.

In response that same day, they rejected the story and sent me a copy of their guidelines (which, of course, I’d had from the beginning). The editors felt the horror was effective, but that too little happened on stage, and the story had no supernatural element. They also mentioned that they were very heavily stocked and buying very little.

2. Second Submission: August 11, 2000

There’s a missing reply in my records, but the editor expressed interest and asked for a revision. I revised accordingly (overall tightening and making the ambiguous ending more clear) and re-submitted the story on October 30, 2000.

On November 29, 2000, the editor rejected the story: “Dear Mr. Durbin: I can’t remember if I got back to you about “Under the Tower of Valk,” which most likely means I didn’t. (Sorry about that — my workload is formidable right now.) Anyway, I think the new version is definitely less opaque at the end, but I’ve got to pass on it simply because the story doesn’t need to be fantasy. It could just as well be an historical story. [Yes, Chris, he wrote "an historical story." Phooey!] (In fact, this explains in part my confusion over the ending in the previous draft — I was looking for a fantastic twist or aspect to the conclusion.) I do think it’s a good story, I just can’t use it in _____. You might try it out with ____ _____ at _____ Magazine or with ____ _____ at _____; I think it might fit into one of those magazines better than it does in _____. Meantime, I appreciate the revisions you made at my request and I’m sorry they ultimately didn’t pay off here. I hope I’ll see more from you soon.”

3. Third Submission: December 12, 2000 (I mentioned, of course, that I was submitting the story on the advice of the previous editor.)

No response. I sent a follow-up query by e-mail on April 27, 2001. (It was becoming more acceptable by then to do so.)

In May 2001, I heard that the editor’s significant other had passed away. I sent a letter of condolence. Never heard from the editor again.

4. Fourth Submission: June 4, 2001 (Submitted to the second editor recommended by Editor #2.)

On June 15, 2001, the editor sent me a nice e-mail saying he’d resigned as the editor of that magazine because the publisher could no longer pay him. He told me how to submit it to the right person, but he advised me that the publisher was really not buying now — was in deep financial trouble, etc.

5. Fifth Submission: June 21, 2001

Handwritten rejection on August 29, 2001, scrawled on the back of the bottom third ripped from my cover letter: “Thank you  for submitting your story UNDER THE TOWER OF VALK to ____. Apologies for the delay in responding. It is not for us, I’m afraid. A striking line at the end but a [illegible word] middle passage that failed to convince: not sure the prisoner ever thought like that. Sorry.”

6. Sixth Submission: October 1, 2001

Rejection on January 21, 2002: Form rejection letter with two boxes checked: “We have considered your story, but find that it is not suitable for our publication.” — and then a long one about how they received a number of fairly good stories each month that just didn’t do enough original things, and this was one of those. But there was also a handwritten scrawl (which is generally a good thing to get): “This is more of a vignette, with very little to call it ‘SF’. We’re not sure why you have a flashback positioned between the two ‘present’ scenes. Doesn’t really suit us.”

At this point, it would have made very good sense to retire the story or else overhaul it in a major way. But I was keeping myself busy with other things, and I just wanted to keep trying with this one, which I thought was original and well-done. (I wrote “Under the Tower of Valk” at the same general time as “The Place of Roots.” I thought “Valk” was the stronger story, but “Roots” was snapped up by the first place I sent it — Fantasy & Science Fiction — and you can see what happened with “Valk”!)

7. Seventh Submission: February 4, 2002

Nice personal, handwritten rejection on March 5, 2002: “Dear Frederic, Nicely written piece that nearly makes it for us. In the end, I wasn’t completely won over by the ending. I’ll pass on it, but please do try us again soon.”

8. Eighth Submission: March 14, 2002

No response. Followed up by e-mail, and was asked to re-submit, which I did on July 25, 2002. It was rejected with a form letter in August 2002.

9. Ninth Submission: September 25, 2002

Very nice rejection letter on July 15, 2003: In part — “While we all found the writing excellent and the psychological study a compelling one, we don’t feel it’s suited for ____’s younger readers. In fact, we urge you to send this to an adult publication; it’s excellent writing, but it’s just not suited for our publication.” [Take an important lesson from that: I was getting desperate here, but don't. If you think the story is probably wrong for the magazine, it probably is -- it's better not to waste your time or the editor's.]

10. Tenth Submission: July 25, 2003

The story came back unread with a note that the magazine was on hiatus until sometime in 2004.

11. Eleventh Submission: September 26, 2003

Came back quickly and unread: too short for the anthology I’d submitted it to. [Take another lesson from this: do your homework and follow the rules. Again, I wasted my postage, my time, and an editor's time.]

12. Twelfth Submission: October 10, 2003

Came back with a photocopied form rejection, no note, no signature.

13. Thirteenth Submission: January 29, 2004

The rejection came on March 29, 2004 with handwritten notes from three different editors:

A. “I really liked this story. The realism of the prisoner with no name, his thoughts so different than ours, his complete lack of recognition of what was happening. Your heart attack description was powerful, along with the unnamed prisoner’s complete ignorance of what a chair was or what another person’s arms would really feel like. The commander’s understanding and much too late compassion also moved me.”

B. “The opening was quite catchy. I think you started the story at the perfect place. I was disappointed when you switched to the “He who had no name” part. I had a very difficult time understanding the two stories. I couldn’t quite figure out how they were related. I needed more of a clue to the two parts. The conflict and resolution of the plot was really fuzzy to me.”

C. “This story had some great imagery. The scene where the prisoner escaped was great stuff. All the story really needs is a better plot line. At first I thought it was about the jailer and whether he’d be punished, then the plot suddenly turned to the prisoner and left me hanging. Why is the commander asking who killed the man when it’s obvious a breeze could’ve? Why does the commander suddenly turn to pity? Why is the jailer so afraid of him? What’s his reputation? Other than this your story really was quite good.” [Hee, hee, hee, hee, hee! I know that editor was trying to be kind and helpful with that last line, but isn't it hilarious, in context? "Other than everything about it, your story is quite good!" -- Thanks, I'm so happy to hear that!]

At this point I finally got the picture through my thick skull and did some serious revision of the piece.

14. Fourteenth Submission: April 12, 2004

The rejection came on May 6, 2004: form rejection to “Dear Contributor” saying that it wasn’t quite right for them, and that due to the overwhelming number of submissions they were receiving, the magazine was closing to unsolicited materials.

[Clarification here: "no unsolicited materials" doesn't mean you don't have a chance with that market or that you need an agent. It just means they don't want you to send them a story they haven't asked for. You can send them a query (formatted and worded properly, based on your study of their published guidelines). If they write back and say, "Yes, we want to read the story," then you are sending them a "solicited" submission.]

15. Fifteenth Submission: August 12, 2004

Form rejection came back (postmark illegible): two boxes checked — the story lacked sufficient elements of the dark fantastic, surreal, bizarre, or strange, and the plot offered nothing new or interesting.

16. Sixteenth Submission: September 1, 2004

Undated form rejection came back apologizing for being a form letter and wishing me good luck.

17. Seventeenth Submission: September 18, 2004

Never heard a peep back from that editor . . . and by this point, I was tired of sending follow-ups for this story. I had pretty much come to the realization that other people didn’t like the idea as well as I did. And that’s also a lesson we need to learn, at some point, as writers. Not all our ideas are brilliant. Some, no matter how much we love them, may never really “work” for most other people. (I do think such cases, though, are the exception rather than the rule. Usually a story can be made reader-friendly with the right repairs.)

Don’t misunderstand the moral of this posting: I’m not advocating blind stubbornness. As a more mature writer than I was in 2000, I now know that I want my stories to appeal to most people who read them. You’re never going to please everybody, but if three or four knowledgeable readers have serious reservations — or if they think the story is, well, okay, but they’re clearly not wowed — then I believe it’s time to rethink and rewrite. So in a way, this little chronicle is a mini-course in What Not to Do. Don’t send one tired story around and around and around. That doesn’t mean get discouraged and hide the story in the bottom drawer. It doesn’t mean throw the story away. It means be open to suggestions. It means get feedback; rework the story until people are liking it . . . a lot.

“Under the Tower of Valk” was finally published in Ozment’s House of Twilight, Issue 7, Winter 2007. I know it was published chiefly because the editor is a friend of mine, which gained the story a kind, sympathetic reading. BUT it wasn’t a “mercy publication.” The editor has integrity, and he wouldn’t have published the piece if he hadn’t believed in it. And yes, before it went into print, I revised the story — very heavily.

This has been an extreme example. Most stories don’t get rejected this much, because one of three things usually happens: 1.) They’re good enough that they get accepted right away. 2.) The writers give up and stop submitting them, which is the saddest possibility. Or, 3.) The writers learn from the rejections they’re getting, revise accordingly, and the stories get accepted.

How do my books compare? I think The Threshold of Twilight had about as many rejections as “Under the Tower of Valk” did. I finally decided to stop working on it, since I knew it wasn’t publishable in its present state, and I was no longer the high-school and college student I’d been when I was writing it; there was nothing further I could do to make it publishable without writing an entirely new book — so I turned to writing entirely new books. Dragonfly had also garnered some 12-13 rejections, I think, before it hit the right editor at the right time.

So, the last words: Be open and willing to revise. And don’t give up!

Line-edits are going well here: I’m 75% of the way through the book!

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20 Responses to “Under the Tower of Rejection: A Story’s Odyssey”

  1. Lizzie Borden Says:

    It amazes me that so many people shot down Valk so easily. It’s one of my favorites of yours. I understand that it’s teetering on the edge of several genres, but, oh, it’s powerful and in my unprofessional opinion, the strength of emotion you manage to stir up in the reader, well, that should’ve been enough for anyone to snatch up and say “this is good enough for fantasy” or “horror” or whomever it was offered to. It’s a real shame that you had to fight so hard to get it out there.

  2. Gabe Dybing Says:

    Thanks for the words of encouragement, Fred, via way of you own experiences! I’m definitely going to try to keep this post in mind while I write and submit and get rejected.

  3. I was not in the band Says:

    … but I can swear that Fred is correct in likening the looks of Mr. Smith and the Funky Winkerbean band leader. I always thought Batiuk was ripping Jim off without paying some sort of fee! As for his impact, I have not encountered a single student who was in band in my high school (I was not, as the astute reader has already discerned) that does not have the highest regard for Mr. Smith.
    Hooray for those kind of teachers!

    And to Fred and all those who are trying to be paid for submitting stories: considering the volume of crap I see printed each year, I wonder if more than 10% of these editors know their …. from a …

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      You know, I’ve heard more than one professional writer say that that was the spark of motivation that led him or her to try serious writing: the conviction that “I can do better than what’s out there, on the shelves!”

  4. Elizabeth Says:

    Ah, yes, the rejection.

    A good writer friend of mine describes her stories as babies. In creating them, writing them, working on them, the writer becomes attached to the story in a very intimate way. It makes it doubly hard, then, when editors don’t share the same love and it becomes too easy to ball the hurt close up to your heart and never send the story out again. I think too many of us love our stories, or certain ones anyway, to the point of smothering. Which, as every good parent and writer should know, is not healthy for the child or the story.

    Maybe it would be better for us writers to think of ourselves as birds. The story ideas are little blue eggs that we sit on, keep warm and eventually hatch. There’s the feeding and the care, when the story is too underdeveloped to leave the nest, but eventually comes the time when the story has grown enough that it’s time for it to go. So we have to shoo it out of the warm, safe environment we’ve created for it and send it out into the world (drop it right off the tree if we have to). If the story is strong, it will fly in time (somewhere, and somehow and maybe even after it has had some further nurturing), but even as it falters we need to remember that kicking a story out of the nest is essential — you have to make room for the other “eggs” as they hatch, which need their own attention before they, too, must leave the nest.

    Jeff VanderMeer described sending one of his stories out for “the benediction of rejection.” I love that phrase, even though it is difficult for me to wrap my mind around it most of the time. But I think that’s what you’re describing here, Fred. You loved “Under the Tower of Valk,” and believed in it enough to survive the pain of so many rejections. But you also used those rejections as a blessing on your story, making it stronger with advice that was given along the way. In doing so, you made yourself a stronger writer as well. And isn’t that a true benediction?

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Thanks, Elizabeth! I really like the comparison of our stories to baby birds that need to learn to fly with their own wings. There’s nothing that makes me happier than when I know a story of mine has taken on a life of its own — when I hear or read the words of someone talking about it who has never met me. (Especially, of course, if what s/he’s saying is positive!)

  5. Chris Says:

    I believe Mr. Dingle was the bandleader in “Funky Winkerbean”, not Doonesbury, correct?

    I got a short time with Jim Smith in junior high, but never in marching band. I did marching band in high school in Chucktown. I really sucked at marching band but that was ok because as far as I could tell many of us in the Chucktown high band sucked, just to slightly different levels.

    As for being a trombonist I don’t know why you guys in T-ville worried about whacking woodwinds in the back of the head. My friend, Bill, and I used to spend most of our time in band practice attempting to undo the latches on the saxophonists cases using our slides, and since that was where the spit valve is I can only imagine how pleasant that was for the saxophonists. (I might have been better at this activity as evidenced by the fact that I sucked badly at playing while Bill was quite good. I was putting more effort into the important stuff.)

    Trombonists do have much more fun that even the baritone section (the other section I played in), mainly because with the baritone there’s virtually nothing you can use to “probe the world” with as effectively as a trombone slide.

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      You’re absolutely right: Funky Winkerbean, not Doonesbury. Mea culpa, and thanks for the correction! (The post has been corrected.)

      Ah, yes, trombone slides. It could be that the trombone is evolving. In a few millennia, it will develop rudimentary fingers at the end of the slide, and beyond that . . . sentience. (Isn’t there a new Terminator film in the works called Rise of the Trombones?)

  6. I was not in the band Says:

    add my mea culpa as well …
    Truthfully, the more I thought about it, the more I was beginning to suspect it was something other than Doonesbury, as I would not then, nor will now, read that particular strip.
    What is needed is the return of Calvin and Hobbes, the Far Side and Fox Trot, especially C&H (sob, sob).

    • Chris Says:

      Fred and Jeff, don’t you both think apologies and mea culpas are a bit late? I think things have gone too far when you confuse Funky Winkerbean and Doonesbury.

      Actually I’ve never really been able to maintain much excitement for “Funky Winkerbean” as a comic strip (apart from the obvious darkness that underlies so many plots like Mr. Dingle’s deafness and the various cancer stories), but I do kinda like some Doonesbury but it’s been years since I’ve been a consistent reader of D.

      Right now I’m a “Tom the Dancing Bug” kind of guy. (I like Ted Rall and Tom Tomorrow as well, but only insofar as they do a great job of tweaking arch-conservatives! :) )

  7. Marquee Movies Says:

    One of my favorite stories of rejection occurs in John Irving’s “The World According to Garp.” Garp is a writer, and in his early days, he receives a soulless little photocopied rejection notice that particularly irks him with its ability to be both impersonal and insulting. The note from the magazine says something like, “We’re sorry, but your story does nothing unusual with language, and we found it uninteresting. Thanks anyway.” (It’s something like that.) Garp, typical artist that he is, keeps it. Then, years and years later, when he is a pretty famous author, he happens to get a personal note in the mail from an editor of this same magazine, saying, “Hey, if you’ve got any stories lying around, we’d love to see them!” He takes the folded and refolded and coffee-stained rejection notice out of his wallet, clips it to a sheet of paper, and writes something like, “I’m sorry, but I’m still not doing anything interesting with language, and I don’t find your magazine very interesting. Thanks anyway.”

    • Chris Says:

      I would be a horrible author. I seem to find enough ways to encounter rejection without having to go seeking it out. And I’m pretty sure I’d do the thing Garp does in the book.

      • fsdthreshold Says:

        I love this Garp story! I’ve always wanted to write a form letter and send it to subscriber-hungry magazines that have rejected me: “Dear Magazine Publisher: Thank you for creating your magazine with me in mind. I regret the impersonal nature of this response, but due to the large volume of printed material I receive, I cannot manage a personal reply. While your publication shows promise, it does not meet my reading needs at this time. Should you choose to develop and publish another magazine, please try me again in the future. Sincerely.”

  8. Catherine Says:

    This is very tangential. I’ve just noticed in several classics, the article “an” is used before even a pronounced h, like “an hotel” or “an happening”. I wonder if people used to not pronounce the h, or if the article was used differently in that time period. Perhaps that one editor found a rift in the time-space continuum . . . ? :)

    • Chris Says:

      Catherine, this was a topic that Fred and I were discussing on this very blog a few entries back! I’m a firm believer that if the word starts with “h” it should use the article “an”.

      Fred is a degenerate. Probably a dangerous threat to society who believes that “a historical event” is just fine.

      Personally I’d never turn my back to him. I just don’t trust people like that. They tend to….well, let’s just leave that as an horrific question mark as to what they would be capable of!

      • fsdthreshold Says:

        What, Chris, are you afraid you’ll get an hatchet in your back?

        Seriously, you believe that any word that starts with “h” should take the article “an”? So you say, “an horse”? “An hernia”? “An hippopotamus”? “An heap”? Wow. . . .

        Catherine, I’m with you: if the “h” is pronounced, if the word’s initial sound is not a vowel sound, it should take the article “a.” So, “a horse,” but “an hour.” The full details of this discussion are in the comments section of the July 25th entry, “Pronouns.”

  9. Nicholas Says:

    Fred, thanks for the “story of a story.” Many of us have similar stories about manuscripts that amassed countless rejections before finding a home–that is, those of us who persisted! I’ve read that Harry Potter was rejected TWELVE times beore being accepted by a publisher, and that Richard Adams’s _Watership Down_ was rejected by thirteen publishers and a few agents before being picked up. There are dozens more such stories–in fact, as a rule of thumb, virtually no author that you read and admire was accepted right out the gate. Keep that in mind.

  10. I was not in the band Says:

    What??!? Watership Down rejected 13 times? Really? Proof positive most editors do not know … well, you know …

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