A particular story of mine has gotten rejected from so many places this year. I wrote it with a particular magazine in mind; they rejected it. I sent it to several pro markets in turn; each of them said no thank you.
Usually I can see why a story of mine might get rejected. After one or two trips through the slush pile, I get a better sense of a story's weaknesses, and either rework or retire the piece. I believe in this particular story, though. It's still one of my personal favorites, no matter how many rejections it accumulates. I still feel the same oof each time it gets returned (five times and counting).
I think the issue with this story -- and with my short fiction overall -- lies with the way I write short stories. From a young age, I've wanted to be a novelist. I wrote my first novel when I was 11, and two more in my teens. But at some point I read a "how to get published" book, which recommended that I get my name out there by publishing short stories in pro magazines before I attempted to get an agent. I sent my first submission to Asimov's Science Fiction when I was 15, got my first positive personal rejection from Fantasy & Science Fiction when I was 16, and figured I was right on the verge of success. I'd get some publications under my belt, then return to what I loved best: writing novels.
But life and trauma intervened, as they often do. My writing stalled out through most of my 20s and 30s. I wrote one novel as an adult, a convoluted mess of time travel and warring kingdoms and Permian reptiles. I got a handful of stories published in small-press magazines. Only now, at 38, do I feel like I've somewhat rediscovered the magic I once knew writing as a teen.
Professional science fiction and fantasy markets, however, are far beyond what they used to be in my teens. The quality, diversity, intensity, and sheer talent in today's genre magazines is staggering. And after all that lost time, I'm just not in the same league.
My primary weakness, I think, is plotting. As a teen, I saw short fiction as a necessary step toward my true passion, novel-writing. As a 30-something, I still find myself recycling or reworking plots I first came up with as a teen. Only in the last few months have I been writing wholly original new stories. But my short story plots, whether from my teens or from now, have the same problem: they aren't really plots so much as vibes.
My typical short story goes like this: Our main character's life meets a change in the first sentence. They navigate the change, for better or for worse, and the story ends when they either embrace or reject the change. Maybe there will be a scene in which another character helps put the change into context. That's... pretty much it.
Modern editors at the professional level know they can get something better than that. Deeper characters, an actual plot, a neat twist on an old SF/F idea, maybe some unique lived experience that I can't quite match (unless you want fantasy stories about growing up in Midwestern poverty, which so far no one seems to want). The only success I've had in publishing my short fiction this year has been with small-press editors with very specific sub calls -- Midwestern Gothic, Gothic Pastoral, Swampland Vibes. Sub calls that welcome stories that are more vibe than anything else.
The funny thing is, I love the short form more now than I ever have. I really want to get good at short stories; I no longer see them as a mere step toward getting an agent. (Honestly, at this point, I doubt I'll ever get an agent.) But the rejections -- especially for this one story -- have been getting to me.
I'll keep sending my stories out, at least until I decide to retire a particular piece. And this autumn, I hope to focus on writing a new novel for the first time in twelve years. I've missed the long form, and maybe my plotting will get better with practice. And who knows, maybe I'll tire of how many rejections this one short story keeps getting and recycle it into a novel.