I usually keep my music stuff and my writing stuff completely separate. Hypnos Recordings and ambient music on the left, weird stories on the right. One side of my face is M. Griffin and the opposite is Michael Griffin, like those white-black split guys on the original Star Trek.
Sometimes, though, I think what I’ve learned by running a moderately successful ambient music record label for the past 13-ish years actually has gives me some insights I can carry over into the fiction thing. Particularly useful is the ability to see the acceptance/rejection process, in which eager young artist tries to gain the approval of the gatekeeper (editor, agent, label head). Having participated in this process from one side for so long, having rejected all kinds of work for all kinds of reasons, helps me understand what it means when I get a story back in the mail (or more often lately, receiving a “sorry, no” email). Also, what it doesn’t mean.
Iin the realm of music, sometimes I’ve received a demo when I really don’t have any more capacity to release new music, regardless of quality. That artist gets a rejection no matter whaty. More often, the backlog isn’t quite so distressingly full, but almost. There is a great imbalance between the number of people seeking to have their creative work released into the world, and the number of slots available. This means that lots of great work gets rejected because it’s too much like something else we’re already doing, or it’s perfectly competent but not distinctive enough. Maybe it’s pure genius, but slightly out of bounds with regard to genre or style.
I wrote once before about Degrees of Rejection, and because of my work with Hypnos, I know one thing for sure. Now, I’ve talked to writers who believe that a rejection is a rejection, and trying to argue that not all are equal amounts to self-delusion. The thing is, having sat on the opposite side of the desk taught me something. A huge difference exists between someone who is doing professional-level work, but missing certain details, or not quite a perfect fit, and someone who is falling far short. It doesn’t surprise me to read that editors reject certain stories on page one. I’ve rejected some demos less than a minute into the first track. Hell, some demos you can reject based on the dipshit cover letter, without having heard a single note, or based on the shirtless, Fabio-esque picture the guy enclosed. There is a great difference in how I respond to different categories of inquiries or demos, and I believe editors are no different.
The first thing an unpublished writer (or other artist) should seek to do, an interim goal they can strive for even before they actually break through, is to reach a level of competence and artistic potency such that their work is at least in the realm of serious consideration, even when it is not accepted. At that point, the gatekeeper listens to the whole demo (or reads the entire manuscript), possibly sticks it in the “maybe” pile, checks out the artist/writer’s web site, and replies with a personal note.
Of course, this all amounts to guessing and divination, trying to understand intention behind a rejection letter, which doesn’t really get you anything. That’s the kind of thing we grab hold of, though, while waiting.