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January 16th, 2012

Is it a rejected story...or an asset?

Rejection can be one of the hardest things for writers to deal with. To newer writers - especially those still looking for that first sale - it can seem like a door slamming over and over, never to be opened wide. To those writers who are established enough to make their living from their art, it can be the depressing difference between paying off the credit card this month or...well, watching the interest pile up.

But there are other ways to look at rejection, too. We hear a lot about using comments supplied in the more thoughtful rejection letters, and certainly that's worth remembering. I've used comments in rejections to great effect; in fact, I credit (in part) rejection comments with helping me to craft the final version of my short story "Tested", which went on to win the Bram Stoker Award.

I'm not a fan of the "dues paying" theory of rejection. Some seem to think that writers need to experience misery and anxiety before they can enjoy the pleasures of success. Sorry, but I say screw that noise. In my own case, I heard that odious, "Well, you're still paying your dues" nonsense until very recently. If my story is going to be rejected, I want to know that it's because the story needs work, not because you think I must undergo some abstract rite of passage. I've been a grown-up for a very long time now, thank you very much.

Now, here's where I offer up my own take on rejections (and I'm sorry, but this is going to apply only to short stories - rejections of novels, novellas, proposals and screenplays are a whole different essay): When you receive a rejection, don't think of it as a minus, but rather as an addition to your library. Every business engaged in selling something needs back stock - that stuff that may sit on the shelves for a while but will eventually sell to a delighted customer - and writing is no different. Just because Editor A has turned down your story, it doesn't mean that Editor B - or even Editor X, Y, or Z - won't love it and take it right away.

Granted, it's entirely possible that the story really isn't as good as you thought it was, and it may never sell...but if that's the case, I'm betting you'll know after getting feedback from a couple of submissions. If three editors in a row tell you the story sucks because of the ending, then you probably need to either fix that ending or delete that puppy permanently from your hard drive.

I'm also not a believer in rushing a rejected story right out into the world again. Sometimes it's just a matter of finding the perfect home for that story. I've sat on stories for years until an editor who I thought might like the story opened submissions to something he or she was working on.

It's also convenient to have a backlog of stories you can keep handy when you get requests for something. I've reached the point in my career where I get a lot of invites to submit to things, and I don't always have the time to write something new, but sometimes a quick check in my digital trunk will unearth some gem that's just right for the invite. I just glanced through a folder on my hard drive of short stories, and saw at least a dozen in there that have never sold. Some probably never will (one, for example, spent too much time referencing events that were topical when it was written), but I know some of them are just waiting for that perfect new home. Who knows? I might even save them for another Lisa Morton collection someday, or I might end up publishing a few myself as free reads for the followers of this blog.

Of course every story you write, including the ones that sell, become part of your library, and it's a rare thrill to be able to sell the same story multiple times...but of course you and I both know that a lot of editors simply don't want reprints. Which is one more reason that unsold stories are assets, not debits.

What it boils down to is this: If you were making, say, beautiful pots instead of finely crafted stories, you'd make up extras to have on hand whenever you went to a festival or show, right? Writing should be no different; you should always have a few extra pieces ready, just waiting for the right buyer. And c'mon - stories are a whole lot easier to store than pots, right? So go start building your library right now.