Success in Failure: or, an Oddly Empowering Rejection

At the end of 2016, I submitted a short story for a science fiction anthology. If you’ve kept up with my ramblings, you’ll know that the short story format presents huge challenges to me. But I thought this particular effort turned out well. Ambitious in its narrative scope, the story packed a lot of complexity and a good twist into a limited amount of space. I strove for lyrical economy in the prose—in terms of raw writing, I felt it was one of most artistic pieces I’d turned out in a while. I sent it off for review expecting little, but proud of the piece nonetheless.

Last week I received an update from the review team. I appreciated that they took the time to write a thoughtful, personal message rather than a form letter (or no reply at all, as with so many queries). It opened in a most complimentary manner:

“Our editorial team very much liked the premise of your story, and we thought you did an excellent job presenting the long-term goals and strategy of the protagonist...”

So my attempt to condense an entire epic novel’s worth of events into 5,000 words came across successfully. Whew. On to the second paragraph.

“This is typically where we provide constructive criticism on how to make your story stronger, but our decision honestly came down to receiving a few other finalist submissions that our team found more engaging and our limited print space. If we’d had a bit more space, your story is definitely one we would have liked to include.”

Status: Rejected.

Actually, it was an oddly empowering rejection letter.

I should probably feel worse about this than I do. Rejection is rejection, right? My story will not be appearing in the anthology. But on the other hand, the reviewers—presumably seasoned readers and writers of science fiction with many valuable insights about the genre craft—couldn’t suggest any improvements to the piece. The decision came down to lack of space. I can sympathize with that. When I order dessert at a restaurant, I have to choose between multiple worthy delights. It doesn’t make “cappuccino coma” a lesser confection than “chocolate oblivion”. There’s just only room for one.

And yet there were enough superior entries to edge out mine. Could my story, then, have been better? Or was it the best it could be, and more talented writers still surpassed me? The contradiction runs an infinite loop in my obsession-prone mind: good enough where even the reviewers found no serious faults, but not good enough for acceptance. How can I resolve that conundrum?

Perhaps I don’t need to. My story has merit, even if it didn’t win this particular accolade, and there are other venues where it might find a suitable home. I will definitely submit it elsewhere. (I’m also severely tempted to expand it into a novella, or even a full novel, but with another terrific book idea bursting into my mind just a few days ago, my project queue is already several years long. Writing in the margins of a full-time non-writing career is a ponderous business.) Hopefully curators of a reputable science fiction publication will admire the piece as much as the anthology editors did…but with the benefit of a bit more print space!

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