Sweet, sweet rejection

My ears deceived me. I asked my guest to repeat his statement.
“Dogs,” the Reverend Tobias Thackery said. With a smile he bit into the pink-iced fairy cake.

Time to talk about that story that I haven’t talked about.

The Unpopular Opinion of Reverend Tobias Thackery was written over a couple of days back in May this year. My wife and I had just tripped down south for the Bristol Comic Con, and stayed at the surprisingly delightful seaside town of Portishead. I don’t know whether it was the sea air, or the slightly different atmosphere of a town that has no railway (well, I’m trying to find a pattern here), but over the two days I had a few images of a completely new story running through my head. In fact, I woke up one morning with the opening line fully formed, and spent the morning repeating it over and over as I sat at the comic con waiting for the main event (the DCU panel) to begin.

So despite working on a novel and having three reports to do for Comic Book Resources, as soon as we got back home, I had to get the story out. I’m not actually much of a fan of short stories – I find them near-impossible to write, and not so interesting to read, unless they are spectacularly good. But this was a rare occassion when I had a good and short idea, so I got it down.

Thackery – as we shall call it – turned out to be a 6,900 word Lovecraftesque weird tale. Given the initial idea – that humans are descended from dogs, not apes (which came from the sleeve notes a forgotten Pulp single from their mid-80s dark age, Dogs Are Everywhere) – I always knew it was going to be in the ‘weird’ category, and as I was immersed in a modern-day third-person novel (Seven Wonders), I took the opportunity to indulge my love of the pulp of Lovecraft and Bloch and write an antique first-person narrative.

Lovecraft and Bloch are my two favourite dead authors, and last year I managed to snag a collection of Bloch’s Cthulhu mythos story cycle, that normally goes for about £50, for just a couple of pounds. In fact, the book is so rare and expensive that Chaosium are reprinting it this year. I recommend picking it up, the collection is uniformly excellent, even though Bloch tears nearly all of the stories to shreds himself in the introduction. My favourite pieces are a roughly linked group that deal with refugees from Ancient Egypt establishing dark and terrible temples in the caves of Cornwall and Devon, where they continue to worship their unspeakably evil old gods. When it comes to weird pulp tales, that kind of juxtaposition is right up my alley. So I tied Thackery to this concept. In the story, our hero – a Victorian professor of paleontology – meets a strange old vicar with a funny idea, and travels down to the South-West of England to take a look at some remarkable evidence for himself. Cosmic horror ensues. There is a fair amount of blood involved.

Thus Thackery was done in two days. I shipped it out to my beta-readers, who came back with some very useful comments. All liked it (this is good). Some said it was too long (this is true). Some said a few bits needed some further explanation (this is fair enough). In one of those catch-22 situations which I’m sure a lot of writers find themselves in, I did manage to cut the words down by quite a bit, only to replace them with new sections expanding on a few points that some readers thought needed it. But it was done, and polished, and now I could stop worrying about it and get on the with novel.

Busy as I was I didn’t plan much in the way of selling the story. I decided to aim for the top first, and see what happened, so I sent it to a well-known, top tier magazine, one that Lovecraft and Bloch wrote for more than 70 years ago. And then I waited, and waited, and got on with other writing.

Just last weekend – well within their specified response period, I should add, which was very impressive – I got a response from the magazine. It was a rejection – a form rejection, although a very well written one that made it slightly hard to tell, and I had to read it a dozen times before I saw that it was. I allowed myself one minute thirty seconds of devastation and depression, cursing my chosen profession, and deciding to pack it all in together and burn down my website.

Then I pulled myself together, and got back to writing. Note to other writers – this is how to do it. If I only ever give one piece of useful advice, it is this. Rejection feels like the worst thing that could ever happen to you, and it is at this point that I’m sure a vast proportion of budding writers just calls it quits at. But the key here is to accept it, just for that one minute thirty second period. Allow yourself to be angry, sad, and depressed. Swear and stomp around, and go outside and shout at a tree. Then forget about it, move on, and update your submission spreadsheet with the rejection and get back to working on your current project.

This was my first actual rejection, I should add, for a completed work. I had previous submitted novel proposals to a work-for-hire series, each of which consisted of the first chapter and a synopsis, and each of those were rejected. Each of those got a personal rejection, which was nice, along with a bit of advice, and also an indication that on two of the three proposals, I’d actually been in the very short list. These were still rejections, but they really were terrific news – the editor had read my proposals, liked them, seen merit and possibility, but I’d lost out to something better. But it did tell me that I was doing something right. Buried somewhere in those three story ideas was something worth working on. But they weren’t rejections on finished projects, just a 5000 word chapter and a 5000 word synopsis.

The magazine, in contrast, sent me a form rejecton. Is that “worse” than a personalised rejection? Well, yes, but the shory story market is both limited and highly competitive. That’s not to say the novel market isn’t either (and it is), but with the volume of material that the editor has to see, they just have no choice. And the magazine I aimed for is top tier, it has that cache. My story wasn’t right for it this year.

These days, with everything done electronically, my first ever rejection slip only exists as an email. But I’m going to be traditional, and print it out, and I’m going to buy one of those receipt spikes. I’ll put it on my desk, next to my computer, and skewer the rejection slip. Stephen King says that his rejection spike held a full ream of paper before he sold his first story. Looks like I’ve got a lot of work to do!