Lessons Learned From Another Rejection

The other day I got an e-mail rejection back from a publisher who was doing an anthology of stories all centered around a common theme. I’d submitted my story a while ago and recently received an e-mail saying that my story had made the short list. So how did I go from the short list to the the rejection pile?

I could sit here, comfortably shielded behind the walls of my blog, and rant and rave about the injustice of it all – how dare they reject my story? What’s wrong with those people? Don’t they know good fiction when they see it? I could do all of those things, but I won’t. I deserved the rejection.

The rejection letter from these folks was nice enough to tell me that my story was both interesting and well-written, but because of the overwhelming response to the call for stories, I just didn’t make the cut. Cue the scene with high-school-me standing on the edge of the soccer field while teams are called, all sad and dejected as I get picked last. So, if my story was both interesting and well-written, then what did I do wrong?

It all comes down to the word interesting. I thought about it and read through my story last night and the reason for the rejection was clear as a bell. I actually told my wife that it probably only made the short list on the merit of the writing, because the plot was absolutely terrible.

Sure, I opened the story with a bang, leaping right into the action. I had very little exposition, only sprinkled into the action in the cleverest of places. The story read quite quickly and, as the letter said, was actually written pretty well. The problem was with the plot. The story is about this woman who, after losing her mentor in an accident, suddenly defies the city leadership to go off and save a group of people she’s never met. She even uses her powers to fight her people just to save the strangers. While there is motivation in the story that makes her actions (mostly) believable and justified, there’s something missing. Can you spot it? Can you say antagonist? I just knew you could…

I went through the story again. The cave-in at the beginning that kills her mentor was random chance, so we can’t blame that on an antagonist. The city leadership is partially there as an antagonist, but they never directly oppose her actions, the protagonist just kind of cuts them off in traffic, as it were. The antagonist(s) would have gone from point A to point B with or without the presence of the protagonist. As we say in the software business, that had a bad smell. The result is a bit of conflict, some (well-written?) action, but again, there’s none of that obvious, crucial opposition that should be there.

It gets worse. I know, I couldn’t believe it either when I read it. I kept asking myself, “What the hell was I thinking?” The confrontation, the climax that is supposed to take the reader out of the middle of the story and throw them, gripping the story with newsprint-covered thumbs, into the ending, was nonexistent. The protagonist runs away from the admittedly deflated antagonists. She gets rescued, and then flees her rescuers when she finds out they want to put her in a lab somewhere. Even here, when given the chance to turn these people into truly confrontational antagonists, I left them flaccid and ineffectual as true sources of opposition.

So my story may have been well-written, but in terms of plot and structure, it was a complete failure. It might have been interesting to follow the protagonist through her various adventures, but it wasn’t compelling. People reading the story didn’t care, they didn’t have an uncontrollable desire to keep turning the pages; that need to see what’s lurking behind the next page because the opposition is doing it’s job – hurling obstacle after obstacle in front of a protagonist about whom the reader truly cares.

Had I to do it all over again (and I will), I would have made the cave-in at the beginning caused by the city leadership, through their own reckless endeavors. When she confronts them about it, she discovers all kinds of horrible things the city’s leaders have been planning to do, including possibly destroying the city itself to satisfy their own greed. She threatens to tell the citizens of the city about what they’re doing, and they throw her in jail. She then escapes and, … you get the idea.

By making it damned obvious, as obvious as a hammer to the face, who the antagonists are, the conflict is easy to spot. By amping up the level of conflict, increasing the danger, the stakes, and the consequences, the reader cares more about the outcome. With all this conflict around the protagonist, I can weave in exposition and character development in how she deals with the obstacles to further draw the reader in, make them care about her and sympathize with her. Had I written the story this way the first time, I still may have been rejected, but the response from the editors might have been that the story was compelling or better but they still didn’t have room.

To me, a rejection isn’t a reason to quit or a reason to wallow in self-pity (though I did that for a couple hours). It’s a reason to look back at the work I produced with a different, more objective eye. I can look at it and see all of its shortcomings as if someone had circled them in yellow highlighter. The next time I write a short story, I will make sure the obstacles are far more hard-hitting, the antagonists are far more antagonistic (har har), and rather than settling for interesting, will strive for can’t put it down.

To finish this up, I’ll quote Thomas Edison:

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work

Think of each rejection not as a rejection, but a little reminder that you can learn from the experience and use it to make your next submission better.