"About That Secret Handshake"by Bruce Holland Rogers
Pity the poor writer who feels that he or she is perpetually this close to selling novels or short stories. There is no discouragement quite like hers. She has studied her craft, she has tried her manuscripts out on test readers who have helped her sharpen her stories, and she has researched markets to make certain she's sending her work to the editors who publish that sort of thing. Yet her manuscripts keep coming back, either with form rejections or, sometimes, with rejections that offer a word or two of praise without ever saying, “Change the last word to nimbus and I will buy this story.”
Pity that writer, because she is being worn down in a particularly painful way. She has done all the work, has created something that she puts her name on as a way of saying, “Here is my say, my contribution to the conversation that is literature, that is art,” and the reply she gets time after time is, “Sorry. We can't use this.”
Because she feels close to breaking through, a writer in this position begins to think that there must be something right under her nose, some riddle that, once solved, would turn those rejections into acceptances. As the editor of STUPEFYING STORIES once wrote to me, “I hear from a lot of aspiring writers who seem to be searching for that special person who's going to whap them on the head with a magic wand and turn them into a Real Writer, or teach them the secret handshake, or reveal unto them how to decode the secret language of rejection slips.” That last bit is especially common. Tea leaves never get as much close scrutiny as a personalized rejection slip. However, efforts to find the special person, to learn the handshake, to decode the secret language are doomed to failure. I say this as a writer who craved those very things with every fiber of my body for years and years.
I once had a conversation about this with the late and much-lamented Damon Knight. Besides being a wonderful writer, Damon had also edited twenty-one volumes of the influential anthology series, Orbit. “What those frustrated writers need to understand,” Damon said, “is that the rejection message, 'I can't use this,' is actually a secret code that means: 'I can't use this.'”
The message of a rejection slip really is as straightforward as that. Even a rejection letter that says, “I especially liked the ending” is still a rejection that comes down to, “I can't use this.”
Consider this metaphor. The editor is a carpenter. Instead of assembling a magazine or a publishing line, he is framing a house. With the job partly finished, he's looking for some more lumber with which to finish the job. And here is the writer, now a supplier of wood, and on the bed of her truck rests the most beautiful block of polished mahogany ever seen.
The carpenter looks at the block of mahogany and may say to himself, “Wow! That is beautiful! Look at the subtle colors! Look at the grain!” But the carpenter is also going to say, “Sorry, but I need studs and joists and beams. This is beautiful, but it's the wrong shape. I can't use it.”
That is very often what an editor is saying. “I don't have a place for this in the issue I'm putting together. I already have a story too much like this one. I already have a novelist on my list whose topics are too similar to yours.”
In fact, with work that is competently written, that is almost always what an editor is saying. The work may be publishable elsewhere. With different timing, it might have been publishable here. But what the writer is offering isn't a match to the editor's current needs.
Now, that doesn't mean that most of what an editor rejects is gorgeous mahogany with subtle color and intriguing grain. Many unsolicited submissions are twigs, loose sawdust, bent boards or rotten logs. That is, many submissions come from beginners who haven't mastered the first principles of sentence composition or storytelling. But those aren't the writers who are longing to learn the secret handshake. The writers sending wood shavings to the carpenter are full of self-confidence and delusion, and they are either going to discover their defects and start correcting them, or are going to quit. The writers looking for the secret handshake are definitely not quitters.
So what should those frustrated writers do?
First, they should make certain that their work is delivering the effects they intend. They should test their manuscripts on honest, articulate readers; readers who don't have a reason to say, “Um, it was fine!” in order to avoid hurt feelings. But by the time writers are craving the secret code of rejection letters, they have probably been testing their work out on trusted readers. The problem probably is not raw quality. The problem is one of matching the manuscript with the right market at the right time.
There are only so many elements in this formula: suitable manuscript, right market, good timing. So the most obvious answer to the writer is: persist. Keep writing, keep investigating other markets, keep circulating the manuscripts. If you are writing round pegs, you will eventually find the corresponding round hole that isn't already occupied by someone else's manuscript.
Of course, persistence does you little good if you are writing square pegs and there just aren't any markets that are square holes. Or, to return to our block of mahogany, persistence will do you little good if you insist on trying to peddle your mahogany block, as-is, to the carpenter who is framing a house. But if you can be honest about the carpenter's needs and clear-eyed about what you have, then maybe you can saw your block up, glue it in sections, and offer the carpenter a mahogany roof beam. Alternatively, you can admit that your block, which gorgeous, isn't suitable for the carpenter. You can display it in your living room for friends to admire. You can try building your own museum of fine woods and charge admission.
What the writer shouldn't do, however, is imagine that there is a secret or a magical solution, or think of editors as gatekeepers who are deciding who gets into the A-list club and who gets to stand on the sidewalk all night with the other peasants. Editing decisions aren't personal. Even though we're talking about the acceptance or rejection of art, editorial decisions are as objective as lumber purchases.
I said above that the pain of literary rejection wears writers down. It does. What we write is the work of our hearts. But to keep writing and maintain some sanity, you need to arrive at a place where you put your heart into your work as you write it, and then turn around and treat it like lumber. If you can do that, you'll be living in the real world.
Stories by Bruce Holland Rogers have been translated into over two dozen languages and have won two Nebula Awards, two Micro Awards, two World Fantasy Awards, and a Pushcart Prize. He teaches fiction writing at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts and is the author of Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer.
To learn more about him and see more of his work, check out his website: ShortShortShort.com.