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Wednesday, April 24, 2013


I JUST FINISHED WRITING THE LAST OF MY REJECTION LETTERS for On Spec. The depressing thing about this is that many of the letters I wrote were for writers who sent us good stories, yet for one reason or another, we didn’t accept their work. If you’re an experienced writer who knows better than to make beginner’s mistakes, this post is for you.

Why did we reject your story? It may have been for one of the following reasons:

1. Dramatic Tension: The story didn’t have enough tension. We often find this in ‘day-in-the-life’ pieces. Other publications might buy these, but they usually aren't for us.
2. Stakes: They weren’t big enough. Whatever your protagonist is involved in, it needs to cost him something – it should hurt him if he fails. Whatever he wants shouldn’t come easily. (Just like writing).
3. Endings: We don’t generally buy stories that drift off without a solid conclusion. It doesn’t matter if the rest of the piece is good. There were a number of stories that made it to the second round of reading, but because a character didn’t, a). make a choice and let us in on it, or b). show us some growth, the ending felt anticlimactic. It’s hard to be objective about our work. But sometimes, when you think your ending is solid, it isn’t.
4. Endings That Aren’t: Many of us are working on novels. We think, “Hey, I can turn my Chapter One into a short story, no problem.” Unfortunately, most Chapter Ones don’t work well on their own. There is no sense of containment or completeness to the piece, but rather, a sense that the story is just beginning (because it is).
5. The Reader is Kept at Arm’s Length: What usually happens here, is that the story has a good opening, a clear plot, and then for some reason, the action turns vague, the visuals unclear. We aren’t sure what’s going on with the characters, internally or externally. This can be a case of being too subtle, of expecting the reader to ‘get it’, when in fact, they don’t. If this is your tendency, it’s probably better to err on the side of being obvious.
6. It’s Been Done: Vampire, zombie, and werewolf stories are becoming a hard sell to us. Even if your piece is well-written, there must be a major element within it that shows us a new bent. And even then, we may not think it’s enough.
7. It’s a DND/RPG Type-Story: We like action, heroes, and monsters, but again, even if your piece is brilliantly written, anything that involves battling stronger and stronger adversaries until your protagonist comes up against a ‘boss’ is likely to be passed over. These just aren’t to our taste.
 8. Characters Who are Victims or Losers in the End: Generally, not our thing, unless your character makes some kind of a sacrifice that costs him a great deal.
9. Point of View: Omniscient can be difficult to pull off well. Unless you’re a word wizard, it’s probably better to write in Third-Person Limited. First Person is fine, too, although some of us have a problem with it. I don’t mind it. I’ve also seen Second Person done well, but often, it comes off as manipulative.
10. Tense: A couple of us don’t like Present Tense and it puts us off. I’m fine with it. Just sayin’.
11. Mood Pieces: We like mood. We like plot better. Give us both. A mood piece usually has an agenda – to make a point about the environment, the evils or war, or what-have-you. If your raison d’etre is to make a point, you may come off as preachy.
12. Not SF Enough: Occasionally, writers will send us wonderful work that they hope is speculative enough. It usually isn’t. The piece is often a metaphor for an aspect of the real world.
13. And finally, Individual Editor Taste: On Spec is an editorial collective. We are five editors with differing tastes and ideas about what makes great work great. This is both our strength and our weakness. There were a few stories this time around that I really liked, but I couldn’t convince my fellow editors, and vice versa. It happens.

Rejection is never easy, but maybe with some insight into how we think, you'll be successful in placing a story with us next time.Until then, all the best in writing and in life.


  1. That's a terrific, lucid list. Thanks for taking the time to spell it up so well.

  2. Thanks, Warren. I'm glad you found it helpful. There are other 'quirks' about us as editors I could talk about too, but I'll leave that for another post.

  3. Anonymous8:44 AM

    This is fantastic! Many thanks for putting it together. It's like a condensed "how to write" guide rather than a laundry list of "things not to do". Very positive and helpful. Thank you!

  4. And thanks for your comment. I appreciate the feedback.