Most writers I meet these days haven’t even seen a real rejection slip. That always strikes me as odd, because rejection slips are how I learned to write.
I was surprised to find this little collection of 1970s rejection slips. I didn’t know I still had these last few. They must have been misfiled someplace, and showed up only after the conservators were finished salvaging my files from a study flood. This odd little group might have been a handful of rejections for a single story all misfiled at the same time. Fantasy / science fiction wasn’t a common angle.
There was quite a process to endure before you earned a rejection slip. Writing the query letter seemed to take almost as long as the story. It was honed to perfection, with a carbon copy of it clipped to an active query board.
The story itself was perfectly formatted, likely typed at least a couple of times to produce a clean copy without a typo or a smudge.
There was an SASE enclosed—a self-addressed, stamped envelope—in case the piece wasn’t suitable for the magazine.
At the other end an editor scooped it out of the slush pile, glanced at the query and perhaps flipped to the lede of the story, grabbed a form rejection, stuffed the whole pile into your SASE, and within a minute returned it to you with the postage you paid for. If you were lucky, and something had caught the editor’s eye, he jotted a little note on the rejection slip. Each one of those little notes was worth more than an entire creative writing course.
Twenty years later, in the 1990s, I had stopped creative writing after a bad experience with a publishing house. To force myself back to work I plastered the walls of a room with old rejection slips. I had a lot of them. When I started I had out maybe 25 queries at any given time, and, especially in the beginning, most of those proposals ended in rejection.
In the middle of that room I placed a desk salvaged from a hotel room used by the entertainment at a local hotel and pub. I sat at the desk, listening to the stories of its cigarette burns and drink stains and carved graffiti from musicians and exotic dancers. Every slip of paper on the wall was a reminder of a lesson learned. Their purpose served, when I left that apartment I stripped down all of the rejection slips and threw them away.
Through persistence one eventually graduated. The first sign came in receiving personalized rejection letters instead of generic slips. That happened when an editor liked the voice, just not the story. The only remaining step was publication and pay.
That was the rejection slip challenge. The secret was, to quote a very detailed one from Isaac Asimov, that one’s story had “failed to rise far enough above the other 849 seen that month.” That provided the incentive. The challenge was simply to leave those 849 wannabes behind. To learn how to write your way to the top, you simply had to learn how not to write.