Every (traditionally) published author has had their work rejected along the way. A common piece of advice most writers come across is to break in with short stories, as many well-known authors have done. Once upon a time, magazines were also the way many novels were published — one chapter at a time — and they’re still popular for shorter fiction. Over the years many enterprising writers have, by choice or by necessity, founded their own magazines, such as the many literary magazines of the Harlem Renaissance. Many famous authors have published short fiction either before they publish novels, or concurrently. Shirley Jackson’s first novel was fairly well-received, but her story “The Lottery” made a big splash when it was published in The New Yorker, and likely found many readers who had been unaware of her book; perhaps they were quicker to buy her next novel.
Of course, it turns out that getting short fiction published can be difficult and full of rejection, too. I thought I’d look at 14 well-known stories (or stories by otherwise well-known authors) and imagine what sort of rejections they might have racked up on their way to publication. I included a few shorter novels, since many magazines publish up to novella length. Every word that follows is made up by me (including the magazine names), though I did borrow some themes from story rejections I have received.
A note: most magazines are too overwhelmed by submissions volume to send personal rejections; the majority of writers receive a form letter (or email) saying thanks but no thanks. The stories that make it through more than one read, however, often get a personalized rejection. Most of the time, these are extremely kind and encouraging. Sometimes, however, they give the impression that no one actually read the story…
“The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs
We appreciate the chance to consider your story “The Monkey’s Paw” but unfortunately it is not for us. We do not publish zombie stories.
“The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka
Dear Mr. Kafka,
Thank you for thinking of us for your story “The Metamorphosis.” We gave it careful consideration but ultimately it did not work for us. We wanted an earlier sense of what the stakes were for Gregor. We look forward to your next submission!
“Liars Don’t Qualify” by Junius Edwards (read online!)
Dear Mr. Edwards,
We are sorry to say we won’t be accepting your story, “Liars Don’t Qualify,” for publication at this time. We feel it is a bit far-fetched and relies too heavily on dialogue.
We hope you will try us again,
Red, White & Blue Magazine
“The Last Leaf by O. Henry
Dear O. Henry,
We greatly enjoyed reading your story “The Last Leaf,” but we felt that the ending didn’t really add up. If you would be interested in revising, we would be happy to take another look. To be honest, we couldn’t understand why the artist risked her life to paint a leaf.
Let us know!
Lit Art Quarterly
“The Bloody Chamber” by Angela Carter
Dear Miss Carter,
Thank you for sending us your novelette “The Bloody Chamber” for consideration. We do love a good retelling, but we felt that the appearance of the bride’s mother at the end constituted something of a deus ex machina and was not believable enough for readers.
Best of luck with your writing,
Fairy Tale Redux Magazine
“To Build A Fire” by Jack London
Dear Mr. London,
We found your instructional story, “To Build A Fire,” quite interesting, but ultimately we have to pass because we feel that the ending sends the wrong message. Best of luck with the story!
American Boy Magazine
“Santa Claus is a White Man” by John Henrik Clark
Dear John Henry Clark
Thank you for sending us your story, but after careful consideration we feel it does not fit our needs at this time. We did enjoy the children’s antics, and wonder if the story might work better from a different perspective — perhaps that of Santa Claus himself?
Best of luck,
Stories Stories Stories
“A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor
Dear Mr. O’Connor,
Thank you for submitting “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” to our magazine. We gave it careful consideration, but we get so many submissions that sometimes we have to pass on very good writing. We look forward to future stories from you.
Modern American Anthology
“Mrs. Spring Fragrance” by Sui Sin Far
Dear Mrs. Far,
Thank you for sending us your story. We felt that there were too many characters for the average reader to keep track of. Nevertheless, we appreciate your efforts and hope you will try us again.
San Francisco Literary Magazine
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce
Dear Mr. Bierce,
We appreciate the opportunity to read your story “an occurrence at owl creek bridge.” We felt that the speculative element was too slight for our readers. Have you considered adding vampires?
—Slightly Speculative Magazine
“Come Out the Wilderness” by James Baldwin
Dear Mr. Baldwin,
Thank you for your submission. We receive many more stories than we can publish, and have to reject many good ones. Your writing talent is clear, though we are not accepting this story.
(Various) by Edgar Allan Poe
Dear Mr. Poe,
We appreciate the opportunity to consider your stories “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Black Cat,” but we found them extremely disturbing. Are you feeling guilty about something? Please do not submit to our journal again, or we will call the FBI.
—Stranger Things Magazine
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
Dear Ms. Jackson,
Thank you for submitting “The Lottery” for consideration in our journal. We enjoyed your writing, and the little character moments throughout, but ultimately we felt that it lacked an “oomph” at the ending. Best of luck placing it elsewhere.
—Scary Spooky Journal