Monday, May 5, 2008

A Letter From Today's Mailbag

Dear Writer Rejected,

Your blog is compulsively readable, and more than that, gives consolation and catharsis to other lost souls afloat on a sea of obscurity.

There's one thing I've always wondered about small lit mags, and maybe you or one of your readers will have insight into this. I'm virtually unpublished (published one short story, a couple years ago, in a volume that no one seems to have read), but I seem to get a lot of what I'm calling "nibbles." (Fishing metaphor.) I've gotten a lot of xeroxed form-rejections, but also a number of (mostly electronic) rejections which are much harder to decipher. They will call me by name and refer to my story by name, and then say vaguely encouraging things about my writing along the lines of "well written but not for us." Some of them have gotten me quite excited because they imply that someone at the journal actually read portions of my story, maybe even (imagine!) the whole thing.

But this may not actually signify more than the versatility of the rejection letter in the age of email. After all, how hard can it be to generate a form rejection that inserts individual names and names of stories? I keep imagining that journals have different levels of form rejections, and that maybe I've made it to one of the higher levels--but I have no real evidence for this, at all.

For example, I sent a story in to the SQ love story contest. Below is the letter I got back this week. It assures me that my entry "received close attention and positive responses." And a (desperate) part of me wants to believe that, at the same time that another part of me is sure that this is a 100% form rejection that everyone who did not win the contest received. It's a nice rejection letter (much better than many) but I can't help feeling that they're being extra nice because I coughed up the $20 entry fee! 

By the way, It's very strange that Narrative took over Story Quarterly, and now runs it, but on a single site and in such a way that you simply cannot tell the difference between one journal and the other! Anyway, here's the letter:

Dear [Redacted],

Thank you for your entry in our recent Love Story
Contest. “[Redacted]” was carefully read and
considered by our editors in a very challenging
process of selecting winners and finalists from among
many strong entries. The judging involved many rounds
of reading, discussion, and decision making, in which
your entry received close attention and positive
responses. We regret that in the end “[Redacted]” was
not one of our winners this time. We’re very grateful
for your participation in the contest, and we hope
you’ll keep Narrative in mind for your work in the

An announcement of the winning stories will soon go
out to the magazine’s readership, along with news of
future contests.

Again, many thanks for sending your work, and please
accept our best wishes.


The Editors

Dude: It's natural to want to believe that every form letter is actually a personalized missive indicating that you're a good writer.  We've all held that misguided belief at one time or another; some of us for years.  But after you've been around a while, you get to know the difference between standard form and personalized rejection (not that the latter is much consolation). Here's a thought for you to mull today:  Just because the above is a form letter doesn't mean you're not a good writer. You probably are. But, sorry, Virginia, it is just a form letter.  Still, don't give up hope entirely. We haven't. Well, some of us have, but not all.  I haven't.  I still send my stories out.  And sometimes, when I really need to get published to make myself feel better, I just aim a little lower in terms of lit mag quality.  
Keep plugging, 

Anyone else want to chime in?


Anonymous said...

Yeah, it's a form, but don't give up hope. Think of this: these magazines don't write anything personal to anybody. I had a few acceptances in the past 6 months and even those generated barely any comment from the editors -- most of them were actually form letters. Seriously! One just sent an impersonal form letter asking me to verify my mailing address for my free copies (ooh, yay). Editors can barely barf out a short sentence even when they're accepting something.

I'm bitter, sure. It's hard not to be in the current environment. Most of these email thingies are forms. It's trivial to plug in author and story names. What you have to look for are genuine comments about the work you've submitted -- that can't be programmed into a form. Although if they're speaking generically about your characters, plot, pacing and whatnot, it probably is a form too. Look up agent Jeff Kleinman and Folio
for an example of what sounds like a long, personal letter but is (sneakily) just a lousy form.

My advice? Keep writing, follow this blog, and keep your eyes open for something big to happen. It's got to, because we've just about hit bottom in this "business".

puc said...

The author of this form letter used to write real estate ads, but with the downturn in that market he's now writing lit. mag. rejections.

Anonymous said...

Cynicism speaks to naivety:
Some magazines send a form letter expressing praise and respect. Their reasoning is that the author, feeling buoyed with hope (I'm close!), will become a subscriber.
So your letter is a sales pitch. They probably never even read the piece of junk you sent them. They still think you're a worthless clod. They just want your money.
The thing is, you're not worthless, and your work could be very good. I'm just expressing THEIR mentality.

jim said...

Anon above, your comment made me think of Glimmer Train Press. The sisters Burmeister-Brown and Swanson-Davies have a very special form letter, pure genius. It's short and tells you that your story didn't make it. But it also says "It was a good read."

Yes, your story, was a good read!

Makes all the amateurs and hobbyists and would-be writers rush out and subscribe to their magazine, and probably their writing newsletter too.

"Whoa, my story was good! And they read it!"

It's just deception, pure and simple.

puc said...

Yes, Narrative has copied Glimmer Train's very successful business model. But Glimmer Train at least does produce a hefty, slick tome. What's Narrative's overhead?

bookfraud said...

i hate to say this, but form, schmorm. i stopped reading the tea leaves of rejection letters a long time ago. a handwritten note on a form letter is a nice touch -- it keeps me going -- but it doesn't insure the same lit mag will publish anything else of mine, even if they ask for more.

keep plugging away and don't worry what the letters say.