Top Chef, for me, is interesting to watch because the chefs competing are already successful, creative, and they are willing to learn. Because they want to be number one. The best. Every last one of them. Cooking is something that you are a student of your entire life. Like music. Like art. Like writing.
These men and women are put through grueling challenges meant to test their skill and creativity. The ones least successful are voted off one by one. A couple weeks ago, one of the chefs in the bottom set was a young man named Hung. When the judges began to critique his food, he stated that (and I'm paraphrasing here) that no one was spitting out his food. The judges immediately responded that no one was playing on the level where food would be spit. Essentially, stating that these guys were in a top playing field.
So the question becomes, how does one critique the food? There are certain factors, of course, that go into it--texture, taste, presentation, creativity, and remaining within the parameters of the challenge. Then, it seems to me, that it becomes a ranking game. If you scored an 8.5 to Joe Schmoe's 8.7, well, you're going home.
A similar thing happens in writing when we send out work. Our 'dish' is 'tasted' and judged as to whether it should show up on the 'menu'. If our story did not perform either 1.up to par, 2.as well as the other offers, or 3.did not suit the palate of the particular 'restaurant' then the story comes back with a rejection note. Any one of those three factors could play a part in why we did not get voted in.
So don't whine about it. Keep in mind that competition is fierce, even in the smaller magazines. You can control only one of those three selection items: whether or not your work is up to par. The only thing you can do is write the best you damn well can and put out a story that you're proud of. That means looking at the story more than once, making sure there are no holes in the plotline, making sure it is a neat/legible package, and no typos. Clean and well-told. (You can also make sure that you send it to the correct magazine--the horror genre is to Ploughshares as a hamburger is to a donut shop, it don't mix.)
Recently I received a rejection from The Carolina Quarterly and they have written a note on the bottom: "We liked this story very much! Please continue to submit your work."
This rejection tells me two main things. 1.My work was up to par. That's good to know. They didn't tell me that my fingers should be broken and I should never write to them again. 2.That I probably sent my work to the right place, but I was just ousted by Joe Schmoe, and probably physical page numbers of the journal--they can't publish everything. Rejections like this are a step in the right direction. It tells me I'm playing at the right level (no one is spitting out my food). Be thankful someone bothered to tell you that you were on the right track...and then keep sending your story on down the line.