Challenge,  On Writing


Most Beginning Writers Think of Rejection Wrong…

And for some reason, lately, I’ve been noticing that more and more. And finally, today, after hearing issues with rejections from three different writers, I finally decided I needed to say something here.

Let me say this as simply as I can:

Rejections are positive.

That’s right, they are the best indicator in building a publishing career that you are doing a lot of things right.

— You are mailing your stories to editors to try to advance your career and get great advertisement for your indie work.

— You are trying new things, pushing your own limits, working to be a better storyteller.

— Sales of stories are a numbers game. Especially early on.

In my early days I sold about 1 story in 20 that I wrote. To make that one sale, I often had to get fifty to one hundred or more rejections over those 20 stories.

Then as I kept working on my craft, my sell-through percentage increased. For a while I remember being solidly at selling 5 out of every 20 short stories I wrote.

And, of course, I kept all the stories in the mail all the time. (I never gave up as so many writers do today, but of course I did not have indie publishing back then.)

And, of course, I had to write the stories. One per week.

And I kept learning everything I could about craft.

The sell-through kept getting better the more stories I wrote, the more I learned about craft. Go figure.

In my last days of submitting stories regularly, I was selling 3 out of 4 stories I wrote.

But I have thousands and thousands of rejections in my notebooks and files. And if I had thought any one of those rejections was a failure, I never would have sold any story.

As many say, rejections are just a part of this business.

But to me, they were positive. They were a clear indication I was doing something right.

Recently online one guy was talking about having a hundred rejections and was getting discouraged. I am sure if Kevin Anderson saw that, he would laugh just as I did. I got far, far more than a hundred rejections a year when I was pushing in my early days.

Hell, some months I got that many. Poor, sad, internet guy.

But, of course, I had seventy different stories in the mail or more. And had a system to just put them back in the mail. (And in my day, it was mail.)

So those of you who think I just sprang from the forehead of Zeus fully formed as a writer, now you know. I understood that rejection did nothing but show me a story wasn’t right for an editor.

It might not be right because the story sucked. It might not be right because the editor had just bought something similar two days before, it might not be right because it didn’t fit the editor’s image of what they wanted. And a ton of other smaller reasons.

I didn’t care. I wrote the story, mailed it, forgot about it until it came back, put it back out, and slowly made sales. And kept working at becoming a better storyteller by writing more and more stories.

And guess what? All those rejections were constant reminders I was working at my chosen craft, working to be a better storyteller.

And those rejections as they poured in reminded me that I was writing a lot while around me so many of my friends were not. And then they wondered how I managed to sell so much and eventually make a living.

No secret.

Rejections were a positive thing because they proved to me I was on the right track.

How many rejections do I have in my files and notebooks? (Actually large picture albums I stuck them in for a year or two.) Not a clue, but I do know that one year in 1985, just before my house fire, I counted over six hundred rejections.

My favorite rejection of all time was from Asimov’s Magazine back in 1982 or so.

“Dear Dean, Sorry, we do not want to pioneer new roads into tastelessness.” Signed George (Scithers).

I sold that story to Damon Knight for his Clarion Awards anthology the very next month in early 1983. And it was my first fully professional sale. Second professional sale was to the first volume of Writers of the Future two weeks after I sold the story to Damon. Five days after that I sold a third story to Oui Magazine. (The illustration to that story hangs in our condo entrance.)

At that point I had about 50-60 different short stories in the mail since I had been writing one per week since January 1982 and keeping every one of them in the mail.

And I was getting a lot of rejections every day, every week, every month. But you know what mattered? I had sold three stories, that’s what mattered.

Not in a million years would I have sold those stories if I didn’t think rejection was a positive indicator of my path into this career.

So flip your thinking on rejection. Rejection is positive, shows you are doing something right, get the story back out to another editor and write another story.

Eventually the system works if you keep learning craft along the way and writing new stories.


  • Marsha

    Thank you, Dean. I’m going to print this out and hang it in my writing space to remind me that I’m doing fine during those weeks when the rejections seem to pour in.

  • Carolyn Ivy Stein

    Thank you for this! One of your best blog posts ever. Can you talk about your systems for getting stories in the mail? I get stymied when trying to figure out the best market for each story.

    • dwsmith

      Carolyn, unlike back in my day, there are a ton of places to find magazines that take fiction. And have open submissions. People here I am sure can help since I no longer submit my work to magazines very often, except on invite. I have my own magazine to fill with four stories per month which is coming back with issue #45 shortly.(grin)

      Did most of you know I had a story in the last volume of Writers of the Future, 35 years after my first story in the volume? How’s that for holding on and lasting. (grin)

    • Angie

      Carolyn — my favorite resource for both finding markets and tracking subs is Duotrope. I’ve been using it (and sending them money a couple of times a year) since back before they went pay. A subscription is now $50/year, and IMO is absolutely worth it.

      When Duotrope went pay, someone started up The Submission Grinder (which is still free) and a bunch of writers trooped over to use that instead. I’ve never used it, but many writers speak highly of it.

      Ralan lists SFFH markets, although it’s only a resource for finding markets; it has no account system to let you track your subs.

      If you’re into horror, these two sites post markets pretty regularly:

      I occasionally find something on one of them that wasn’t listed on Duotrope, but not often.

      And note that there’s no such thing as a “best” market for each story. You have no way of knowing what an editor will buy, beyond the broad, (sub)genre/length categories. Unless you know an editor VERY well, you have no way of knowing for sure what they will or won’t buy. And even if you do know an editor well, it’s a coin-flip. I’ve had writers who are very familiar with the markets tell me to sub a particular story here or there, that I’ll have no problem selling it to one of those markets. And when I took their advice, the stories bounced from every one. So really, nobody knows for sure.

      If you have an SF story, send it to all the SF markets that take that length. Start with the market you’d like to sell to the most, and work your way down. Same with fantasy, horror, mystery/crime, whatever. Re-sub when a story gets bounced. Rinse/repeat. You’ll find the right market for a story eventually, if there is one on the tradpub side. If not, you’ll find that out too. [wry smile]



  • Robert J. McCarter

    I think of rejections as the heartbeat of a writer. If you aren’t getting rejected, you aren’t writing.

    And it’s get easier. The more rejections you have, the less one of them counts. It’s just noise.

  • J.M. Ney-Grimm

    They were a clear indication I was doing something right.

    That’s how I’m feeling about mine. Real writers write. And real writers, when they discover that the current story happens to be a short, submit it to magazines. My rejections are an indicator that I am doing that.

    Gotta say that I love how fast the response time is now. The last time I was submitting, it was 3-4 months before I heard anything. Now it’s 1-10 days! And when a story comes back with a no, I get it back in submission to a different magazine the same day. It’s fantastic. 😀

  • Michael W Lucas

    Way back in the day of Snail Mail Submissions, I set myself a goal of a thousand rejection letters. I kept the stack, but at some point stopped counting.

    Sad thing is, the box with all those rejections is in the attic. I didn’t have the heart to throw them out when I last cleaned out the attic. Part of me says I should do an art project with them. Or host a Rejection Letter Bonfire, where all us geezers bring fuel for the fire. 😉

  • B Litchfield

    Is it just me?

    I’m having a hard time getting my story submission count into double digits simply because there’s just not that many paying markets open to submissions.

    I’m checking, Diabolical Plots submissions grinder. Also grabbed the list of SFWA qualifiers. Looks like a healthy list till you start hitting individual websites and discover they’re on hiatus or shut down.

    Asimov’s, Analog, S&SF, and a few others are always open. So that’s about half a dozen candidates. But I think it’d be hard to get to thirty active subs even hitting the penny-a-word markets.

    Maybe fewer magazines that publish short fiction today? Or I’m missing something.

    On the other hand, Indie is always an option now.

    • dwsmith

      If I had stayed with just the sf markets, I never would have had that many in the mail. What you are missing is that it is a very, very large world out there. Very large. And in cover letters, just don’t label your genre. Don’t say I have a Science Fiction story, just send them a story. Let them decide if it fits. I can safely say that there has to be a thousand magazines paying professional rates (5 cents and up) for fiction. They key is that all these places people are sending you for markets have a sf focus. and thus not so many markets.

      I’ll bet not one person here has even thought of the airline magazines, or looking at the content of their stories and matching something in the content to magazines. For example, I once sold a sf story with a gin game in it to Gambling Times, and I sold another story with a jukebox in it to Jukebox Collector magazine. Both paid in the 1980s well over 10 cents per word. Didn’t help me in the sf world, but both were science fiction.

      So remember, the sf and fantasy worlds are tiny little places compared to the larger world of fiction. Very, very tiny.

      So running out of markets is just not having the ability to see past the tiny village of science fiction/fantasy.

      Anyone here submitting to the New Yorker? I’ll bet not.