When ‘good’ rejections are the worst

16511061-little-girl-crying-Stock-Vector-cartoonA couple of months ago, two story ideas came together and I sat down and wrote. I changed one or two things the next day but essentially it was done. I loved it. Magic happens sometimes.

I sent it to Kill Your Darlings, a literary magazine run partly by Hannah Kent, an author I admire. I have been determined to be published in this magazine for a while and this, finally, seemed like the time.

I recently received the rejection email. When you research submitting short stories, there is lots of encouragement to rise above rejections, but there is also advice to take ‘personal’ rejections as compliments, or even as successes. Rejections are usually templates, but occasionally an editor will write an actual email. The email I received from Kill Your Darlings said:

Yours was [a submission] that we seriously considered as it captured the chaos and senselessness of grief beautifully, and while in the end it wasn’t quite right for our upcoming issue, we would be keen to see more of your work in future.

It doesn’t look like much, but it’s a little golden nugget compared to most rejections. It is still hard to take, however, despite all the advice. In so many ways it actually seems worse. If it was actually that good they would have published it anyway, or kept it for another issue, or changed this issue so that it could fit. This is when I go into toddler mode, stamping my feet and going red in the face. But I WANT it.

In typical me-fashion, I decided to cancel my subscription. I immediately sent the story to six other places. I started writing another one, a better one! Which isn’t better at all because, while magic does happen, it doesn’t happen that often. This one will take work, which is fine. Luckily, I still remember that glorious feeling two months ago when I thought I’d created something a little bit perfect.


The numbers game


I’ve always enjoyed writing short stories. They were the first prose I tried to write, not counting several horrendous novel attempts when I was a teenager. I thought of short stories as a way of practicing writing without committing huge amounts of time or energy.

I think short story karma is coming to kick me in the shins for not taking it more seriously.

I just got a rejection email for a short story which I think is really quite good, but which has now been rejected five times. In the world of submissions, five rejections is not actually that bad. But it still hurts.

So I’m sitting here, knowing I should be being productive, but all I can think is – what more can I do? Of course, there is a lot more I can do.

I don’t actually read short stories. I’ve probably read three anthologies in the last six years. I was blown away, years ago, by Janette Turner Hospital’s collections of stories, but other than that I tend to just avoid them. I find their magnification of a writer’s style a bit painful. There is no escaping in a short story, there’s no sinking into the story and becoming accustomed to the style. It’s just there.

I can’t imagine trying to write a novel without reading novels. What a ridiculous idea, and yet here I am, treating short stories like the easy warm-up and getting disheartened when I’m not very good.

People talk about getting published as a numbers game, in terms of pieces submitted versus potential publications. That is, you need to submit a lot to get a small number published. But number one, I am not very good at handling rejections, and number two, maybe the real numbers game is about reading. Maybe rather than submitting 100 times to get 1 published, I need to read 100 stories to help me write 1 good one.

So my plan, because when sunk in the depths of a rejection depression I always need a plan, is to read one short story a day for three weeks. In three weeks, I’ll try to write something.

If anyone is looking for quality, free, online stories, check out Carve. They run the Raymond Carver short story contest, so they kind of know what they’re doing.


The politics of prizes

The news came yesterday that Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. There has been so much written about it already, an endless back and forth about whether songwriting is literature and, if it is, what that means for literature.

I find it hard to get angry about prize-giving. The idea that one person, or book, is simply and objectively better than all the rest seems obviously foolish. The idea that one person, or book, is absolutely undeserving of a prize seems just as foolish.

But this prize has made me sad and it took me a while to figure out why.

Last year’s winner was Svetlana Alexievich. I had never heard of her before, but I read a number of articles following the Nobel announcement and then read one of her books, Voices from Chernobyl. This is a woman whose work investigating, exposing and simply recording the tragedies of Soviet and post-Soviet history in Eastern Europe is intensely political. She had to leave Belarus because of what she was writing. Despite the size of the tragedies she writes about, the stories she tells are those of people whose stories do not generally get told. People get so easily lost within history and she gives them a place. By giving her a prize like the Nobel, it felt like the world gave them a place as well.

This year, I was looking forward to seeing whose stories would be illuminated by the Nobel. What part of the world would they open a door to? It was undoubtedly selfish of me to want the Nobel committee to give me someone whose work, and world, I could begin exploring.

I’m sad that this year we missed out on the chance of being introduced to someone who writes about people whose stories aren’t given much space or time or thought. I’m sad that for another year they will remain in obscurity because we are once again looking at white, middle-of-the-range America.

It’s not about deserving or not, it never really is with prizes. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of writers who might have deserved the Nobel this year and maybe Bob Dylan was one of them. But this year in particular, when diversity finally seems to be moving out of the tokenism of the early 2000s, I had higher hopes of whose stories might be chosen as a shining example of the best.


Freakily found quotes on the same idea. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare, oranges and apples etc, but I know who sounds more like a poet to me.





Rational-me versus story-teller-me

The referendum to decide whether the UK will remain in the European Union is happening on Thursday. Logically, I know the best thing is probably to remain. Without a doubt, the best thing for me is for the UK to remain since I am on an EU visa.

To remain is to carry on in much the same way, which makes sense for a country which is doing well and has no real reason to think that things will get better if it goes it alone.

But to leave is to make a new story – a story which could very well be catastrophic but which to me, an outsider, would be far more interesting.

Many leave campaigners seem to be under the impression that Britain’s historic international power was based on national talent and the ingenuity of the British people, rather than a rather bloodthirsty colonial spirit which has little (hopefully no) place in the modern world. Part of me looks forward to their arrogance being confronted with the reality that the country’s former power no longer commands respect or fear. Part of me looks forward to the stories that such a tumultuous time would create.

Don’t worry, rational me will win and I will vote to Remain, because unfortunately the boring choice is often the best choice in national politics.