Most of my rejections are form letters. "Thank you for sending <insert name of short story>. It is not a fit for our magazine. Thanks." But a couple of months ago, I got my first "warm" rejection. This is rejection that does a little more explaining, specific to your story. It may say, "I really liked it, but it does not fit the theme of our current issue." Or it may say, "It started off good but gets confusing around page 5." When you start getting these types of letters, you're getting close. Or it could mean that you sent your story to a magazine with a staff that strives to always offer feedback.
In my case, I think it was the latter. This is the feedback I got: "The story's concept was interesting, but it did not grab me. The structure of the story was confusing ... Be careful not to limit your audience too drastically."
Though I am grateful for this thoughtful feedback, I'd like to harp on that last sentence.
Don't limit your audience? In general, that's good advice. If you want to sell stories, you will want to maximize the number of people who'll read them. It's simple math. More readers = more dollars. But if you follow this advice exclusively, what would you ever produce that would push the envelope?
Look at network television which is driven entirely by profits from commercial advertising. What kind of programs do they produce? If a show is great but only appeals to a small portion of the world, that show is going to get terrible ratings and get pulled. (Think "Firefly" or "FlashForward" or "Wonderfalls".) So, what do you have left? Tasteless gray mush--stuff that everyone likes, but no one gets really excited about.
Cable television has a little more leeway, and seems to get away with producing more interesting shows, even though the viewers may be few.
Now, let's look at my story. It's about an actuary who just graduated and is going for his first job. He's so much of a Trekkie that he thinks he's actually flying around in a spaceship. He's been accepted into the Academy, and he speaks Klingon. But then a couple of senators decide to try an experiment. They implant a math-inhibitor chip, such that whenever our Trekkie thinks about math, he gets deathly ill.
Sounds familiar? It's a parody of "A Clockwork Orange." Instead of Nadstat, it's Klingon. Instead of violent crimes, it's tutoring math. I thought it was a creative and funny piece.
Does it limit the audience? Well, let's see. Everyone raise your hands and when I say something that doesn't interest you, put your hand down. First, you either had to have read or seen "A Clockwork Orange." Second, you have to be a Trekkie. Are there still some hands up? This isn't as big a part of the story, but you also have to understand a little about what it takes to become an actuary. What? Your hand is down? Okay, maybe it's a little limiting.
But who cares? The story is what it is, and if you happen to have your hand still up, you would love my story and you'd be rolling on the ground.
I submitted it in the 2009 Actuarial Speculative Fiction Contest. It didn't win any prizes, but here are some of the reactions:
On the Actuarial Outpost Forum, I asked this question: "Anybody else reading these stories?"
The very first response to the question: "In bits and pieces. The A Clockwork Orange one cracked me up."
A couple more posts later: "Ah, which one was that?"
Answer: "I think it had 'Turn-Screw' in the title, and words that seemed to be Klingon, and lots of Clockwork Orange references."
Response: "Oh, yeah. That was funny. I missed a lot by not knowing Klingon. And any Clockwork Orange references were lost on me because I assumed they were Star Trek stuff. (Sorry, I guess I'm not geeky enough to be an actuary.)"
A couple more down: "I read the Turn-Screw story. Very good. I'll take any suggestions on others to read, otherwise I probably won't."
Post #27: "The klingon one was a little strange, I think it would be a small non actuarial crowd that would appreciate that, I liked socially awkward Actuary Man!"
So, you can see some of these actuaries loved my story, though note how that last comment echoes what the magazine publisher said.
Comments from the judge: "Very funny and wacky, chock full of good jokes. A nice dig at innumeracy. Its debt to Star Trek and A Clockwork Orange was both a plus and a minus: Roddenberry, Burgess and Kubrick did the heavy narrative lifting here vs. a more original plotline. Nonetheless, quite enjoyable."
Comments from the coordinator: "I liked your attitude in this story! I guess that comes from being thought of as weird if you like math. The wording in the story is excellent and kept my concentration making sure I was following the details. The language really made me feel the futuristic setting! You have a very creative humorous mind!!"
So, what do I think of the advice "Don't Limit Your Audience"? Don't worry about me. I have lots of different stories. Some are specific to Mormons. Some are for actuaries. I even have hilarious stories/parodies specific to a very small group of people. And yes, the majority of my stories are for the general sci-fi audience, as I do want to make a buck or two.
But every now and then, I'm going to have a strange idea. I know only a small few will appreciate it, but I'll go ahead and write it. Screw all the others--I didn't write the story for them.
And I'll tell you what I'm not going to do to my Klingon Clockwork Orange story. I'm not going to revise it hoping that everyone and their dog will enjoy it, because then it would become diluted and not so funny. Instead I'm going to keep searching for a publisher who would like to do a reprint (I'm not looking for cash on this one--just exposure) and help me find a bigger audience of people who would like this story. It's called targeted marketing.
If you'd like to read it yourself, you can read it here, and let me know what you think. Oh, and you might need this small Klingon glossary that goes with the story.
As for your own writing, let your heart dictate what to write, and then target the appropriate audience.