Thursday, October 17, 2013

Rejection Slips

Sometimes when you least expected, there would be a note, often in pencil.  Sometimes not even in a complete sentence.  Not enough action.  Or, Too much action.  Or worse, They all talk alike.
Okay, that was a complete sentence.  As you reread the story, you had to agree with the note.  You also made up your mind that would never happen again; your characters would never again sound alike.

You are of course talking about the flurry of short stories you wrote and sent forth, back in the days before computers and printers and, even more to the point in your case, spell-checkers.  You are talking about the days when postage was not the financial commitment is has become, and where, were you to insert the cardboard in the shirts that came back from the laundry, you might get a manuscript out to as many as three prospective publishers before the rigors of the mail caused your story to look unappetizing before it was even read.

You are talking about magazines with names such as Ranch Romances, Weird Tales, Fantastic Universe, Galaxy, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Dime Detective, and Black Mask.

You are talking about a series of Royal and Underwood standard typewriters, about typewriter ribbons, and the times you had to re-ink your typewriter ribbons by using black liquid shoe polish.  These were times of five cents a word payment being occasions for dinners out at Barney's Beanery on Santa Monica Boulevard, and for well drinks at such favored hangouts as The Garden of Allah on Sunset Boulevard, where you were too late for F. Scott Fitzgerald but not for his ghost in the form of some writers who actually knew him, and for writers such as Borden Chase and Dalton Trumbo, who had time to listen to the kid you were and to offer suggestions which in ways similar to the notes you sometimes found on your rejection slips, stayed with you, had lasting effects on the way you saw things and wrote about them.

At the time you were receiving them, rejection slips did not seem all romantic or in any way indicative of the validation they provided by the mere fact that you had so many of them, that an entire waste basket was papered with them, or that an entire wall in your bedroom was covered with them.

Rejection slips were more or less the size of a  three-by-five index card, more or less because some of them were even smaller and others were a full eight-and-a-half by eleven inches.  Many of the science fiction magazines used blue paper or perhaps yellow.  Romance magazines often stayed with while although there were some of a definite gray hue.  Some of the pulp detective and sports magazines were an off-white, but without exception, all the various magazines to whom you submitted stories used printed rejection slips.

At this remove in time, you consider that last item, the printed message of rejection, an act beyond mere courtesy and civility, rather a recognition that in one way or another, we were all of us in this together.

The best note you ever got was from an editor of a so-called true-confession magazine (anything with the word true in the title meant they were anything but), addressing you as a Miss, because your first name has been misconstrued for as long as you can remember, to the point where you were nominated for inclusion in Who's Who of Women in the West.  "I don't know why you keep doing this," the editor wrote.  "I only take one in three or four of the stories you write, which means your five cents a word is only about one-and-a-half on average.  Most of my writers sell me every story they write because they believe every word of what they write and you are having too much fun with the subjects."  

Indeed, one of her rejection slip notes even said, "too funny to be taken seriously."

You could have written her a note explaining that she was at least taking some of your stories, that the suspense and mysteries you ached to crack were, when someone took a moment, telling you the same thing.  Instead, you wrote a note thanking her for the advice, which you took by becoming, for a time, Gail Spencer, who wrote teen novels about girls who no one, particularly not prospective boyfriends, were willing to take seriously.

Another of the more memorable penciled notes on a story you'd sent off to Dime Detective, said, "Plenty of action on top, but nothing happens underneath."

You were some distance from being able to relate to the word "subtext" at the time, but you had a pretty clear idea of what that editor meant and was offering you in the friendliest way .  Your stories were about plot and gambit and counter gambit and reversal, but they were not being played out against any drama--a world war, a political coup, a covert or overt romance, etc--or philosophical tide.  There had to be more to the life of a story than a simple, declarative sentence.  

There are so many things going on underneath, so many things unseen or unnoticed, so many background dramas that lend a tang of suspense or irony or discovery to the things going on in the simple, declarative sentences of story.  These are the heartbeat and pulse of drama.


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