Would You Like Some Gravy With That?


Thanksgiving Day and I’m sitting at the table studying the food on people’s plates. My oldest daughter has a pile of mashed potatoes the size of Mt. Kilimanjaro. My other daughter has cornered the market on cranberries and my father is haggling with her to get some. My own plate is a bit more varied, but my wonderful sister made sure I had my own personal pitcher of gravy because I’m renowned far and wide for smothering everything in sight with turkey gravy.

So which plate is better? Which is more appetizing?

It all depend on who you ask. We have a huge family gathering each year there are a lot of people and a lot of tastes represented.

The literary world is much the same; there’s such an amazing range of tastes represented. It’s your job to do your best work, find the feedback/advice that rings true, and then, most importantly, find the markets that best fit your work. Because literature never has been, and never will be, a one-size-fits-all world.

Back in the early days of my writing career, I once got a negative personal rejection letter – the first and only one I ever got. Editors don’t have a lot of time, so if you get a positive personal rejection letter, you’ve made a particularly good impression. It’ even more rare for an editor to dislike a story so much that they take the time to say so, but for some reason this one editor felt the need to let me know he found my story to be “boring and predictable.” Among other unpleasant things.

But you know what? I disagreed with him (surprise, surprise…) so I sent it off to another editor (which is what you’re supposed to do when something you’ve written is rejected). And the next editor who saw it called it “a dazzling original piece, just the kind of thing I’m looking to put out.” Same story, I didn’t change a word, but slightly different results. Just slightly.

Now that I’ve been editing for a while, I can tell similar stories on myself (though not quite that extreme). There was one story I received in the slush pile that I was on the fence about. Some things I really liked, but also some things I wasn’t so sure. After sitting on the fence for a while, I finally rejected it, largely out of a sense of needing to make some decision so the author could get on with his life. Turns out it was the wrong decision, because the story won an award. It wasn’t a Hugo or a Nebula, but still, a story I rejected won an award. I felt pretty foolish.

Until the next year, when I saw a story outside of normal submission channels. I really liked this story. A lot. A LOT. So I asked the author if the story was available, only to find out it had already been submitted to another magazine, one of the big three. My heart sunk. I really wanted this story, it was so good. The author told me if the other magazine rejected it, he would send it to me next, but there was no way they would reject it. No way.

Two weeks later it was on my desk. Two issues later it was my cover story for IGMS. And by the end of the year it was short-listed for one award and scheduled to be reprinted in two Year’ Best anthologies.

The moral of this little tale is clear, I’m sure. It’s not so much a matter of right and wrong; it’s about finding the right market at the right time. It’s about being patient. It’s about believing in yourself. It’ about putting as much gravy as possible on everything in sight.

Well, that’s the way I like it, anyway. Some other editor? Maybe not so much.


12 comments to Would You Like Some Gravy With That?

  • I’m with you on the gravy thing… (though props to your daughter, too, for the cranberry sauce).

    Thanks for this post. It’s a good reminder that just because what I’ve written isn’t right for one place, one person, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be right other places. That said, I get enough rejections and I know that there are faults with the story (or novel or article or whatever). Finding that line can be tough. When do you stick to your guns, and when do you cut your losses and either shelve the story or make some serious changes? (And this is a partly rhetorical question, of course. I don’t know that there is a sure answer.) And now I’m going to go back to watching OSU hopefully kick the stuffing out of Michigan. 😀

  • Unicorn

    Pea Faerie beat me to the gravy thing. 😉 Seriously, though, this is a very good (and welcome) post. Marketing and the business side of writing is DEFINITELY my very weakest point.

  • Honestly, Ed, when you started your career, did you ever think you’d be equating smothering gravy to writing? Strange world we live in.

  • “This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address’. Just keep looking for the right address.”

    —Barbara Kingsolver

  • Stuart – EVERYTHING makes me think of gravy… but I know what you mean. 😉

    Unicorn – It will come, in time. Marketing is like gravy: it’s inevitable.

    Pea – You can have my cranberries. Stick to your gun until either everybody says ‘No thanks’ or until an editor willing to publish your story gives you specific feedback (that you agree with).

  • Wolf – I like. Very nice.

  • Hmmm, I agree with the stick to your guns approach to a point. But I also believe that if the same story or manuscript is rejected by several editors at respected publications or publishing houses, it may well be a sign that the work, while still marketable, has some flaws that need to be addressed. A rejection can be something to be overcome; it can also be a source of valuable feedback, even if there is no critiquing letter attached. A rejection — or more to the point, several rejections — can be the market’s way of saying “You need to read through this again and look for that thing (or set of things) that is giving the editors pause.” My $0.02.

  • You’re right, of course, David. It’s just the flipside of the same coin. There does come a point where it’s time to move on. Just don’t get there too quickly is all. I had a frined who would do major rewrites of a short story every time she got a FORM rejection slip, which clearly isn’t the way to go either. As with everything, there’s a spectrum and a balance to be struck. This is just one data point along that spectrum.

  • Add one more to the “Yay gravy” party, Edmund. (Hm, does this apply to ketchup and other dipping sauces as well, or is that just me?)

    This sounds like a smart approach. I’ve always handled feedback with the instant reaction, to myself, of, “What am I doing wrong? I need to figure it out fix this.” It’s too easy to get self-conscious and to assume that the problem is on my end, that I haven’t learned enough to deserve publication. I agree with the others that there is a point to stop submitting, but maybe I’ve been folding too soon.

  • Yay, gravy!

    Keep sending it out until you’re out of options or you get some feedback you can use.

  • Edmund, this time I am late to the party, but I agree to the gravy *and* the cranberry jelly. I like it *with* my gravy. But that’s just me.

    You have a unique perspective as both writer and editor, and I am so very glad you joined us here at MW! We are all richer and better for having you here. I have a book I wrote over 20 yeras ago that I am revising (between other projects) and I still believe it will find a home somewhere some-when.

  • The honor is mine, being here. As I said to David in an email not too long ago, you all have such high standards for yourselves that it makes me hold myself to a higher standard. That’s the best of kind of environment to work in, and the best kind of people to work with.