Thank you for your interest in our publication. We will not be accepting your story -- at this time, it's just not right for our list. Good luck in placing it elsewhere,
The Editing staff."
I think every writer has a small stack of letters that follow that basic pattern. I know I do. Half of the emails in my writing-only gmail account look suspiciously like that, as did all the nice letterheaded postcards I collected before I moved to email subs.
The letter can be a little baffling if they never explain why the story isn't right for them. Here's a few possibilities:
1.) The story is actually unpublishable and they're either too nice to tell you that, or aren't going to waste their breath explaining that your twelve-page epic has no discernable plot and the characters are like cardboard only less interesting.
2.) The story's actually pretty good, but it still has its share of flaws and the editors either don't want to spend their time helping you edit (because it's so much more economical and efficient to find a story they can run as-is, considering all the submissions they get).
3.) The story's great -- it's just not what they publish, and you would have known that if you'd actually read the guidelines. If you're sending a steamy bit of vampire/werewolf gay erotica to the New Yorker....well, you've got MY vote, but I'm guessing you won't be getting published anytime soon. Sorry.
The majority of rejections, sad to say, are probably going to be due to one of those three reasons.
But what about the other options? What if you're convinced that your story really is good, and won't get much better no matter what you do to it? What do you do with that "as good as it gets" story that you just can't seem to find a home for?
It's my personal belief (and there are those who probably disagree) that there's a home for everything, if you just look hard enough. The real trick to publishing is finding the right home for your story -- finding that publisher for which your story really is the perfect fit, and IS right for their list. When viewed that way, I don't view my rejections as a rejection of the story -- rather, it's a rejection of the publisher (for that story). So each time I tick one off, I think, "Well, there's another mag that I won't be using for this story." It's a small shift in paradigm, but it's empowering.
So that's the first step -- get into the right mindset.
The next step is to be proactive about finding a publisher. Sure, we all have our top 3. But be honest with yourself: is it your top publisher because you legitimately are in love with it....or because that's what you think you "should" be aspiring to get into? Do they really publish what you're writing? Each story should have its own Top 3 list, and then each successive tier under that.
Here's my process:
--I edit the story until I'm sick of looking at it and opening the file makes my eyes bleed.
--I get on Duotrope.com (there are other sites, but this is my favorite) and start searching by genre, length, etc. to get a list
--I look at the submission guidelines of all the promising pubs. Cross pubs off the list as necessary.
--Rank the pubs from 1st to however many, with the 1st publisher being the one I'd be happiest being published in (usually the one that pays the best, or has the most readers, or looks the prettiest on my shelf), and the last being the one that's not ideal but I still want to be in. Don't ever send a story to a mag you don't want to be published in, because you just never know.
--Then, systematically send out the story, working my way down the list, until one sticks. Kind of like cooking spaghetti.
When you get to the bottom of the list with still no acceptances, stuff the story in a drawer and move on; write something else, edit something else, throw something else around to publishers, smoke a cigarette, start a diet, and then come back to it. Pull it back out of the desk, read back over it, and make all the edits that are now glaringly obvious that you didn't see the last time (and I promise, you'll always find those edits, even long after the story is published). Then start over.
The process isn't particularly new, or unique, or difficult, but I can guarantee it's effective.
Over time, you start becoming more familiar with the process; the next story you get, you'll think, "hey, remember that mag I couldn't submit to because the story had vampires in it? Well, this story is vampire-free and it'd be a perfect fit!" You'll say to yourself, "remember when that magazine said they couldn't print that last story, but to consider them in the future? Maybe now's a good time to take them up on that." Pretty soon you'll have a pool of pubs to draw from, and you'll be a familiar (in that good way) name in their outbox, and that's a good feeling.