“This Piece Just Didn’t Grab Me:” Reflections on Rejection from the (Former) Editor

In my mind, rejection used to look like this: the editor, cloaked in ermine, passes judgment from a golden throne. Kneeling on the steps below, in the rightful place and posture of the lowly submitting writer, I bow my head. I have displeased a great sovereign of the land of Literature, and now I shall surely be beheaded.

Yet, through almost 150 rejections, I have somehow managed to keep my head – in the physical sense, at least. That’s part of the reason I was offered the editor position at Poor Yorick in the winter of 2018: my “experience with the submission process.” I accepted because I figured that, as someone who has persevered through the thorny no-thank-you thicket of publishing to retrieve a precious yes or two, I could determine good writing from bad.

And isn’t that what editors do? Scour the crowds, wise eyes sweeping, until finally they point at The One True Story of Legend and declare, “There! Bring it to me.”

That idea made sense out of my being rejected 9.99 times out of 10, because one does not simply scribble down The One True Story of Legend on a slow Tuesday. The One True Story of Legend is a thing that must be forged and wrought and imbued and – look, I don’t actually know, but whatever the Real Writers are doing, it comes out shinier than my work.

Put another way, as a lowly submitting writer, whenever I read this piece just didn’t grab me in a rejection, I always put the emphasis on grab. But now, reflecting on my time as an editor, I think it’s more accurate to put the emphasis somewhere else in that sentence – almost anywhere else, in fact.

As the Poor Yorick Editor, I didn’t want to wear an ermine cape. I went into the experience steeled against the allure of a power trip, but I didn’t need to worry. When I ascended those steps on which I’d been kneeling and turned around to survey submissions, I realized I couldn’t see for crap. The clearest sense I had was of my limitations.

Reading other writers’ pieces, I could tell that they had forged them in their passion and wrought them with crafty hands and imbued them with unique linguistic magic. I could see the work and heart and commitment. And yet, I couldn’t say with certainty whether an ending would be satisfying, or whether a character would be compelling, to many people. I knew when something felt wrong to me, but what if I was missing the point? What if I wasn’t old enough – or young enough – to “get it?” Perhaps, to understand the story or poem or picture I had been handed, you “had to be there” – in a certain time or place or emotion or strait – and I just wasn’t.

An editor is only one person, with one taste, and one set of past experiences and future goals. So, keep sending stuff out, and move the emphasis: This piece just didn’t grab me.

I used to imagine that editors saying “no” to my work were also saying “you’re not a writer.” But, if you reread a piece you wrote and felt that it was strong enough to submit someplace, odds are on that you do in fact know something about writing and storytelling. Reading work, I never thought, “Well, this person is wasting their time.” I thought, “Oh, I like this part, but I’m not sure about this part over here.” And, before you wonder why editors don’t just tell you about that disqualifying detail so you can change it, you should know that my next thought was usually, “but that might just be me – there’s nothing objectively wrong with it.”

An editor does not think in terms of conferring upon you, or denying you, the status of Real Writer; she’s too busy wrestling with whether or not she’s a Good Editor. So, keep sending stuff out, and move the emphasis: This piece just didn’t grab me.

And hey, when editors and agents say they reject the work rather than the writer – it’s a logical truth. All I could do, when I was looking at someone’s work, was either take it or leave it. That single piece is the only thing up for grabs. And maybe that single piece wasn’t right for Poor Yorick’s specific aesthetic, or for me. The rejection is never a rejection of the author; the author – her breadth of work, her craft knowledge, her progress and growth – was not up for assessment.

An editor can’t speak to anything beyond what they have seen from you in that one submission. So, keep sending stuff out, and move the emphasis: This piece just didn’t grab me.

When you submit things to an editor or agent, remember how small they are. And know that as I was polishing this blog post I received a rejection.

It happens a lot; don’t overemphasize it. Keep your head, and keep submitting.

Briana Una McGuckin writes gothic and fantasy fiction. Her work appears in the Not All Monsters horror anthology (Rooster Republic Press), The Arcanist, Breath & Shadow, and Hides the Dark Tower (Pole-to-Pole Publishing). She has an MFA from Western Connecticut State University. She has cerebral palsy, two husbands, and a most excellent life. Follow her on Twitter @BrianaUna, or check out her blog: moonmissives.com