Discover more from The Sentient Rejection Letter
On rejection, humor in sci-fi, and murderous spouses
Welcome to the inaugural edition of the Sentient Rejection Letter!
Back on the Pegasus: Returning to writing after a long time off
I’ve been pretty busy over the last six years. I got married, had two kids, and wrote a lot. BUT all of that writing was for my day job. The closest I got to creative writing was scribbling an incoherent idea for a story in my notes like “pancake baby time loop” now and then.
I missed writing—and publishing—my work, but I also felt overwhelmed and burnt out. Fiction writer remained an essential part of my self-identity, but I wasn’t nurturing it anymore.
Still, I clung onto shards of that identity, like when I’d mention to a new friend that I was a qualifying member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. (This is already the lamest humble brag of all time, but it’s even more pathetic when you mumble “qualifying” under your breath because you never bothered to fork up the money and apply.) I felt like the guy in college who wears his high school Varsity jacket everywhere he goes.
Eventually, my life got a little bit less hectic. My kids finally started to sleep, and I suddenly had mental energy to burn again. I eagerly jumped back into the world of writing and submitting my work. And all those incoherent scribbles turned out to be helpful because I had six years of ideas and a refreshed mind to make use of them.
In my first month back in the grind, I’ve submitted six stories of various lengths and styles to six magazines and journals. I’m proud to share that I’ve already heard back from two of them, and they both…rejected my stories.
And that’s okay. Rejection is part of the process. I served as a reader for two fairly prestigious literary magazines in grad school; it has provided an invaluable perspective as I sit on the other side of the submission form.
Your readers are human. Sometimes they have irrational pet peeves, and sometimes they’re super behind on submissions and aren’t giving a story a fair chance. And sometimes they have entirely different tastes than you do. When I was a reader, it was rare that we had a unanimous consensus on a story.
I vividly remember one meeting where we discussed two shortlisted stories that couldn’t be more different. One was (in my opinion) bland but professionally written. It was about a sad aristocrat in France or something similar. The other story was extremely odd—almost offputtingly so—but striking. It was about a miserable pet shop owner who gets eaten by a snake.
Both stories had champions and detractors. I’m sure you can surmise from the above descriptions which I preferred. But the detractors of the snake story hated it. No one hated the aristocrat story, but no one adored it either. Eventually, someone said something like, “This just feels like a story we would publish. I don’t think it’s amazing, but it just has that feeling.” The aristocrat story got through; the snake story didn’t.
The moral: sometimes people won’t like your story if it doesn’t “feel” right, and sometimes people will reject it if no one in the story is eaten by a snake. And sometimes it gets rejected because you were overzealous, and you should have proofread one more time, you damned fool—but that’s a story for another time.
My favorite story I read this month
Delivery For 3C at Song View by Marie Croke, Diabolical Plots
“Sometimes, and I’m stressing the sometimes, wishes muttered within my hearing come true.”
This is a fantastic opening line. It has so much personality, it’s conversational, and it immediately onboards you to the story's premise. This tactic is crucial for this story: the mixed fortune of granted wishes is pretty familiar territory, but the premise of this story—a tale about a food delivery driver reluctantly chained to one annoying customer—is wholly original. Croke wastes no time establishing the initial premise and the sub-premise that subverts that premise before the reader can get antsy about any initial misgivings they might otherwise foster.
What I really admire about this story, however, is the tone. I would describe it as humor-adjacent. This is a compliment. A lot of fantasy and science fiction outlets explicitly or implicitly discourage humor in stories (to my chagrin). This is probably because they’ve seen it poorly done so many times. I often find that successful pieces in the genre (both in terms of quality and marketability) have a sense of humor without expressly going for laughs. A sense of playfulness is serving other purposes (like driving the story forward or adding characterization) rather than existing for its own sake.
This story does a really nice job of mastering a sense of fun and playfulness without detracting from what it’s supposed to accomplish. It’s funny but it never feels like a punchline.
To borrow an idea from the standup Mike Birbiglia, it’s the difference between the class comedian and the class clown. The class comedian makes Mr. Wembly and her peers laugh with her insightful on-topic joke about Rasputin. The class clown makes fart noises in the corner while everyone ignores him. Too often in my life, I’ve taken out the whoopie cushion to little avail. (This is not a metaphor, this is literal biography.) Here’s to Marie Croke, a terrific class comedian.
Oddly specific submission guideline of the month: annoyed spouses
While we’re on Diabolical Plots—a publication I adore—I’d love to draw attention to a submission guideline that made me laugh. I love it when publications give extremely specific suggestions for what they like and don’t like. It’s helpful, but it also provides a fascinating insight into genre trends and the pet peeves that editors develop as a result of those trends.
My favorite sub-genre within this world is You’re not as clever as you think you are. This is when a publication calls out a startlingly specific kind of story and begs you not to submit it.
This brings us to this month’s entry: “Stories where a person tries to murder their spouse because of minor annoyances. We don’t know why this particular trope seems to be so common, but it has gotten very old, and we don’t really want to read any more of these.”
I am not too proud to admit that one of my scribbled ideas fell into this not-so-beloved subgenre. It was a story about a guy who keeps buying allegedly haunted dolls off of eBay and from garage sales in the hopes that they’ll murder his family for him. Disappointingly, they turn out to be ordinary dolls. Or do they? Sadly, we’ll never find out, because that one is on the scrap pile for now!
Until next time
Thank you so much for reading this! As of now, I am writing this into the void. This is for me to keep myself engaged and committed to my goals. If you stumble on this and enjoy it, please reach out or follow the newsletter! You can also email me at email@example.com.