Getting Excited About Successes (While Remaining Real About Rejections)
During one of the more anxiety-ridden periods of this year's budding foray into Writing Short Genre Fiction Seriously, I had three different manuscripts on submission at three major, SFWA-recognized, multiple Hugo & Nebula winning magazines. At this point, in the process of getting my feet wet, I'd sold stories to a few small indie magazines that compensated authors at semi-pro or token rates, but I'd never earned close to an SFWA-standard paycheck for my fiction. Yet somehow, by hook or by crook, my stories made it to the final round of editorial consideration at all three of these Fancy Places That Little No-Name Me Really Had No Business Submitting To. Two ultimately rejected me (very kindly!), but the third was, among other things, a journey:
Me: I feel vaguely presumptuous for submitting a story to this big SFF magazine that publishes Nebula winners pseudo-regularly, & also rejects like, 98% of their slush, but nothing ventured, nothing gained, & also I have just had a shot of vodka, so am feeling bolder than normal.
Marketing Editor, a month later: Hey, one of our slush readers liked your thing and forwarded it on to our guest editor for a special issue! Congrats, and good luck.
Me: ... Huh. *makes fatal mistake of Google-stalking guest editor's actually kind of big deal bibliography; sweats excessively*
Marketing Editor, several weeks later: So, our guest editor decided to pass on your thing for his issue --
Me: *sleepily reading e-mail in bed between snooze alarms* Ah, of course, no worries, now I can try selling this piece to a smaller mag --
Marketing Editor: But he thinks your story deserves further attention, so he's forwarded it on to our multiple-Hugo-nominee editor-in-chief to consider for another issue.
Me: *bolts awake, shrieks* He did WHAT.
Two weeks later, I come home from kickboxing training to discover a note from said intimidatingly accomplished editor-in-chief sitting in my inbox. He loves my story, a cyberpunk noir piece called "The Man in the Crimson Coat," and wants to publish it. I reread the thing several times, and check the name. He. Want. To. Publish. What??
Spoiler reveal: the guest editor who passed my story on to the editor-in-chief in the first place was none other than super smart, prolific Maurice Broaddus. And the intimidatingly accomplished editor-in-chief was Jason Sizemore, of Apex Magazine. I spend several hours convinced that Apex has offered to publish me by accident, sort of like how the Oscars people accidentally thought La La Land won best picture & emotionally traumatized everybody. But in the morning, sure enough, I have a real live contract sitting in my inbox, which I sign & see countersigned. "AHA!" I think, "NO TAKE-BACKS NOW, JASON SIZEMORE, YOU'RE STUCK WITH ME & MY WRITING."
All jokes aside, though, I'm humbled and beyond thrilled that I've made my debut SFWA-qualifying professional-rate sale to a magazine that boasts such impeccable storytelling standards. Naturally, I freaked out all over social media about it. Not long after, I received an additional publication offer for a novelette of mine called "The Kitchen God's Daughter and the Sunshine Boy," from GigaNotoSaurus, an absolute gem of a long-form SFF webzine, which has published some of my biggest literary heroes, including Zen Cho and Ken Liu. Cue more freaking out!
These -- and other sales I've made in the past months -- are victories well worth sharing & celebrating. That said, one of the shortfalls of curating a social media presence -- particularly for someone trying to build any kind of capital in the arts -- is that it tends to paint a rather unilaterally rosy picture. After all, it's in our interest to announce our wins, and getting to share our art in a professional venue with our friends is exciting! Social media, for this purpose, is excellent!
So, have I actually been remarkably lucky with publication offers recently? Yes, I'd like to think so. That said, look: the myth that making it into one SFWA-recognized (or similarly prestigious) market means that you're a hotshot everywhere now is a filthy lie. In the same weeks that I received offers from Apex and GigaNotoSaurus, I also got something like six different (all very polite!) rejections, at least half of them from significantly smaller-name and lower-paying markets. Just because your work is right for one venue doesn't mean it's going to be right for another! For every success I've had, both in my creative work and my day job, I guarantee I have probably screwed up at least three other things.
It took time, and a whole lot of growing up, to recognize that an editor's rejection is a lot like being rejected by your crush in high school. You may weep and rend your clothing and listen to Lea Salonga's version of "On My Own" on iPod loop in the dark for a week straight, but ultimately, rejection is a reflection on neither you nor That One Soulfully Hot Dude you like. It's simply an indication that you are, at this time, in this place, not an ideal fit for one another. Neither of you are bad or unworthy or wrongheaded! You just need to kiss different people. Or, uh, submit to a different magazine, rather. (Please don't attempt to kiss editors who have rejected you; that's probably a really weird and specifically-themed Criminal Minds episode waiting to happen.)
I'll cop to another confession: one major reason I didn't actually start producing SFWA-recognizable short fiction until like, 2017, is because pretty much all my creative writing energy -- and the resulting two-year-ish burnout & what in hindsight I now recognize as a minor but prolonged nervous breakdown -- was stuck in a vortex of Failed Novels. I've delved into more detail on all my bad novels in a previous post, but suffice to say that it is entirely possible to sign with a major New York City literary agency fresh out of undergrad, spend literally the whole of your early twenties feverishly trying to edit & sell one novel to publishers, and, even repped by an awesome agent, still wind up unpublished -- and feeling rather artistically worthless & morosely sorry for yourself -- at twenty-five. I know for a fact, because I have done this very thing. Was it fun? Not especially. Did I learn from the experience? Well. Art and entertainment careers don't get that hard knocks reputation for nothing, you know?
It wasn't until I took some time to get my life in order, changed day jobs, and sat myself down this past year, that I finally had stories to tell again. Do I still feel morose and sorry for myself? From time to time! I'm pretty sure "morose and sorry for yourself" is a standard-pack mood button for most creatives, and indeed, most humans. But then, we also get the "screaming at all your friends in joy because a person you like also liked a thing you created" button, so it probably all comes down to that whole equivalent exchange principle from Fullmetal Alchemist. (Anyone? Anyone?? Okay, I'm going back to my teenage nerd corner now.)
I also would like to point out, as a sort of upbeat concluding note to a post that necessarily contains some less-than-upbeat anecdotes, that even rejection letters can set off the "screaming in joy" button. One major magazine that declined to purchase my writing, for example, was Neil Clarke's Clarkesworld, famous for a reject-o-matic with an average 48-hour turnaround, a legendary 1/3000 story purchase rate from their slush, and a tremendous talent stable of well-established genre writers -- perhaps matched only by the number of talented, well-established genre writers that they have very promptly & very courteously rejected. That they ultimately rejected my story was not even remotely a surprise. That they first held it for review for a full month, and actually passed it up to second-round review was probably more flattering to my ego than actual publication offers from most magazines are. (Seriously, I screen-shotted the "Under Review (Second Round)" indicator and everything, just to prove I didn't fever-dream it. I am That Person.)
What's more, one of my most treasured possessions is a personal rejection letter from Nisi Shawl, which in addition to just being incredibly kind (and also being a letter from Nisi Shawl), includes a "P.S. Based on your submission, I have a strong feeling you are going to do well." Man, Nisi Shawl. If that's rejection, that's the sort of rejection a girl can dine out on for a month.
I'm still remarkably young in my career (see above: only signed a publication contract for my very first SFWA-rate pro sale in short fiction like, three weeks ago), and doubtless, I've got gnarly times ahead, along with some more (wood-knocking!) good. Ultimately, though, this post is, in some small way, my attempt to normalize the gnarly -- not just for me, but for other creative people, aspiring or established. Keep on keepin', my friends. The stories are worth it.