Tag Archives: rejection letter

Teacher’s Pet

15 Mar


In every classroom I have ever been in, there have been two types of “teacher’s pet.”

Type 1 was the kid who always had to hand in everything first. Whether it was a homework assignment, or a test — this student made sure she was the first to complete her work, believing this signaled to the teacher (and to the rest of the class) that she was the most prepared for the task at hand; that she could breeze through the material like it was second nature; that she was so confident in her studying habits and her natural intelligence that she didn’t even need to check her work.

Type 2 was the kid who always checked his work. This student was often among the last to hand in his test — but not because he was unprepared, or rushing to finish the last few questions. Often, this student was actually the first to finish the test; he just didn’t see the point in running up to the front of the class to slap his bluebook on the teacher’s desk, just to be first across the finish line. To this student, it seemed evident that a certain amount of time had been allocated for the task, and that no bonus points were to be given for using the least amount of that time. At the end of the day, the only metric for academic success was how many questions you answered correctly.

Both types of student were — unfailingly — straight “A” students, academic rock stars. Successful at the game of grades. They just had different ways of going about their success.

*  *  *

I was never a very good student. Neither the first to hand in his paper, nor the one who was furiously scribbling as the clock wound down — I was somewhere in the upper-bottom half of the academic bell curve. Mediocre. Above-average intelligence, yet always falling just short of the level of which I was capable.

This confused and frustrated me, but it absolutely drove my parents nuts. They couldn’t understand why I wasn’t keeping up with the other “smart” kids in my class. Was I lazy? Spiteful? Easily distracted? Was I myself a disruption to the class? They would rake over my report card for “clues” to my poor performance, and demand to know what the problem was.

I had no answers. It wasn’t like I was some dumb kid. I didn’t have dyslexia, or A.D.D. I was a precocious reader, who devoured Mark Twain and Conan Doyle; by the time I was 12, I’d read pretty much every Sherlock Holmes and Tom Sawyer story. I was the kid who was reading The New Yorker under some tree while the other kids were playing street hockey. By the end of summer vacation, I actually craved the structure of school, and looked forward to going back. I loved reading, and drawing, and learning—

And school supplies! Every year, it was the same giddy routine: I’d go with my mom to the five-and-dime and fill up a shopping basket with spiral notebooks, looseleaf paper, legal pads; packs of markers and mechanical pencils; “wild-card” items like rulers and protractors; and of course, Trapper Keepers. (The trick was obtaining a Trapper Keeper with a suitably colorful and weirdly psychedelic design, preferably one that broadcast your unique personality to the rest of the class.)

With these gleaming new supplies came the promise of Academic Accomplishment — of being a good student, a good son. Yes, I was going to get it right this year; I was going to get organized; I was going to be the kid who handed his work in early; I was going to hit the books, pound the pavement, keep my eyes on the prize, and bring home First Honors.

But then the school year started, and … well, things happened. The plan fell through; the wheels spun off of the machine. I never could get organized. The binders I’d lovingly labeled, the spaces I’d allocated for each subject, went increasingly unused; my homework assignments and handouts never quite found their way into the proper folders and partitions. I was the kind of student who was always scrambling to find my papers, crumpled and torn, and sometimes soggy, in the bottom of my bookbag. If I could find them at all.

As the year progressed, and I fell further and further behind, it became a matter of academic survival, of wheezing to the finish line. By the end of the year, my parents were relieved if I simply passed all my classes. They rarely even looked at my final report card — just wanted to know if I was being left back. Another summer; another plan to get better. I never did figure it out.

*  *  *

I mention all of this because it’s once again story submitting season, and I’m reminded of all the little ways I underachieved in school. My failure to take encouragement, and criticism, in equal stride; my lifelong inability to get organized. You see, I want to have a system in which I wake up early, make a pot of coffee, sit down at my desk, and use some sort of spreadsheet software to track my submissions, and keep a log of editors’ responses, capitalizing on occasional words of encouragement. But my brain just isn’t wired that way, and no dosage of caffeine or nicotine or ginseng or Aderrall will reprogram me into either of the two types of “teacher’s pet.”

Believe me, I’ve tried.

*  *  *

This rejection slip from Yemassee offers several “clues” for successfully placing your work in the journal. You can be persistent — submit and submit and submit. You can read the damn magazine (this is what I would suggest) or order a sample copy, if you’re a cheapskate. At the very least, you can look at the writing they feature on their website, and maybe even address your cover letter to the appropriate editor. You can keep your ear to the ground and enter a contest, when one pops up. These are things a successful writer would (and should) do.

But that sort of success seems academic to me. It’s padding for your transcript; a showy, falsely-earned thing; a feather in your fedora. I would actually advise against submitting work to any magazine you don’t read at least semi-regularly. It’s bad form — and possibly bad karma. Worse: it never works.

My point is that it makes no sense to want to place your work in a magazine you’ve never read; to strive for membership in a group you know nothing about. It’s like the kid who scrutinizes the test’s instructions for five whole minutes, looking for some performative edge; who writes a long essay where a short answer will do, leaving no stone unturned, and gets the “A” through sheer force of diligence and drive. Or the girl who turns her work in as early as possible, to earn brownie points from a teacher who is hungover and couldn’t care less. In the end, no one cares about past publications, the editors you’ve worked with, your pedigree — they just want to be knocked out by your writing. (Even George Saunders, I’m pretty sure, has his trunk stories rejected from the big markets, from time to time.)

I also no longer submit stories simply on the virtue of my having completed them — or because they crossed the finish line under a certain word count. There are stories I “finished” ten years ago that still aren’t finished. There are stories I’m really proud of, but are nevertheless imperfect, or structurally fucked — and which I have no interest in un-fucking. Stories I want to salvage but simply can’t. There are stories I’m quite pleased with, but that don’t belong in either academic journals or commercial magazines — that occupy that awkward space between genre and literary — the kind of stuff Saunders and Kelly Link and Dan Chaon write. Stuff that might never find the “right” audience. And that’s okay. Who cares? Maybe I’ll self-publish those stories, or post them to Medium. Maybe I’ll print them out and give them to friends, when the mood strikes me, or leave them in coffee shops for punks and hobos to find. Or maybe they’ll just live on my hard drive until a tree falls on my car while I’m driving to work and my laptop is donated to some underfunded school district and a kid with peanut butter in his teeth pulls one up at random and thinks: “I can do better than this.” Maybe I’ll win a posthumous O. Henry Award. You never can plan these things, can you?


It’s the Green Thing To Do

31 Dec


I have this dumb rule about submitting work to agents and editors, and applying for grants and awards, and entering pieces in contests; and that rule is:

Never pay to have your work read.

A few years ago, some enterprising literary journals figured out that if they accepted electronic submissions, they could transfer the costs of the submitting process (postage, paper, packing materials, etc.) from the author over to the magazine. Prior to 1999, when I first began submitting stories, emailing an editor with a story was considered bad form. Over the years, resistance to this practice has weakened (usually under the auspices of “going green”), and now e-submissions, and with them reading fees, are the norm. Yet my rule remains:

Never pay to have your work read.

That said, if you happen to have written an extremely technical 12,000-word novella about spelunking, and Caving Magazine is open to fiction submissions, but is charging a $3 fee, then you should probably go ahead and pay the fee. Three dollars is, to all but the lowest of paupers, an insubstantial sum of money. But paying editors to consider your work sets a bad precedent, and I predict that if the trend continues, it won’t be long before magazines are offering “premium members” the chance to bypass the slush pile and have their work zoom directly into the hands of an editor.

On a less political note:

Mr. Slag,

This is a great, detailed piece of experiences in young adulthood. I wish we had a place for it at the current time. Best of luck on all future writing,


Clearly this story was not ready to go out on submission. Praising a story for its “detail” is the equivalent of passing out a participation award at a fourth-grade spelling bee. It is a textbook example of damning with faint praise. I appreciate the personalized response, but moreover I am grateful for the masked criticism. The day I catch myself writing fiction about my “experiences in young adulthood” is the day I shoot myself in the balls.

All Apologies

10 Dec

I suspect “DK” are the initials of the slush reader who rejected my piece.

But I like to think this reads: “Sorry OK”.

As in: “Sorry, OK, we hate to do this, but OK, the thing is, your work is really awful, like criminally bad, so please don’t send us anything else … OK?

You don’t have to be sorry. You took the time to scribble something in pencil on my rejection slip, thus ensuring its enshrinement in Letters of Rejection. Really, I should be thanking you.

Thanks :)

28 Nov

It’s not often you get a rejection letter with an emoticon at the bottom, but here we are. The letter starts innocuously enough:

We regret that we are not able to place your work in our magazine.

So am I! But then, a heartfelt and candid apology–

We’re sorry to disappoint you, and we than you for submitting to EPOCH.

And now we get down to business:

EPOCH is published three times a year.

(So your chances of placing your work in the journal are about the same as being admitted to Cornell with a 2.9 GPA and a score of 28 on the ACT.)

Unsolicited submissions are reviewed from 15 September to 15 April of each year.

(So don’t get any funny ideas about sending us something in the dead zone of the summer months, dumbass.)

Sample issues are available from the above address at $5.00 per copy, postage paid.

A cool five bucks for sample copies. Postage is on the house.

And here we get to the real gem of this rejection letter, its personal flourish, the maraschino cherry swimming in our Manhattan, its raison d’etre.

Thanks :)

Simple. Elegant. Wistful. Childlike, even.

The human who wrote this brief word of thanks is doubtless a first- or second-year comparative lit major who is looking, smartly, to ingratiate herself to the literary crowd at Cornell. She may be new at this publishing thing, but she understands (as you unfortunately don’t) that stories don’t miraculously appear in literary journals after having arrived from anonymous, forgotten towns like Tucson, Arizona and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; they come from the friends of editors, and the friends of friends of editors; and in the event that she one day makes the uncharacteristically piss-poor decision to try her hand at writing professionally, she wants to attach herself to that inside track. She is a prudent, punctilious, and pragmatic person, aware of the power of the female equivalent of the firm handshake–the handwritten thank-you note. She is not Charlotte Simmons but could pass as her cousin from the city. If necessary, she will destroy you with a withering smile. She is an expert on prepackaged microwavable snacks, celebrity culture, Victorian-era poetry, optimizing her Web presence through social media, and wearing jeans that just fit. She is frequently accused of “leading guys on,” though she herself is mystified by this distinction, and finds the reputation unfair. She sees herself, in five years, being engaged–or better yet, married!–to her high-school swim-jock sweetheart, Robbie Planter, an Olympic-caliber athlete who proposes to her in an elaborate display of beta-male supplication during an ice-skating event at the Rink at Rockefeller Center. She has been given the hallowed title of “slush reader” at Cornell’s flagship literary journal on the strength of her winning smile, can-do spirit, smart business-casual attire, and the fact that she is willing (and, thanks to her considerable dowry: able) to put 15 hours a week towards plodding through clueless cover letters and coffee-stained manuscripts for no pay; but she takes this position seriously, and makes it her business to respond personally to each rejection, even if it’s just a smiley face scribbled in pencil at the bottom of each blue card; she does this in the vain hope that if she ever finds herself in the unenviable position of one day submitting her own purple poetry to a middling academic journal such as EPOCH, the Christian God to whom she prays will reward her karmically and thusly, and her work will shine through the slush, like a grain of glass in a mountain of sand, and she will be spared the indignity of becoming one of Them.

I bet her pussy tastes like strawberry shortcake.

Locked Room Mystery

12 Nov

A perfectly fine rejection letter, notable if only for its complimentary closing:


As a quasi-professional writer of cover letters, I have struggled mightily with the delicate matter of the closing salutation. One must strike an impossible pose of quirkiness, casual solicitation, and deferential gratitude … but how best to sign off on a correspondence in which the author is essentially offering himself up for near-certain artistic immolation? How to gracefully leave a room that one never should have entered in the first place?

I had never considered using “Cordially,” but here, in response to my submission, and in the spirit of the somewhat pompous and erudite detective after which Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine is named, it works splendidly.

From Mirriam-Webster:

cor dial  adjective  \’kor jel\

3 b: warmly and genially affable <cordial relations>

A boilerplate rejection letter is, if nothing else, a cordial affair.

Ring Tone

9 Nov

Something about this form rejection just clicks for people. The clinical, not-gonna-bullshit-you tone of: “We’re sorry to report that we are not going to publish your story.” The distant ring of: “Good luck placing it elsewhere.” Personally I can appreciate a response like this–almost as much as if The Editors had addressed me personally.

The bluntness of this letter–its total mastery of detachment; its abdication of any responsibility to ease the writer’s witless mind or stroke his talentless ego–is just exquisite.