That title is borrowed from an essay by venerable writer and publisher Nick Lyons that appeared in the New York Times Book Review some years ago. Lyons himself borrowed the title from a 1935 animated short film starring Betty Boop. In the cartoon, Betty wails those words to a villain trying to seduce her. But Lyons used them to describe the onslaught of rejection letters—that constant flood of “NO!”—he received when he was a new writer in the 1960s trying to get published in the New Yorker.
Lyons said he would type up a short story, walk to the Post Office and mail it with a self addressed stamped envelope for the response. When he got back to his apartment the rejection letter from the New Yorker would already be there waiting for him. Well, at least that’s the way it felt.
In some ways that sounds mercifully swift. This week I got a rejection email from a magazine that had possessed my story for five months. I don’t submit simultaneously to more than one magazine at a time. So, if this keeps up, it could be several years before that one sees the inside of a magazine.
Today—in spite of the speed of electronic submission and response mechanisms—it seems to take longer than ever to get a response from magazines, probably because computers with spell check and auto correct have made everyone on the planet an aspiring writer and the magazines are being inundated with unsolicited electronic manuscripts. Even if their slush pile readers no longer have to physically open paper envelopes and pull out each manuscript, they still have to read the first few lines of your story, at the very least. And even if they no longer have to reach for a paper rejection slip and put it into your S.A.S.E. and stick that in the outgoing mail, it still takes time to make the various clicks it takes to email you their response.
That’s one of the hardest things to learn about writing for publication. It takes time. Even to get rejected.
Almost exactly thirty years ago, in September of 1986, I took my first writing workshop at UAA.
My wife encouraged me to enroll in the class because a story I had submitted to the UAA/Anchorage Daily News writing contest was awarded an honorable mention that summer. It was the first story I’d ever written. I was thirty-eight years old and had flunked out of college when I was eighteen. But receiving the contest award for my very first story gave me great confidence. How hard could writing be?
The only fiction class available that semester was the 600 level graduate workshop, and of course I had no prerequisites. I had no college at all. But the instructor, Professor Ron Spatz, gave me permission to enroll, and his faith in my potential buoyed my already soaring self confidence even further.
For the first class of the semester, Ron invited a graduate of the UAA Masters of Fine Arts program, writer Michael Armstrong, to talk to us about his success with the novel he had written for his thesis, After the Zap, an audacious and funny dystopian sci-fi adventure. Here was a recent student who’d published his first novel! This was going to be so easy.
After the class, I had a chance to chat with the author. He politely asked what I was writing, and I proudly mentioned my contest honor. Michael, as it turned out, had been a judge for the contest and—get this—he remembered my story. He knew my work! (Picture my head ballooning.) When I told him I was hoping to get one of those modern word processor thingies so that I could start sending my manuscripts to magazines, Michael said, “Oh, you won’t be ready to publish for at least five years.” Although, at that balloon-bursting moment, I wanted to strangle Michael, he and his wife Jenny are, in fact, still very dear friends thirty years later. (His latest novel is Truck Stop Earth. I just started it. Hilarious and smart, the sardonic narrator is a voice to remember.)
Michael’s estimate was spot on; I published my first fiction in the fall of 1991, exactly as he predicted, five years later. What he had been trying to tell me that night in 1986 was that I still had a lot to learn about the craft of writing. And as much as I wanted to believe he was wrong about that, in my heart I knew he wasn’t. So, for the next eight years I took nearly every writing workshop offered at UAA. I received a Bachelor’s degree in 1991, and an MFA degree in 1994. During those years as a student, I did in fact publish a few stories, but I also amassed more than 100 rejection slips. And, there were times when quite literally years went by between acceptance letters. My first story collection came out in 2003, seventeen years after that first writing workshop.
Sometimes it takes time.
The slowest single rejection I’ve ever seen was technically not my own. A few years ago a writer friend asked me if I would send a story of his to Playboy for him, because I had published a story there in 1995. I told him that no one was going to remember my name a dozen years later, but he insisted. So I sent a hard copy of his story in an envelope with a cover letter reminding them of my one appearance in their pages, and endorsing my friend–who is in fact an accomplished novelist and essayist. Thirteen months later the S.A.S.E. with his story in it showed up in my mailbox with a polite rejection letter. Thirteen months.
How do you like to remove a Band-Aid? Very sloooowly? Or really fast? Either way, the important thing is to maintain your sense of humor about it all. A playwriting friend recently told me that she submitted a comedy to a certain theater company that specialized in them. She got a swift response that said, “Thank you for letting us read your script, but we only produce comedies.” Ouch.
One final (happy) note: sometimes things happen quickly. The same day that I got the rejection of my five-month old submission, one of my former grad students from the UAA Low Residency MFA program sent me an ebullient email saying she had recently submitted a story to that same magazine that had rejected mine so excruciatingly slowly, and was almost immediately notified that they would be featuring hers in their next issue. Her first published story.
See? All you have to do is write a story that they want the minute they lay eyes on it.
Nothing to it.
Richard Chiappone is the author of the collections Water of an Undetermined Depth, Opening Days, and Liar’s Code. His stories have appeared in magazines including Alaska Magazine, Playboy, the Sun, and Gray’s Sporting Journal, along with literary magazines including the Crescent Review, The Missouri Review, South Dakota Review, ZYZZYVA, and others. His work has been featured on BBC Radio, and made into a short film featured at international film festivals. An Alaskan since 1982, he is proud to be a member of 49 Writers, and lives in Homer with his wife and cats. He teaches fiction and nonfiction writing for the University of Alaska Anchorage, and for the Kachemak Bay Campus of the Kenai Peninsula College. His latest book, Liar’s Code, is published by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. of New York City. It is available in both hardbound and electronic editions.