Why Did my Story Get Rejected?

Marion Zimmer Bradley

© copyright 1997 by Marion Zimmer Bradley

The first sad truth about marketing fiction of any kind is this, and you are just going to have to deal with it:


Accept it. Memorize it. Put it up over your typewriter. Yes, it's unfair. And editors have no objection to "well written" stories. Between two salable stories, one well written and one badly written, most editors would rather buy the one that is better written. But if an editor has a well written story that does not meet her requirements, and a BADLY written story that DOES meet her requirements, she will buy the badly written story that does meet her requirements.

Whether or not you sell your story has NOTHING TO DO WITH HOW WELL YOU WRITE, OR HOW BEAUTIFUL YOUR PROSE. People who have no "writing ability" are making a good living at writing, and people who write very well indeed have nothing but a collection of rejection slips and some compliments on their writing style. (Of course, if you write well, you can LEARN the rest.)

One of the hardest things a young writer, one who has made maybe two or three sales, but cannot sell regularly, must cope with is distinguishing between the story which sells first time out and the other story he or she has written, which is just as "good" but for one reason or another does not sell, even though the writer reads it over and over again, bemused, and cannot imagine what is wrong with it, when it is certainly "just as good or better" than his first sale.


so; What does that #$%&*' editor want anyway?

If editors do not buy stories because they are well written, why DO they buy stories, then? Why did MY story get rejected?

Editors reject stories for all kinds of reasons. Some of them (and I'll deal with them later) have nothing to do with how good or bad a story is. The main reason an editor rejects a story is this:


In order to sell a story it is not necessary to learn to write well. Once one learns to write a literate English sentence, the ability to sell a story is based on only one talent: the ability to give an editor what her readers want.

A story may be bad in all kinds of ways, and still be salable, it if has some things the editor finds important (because he knows from experience that this is what his readers want.) But a story may be good in all kinds of ways, excellently written, with warm, lovable characters and wonderful style, plus a philosophical outlook which would make you the new Mark Twain or Jane Austen, and it is still going to get rejected if it doesn't give the editor those few things the editor wants and needs.

EDITOR'S REASONS for buying a story:

1. The editor knows it will give the reader a Satisfying Reading Experience of the kind his magazine was intended to provide.
2. The story has a clear-cut, likable character with whom the reader can identify.
3. The story tells, and solves, a clear-cut narrative problem which the main character solves by his or her own efforts.
4. The story makes the reader glad he read it, therefore giving the reader a (see #1 above) Satisfying Reading Experience.

An editor is just a person who is hired by the owners of a magazine because he or she has the experience and know-how to tell a story that will give a Satisfying Reading Experience from one that won't. If the editor does this, the magazine will sell. If the editor doesn't, and buys only "well-written stories," the sales go down and the editor gets fired in favor of someone who knows how to deliver the product the publisher is selling -- magazines people will read. Obviously, the reader of a confession magazine is going to want a different kind of Satisfying Reading Experience than the readers of say, Fearful Fantastic Fables, or Terrific Technology Tales... and the readers of FFF would sneer at the stories bought by the editors of TTT, or worse, yawn at them, which is why John W. Campbell would not have made a good editor for WEIRD TALES, and vice versa.

So the writer who wants to make a living as a writer of commercial fiction, by SELLING what he writes (and I cannot emphasize enough that this has NOTHING WHATEVER to do with "talent", "literary ability" or "quality creativity", and even less with "self expression" or "creative writing") must learn to give the editor what he wants, or at least what he THINKS he wants. If you want to "be a good writer" resign yourself to writing for little literary journals, and maybe when you have been dead for fifty years there will be a posthumous collection of your works and somebody will write a doctoral thesis about them. If you want to SELL, learn to give the editor what he wants. That done, you can be a good writer if you want to. But if you can't do that FIRST, the public will never have the chance to judge your work unless you publish it yourself. Of course editors are often wrong. They are wrong all the time, which is why every issue of Locus carries an announcement that such-an-editor has been fired from, or left, some magazine or publishing house, to be replaced by so-and-so. But right or wrong, they are the only people who can buy your stories.

And very often editors themselves do not know (or do not have the time to tell you) why they rejected your story; because, very often, editors have no talent except the ability to tell, by a gut feeling or their own instincts, why they feel one story will "work" and another one won't. They fall back on such statements as "your story is too weak...too slight... doesn't work somehow..." but it all adds up to "I won't buy it," and another rejection slip to add to the writer's bafflement and "What the hell does he mean? What does the editor want anyhow?"

When I started editing anthologies, I tried very hard to analyze the "gut feelings" I had about why one story worked and another one didn't, and I made up a form letter so I wouldn't have to write the same letter to about two hundred would-be contributors. In general, I rejected stories for one or more of the reasons outlined on the following page, and this had nothing to do with how well-written the stories were.

EDITOR'S REASONS for rejecting a story:

1. THE PACE OF THE STORY WAS WRONG. You were trying to write a novel in fourteen pages, with enough characters, action and crisis packed in to destroy a planet or bring down a society. Or, conversely, you were trying to string out a little gimmick or "idea" which might have made a good "short short" into eighteen or twenty pages or more. (I should add that this is the most common reason for rejection.)

2. THE STORY WAS NOT COMPLETE IN ITSELF. A lot of otherwise good stories read like the first chapter in a novel, with a major problem left unsolved and the reader wanting to know "What happened after that?" Granted, that many stories, especially stories in a series, can leave a window open for the writer to tell more about those same people. But if this is so blatant that the reader is left unsatisfied and fretting about unfinished business the editor has no choice but to reject.

3. YOUR MAIN CHARACTER WAS NOT IDENTIFIABLE -- the editor didn't know whose story you were telling. OR THE MAIN CHARACTER WAS NOT LIKABLE ENOUGH FOR THE READER TO WANT TO IDENTIFY WITH HIM OR HER -- a bastard should be a lovable bastard. OR THERE WERE TOO MANY CHARACTERS -- the editor couldn't keep them all straight. In general, a story with fewer than ten pages should have only one main character, a minor character and maybe a couple of "walk-ons." A story of twenty pages or more can have four or five characters but should have only one viewpoint character. Also, it should be easy to keep all the characters straight... you should not, for instance, as I did once, have a Helen, and Ellie and a Nell in the same story! Or name three of your male characters James, Jacob and John, unless they are triplets.

4. THE EDITOR COULD NOT GET INTERESTED ENOUGH IN THE CHARACTERS to care whether they solved their problems or not. I tend to test a mystery story by walking away from it about 50 pages from the end and asking myself "Do I really care who killed Uncle?" If the answer is no, I don't finish it.

5. NOTHING MUCH HAPPENED IN THE STORY. You gave some interesting episodes and some nice things happened to some moderately nice people, but when everything was finished, nothing much had changed and the characters were right back where they were before. In short, it didn't add up to that Satisfying Reading Experience. It must have satisfied YOU, or you wouldn't have written it, but an editor is paid to know whether it will satisfy, say, 100,000 people, and if he buys too many that won't, he gets fired. If you believe in your story, if the most honest introspection produces no lingering doubts, try a different magazine, or try that one after that particular editor gets fired; maybe if he had bought your story he would still be there.

6. THE CHARACTER DID NOT HAVE A SERIOUS ENOUGH PROBLEM (paper tiger) or DID NOT SOLVE IT BY HER OWN EFFORTS (Cinderella's Fairy Godmother came along and sent her to the ball). In the old Greek Drama, a God came down out of the sky and explained why all the trouble had happened and how to put it right. Also, check to see if your story is an idiot plot -- a plot which works only because everybody in it keeps acting like an idiot when a little common sense would unwind it all. (This is the detective story where everybody carefully doesn't tell the police everything they know because then the story would be over.)

7. THE STORY WAS JUST TOO GRIM OR DOWNBEAT ... too depressing, too bloody, too littered with unrelieved tragedy, too scattered with corpses, too sadistic. Obviously stories like this do sell sometimes, usually as horror movies or paperbacks, where the evil triumphs and everybody lives unhappily ever after, but choose your market carefully. Even ROSEMARY'S BABY had a few funny bits in it, so the reader could catch his or her breath. (But there's always Dean Koontz, whose work is VERY grim.)

8. THE STORY WAS OFFENSIVE, OR THE EDITOR THOUGHT IT WAS OFFENSIVE. This may, of course, simply be a matter of taste. I rejected a story whose major punch was scatological because I personally am offended by bathroom humor. You can always find another editor whose standards are different. Or maybe the editor is just too prudish, in which case try after she gets fired. Nine out of ten stories which get rejected fall into one or another of these eight categories; there is some big hole in the plotting of your story, or it is told in a way which is unclear, confusing or offensive to your editor's idea of his preferred reader. (For instance, back when the editors believed that 99% of the readership was white, male and adolescent, any story whose main appeal was, for instance, to women would be turned down automatically. Times, and readerships, have changed, and editors who don't please the new readership, at least 40% female, are now out of work and haunting the bread lines or editing porno mags.)

But there is always the tenth story, which has absolutely nothing wrong with it, but gets rejected anyway for one of the following reasons. You can say it isn't your fault, but in a very serious way it IS your fault, because most of these "no-fault" rejections are PREVENTABLE.

No-Fault Rejections:
or, Why Really Good Stories Get Rejected

1. THE EDITOR COULDN'T READ YOUR STORY because it was typed with a dim ribbon, or on a dim unreadable thermofax copy, or a sloppy unreadable Xerox, or because your spellingor grammar was so bad he didn't want to be bothered figuring out what you meant. Or the editor never got a chance to read your story because you didn't address it right, or because the label fell off and it went to the dead letter office. Or he read it, and loved it, but he never got a chance to tell you so because you hadn't put your real name and address on the story, only on the envelope, and the envelope got thrown away in the mailroom. Or he couldn't write you and tell you about it because you didn't send enough postage and his magazine has a firm policy not to answer any manuscripts not accompanied by return postage. (See Manuscript Preparation Guidelines.)

2. THE STORY WAS A PERFECTLY GOOD, WELL-PLOTTED STORY, but this particular editor doesn't buy sword and sorcery, or high-technology space opera, or post-doomsday stories, or horror stories. Next time, READ THE MARKET REQUIREMENTS.

3. THE STORY WAS A PRETTY GOOD STORY but the editor just didn't happen to like the end, and he wasn't goshwow enough about it to write and ask if you would mind if he changed it.

4. THE STORY WAS A PRETTY GOOD STORY but your opening was a little slow and the editor got bored before he could find out how good it was and ask you to change the first page a little.

5. THE STORY WAS A PERFECTLY GOOD STORY but something in this story pushed one of the editor's personal buttons -- maybe she is a devout Roman Catholic and the story spoke favorably about abortion, or she is a dedicated environmentalist and the story dealt with something which hit one of her personal fears, neuroses or emotional convictions. Granted, editors should be above all this kind of thing; but editors are only human. It's even possible that you had a character in the story who reminded the editor of her hated stepmother, her rotten aunt Minnie, or the college professor who flunked her out of Integral Calculus and wrecked her chances of getting into grad school, which is why she's an editor. Try another editor.

6. THE STORY WAS A PERFECTLY GOOD STORY but the editor was going to press tonight and needed a story exactly 7500 words long to fill a spot vacated by an ad that canceled or a column that missed its deadline, and your story was 8500 words long. Or she needed a story 10,000 words long and yours was only 7500.

7. THE STORY WAS A PERFECTLY GOOD STORY but the editor had just bought another story on the same theme by Harlan Ellison, Ben Bova, or Ursula LeGuin. Tough luck, and that's the breaks.

8. THE STORY WAS DAMN GOOD, but you had stepped on the editor's corns, literally or figuratively, at a drunken party in Chicago four years ago and she wouldn't buy it if you were the greatest writer since the last Pulitzer Prize winner.

Of course it is all too easy, when the editor sends back your story, to flatter yourself that your story is really pretty good, and that it was rejected for one of the these no-fault reasons.

In general, your first dozen or three rejections will be for cause -- your story just isn't well enough plotted, the characters are too tangled, the plot doesn't make sense, there is something wrong with the end or the beginning, or for some reason the editor just can't care enough about your characters.

The difference between the amateur and the professional is that the professional assumes that the editor knows her job, and if his story is rejected, he must have done something wrong. (And once an editor respects you as a professional and assumes you know your job, she will tell you if it's not your fault -- "Dear Joe -- sorry, this is too long for me," or "I'm overbought this month," or "I just bought three stories about sentient garbage dumps and can't use another.") The amateur always assumes his story is good and the editor just doesn't appreciate genius.

The art of the writer is to know the difference between the story that doesn't sell because it's a lousy story, and the one that doesn't sell because the editor is a lousy editor.

Sure, try your story again if it's rejected. But if it's rejected everywhere, assume there was some reason nobody liked it, and try another story ... and listen to that sneaking little voice that tries to tell you where that first one really fell apart.

-- Marion Zimmer Bradley

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