Auditions, rejection, and other things that suck

I used to perform in a lot of community theater productions. But as I got more serious about writing, finding the time and energy for both writing and theater was tough, so eventually theater fell by the wayside. There are things I miss about theater, and then there are auditions. Auditions suck. Getting up in front of a bunch of people and belting out 32 bars of a show tune in the hopes of being cast in a show? It’s not that dissimilar from submitting your fiction, where you put yourself out there in the hopes that an editor will think your story is a better fit for the role than all those other stories auditioning for a place in the publication.

With fiction, though, there’s a greater remove during the submission/audition process. You don’t have to stand in front of the editor and read the first few paragraphs aloud until they cut you off. You’re spared from seeing the editor’s look of disappointment as a story that started out strongly goes off the rails, or worse yet, the look that says “not impressed” or “oh good god, make it stop.” If you screw up a submission, you’re not standing on stage with the editorial staff there to watch you flounder while your face turns lovely shades of red. Rejection as a writer is far more private.

That privacy, however, can lead to skewed impressions of one’s writing success (or lack thereof). For example, I’ve had several sales and publications that I’m quite thrilled about, and I’ve been squeeing to high heaven about them on Facebook and the like. However, when people see all those squees, it’s easy to forget that they’re not necessarily seeing the entire picture. They see this:


But the reality is this:


Reality includes: that morning I woke up to find four rejections in my inbox; that story that sold, but only after four years and 30+ rejections; that string of form rejections from editors who bought stories from me in the past; that story I really adore yet still can’t find a home for after 20-something submissions; the fact that I’ve gone from a string of great sales to a multi-month dry spell full of rejections, most of them form letters and not of the “your story was close” variety I had been getting before.

In other words, reality kind of sucks. And being as human as the next person (pauses for debate on that topic), I tend to focus on the stuff that makes me look good, not the stuff that sucks. That approach is generally better for one’s self-esteem, but there’s a downside.

A lot of us have a bad habit of judging our worth by comparing ourselves to others—a bad habit that gets even worse when you realize we’re usually comparing ourselves to an idealized version of someone else, not their reality. And even when we know that rationally, a lot of us still can’t stop our irrational selves from wreaking havoc with the comparisons anyway. So when I’m depressed and demoralized on the writing front, expressing those feelings to people who have only seen Idealized Me tends to result in either confused looks (“But it’s going so well, you’ve had all that stuff published!”) or outright dismissal (“You’re doing better than me, so you’re not allowed to complain about anything ever”). I’m guilty of this as well, often reacting to other writers’ expressions of disappointment with a knee-jerk, “What the hell is that guy complaining about? He got published in friggin’ Awesome Magazine I Can’t Seem to Crack. But here’s the thing: rejections still happen, and having sales under your belt doesn’t make them any easier. If anything, a bunch of rejections after an awesome sale makes you feel like your writing’s getting worse, or that you were ever only a one-hit wonder who will never sell anything again.

To bring this back to the acting comparison I began with, there are famous actors who no longer have to audition; the roles come to them to accept or turn down. Similarly, some writers reach a level of fame where editors solicit them for books and stories instead of the other way around. But those folks are the exception. So the next time someone is disappointed by rejection and you feel that give-me-a-break-you’re-too-successful-to-complain reaction coming on, remember that most of us still have to audition. And auditions suck.



Finding the Right Market

The words submission and acceptance are emotionally charged in the context of gender relations. They are also emotionally charged in the context of professional writing. I have a story to tell about that.

Quite a while ago, I wrote a science fiction story called Message in a Bottle with a female main character. I liked the story a lot. I spent a loooong time tweaking it. When I finally committed to the notion of getting published, it was the first longer piece that I tried to sell to any market.

It got rejected. I aimed high, and was quickly rejected by several established markets. Most were form rejections. A couple were personalized. One offered inexplicable advice for rewrites (“Why not talk more about the computer system?” Um, because boring.). Overall, just standard responses.

But it was rejected enough that I started worrying. None of the rejections suggested that the reasons had anything to do with gender. But then, why would they say it outright? I am pretty obviously a woman: I write under my full first name, not initials or a pseudonym, and my little 3rd person bio uses “she” and “her”. My story featured a woman. What if either (or both) of those things influenced editors’ decisions? Before you ask, let me say that none of the markets I submitted to anonymized submissions.

Message in a Bottle was not specifically about my character being a woman. I deliberately gave my character a sort of gender-ambiguous name, Dorian. Her movement throughout the story was defined by her professional role rather than her gender. The big idea involved first contact, not any interpersonal dynamics, or (heaven forfend!) a romance. The story had a bit of math in it, but I would never characterize it as “hard SF”. So. I was left with a soft SF story featuring a woman.

I didn’t doubt my writing, but I did begin to doubt the fairness of the system. Was I making a mistake in trying to publish science fiction? Should I stick to fairy tales, which I also love writing? Should I shelve this story and go onto something else, until I got a few more publishing credits?

Or…should I gender-flip my protagonist and see if that changes the outcome? Hell, I wouldn’t even have to change the name! Search and replace a few pronouns, and I’d be golden.

I thought that might be an interesting experiment. Maybe, I thought, I could submit the story with Boy Dorian, and if it got accepted, I could request to have the Girl Dorian version published. (Because what’s more attractive than an unknown author with demands? Amirite?)

So I went ahead and made a gender-flipped version of the story. Simple pronoun swapage. It was easy. And I didn’t like the result AT ALL. Boy Dorian was acting all wrong. He seemed overly sensitive, emotional. Certain words that worked fine for Girl Dorian suddenly sounded jarring. Girl Dorian nestled in a shelter. Boy Dorian huddled. Girl Dorian had intuition. Boy Dorian had a hunch.

WTF had I written? I could have sworn that my original story was admirably gender-neutral. Girl Dorian was the job. She analyzed evidence and crunched numbers and then endured a bad situation like a pro. Yet when I gender-flipped the character, I realized that my Dorian simply wouldn’t behave the same way as a man would (at least not in my created world).

I was so uncomfortable with the Boy Dorian version that I resolved to try once more with my original story before committing to a gender-flip strategy. I found a market that looked promising. It was a magazine actively committed to promoting both authors and characters who are women, people of color, queer, disabled and/or otherwise underrepresented groups. They might not like my story, of course, but I was confident that if it got rejected, it wouldn’t be because of gender discrimination.

Then a weird thing happened. My story was accepted.


There were some readers who liked my writing and didn’t have any concerns about girliness. You can read it here, in the April issue of Crossed Genres.

So in the end I never got to try out my gender-flipped version of the story. I’ll never know if the same markets that rejected Girl Dorian might have accepted her twin brother. I’m really happy not knowing that.

I’m also happy to be a published author. Crossed Genres offered me my first professional sale. It was a huge boost for me as a writer, but I might not have ever submitted my story there if I hadn’t seen their statement of welcome for new writers, and writers of non-quite-the-norm. Markets like CG are vitally important to the fiction world because of their two-pronged strategy of publishing good fiction and fiction by underrepresented peeps. Those two goals are not separate.

It’s sometimes not enough to state that all are equal. Today, that’s a low bar. CG and some other markets have taken that extra step to be open, to invite submissions by minorities, by women, by all kinds of Others. That’s a different message than just saying “The door’s not locked.” CG said “Hey, the door’s open. We were hoping you’d come by.”

To those people in the publishing/writing/reading world who are interested in fostering new writers, writers outside the conventional pool, writers who might not have lived life on “easy mode”… well, that doesn’t just happen on its own. People need to make it happen.

Which brings me to my final point. Crossed Genres pays professional rates and it is trying to become an SFWA-qualifying market. But running a magazine isn’t free, and without enough support, CG will close at the end of 2013. If you support the idea of a rich, diverse field of writers, you should support CG. Buy a subscription (I did.). Buy a gift subscription. Donate.

Talking about encouraging new writers is great. Paying writers (and the editors who work with them) real money is also great. You’re not saving anything. You’re supporting a producer who shares your values. Easy, right?

And in the end, you are what you defend.

Jocelyn Koehler is one-fourth of the Star-Dusted Sirens.