When I first started writing seriously rather than just for my own satisfaction, I wrote, sent out, and had published in small press publications several short stories. But there was one story that I really liked that was rejected by every editor I sent it to. It was a story based on a dream I’d had, and I’d titled it “The Last Gift.” I kept all the rejection letters on file, and most were of the “Unfortunately this story does not meet out needs at this time” variety. Some did take the time to write or append a note to a form letter to say they found the story well written, but … What followed the “but” was not really illuminating, however. George Scithers, then the editor of Amazing Science Fiction Stories, wrote: “‘The Last Gift’ is reasonably well written, but it gets more and more sententious from p. 10 to the end.” That was certainly a case of damning with faint praise, but it wasn’t particularly helpful as the story was about 20 pages long, so that meant that half of it was “sententious,” whatever that meant. But at least it was a personal rejection, not a form letter, and it did give a reason, albeit a vague one, for the rejection, and I appreciated it.
Two editors, however, will always be enshrined in my roster of heroes–or heroines. They each wrote detailed, typewritten letters (this was in 1988, before computers were widely used) explaining exactly what was wrong with the story. I’m sure they were busy women, and they did not have to spend the time to explain a rejection, but they did take the time. Polly Vedder,then Associate Editor of Pandora, wrote (and I’m condensing a bit), “I find the tale interesting and fairly well written, but ultimately it seems slight…. You let the reader know next to nothing about Tria as a person, with a history, a unique personality and outlook on life…. What makes her different from others? Why is she singled out to be a creator of worlds? What makes her story unique? And why are there no males in this society? Try to think out the background of stories fully before writing, and avoid cliches of character, setting, and plot.”
Suzanne Sturgis was editing a Women’s Fantasy/Science Fiction Anthology, and I sent the story there. Again I received a lengthy typewritten reply (again I’m condensing) saying, “‘The Last Gift’ is well written…. In the end, though, it left me with several questions and loose ends. Paramount among them is that the ending strongly suggests that Tria is a god or has godlike powers. I want to know much more about how these have developed and/or been recognized by her teachers. Until that point, Tria seems a talented but presumably human graduate-to-be, and I don’t feel that the story sustains that momentous conclusion. Are the apparently shifting corridors, the encounter with Nubba, and the warding net part of Tria’s final examination, so to speak? Without knowing more about Tria or the school, I can’t tell: thus the Nubba incident seems disconnected from the story…. What does the Gifting Mistress know about Tria?”
Even though, as I stated above, I had been getting short stories published in small press magazines, it was these two rejection letters that launched my career as a novelist. In tomorrow’s blog I’ll explain exactly why I say that.
For now, I just want to say thank you to these two women who took the time from their busy lives to critique a failed story and in so doing teach a new writer some very important principles about writing. Their comments pinpointed problems I was too much of a neophyte to have seen and showed me what specific faults I needed to address. Their letters about my story “The Last Gift” were the best gifts I could have received.