The best rejection ever?

I mentioned that I sent a query after not hearing about a story. I’ve now heard and the rejection I received was the kindest, most encouraging and informative rejection I’ve had to date. It made me thoroughly happy.

Happy? About a rejection? Absolutely.

Stories are rejected for all kinds of different reasons. Looking past the past rookie mistakes (not following submission guidelines, or submitting bad writing) the story might just not fit the market, or be similar to something that featured recently, or have unsuitable content.

Mine was rejected because it was a cliché.

Most rejections don’t come with a reason, so finding out is a boon. And mea culpa, the story was a cliché, I just hadn’t realised. And that’s a problem. I should have recognised the pattern when I was writing it.

The editor liked the story a lot and was very close to running it. But that would be an open invitation to the world to fill his slush pile with more of the same. And that’s no fun for anyone. Fair enough. I hold on tightly to the pretty words, words like “your writing is first-rate“. Those are words that warm the cockles on a cold night. I might have them embroidered so I can hang them on the wall. And I take great comfort in the fact that the story was good enough for an editor to take the time to tell me why he wasn’t running it. It’s a huge compliment.

Unfortunately, that story was not my first cliché. I recently retired a story when I came across a description of the plot in a list of stories a magazine (or was it an anthology?) didn’t want*. There is was, among lists of plots that made me think “but surely no one would...”: my plot. The poor thing didn’t even make it out the door before it was retired. There was a reason for that: Julia’s Dream I knew for a cliché. But I liked it, mostly because it used a dream I had for one of the scenes, but also because I had fun playing with senses when I wrote it. It was good practice.

The conclusion is that I need to think of better plots. Original, interesting plots. Stuff with ideas. At the moment, I’m not writing much because all of my ideas feel unformed: I have a bunch of scenes but they don’t go anywhere.

I need to practice idea generation. I need to read more speculative fiction short stories.

I need to learn to recognise the ideas I shouldn’t run with.


Strange Horizon’s list of what they see too often makes interesting reading, as does the list of the horror stories they see too often. (Neither of these is the list I found my dream plot on. The story I had rejected this week fits loosely into three or four categories. Ouch.)

Goodbye Martin, it’s time for me to move on

I stayed at my friend’s flat for a few days last summer. (Actually, I stayed a few days in two flats last summer: I have very generous friends.) When I was there, working at a lovely desk in the dining room and enjoying the peace of their oldest son’s bedroom, I had two ideas for stories. They were both based on experiences that I had there. One turned into Neon Tetra Suicides and the other turned into Martin Stays Over. The first of these worked itself out quickly. I wrote it, did a couple of edits and then sent it out. The second one I have had all kinds of problems with.

It’s really a story about being a child and listening to adults having a dinner party. I can’t write that story without something happening, so there’s also some weird stuff. The feedback I’ve had on the story suggests that I got the little boy’s voice right. Really right. I’ve also got the scary action towards the end right. I read that part at Illicit Ink in October, so it has had a lot of work.

The problem is that the two sections don’t fit together.

In the first few drafts, there was too much background before the action. Too much detail and information. When the action came it was completely unexpected and confused some people. There was also no real resolution after the action. It is as if nothing happened yet we know that something did. There were 2,000 words of setup and 1,000 words of action followed by 50 of conclusion. The sections were like blocks of wood, stacked one on the other, not like fibres working together to form a branch.

In the final draft, I swapped sections about so that the action starts on the first line. The setup happens in flashback, as it were, before the big action piece. I also changed a couple of relationships, got rid of a parent, added a slightly unpleasant adult and attempted closure at the end. I tried to stitch it all together into a coherent unit.

Then I sent it out and had it rejected – very graciously – in four days. Voice good, plot and resolution weak.

So what now? I have options.

  1. Send the short story to a flash fiction market.
  2. Send the long story out again, to another market.
  3. Edit the long story again.
  4. Start again.

Option 3 is the only one I refuse to do. I have spent to much time trying to force this story into shape. Writing it from scratch again appeals to me. There’s a freedom in taking what I’ve learned from the feedback I’ve had on this story and applying it to something completely new. But I have other stories that I want to tell too. Spending even more time with Martin takes me away from them.

I need to move on now, walk away, give this one up for dead. Not everything I write will be brilliant. This particular story doesn’t seem to have a point other than that you’re pretty powerless when you’re eight years old. I think I’ve spent more hours trying to make that point than the value of my insight warrants.

My first rejection

Sorry for the melodramatic title but I received my first rejection yesteday. It’s a milestone only to be matched by my first acceptance.

Yesterday, I found out that I hadn’t won the Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award. But I made it on to a shortlist of 20, which is great. They had eight awards to give but over 230* applications and a high overall quality. I didn’t truly expect to I’d get one of the awards but I did hope, a little bit, at the back of my mind.

So, what now? Well, nothing. It doesn’t change the plan. Not having won the award doesn’t affect anything, except that I need to remember to apply again next year. One of the great things about applying in the first place was that I had to look at what I wanted to achieve this year. Having professional support and some money to use for time to write would have helped tremendously but not having it can’t stop me. It’s business as usual.

Phew. I was worried I’d take it badly.

* Top 8.6%. These are the things to hold on to: I made the shortlist and I have a plan.