I recently cleaned out some old files of stories that I’d submitted more than ten years ago, before I went back to school to study creative writing.
Those stories. Oh dear.
I’d like to send my deepest apologies to the editors of Seventeen Magazine, Redbook, Country Woman, Glimmer Train, Thema, Zoetrope All-Story, Mad Magazine, The Sun, Reader’s Digest, Writer’s Digest, Vestal Review, Oatmeal Studios, etc. I had not recognized my submissions as the rubbish that they were, and for this I am sorry. Please forgive me.
Back in the 90s, I wrote a story about moving to Brooklyn. I was a 24-year-old, pregnant Florida girl, married to a sailor with orders to the US Coast Guard Station Rockaway, and I was terrified of what lay ahead for us in the big city. Everyone and everything I knew about life was back in Florida: fishing, swimming, and country line dancing. One thing we could take with us was our country music. It seems NYC did have a country radio station, but I still wasn’t sure I’d fit in with city life. I was a scrunchy-wearing outsider in Carrie Bradshaw’s fashion world and I wanted to write about it.
When I finished my story about moving, I submitted it to Country Woman magazine. It was rejected. What I learned was that dropping a few country song titles into the passages and mentioning my love for Travis Tritt didn’t make it country enough for Country Woman. Truth is, I never researched the publication. Didn’t read a single article. How could I possibly comprehend the depth of the stories and messages that appealed to their readers?
In the 80s, I worked at a Spencer Gifts in the mall where we sold black light posters, 14k gold, sterling silver jewelry, and vibrators. After a few years of being exposed to ”Shit Happens” bumper stickers and naked fat lady greeting cards, I tried writing a few novelty gag lines myself, and submitted them to the greeting card companies that Spencer’s used: Kalan, Comstock, and Oatmeal Studios. In fact, I came up with my own line of pregnancy cards. Cute as I thought they were back then, when I read them today, I am horrified. Damn, I was mean. Add to that the fact that I’d never even been pregnant. There’s some truth to the saying, “Write what you know.” As an editor today, I can quickly identify when a character or story line lacks credibility in a life situation (like pregnancy, parenting, or divorce), or an occupation (like bartending). I had never been pregnant, and I hadn’t even studied what being pregnant was like, so I had no business writing about the subject. It showed in the greeting card companies’ responses:
Kalan said: “Your style does not lend itself to our company’s products.”
Comstock said: “The lines are just too long or are not funny at all.” (Ouch.)
Oatmeal Studios didn’t even respond.
Sometimes the work simply doesn’t fit. At least Comstock didn’t send a form letter. Their production assistant, Hazel Edmondson, added, “Don’t get discouraged, just keep trying!” Because every little morsel of feedback from an editor means something, right?
In my early twenties, I was an ambitious writer. My husband bought me a TRS-80 computer from Radio Shack. Once I pulled off the plastic computer cover, booted her up, and formatted my stack of floppy disks, my novel was in motion. I carefully labeled each disk for each chapter, and was twelve chapters into writing when I got stuck. I switched to short stories and submitted them to glamour magazines like Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, and Redbook. Nothing wrong with dreaming big, I thought, except that everyone else was dreaming big too. These magazines received the largest number of submissions for short fiction than any others at the time, and they accepted only 12-15 pieces per year. I had a better chance of catching Old Hitler, the famous hammerhead legend that roamed the waters from Boca Grande Pass to Tampa Bay, than I had of getting my story picked up by one of these magazines.
Not only that, but their rejection letters were impersonal form letters. Cosmopolitan’s said:
I’m sorry that we could not find a place for your story in COSMOPOLITAN. The large number of manuscripts we receive makes it impossible for us to offer specific comments, but we do appreciate your interest in the magazine, and thank you for thinking of us.
Seventeen couldn’t even send a form letter. It was more like a form scrap of paper. I had to accept that my writing was not ready for the big publications. Writing is just like any other skill or talent, and I needed more practice.
I tried my hand at writing articles. In the mid-90s, my husband was breeding African cichlids in a 55-gallon tank. I was fascinated by the coloring of many of these species, specifically the kenyi or Pseudotropheus lombardoi. I read the books. kenyi are mbuna mouth breeders from Lake Malawi. The babies are blue with darker blue downward-pointing bands. As a male becomes dominant in his environment, his bands fade, and his color turns a bright yellow. I observed many courtship dances upon the rocks in our aquarium. Each dance would leave mama kenyi with a gullet full of eggs, and later, babies. She’d swim up to the glass as if to show us her brood. Tiny pairs of eyes peeked out as she shuffled them around in her mouth.
Most of the books and articles were adamant that yellow kenyi were male. There was nothing stating that females could change color as well. And yet we had a yellow faded female holding a mouth full of eggs. Immediately, I took notes. I studied the last five issues of Tropical Fish Hobbyist to make sure they hadn’t recently published any content on kenyi specifically. Then I wrote and submitted the article. A month later, I received not just a form letter response, but a typed and signed letter from Ray Hunziker, the editor of Tropical Fish Hobbyist:
Good news and bad news. The good news is that your article on Pseudotropheus lombardoi is well written and is a good introduction to the problem of accurately sexing some African cichlids. The bad news is that we’re drowning in African cichlid articles and can’t use any more right now, so I’m returning your article. At any rate, thank you for considering TFH, and good luck with your freelance writing.
Well written! Finally, a rejection I can be proud of. I learned that not every rejection has to do with the writing. Today, as an assistant editor, I’ve declined stories simply because we accepted one days earlier with a similar plot idea or character. It’s painful to turn away good writing, but sometimes the content is just bad timing, and beyond reading the past 3-5 issues, there’s no way a writer can know what’s been recently accepted behind the scenes.
Shortly after my article was killed, I submitted a slice of life-type nonfiction piece to Military Life magazine. This piece was also quickly rejected, not for the writing, but for this reason:
Unfortunately, Military Life is ceasing publication with the June issue, effective April 19th, 1995. The recession in the publishing business, coupled with the drawdown of our armed forces, has reduced both readership and advertising revenue to a point where it is no longer possible for Downey Communications to continue the magazine. We are sorry to say goodbye to what has been an important forum and lifeline for many military families, and we hope that our writers will find another way to reach these readers.
As sad as it was that the magazine was shutting down, I was secretly happy that it wasn’t my writing that was rejected. This also happened in 2006, when I had a column in a monthly community newspaper called the Oldsmar Monitor, and again in 2014 when the online version of the Tampa Review was archived. I lost an outlet for my fiction, and a position as fiction editor respectively. Sometimes publications simply cease production. It can’t be helped. (I hope I haven’t scared my editor.)
The relationships you build with editors and other writers are the key to staying strong in this ever-changing world of publishing. You feel it if you’ve ever received feedback within your rejection letter. Even a short, hand-written comment on your form letter is something, right? Now if it said, “Please. Please stop,” then maybe I’d target a new literary journal. But a quick little “Don’t give up!” or “Submit again” is promising enough for me to send them something else. In the meantime, I’ll keep practicing so my writing will improve. I wonder, could they be ready for a menopause line of greeting cards?