by H. W. Moss
Writers should not take it personally when rejection comes in the form of vituperative, explosive anger. Most of the time rejection slips are innocuous, undated, unsigned documents with no clue the editor even read the story and they have been copied so many times the ink is blurred.
Occasionally, however, an editor does respond on a personal level. I have a copy of an Esquire Magazine rejection slip for a story titled “The Injuries to Tim Dale” on which someone (the signature is illegible) compliments the story as a “great read” and apologizes for not being able to buy it.
But that same story elicited an exactly opposite response from another editor.
Who knows why one editor feels compelled to compliment the author while another goes off the deep end, abuses the writer and slinks off toward a cliff where the only honorable thing left to do is jump. Lonely Planet, the iconoclastic travel guides that have become a publishing success story, suffered after 911 and had to lay off personnel. Veteran writers complained the remaining editors would not return their emails. They called it “black hole syndrome.”
The Lonely Planet publishers, who must have read these writer inquiries, referred to them as having “mad author syndrome.”
Having sold literally hundreds of articles over the years, I can say I have had stupid editors, lazy editors, really messy editors and editors that accepted everything I wrote without change.
To steal a phrase, I’ve come to believe those who can, write. Those who can’t, edit. Perhaps editing destroys talent. After all, most editors are failed writers who can no longer perform.
On the other hand, I once read a piece I wrote, an interview with author Fritz Leiber which, when it appeared in the magazine, prompted me to call the editor and ask why my name was on the by line. I hadn’t written that. He had. In re-write.
But the most violent response, the angriest, most defiant, belligerent, bellicose response I have ever had occurred this year. In March I queried Charles Ardai who responded to an email I sent to firstname.lastname@example.org, not to a specific person.
I found out about this publisher from an article in Media Bistro which said, essentially, that Hard Case planned an October release of Stephen King’s “The Colorado Kid,” a story of two newspapermen probing a mysterious death on an island off the Maine coast. My notes say Hard Case was launched in 2004 by author entrepreneurs Max Phillips (“Fade to Blonde”) and Charles Ardai, whose pen name is Richard Aleas (“Little Girl Lost”). Hard Case works with Dorchester, a New York publisher of mass-market titles.
I write fiction as well as journalism. I have 50 short stories and five novels, one of which is a crime novel, “City at Night.” I wrote to Hard Case in March offering it to them. The response was from Ardai who claimed to be the editor.
“Sure — I’ll be glad to take a look. Just e-mail the first 50 pages to me at this address, and we’ll see if it feels like there’s a fit.”
I have a vague memory of him getting back to me, but the memory is in retrospect. I found my notes in October, did not recall his response, and sent another inquiry on October 24.
“Dear Charles: I just found my notes with regard to sending you the first 50 pages of my crime novel, ‘City at Night.’ My notes say I queried you and you replied I should send them and you wrote, ‘We’ll see if it feels like there’s a fit.’ I sent them to you May 2. I don’t believe I have heard from you since. Or maybe I overlooked a reply from you. Just checking to see where things stand.”
Then I added, “Turns out, I just wrote a noir detective Science Fictionish short story called ‘Purple Prose.’ Do you have any interest in considering a short story for publication? All the best. Harry in San Francisco.”
Apparently this knocked Charles, like a slinky, down a step where he rolled down another and another and another until he hit bottom. Here is his reply to that inquiry.
“Harry: You contacted me on March 2, not May 2. I sent you a rejection on March 5, as follows: ‘Hi, Harry — I was not disappointed, and there were plenty of things I liked about the book, but I’m afraid overall it didn’t appeal to me quite enough for us to go for it. I’m sorry not to have a better answer — but I very much appreciate your thinking of us and giving us a look at the book, and I wish you the best with it. Sincerely, Charles.”
Then he goes on to say, “I know you got this message, because you responded to me on March 7, asking if I could recommend another editor or agent who might be interested in the book and sending me a short story you’d written. The same day (March 7) I responded to you saying that I could not recommend an agent but making one suggestion of a publishing firm you could try (Five Star). On March 10, you sent me a slightly annoying note asking me whether I’d read the short story you’d sent me. I replied that I hadn’t. I wrote: ‘I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, and I’m not sure how soon I will, with about a dozen submissions I have to read, a book I have to proofread, another book I have to summarize for a cover painter, a book I have to write, and so on. I do appreciate your sending it to me — but since it falls under the category of ‘pleasure reading,’ which means I may not get to it for a while (if at all). . .”
Here’s where Charles’ memory differs with my recollection. He said, “You then sent me a truly obnoxious note saying ‘The Injuries to Tim Dale’ is 2,300 words, about seven pages. I suggest you put it next to the toilet. That way you won’t lose precious reading time.”
There is no irony in an email. One reads into the message what one wants and, in this case, my suggestion was purely pragmatic. If you don’t have time to read, keep a copy where you will be seated for at least five minutes every day. In Charles’ case, it could be much longer and it may well be he does most of his reading there. In any case, here is the heartfelt response from this sensitive literary entrepreneur.
“You should remember the response I sent you — I am frankly astonished that you don’t. My response went as follows: Harry, I honestly don’t mean this to be offensive, but don’t you think this message is a bit much? For god’s sake, we publish novels; we don’t publish short stories. If I have time to read short stories, on the toilet or elsewhere, I have a backlog of magazines and anthologies that I’ve been dying to read for months and haven’t been able to because I simply haven’t had the time. People I’ve known for 20 years have sent me stories that I haven’t gotten to read yet, because I’m simply so swamped with work that I hardly have time to breathe or eat or sleep. I’m not complaining, because editing Hard Case Crime is the best gig in the world and I feel fortunate to have it, but it’s an all-consuming project, and it leaves me very little time for anything else. And now this…? It’s one thing for you to send me your story — that’s fine. In some sense, it’s even a nice thing for you to do. It’s also fine for you to ask if I’ve read it — a little annoying, but okay. But when I send back a polite response saying ‘No, I haven’t and I’m not sure I’ll have the time any time soon,’ for you to send back a note nagging me AGAIN, and urging me to read it on the toilet, all because you ‘would like a comment’…I’m honestly just speechless. Thank you for sending me your story. I’m sorry I don’t have time to read it. I’m sure you’ll find someone else who will give you feedback about it. Charles.”
Then he adds, “And now, after all this correspondence back and forth, you write me a message, saying ‘I don’t believe I’ve heard from you’! And to add insult to injury, you ask whether I’d consider publishing another short story you’ve written! I’ve gotten a lot of strange e-mail from clueless people over the years, but this…this takes the cake. We do not publish short stories. Let me say that again: WE DO NOT PUBLISH SHORT STORIES. We are not interested in reading your short stories. Not now, not ever. We also do not publish science fiction. We are not interested in reading your science fiction. Not now, not ever. Do you understand?”
Yes, Charles, I understand. I understand you are overworked and underpaid and bothered by those tactless bugaboos called authors and you really haven’t time for them. In fact, as an editor your life would be some much easier if those pesky authors would simply go away.
I remember a management course I took where a transit bus driver said he could be on time if he just didn’t have to pick up all those passengers.
I have written on top of my Hard Case file: DO NOT CONTACT THEM AGAIN!
Here is my final email response to Charles. “Yah, you brought it all back. Now I know why I did not remember your response: because I blanked it out the way the victim of a pedophile must if he is to get through life.”
Don’t worry, Charles, I shall never darken your door again. But maybe I can sell this story to a writer’s magazine. Now there’s an idea.