Craft of Writing: “But Nobody Will Buy It”

Posted: December 15th, 2014 under Craft, the writing life.
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This post is the promised one about living with another kind of failure.  You wrote the story; you think it’s a good enough story to submit for publication; you give it one or several final polishes.   And all you get for the submission is a rejection.   Now what?

The obvious thing is to try a different market.   If one editor or agent doesn’t like it, another may.  So if there are markets still available to you, send it off again.*   What about the rejection letter’s comments (if you got one) that it was weak here or too long there?   Ignore  them for the moment.   An editor’s comments have two bases: your story and their needs.   A given comment might be more about that editor’s needs (it’s too long for THAT editor’s available space)  than about the story.  See what you get from other editors.   If you get comments from several editors or agents that say about the same thing (“It’s a terrific piece except the ending is flat” or “Your main character has no agency–all they do is react to things; others do the heavy lifting offstage” ) then  the work does have a problem–which you may or may not be able to fix (or want to spend the time fixing.)

Unfortunately, the #1 reason for a story not selling is that it’s not that good a story.  It doesn’t have to be a bad story to be unsalable, either.   It can be a B+ story in a market where there are more than enough A+ stories to fill all the available publishing slots.    (I know–when you look, in your darkest moods, at “what gets published,” you’ll find plenty of works you consider C- stories that got published when your B+ story didn’t.  Try not to get stuck on that.  It will just sour your stomach and make it harder to write your next stories.)   If you’ve submitted a bunch of stories that got rejected by every available market–a typical early-career experience–then look at all the comments you get back on all the stories.   That may seem a depressing prospect, but switch your mind from “creative” to “editorial.”  You’re looking for commonalities.  We all have innate and acquired patterns in our work.   What are your patterns?  Slow start?  Sags in the middle?  Boring characters?  Unlikeable characters?  Clunky writing?  Infodump?   Lame ending?   Dialog doesn’t zing?  Unbelievable coincidences?

Let’s say you’ve sent out five stories and you find that three different editors commented on four of the five stories that the ending was flat, lame, unsatisfying, contrived, or some other negative.  Right away you know you need to work on endings.  You may think the ending was fine, but it’s time to review what an ending should be, and look at yours to see what isn’t working.   Or maybe your endings are great, but multiple editors commenting on multiple stories said your beginnings are all too leisurely (this is one of my temptations–I like “mood” scenes in books I read, so I write them–and usually have to delete them or cut them down, and still sometimes people complain about a slow beginning.)  This analysis will show you whether you have consistent types of flaws in your stories that are keeping them from getting past the first reader.   And if that’s the problem–your stories are flawed, and now you know where, and when you know what a problem is, you can fix it.   If it’s a consistent pattern for you, you will find it hard to change, and it will take more reading than writing for awhile, but you can do it.

But should you?  Nearly all writers have “trunk stories” that seemed like good stories to the writer but never sold.  If the writer gets famous enough, they might even pull out a trunk story–which will sell on the strength of their name–and get it published.  And usually that’s a bad idea.  Because usually (not always) it’s not that good, and most of us recognize that when we pull the thing out (or the file up on the computer) and look at it in the light of years’ more experience.  Oh.  Yeah.  Well…I’m kinda glad that one never sold.   Moreover, the time you spend trying to fix old stories is time taken away from first-drafting new ones.   Learning to shrug and move on to the next is an essential skill for the working writer.   I’ve run into people at workshops who have been working on the same piece for years, changing it to follow the recommendations of successive instructors, panelists, writers’ groups, until it’s all smudged and worn at the edges…and the writer will not move on.   They love that first story and they are going to mumble it around until they die.  Don’t be that writer.

Look at the time it will take to work on that story,  consider the amount of time and energy you feel like putting into it, and whether you feel new stories bumping at your heels, wanting you to write them.   If you’ve spotted a consistent problem with your stories (whatever it is) you can work on it just as well with a new story…easier, in fact, because you have no attachment to the previous version.   If I went back and tried to fix the stories that didn’t sell, it would be a lot of work for not much gain.  What needs fixing, if something does, is your story-generator…you don’t need to fix the old stories (consider them practice) but you do need to fix your ability to write stories without that problem in them.   You can think of it as a soft-ice cream machine.   If it spits out a mix of ice lumps and melted goo,  spending time on trying to make each individual ice cream cone’s contents into good ice cream doesn’t get you nearly as far as fixing the machine so it extrudes ice cream that makes good ice cream cones.  (No, you re not a machine, and stories are not all the same product.  It was a metaphor. )   If you know where in your work the story sags, or if you have a tendency to write helpless characters that need rescuing, or if your dialog is stiff and unrealistic, then you can be aware while writing your new stories and not repeat your old patterns.

One thing not to do is get mad at agents & editors & the entire publishing world and decide that you’ll just go solo, by gum.   It’s easy, these days, to publish your own fiction on your website or even as an e-book.  Why shouldn’t you do that?  Because until you know whether your work really is  just too quirky, too individual, too creatively awesome for agents/editors to recognize your genius…or the more common B+ (or worse, but I give everyone the benefit of the doubt in spite of having read slush pile stories to die laughing at)  story in an A+ competitive environment, you’re setting yourself up to spend time, energy, and money (if you go the e-book route) on a “shortcut” that will probably not go where you think it will.  And you won’t advance as a writer–your stories won’t get better–if you stomp off in a huff certain that the stories rejected so far are all 24k cold studded with precious stones.   The time to publish on the internet is when you have enough experience to know how best to make use of it to gain a readership, how to keep them interested and coming back for more, and so on.   The internet is definitely another route to publishing that did not exist when I  was young, but its very openness increases the chance that your work will disappear in the mass of work produced by people who are just not that good.   And you will find that people want stuff on the internet to be free.  There’s nothing wrong with writing for nothing, if you can afford it, but if you want to be paid for what you write, if your dream includes supporting yourself by your writing, you have an uphill struggle.  On the other hand, if your stories grab readers and don’t let them go…if people flock to your website to read the latest installment of your mystery/western/romance/fantasy/SF/whatever…then some of them will pay for the privilege, and you may become another internet sensation.  Not saying it can’t happen…but it will happen when your writing skills really have advanced enough.

What about stories that aren’t published because of bias against a writer, or a writer’s race/gender/nationality/culture/religion/political opinions?   Don’t such failures to publish exist?  Yes, particularly in some publishing imprints and publishers.  But publishing as a whole is more diverse than any one publisher.   Some of what looks like bigotry on the surface is business when looked at closely.  Publishers will publish books they can sell.   If book buyers suddenly want books  of a particular type, publishers will open more slots for that type, and cut slots for the least salable    (Remember when westerns were big?   Now they aren’t.   Readership fads drive publishing. )  Sometimes publishers are wrong about what readers will buy, but small press publishers, specialty presses for specific interests, fill in some of those gaps.  Not all.  And I’m not saying that bias doesn’t exist and doesn’t affect you.  But first–be sure the story you’re muttering about having been rejected because you’re [whatever you are] is really the solid gold studded with diamonds story you first thought it was.  Then makes sure you know what a publisher’s or agent’s submission guidelines are and that your story fits into them.    To bring up a recent example, when a Harper Collins religious imprint refused to publish a book with a favorable attitude towards lesbians unless the author changed the book to reflect that imprint’s religious stance…that didn’t mean Harper Collins was against gays.   It meant that imprint was specifically targeting a very socially-conservative religious audience, and the writer was accommodated in another.

Which brings up (slightly off topic but not much) the need for writers to research their markets, pay attention to submission guidelines, and read within each market.   You are not going to sell a meat cookbook to a vegan publisher.   If you think that your meat cookbook is so good, and so compelling in its argument for carnivory, that you will convert the vegan publisher,  back away from that thought.   It won’t work.  You are not going to sell a story about the dangers of guns in the home and the need for legal limits on gun ownership to the National Rifle Association’s magazine.  Agents, editors, markets have each their own personality (which is a good thing, even if you don’t agree with it.)  Send your work to the agent/editor/publisher whose selections you already like and “agree” with (in a general sense.)   Give your work every chance to succeed by sending it where, by its very nature (topic, handling of topic, slant, length, etc.) it will be at least welcome on the front porch knocking on the door.

*The exception to the “send it elsewhere without changing a thing” suggestion is this:  If the first agent/editor who sees it says something like “I would buy this except for this bit right here–and if you fix that, send it to me again,” and “this bit right here” suddenly makes perfect sense, and you can see how to fix it and how that makes the story better–fix it and send it to that agent/editor again, with a thank-you comment.   If the agent/editor says “I would buy this except for this bit right here” but makes no offer to look at it again, fix it and send it on to another  agent/editor.


So, rejection.  Rejection sucks, right?   I agree.  But there is a way to make it slightly less sucky.   Several ways, in fact.

1. Make it an achievement.  A contest.   How many “reasonable” rejections (the best work you can do sent to the best potential markets for that work) before your first acceptance?  Can you cover one wall of one room?  Two?   Keep a chart (or actually pin them to the wall, side by side, no blank space) and praise yourself for the guts it takes to keep on keeping on, and taking those hits, and getting right back up and doing it again.   Rejection comes at every stage of a writing career, so finding a way to cope with it is essential.

2. Remember it is not school.   Many of us have experienced grading in school (that C- B+ A+ thing) and thus interpret rejection as the paper the teacher throws at you, in front of the class, telling you it’s not even worth grading (or it has a big red F on it.)   We are used to a range of grades, a continuum from failure up through gradual stages to that A+, and the A+ isn’t necessary for graduation to the next stage of school.  Publishing isn’t like that.  Publishing is binary: accepted/rejected.  In practice, this means that a rejection encompasses a range of possibilities from F through A+ (but a hair less + than the one chosen for this month’s “new mystery novel” slot.)   I learned that on the day I got four rejections in the mail on the same day.   It was like a blow to the heart…so strong was my feeling of shame (as if I’d turned in lousy schoolwork) that I realized I was thinking of it as like school.  But it’s not.  Real world: adult world.  Doing your best and trying hard isn’t enough…but it may end up being enough if your best keeps getting better.

3. Remember that rejection is not rejection of you (unless you were rude in your interaction with the agent/editor/publisher, in which case it might be…), but rejection of that work.  You are not just your writing.   You are a whole person, a person that agent or editor doesn’t know (and might like, a lot.  They have to reject stories by their friends sometimes, and that sucks for both sides.)    Nourish that whole person: keep learning (about more than the craft of writing), keep exploring the world, keep engaging with other people and their creativity–music, painting, dance, sculpture, architecture, etc., keep taking in experiences, keep trying new things.  Grow the person you want to be, and keep that ‘who I want to be” a little or a lot ahead of where you are now.  That gives you a base from which to write–and from which to handle rejection of your writing.

4.  Remember that rejection of a story may be final, but it is not a final rejection of you the writer, or a final failure.  It will feel like that on the black days, but it is not final.  Nobody can stop you from writing what you want.  Nobody can stop you from getting better at it.   Nobody can keep you from putting it out on the internet, either, if that’s what you decide to do.   You may or may not have success soon, or by midlife, or later–but you can still write the stories you want to write.   And–important to note–you can quit whenever you want (maybe you don’t actually enjoy writing itself–no sense beating your head on that wall if you hate it) and that, too, is not failure.  Those who have the opportunity to do so often try out different ways of living before they settle (if they do) into one or a few occupations.   Trying out writing fiction is not a stupid thing to do, or a waste of time–it’s something to try if it interests you (rather like fly fishing or riding dressage horses.  Most people who try those will quit after awhile; some will continue as amateurs; a few will become professionals.)

(And if you think I’m writing this in the middle of the night because I’m stuck on the current book…not really stuck, but needing to find someone with a particular experience to help me out on a detail, and no idea how to find such a person late on a Sunday night.  What does it sound like inside a modern inflatable life boat with a canopy when you’re in fairly high seas with a wind blowing and occasional rain squalls?   I can make a stab at it–I can imagine some sounds, but I’m not sure they’re the right sounds.)


  • Comment by Jonathan Schor — December 16, 2014 @ 7:04 am


    I thought you dealt with the life boat sounds etc in one of the Herris Serano books.

  • Comment by elizabeth — December 16, 2014 @ 8:05 am


    Different size lifeboat…only one occupant and only one lifeboat, then. Now multiple occupants, two lifeboats, diff. conditions. This story needs more detail because more of it involves survival at sea and on land in harsh conditions.

  • Comment by Iphinome — December 16, 2014 @ 10:27 am


    There’s an episode of Survivorman called _Lost at Sea_ where he recorded (without a background score) in a canopied life-raft during a patch of rain and thunder. The waters were calm though.

  • Comment by Iphinome — December 21, 2014 @ 5:25 am


    This post brings to mind an old joke…

    *ring ring*
    SECRETARY: You’ve reached [Big Name Agency] how can I help you?
    WRITER: Hi this is [writer], I’m calling for [agent] about my manuscript.
    SECRETARY: I’m sorry, she’s busy right now but I can reject it for you if you’d like.

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