Because I’m still dealing with a long-running head cold and my brain is only letting me do fiction for limited sprints before chortling gleefully as I re-read the same line seven times in a row, I’ve decided I shall write this post as a diversion.
It stared when a twitter friend (who I don’t know) of a twitter friend (who I do know) posted something about story rejections—specifically asking:
I’ve seen writers complain about rejections taking too long, and I’ve seen complaints about rejections coming too quickly. What’s the perfect amount of time to wait for a rejection?
— Matthew Pritt (@MatthewTPritt) October 27, 2022
This is an interesting question. Really, it is. I follow a lot of writerly people and organizations on twitter, and I’ll note that it’s a topic I’ve seen come up several times recently. (Must be something in the water?).
Anyway, I have a couple divergent takes on this:
As an established writer, I advocate for shorter times.
As a newbie, though, I would want it to be longer.
I say this because I am of the mindset that writing more stories makes for faster learning, and because I know myself and remember what it was like to be a new writer.
First, let me also admit that—when I was an actual new writer—I would have asked for faster responses, too. Waiting is really, really frustrating, especially for fresh-faced newbies who just want to get on with the task of being the internationally renowned authors we know we are to become. But I would have been wrong.
To my way of thinking, however, the best rejection cycle for a new writer is about three months—which, is really about what is was back in the day when I was starting.
I figure it this way:
First, when I was starting, my work was not good. I needed to learn a lot.
But, when I dropped a manuscript (which we will call Beloved Story One from here on out) into the post box, and knew it was going to be gone for three months, my brain had no choice but to move on to the next story. Which is good. The goal is to always work on “new” work until it’s “done,” and then move on. A three month hiatus from working on a freshly mailed manuscript was leeway to do that.
More important, though, is that in those three months I could write another six-to-twelve stories (mailing each out for their own three month summary rejection sabbatical). With those six-to-twelve stories, I got better. So, when Beloved Story One came back with its form rejection, I could then look at it again. In those moments, I might change it, but generally did not. My overall rule of thumb was to not futz with things for at least three cycles. Generally, story one simply went back into the mail for another three-month tour of an editor’s desk.
This doubled down on the point of the last paragraph. Or tripled down, as it were. This meant that in three cycles (nine months) I would write 18-36 more stories—and that the improvement in my storytelling was considerably better then than it was when I first mailed Beloved Story One. The value here was that with that new capability, and with nine months of time between real reviews, I could actually look the manuscript with fresh eyes and see flaws that I could not see before.
Think about that.
It means that, even if I never changed Beloved Story One at all, I still learned from the review.
Also, it means that, if I so desired, I could actually do positive changes to the story (which enhance learning) while it still had “fresh markets” to fall onto.
The Hidden Underbelly
Then there’s this.
Back in the day, your response time was not one-size-fits all.
As a new writer your goal was to move from the slush pile to the neo-pro pile, and then from that pile to the pro pile—those informal definitions of editorial anticipation that mean better and more prompt reads. As you did so, the wait times drew shorter. It was a measure of progress in the same way that suddenly receiving personal comments on rejections is a measure.
Professional writers often got the fairly rapid turn arounds that people are asking for now (and that carelessly asked for as a newbie, too).
Be Careful What You Ask For?
As a related aside, I remember an editor of the time of my own growing up responding to new writers asking for more rapid response times. That editor’s answer was “of course I can give you a faster response time, but then the answer is simply No.”
In today’s world, where a new writer demands and gets a short story rejection in three days (or whatever), that story they wrote burns up 8-10 markets in a month. They also deal with a much larger mound of rejection (to get ten rejections on a single manuscript back in the day could eat up two or three years).
Looking back, I’m not sure I could have managed that. Maybe. I dunno.
To be sure, though, that horse done left that barn. The water is under the bridge, and the toothpaste is already out of the tube. No putting it back. Response times for short fiction are, in general, quite short relative to the days of my own beginnings. I can scan through Submission Grinder, for example, and see pages and pages of one-day, two-day and three-day rejections.
Of course, at the end of the day maybe it won’t matter.
There’s a rule of thought that says a writer writes, no matter what. It used to be that the long grind eventually peeled away writers (I can still see images of people I knew “growing up” who left the field). Now, maybe that early wall of rejection simply does the same. Maybe that psychology that kept me writing for all those early years of rejection would still keep me going if I started today.
Who is to say?
But I look back on those long response times and I think “Thank Goodness.”