Rejection is part of the writing game, so it’s best to develop some callouses. By this I mean don’t take a rejection personally – try to be objective about it. If you get a form letter declining your work, it’s not the end of the world. Editorial staffs are usually over worked and under paid, and in many instances they’re working pro bono. They simply don’t have time to explain the nuances that went into their decision to ultimately pass on your work.
A personal rejection letter is fairly valuable. Don’t get me wrong – it still sucks – but you can glean valuable insight into the nebulous world of the submission process from them. Today I’m going to present one of my short stories that was rejected by a small literary press. This rejection came with some specific reasons why it didn’t make the cut. First, I’ll detail the constructive criticism from the editor, then post the story itself. If you’d rather read the story first, just scroll down and come back to this part later.
“Some of the editorial comments focused on the limited third-person narrator in the first eight pages of the story. It’s a brave choice, just as Salinger made a brave choice in The Catcher in the Rye when he created such a distinctive first-person voice for Holden Caulfield, but – just as Salinger caught some heat for Holden – this story caught some heat since that extended section’s POV is basically limited to that of a kindergartener.”
This is good stuff right here – it made me realize that roughly 2,000 words from the perspective of a five-year-old is a tough sell within the narrow parameters of a short story. I still like the premise of the story, but now I see that the relatively slow development of my narrative might work better as a novella. It would give me time to really let the slow burning opening blossom into its full potential later on. The risk with this strategy is that the original tone and voice I wanted for my story will be unrecognizable by the time it’s all said and done. It’s a lot to consider.
- Suspension of disbelief
“Truth may be stranger than fiction and the balloon incident may have indeed happened in real life but it raised some editorial questions as being highly unlikely that the teachers would’ve taken the children out in a storm as described: the wind blowing so hard that the teacher needed help opening the door; the wind sounded like it was screaming; rain sounds like it’s sizzling; raining hard enough to hold balloons down.”
This criticism very well could stem from a generational gap – perhaps the staff was, on average, a decade or two younger than myself. When I was growing up, things were a little different at school. Many of our teachers were products of the 1920’s, 30’s, 40’s, and they brought the attitudes of their times into their classrooms. Fights on the playground were usually filed under, “Boys Will Be Boys,” and the punishment was usually nothing worse than having to clap the chalkboard erasers out the window until they were dust free. And if your teacher was a nun who grew up with seven siblings during The Depression, you can bet your ass she was gonna keep the balloon launch on schedule, despite some inclement weather.
Of course, the editorial staff isn’t going to fact check your account of history. If the details seem implausible to them, and they feel it’s important to have plausible details in the fiction they publish, then you’re simply out of luck. It’s subjective, and another publication could very well find my account of a tough as nails grade school nun spot on.
Other editorial / highly unlikely – the end when Tommy and Eric fall from the tree and neither are hurt. Tommy falls twenty feet from a tree, lands on his back, and is dead for three or four minutes and gets up and walks away without any injuries?”
Certainly there is a metaphysical component to my story, and since it’s fiction, I saw absolutely no problem with taking such a liberty. But again, the editorial staff wouldn’t suspend their disbelief, and it became a sticking point.
So, why wouldn’t they suspend their disbelief for my story? Are they a bunch of hacks who don’t recognize good writing when they see it? I seriously doubt that. After all, I had enough respect for the work they publish to submit something of my own for their consideration.
Here’s one theory of mine: I simply misinterpreted the vibe of their magazine. I got the impression they liked fiction that takes some risks, and has real action within the narrative (as opposed to stories that are more meditative in nature). I really thought my story was consistent with their taste, so I’m guessing there’s another reason.
Theory Two: I simply didn’t write the story as well as I could have. Maybe the staff was already put off by the slow opening, and they weren’t in the mood to grant me any more liberties. And, it could be that the contrast between the realistic components and the metaphysical components was just too jolting. Perhaps I need to smooth the transition a bit.
These are all factors I’ll keep in mind if, and when I decide to revise the story. What I don’t want to do is start tweaking everything for the sake of appealing to editors. Editors don’t want to be appealed to; they want good writing that is consistent with the tone of their respective publications.
So, in the wake of this rejection, I’m left to grapple with a few important questions. Does my story have merit? And I do believe, at its core, it does have something valuable to offer. Now, it’s up to me decide which direction to take it. Does it need a complete overhaul? Just a subtle change? Something in between? Decisions, decisions . . . in the meantime, here’s the most recent iteration of the story. Questions and comments are welcome, as always.
The Helium Balloon Massacre of 1979
by Hawkelson Rainier
It’s snack time, but everybody has to pray before they’re allowed to eat their two animal cookies and drink their fruit punch. Tommy doesn’t feel like waiting today. Besides, he doesn’t believe God can see you all the time like Sister Swaboda says He can.
Tommy believes this because he was bad last year, but he still got all the Christmas presents he asked for. He figures if God could really see you all the time, He would have told Santa Clause to only leave him coal and orange peels in his stocking. Santa Clause must not be able to see you all the time, either, he supposes.
Tommy takes a bite of his hippopotamus cookie while everybody else has their heads bowed.The pink frosting tastes good.Then he takes a drink of Karen Wetzel’s fruit punch. That’s the girl who sits next to him.She doesn’t notice because her eyes are scrunched shut while she prays.
The prayer is finally over and Karen is looking at her fruit punch. She looks at Tommy, then back at the Dixie cup, then back at Tommy.
“What?” he says.
“Nothing,” she says.
Now Tommy feels bad for stealing some of Karen’s fruit punch. He didn’t think she’d notice, but she’s smarter than most of the kids in the class. Way smarter than Eric. Tommy and Eric got into three fights so far this year. The last one was over who got to play with the building blocks. Eric is a stupid head and a pee pee head. Tommy’s not allowed to say bad words like that anymore, but he’s also supposed to always tell the truth. And he thinks that’s the truth about Eric.
Tommy thinks the truth about Karen is that she’s very pretty and nice. She has big green eyes and blond hair she always wears in pigtails. Tommy wants to marry her one day. He gives her his lion cookie.
“Thank you,” Karen says.
“Welcome,” he says.
After snack time, Sister Swaboda tells everyone to get their three by five index cards that their moms filled out last night. She takes the class to the playroom which is next door to the classroom. The playroom is the best part about school. There’s a lot of space to run around and a lot of toys. But today is even better because it’s Saint Gregory’s Kindergarten balloon launch.
Sister Swaboda’s helper, Miss Nita, is filling up balloons with something that makes them float. The stuff comes out of a big metal thing that reminds Tommy of his dad’s work thermos that keeps coffee hot. Except this thing is way taller and bigger. Tommy knows if you just blow up a balloon with your breath it won’t float. He wants to see the stuff that makes them float, but Sister Swaboda tells him not to go by the big metal thing. He doesn’t listen, and he touches the thing which makes it wobble. Sister Swaboda grabs him by the arm and drags him into a corner. She yells at him about how somebody could get hurt if the canister fell on them. Tommy says he wasn’t going to knock it over. He wonders who would be dumb enough to just stand there and let that big metal thing fall on them if he did accidentally knock it over. Probably Eric would be that dumb, but nobody else would.
Miss Nita saves Tommy from all the yelling by asking him to please collect everybody’s three by five index card. Tommy thinks Miss Nita is nice. Way nicer than Sister Swaboda. He gets all the cards and sees that Eric has crumpled his and spilled fruit punch all over it. Stupid head Eric.
There are a lot of balloons to fill up, so one of the moms is helping Miss Nita, who is helping Sister Swaboda. Tommy thinks it’s Jeff’s mom. The three ladies put each index card into a clear plastic envelope so they won’t get wet, then they tie each envelope to a string, which is tied to a balloon. Tommy’s card is tied to a red balloon. It looks good.
Sister Swaboda says there was a girl from last year’s class whose balloon went all the way to Pennsylvania. She got a letter in the mail from the man who found it. Pennsylvania sounds far away to Tommy, but it’s not as far as the Moon. His grandfather showed him the Moon through a telescope once. It looked really cool. His grandfather told him some men flew there ten years ago and they were the first people who ever walked around on it. Tommy asked if he could walk on the Moon, too. His grandfather said maybe one day.
Tommy thinks his red balloon might be able to fly all the way to the Moon. It looks like it wants to take off right now, except the ceiling is holding it back. Karen taps Tommy on the shoulder and points out the window. She says it’s starting to rain. Tommy sees the dark clouds moving really fast across the sky.
Sister Swaboda is angry again. This time she’s mad at Eric for ruining his three by five index card. Now she has to do extra work and fill out another one for him.
Jeff’s mom says it looks pretty bad outside. Miss Nita says maybe they should wait to do the balloon launch another day. Tommy is afraid they’re going to ruin it, but Sister Swaboda says the balloon launch is still on. Tommy likes her better now because she isn’t afraid of the rain like the other grownups.
Eric is trying to stand on his yellow balloon while Sister Swaboda fills out his new index card. His balloon pops, and Tommy laughs and laughs. Sister Swaboda rips up Eric’s half filled out index card and says that he doesn’t get to participate in the balloon launch now. He cries. She tells him to put his head down on his desk and not to move until she comes back.
Everybody else puts on their coat and lines up at the front door. Sister Swaboda tries to open the door, but the wind is blowing against it. Miss Nita has to help her push it open, and the class walks outside. It’s raining pretty hard and the wind sounds crazy. It sounds like it’s screaming. Karen stays very close to Tommy and she tells him she’s scared. He tells her this is fun and she shouldn’t be scared. Some kids can’t hold onto their balloons anymore because the wind is too strong. Sister Swaboda yells that everybody should let go of their balloons right now. Tommy and Karen look at each other and smile. They let their balloons go. Hers is green, like her eyes. Tommy’s is red, like a fire truck.
For a second all of the balloons are really close together, but the wind scatters them apart. The rain sounds like it’s sizzling, like bacon in the frying pan. Tommy sees that the balloons want to fly away, but the rain is holding them down. None of them can get very high off the ground. The rain makes the balloons fall into the big field behind the school where the older boys play baseball.
Tommy can’t tell which one is his anymore because they’re a lot of red ones, and they’re all mixed up now. The stuff that makes them float is leaking out. The wind starts to push the balloons across the muddy field into an old rusty fence. A lot of them pop. None of them will go anywhere now. Not to the Moon – not even to Pennsylvania.
Sister Swaboda yells for everyone to go back inside. Tommy hangs his coat on the rack in the hall. The rain soaked through to his shirt. Karen rings out her pigtails and her teeth chatter.
“Are you cold?” Tommy says.
“A little. Are you?” Karen says.
They walk into the dark classroom. Stupid head Eric is asleep. He’s the only one who didn’t get rained on. Pee Pee head Eric doesn’t even wake up. Miss Nita flips on the light switch but nothing happens. Sister Swaboda says the electric must be out. She turns up the heat and the radiators start to clank. Tommy’s glad the radiators don’t run on electric.
Miss Nita says it’s okay if they want to put their heads down until their moms come to pick them up. Tommy puts his left ear down on the desk and Karen puts her right ear down so they can see each other. Usually they’d make funny faces to see if one of them would laugh, but this time they just look at each other. Even in the dark classroom Karen’s eyes are very bright. They hold hands under the desks so Sister Swaboda won’t bug them about it.
It’s quiet except for the radiators. Tommy realizes he will never marry Karen, he’ll never go to the Moon, and God never watches him. He doesn’t know why, but he believes these things are true.
Now Tommy is over forty years old, but everybody still calls him, Tommy, instead of Tom, or Thomas. He orders another Scotch and tells the bartender how everything that went wrong in his life can be traced back to that failed balloon launch in the fall of 1979. Every damned thing, he says. The divorce, all the debt, getting laid off, having to move back in with his parents, all of it started on that day.
“I don’t know, Tommy,” the bartender says, “what do balloons have to do with anything?”
“I’m telling you, Marty, something happened to me that day when I saw all those balloons deflated in that muddy field. It was like my dreams deflated, too.”
“It’s just an excuse, Tommy,” Marty says, “some shitty balloons can’t be the reason everything went wrong in your life. But what the hell do I know? Here, this one’s on the house.”
Tommy finishes his Scotch and walks down the street. It’s the ugly part of autumn they don’t put on postcards. The sky is the color of a rotting carp and the wind siphons the heat out of his bones. He picks up the pace, and it occurs to him he’s headed toward Saint Greg’s Elementary. At least it used to be Saint Greg’s. The city acquired the old school building and all the property from the diocese years ago. They took the big cross down, painted the walls an industrial gray color, and now they use it to store their maintenance equipment.
Tommy walks down into the big field behind the building. The sapling oak his Kindergarten class planted more than three decades ago lords over him now. He remembers how Karen liked to help Sister Swaboda tend to it long after the rest of the class had lost interest.
“You’re gonna grow up to be big and strong,” she would say as she watered it. “You’ll be friends with all the birds and the squirrels.”
After Tommy’s freshman year at Wisconsin University, he came back home for the summer. He was at a keg party when he ran into an old buddy from high school.
“Remember that hot chick, Karen Wetzel, who lived on Engleside and went to Saint Greg’s with us?” his buddy said.
“Yeah, I remember Karen,” Tommy said. “What about her?”
“She died in a car accident a few months ago. Her and some of her sorority sisters were driving back from Panama City where they went for spring break. The girl who was driving went off the road and the car flipped like five times and landed upside down in a lake. Everybody died.”
That’s how Tommy found out about Karen. He remembers her as he stares up at the big oak. He grabs onto a low hanging limb and strains to pull himself up. It takes a lot of effort. Finally, he manages to get up onto the limb.
The compulsion to keep climbing is overwhelming. After a while, he looks down and guesses he’s about fifteen feet up. He sees somebody driving toward the tree in a golf cart. The man is yelling something about city property, trespassing, and the fullest extent of the law. He sees the man doesn’t have a gun. It’s just a rent-a-cop. The hell with it, Tommy thinks, I’m gonna try to get to the top. It’s maybe another forty or fifty feet. He ascends to the next branch before he has to stop and catch his breath.
The security guard looks like a hornet trapped in a jar that was just shaken violently by a malicious child. He gestures wildly. He screams profanities. He jumps up to grab the low branch, but comes up short. He’s in even worse shape than Tommy.
The security guard gets back in the golf cart and retreats to a dilapidated looking shed next to building that used to be Saint Greg’s. Tommy’s arms feel rubbery. The physical exertion leaves him wheezing and light-headed. When his vision clears a bit, he sees the golf cart charging back toward the tree. There is an extension ladder strapped to the roof.
“Shit,” Tommy mutters as he wills himself up the next branch. The security guard is raising the ladder now. It extends about twenty feet up the tree. The top rung of the ladder is only about a foot and a half below the branch where Tommy is perched.
Now the security guard is halfway up the ladder, but the man’s comb over has been badly compromised by the wind gusts. The disproportionately long hair that grows from the right side of his head has wrapped around his face like a blindfold. While the security guard wrestles with the seemingly possessed locks, Tommy tries to shake the lactic acid out of his arms.
The wind shifts again and the security guard’s comb over unfurls like a flag, restoring his vision. Tommy stretches to grab the next branch. He’s got both hands on it.
The security guard is grabbing at Tommy’s pant legs, but Tommy hooks his ankles over the branch so he’s suspended upside down like a tree sloth. He sees the top of the security’s guard’s bald head. It’s the color of a boiled lobster. The guard’s outstretched hand strains to grab hold of Tommy’s flannel shirt tail.
“You son of a bitch, you can’t hold on forever,” the guard says.
“You’re crazy, man. Don’t you have a bag of donuts to eat?”
“Oh, that’s original. You’re goin’ to jail, buddy.”
“I helped plant this tree. I’m not hurting it. I’m not hurting anyone,” Tommy says.
The guard looks up at Tommy and squints at him through thick glasses that make his eyes look like blue raisins. “You’re Tommy Sweeney, aren’t you?”
“Eric? Eric Imarino from Saint Greg’s,” Tommy says. He hasn’t seen Eric since middle school, but he’s absolutely sure it’s his old nemesis.
A sharp crack reports that the load bearing branch has just failed. Tommy is accelerating toward the earth at thirty-two feet per second, per second. He reaches out reflexively and tries to grab something – anything at all. He gets a handful of the security guard’s majestically waving hair.
The security guard lets out a guttural scream as he is snatched from the ladder. He instinctively reaches out and bear hugs Tommy’s torso. They are entangled now, falling as one ponderous octogenarian, instead of two husky-sized middle-aged men. A formidable branch, about as thick as the barrel of a Louisville Slugger, is no match for the mass and momentum of the free falling monstrosity. It is sheared off, leaving behind a splintery, bone white nub.
They impact the ground that has been hardened by three or four early frosts. Tommy hits first, acting like an airbag for Eric.Twenty seconds later Eric opens his eyes. He is lying next to Tommy. Eric wiggles his fingers and toes. Everything seems to work, so he gropes around for his glasses. One of the lenses has popped out, but the other is serviceable. Eric checks his cell phone, but its screen is badly cracked. It’s inoperable.
Eric crawls over to Tommy’s motionless body and tries to remember what they taught him at that first aid course he had to take to get this shitty job. He checks for a pulse, but he can’t find one. He checks again, but he still can’t find it, and then he remembers the instructor said it’s better to do anything instead nothing, so he starts chest compressions. He hopes everything will turn out like the video from the first aid class that showed some old guy keeling over in a shopping mall, immediately followed by a good Samaritan rolling up his sleeves and saving the day. But Eric is only about a dozen compressions into it, and he already feels winded.
Tommy is looking down at Eric’s bald spot that is still the color of a boiled lobster He watches Eric push on his chest frantically. At first Tommy believes the Earth is sinking away from him, and then he thinks he’s the one who’s floating away from the Earth. It occurs to him the only important thing to know is that the space between him and terra firma is steadily increasing.
Tommy is as high as the oak is tall.
Now the town looks like toy building blocks.
He crosses into black.
Tommy realizes he’s on the Moon now. He wanders aimlessly, wondering what’s next. He thinks he might be dead since he left his body on Earth in the big field that belongs to the city of Mayfield Heights now. He doesn’t leave footprints, but as he moves he sees how the fine lunar sand rises off of the surface and reaches for him like spectral fingers. He thinks maybe this happens because he has static electricity. Tommy wonders if ghosts are negatively charged.
In the distance a figure at the foot of a high hill waves to him. He moves closer and he sees that it’s Karen – Karen as he remembers her from the first day of Kindergarten at Saint Gregory’s. She’s wearing a pink dress, her hair is done up in pigtails, and her eyes are big and green.
She motions for Tommy to follow, then runs up the side of the hill. For a moment, she blinks out of existence, then reappears all the way at the top. Tommy hurries after her, and when he catches up, he sees she is the young woman he remembers right before they left for college. Her to Cornell, and him to Wisconsin. She’s wearing a white tank top and jeans. Her hair is styled in a short pixie cut now, but her eyes are still green like Peridot. Tommy thinks she looks like a rockstar.
They lean in to kiss, and a little jolt of static electricity sparks when their lips touch. A millisecond later, Tommy’s consciousness is annihilated in a violent burst of energy that pulses outward in a blue flash.
Now Tommy is only aware of darkness. It is quiet and still. The nothingness is so profound it seems to have substance. Gradually, the nothingness begins to disintegrate. Tommy feels tingling in his fingers and toes. He thinks he can hear sounds. It sounds like the slobbery, labored breathing of a bulldog on a July afternoon He smells something weird. He thinks it might be barbecue potato chips and coffee. Now he’s sure it’s barbeque potato chips and coffee, but he’s not sure if he’s smelling it or tasting it.
Tommy opens his eyes. A wild animal is trying to eat his face. It’s hairy – maybe a bear, or a Yeti. He thinks he must be in Hell. A surge of panic courses through his being and he shoves the beast off of him and scrambles to his feet. Tommy sees that it’s not a wild animal, after all. It’s Eric, the security guard. Pee Pee Head Eric from Saint Greg’s Elementary.
“What’s your problem, man?” Tommy says as he wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.
“I was doing rescue breathing,” Eric wheezes. “Just take it easy and lay back down. You might have internal bleeding, or a spinal injury. We need to call an ambulance.”
“I don’t need a god damn ambulance. I don’t even have health insurance right now.”
“We fell from like twenty feet. I fell right on top of you. You were dead for three or four minutes.”
“You’re just security guard, Eric. You’re not qualified to make that diagnosis,” Tommy says.
“I just saved your life. You’re welcome,” Eric says.
“You’re an imbecile,” Tommy screams. “You’re the lunatic who made me fall in the first place.”
“I was just doin’ my job,” Eric screams back.
Sometime passes in silence. “Are you gonna call the cops?” Tommy finally says.
“No. Anyway my cell phone’s busted. Are you gonna try to sue me?” Eric says.
“No. I hate lawyers,” Tommy says.
“Me too. Can you help me with this ladder?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
Tommy and Eric strap the ladder to the top of the golf cart and pause to examine the branch that was sheared off in the melee.
“That’s pretty big,” Tommy says.
“Yeah,” Eric says.
They both look up to where the branch had been, then back down, then up again.
“You said it was like three or four minutes?” Tommy asks.
“At least. Your face was blue, man. Your eyes were rolled back in your head. I’m tellin’ you, you were dead.”
“That sounds about right.”
“What was it like?” Eric asks.
“God spoke to me.”
“What did He say?”
“He wanted me to deliver a very important message to you.”
“To me?” Eric says as he makes the sign of the cross. “What? What’s the message?”
“God said that you’re not foolin’ anyone with that ridiculous comb over, and you should just shave your head.”
“You’re such an asshole,” Eric says.
“Takes one to know one,” Tommy says.
They shake hands, and Tommy starts to walk home. It’s just after five, but the bleached Sun is already low in the sky. Long shadows are scrawled across the busy streets and the busy sidewalks – caricatures of the people who cast them. “Or is it the other way around?” Tommy wonders.