Every writer always wonders what will happen when they send a short story off to a submissions mailbox. Experienced writers have obviously been through the process many times and many will happily tell you about how long it took to get a favourite story published, if you ask. But this was my first story submission.
To their credit, the turnaround was just two weeks. I don’t know if that was typical or because of the “fast-track” process they offer subscribers. Still, it was good to have. Many places have reputations of months.
It was only a week ago that I was telling a friend about this. And truth be told, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted it to be accepted or to be rejected. That might sound strange, but rejection from where I sent it comes with brief notes as to why it was rejected. And it was those notes I was interested in.
I was happy to read that the submission reviewers found a lot of good to say about it. I was not surprised they praised the rich world-building. I was gratified they found the characterisation strong and that the two were woven together well with a well-paced and engaging narrative.
What appears to have let it down, though, was the actual story. This blog is called “Just Add Story” for a very good reason. I’m beginning to understand this speculative fiction magazine much more with this rejection notice. Several times I’ve read stories they’ve published and wondered quite why it was accepted. Now I think I know why. My story is, at core, a very traditional one. The hero takes the side of a persecuted minority, jeopardising his own place in society. Risking his life, in fact. There’s nothing wrong with this as a story, of course. In some ways, my writing was an exercise in building a world a story could stand up in, rather than a new take on an existing story.
The catch is that it is some of the more traditional stories I am drawn to tell. A friend who critiqued a previous draft liked the romantic sub-plot – which I had added without quite realizing it was romantic; it was really added because my characters are human. And humans fall in love and get hearts broken. The mag I submitted to, however, kind of prefers new ways of interpreting existing stories. Mine is not.
One of my favourite collections of short stories is one by Anne McCaffrey called Get Off The Unicorn. It is a collection of a number of her earliest successful short stories, most of them written and published before she was an accomplished novelist. They are speculative fiction in the truest sense: they took then current memes and speculated. One of them, for example, is about surrogacy. When it was published, it was asking questions not just years but decades ahead of its time.
But I haven’t done that. My short story has a hero vaguely like myself taking choices and chances I wonder if I could take. That might not really fit what this mag wants to publish, which is fine. I am still learning story-craft, after all, and playing ‘what if’ with someone I can identify with is kind of an obvious place to write from. The questions it was asking of its readers were more human, more eternal. But it has made me aware that this magazine might not be my target market.
I’m not upset at the rejection. I’m not two thirds of the way through a bottle of cheap wine. I’m not halfway through a box of tissues. They haven’t rejected me: they’ve only said that specific story doesn’t make the grade. “Sorry, but we hope you try again.”
I’m cool with that.