Behind the Curtain: How an editor chooses (or rejects) a story
Welcome back to my weekly series on how marketing and selling short fiction. These posts are written in a planned sequence, with each entry building on earlier ones. You can read my earlier posts here.
Last week in Part 13, I discussed what to do after you send your story out to a market and are now eagerly waiting for a response (hint: write more stories and send those out, too).
This week, we’ll look at what happens when your story arrives at the publisher.
The Three Types of Submissions
Most markets, whether they are a magazine or an anthology, will have three different submission piles.
The first is a very tiny pile of manuscripts from “name” authors from whom the editor might have specifically solicited a story. Unless these stories totally suck, they will get published, because a big name on the cover helps sell any publication.
The second pile will be larger: unsolicited stories from authors with professional credits, credits which show that their writing is at a level above the norm and are likely to have submitted a story that is publishable.
Everything else ends up in the third pile–the slush pile.
The Slush Pile
Slush is where your story goes if you have insufficient credits to be considered anything other than a new writer. This is why I told you in Part 10 not to include anything other than sales to top professional markets in your cover letter, and why I told you in Part 7 not to submit to anything other than professional markets–because sales to non-pro markets do you absolutely no good.
(In case you’re wondering where the term “slush pile” originated, my favorite and likely apocryphal version is as follows: In the early days of short fiction magazines, manuscripts would be “submitted” by tossing them over the transom of magazine’s office door after hours, resulting in manuscripts piled inside the door, which would then end up (in winter) covered in slush from the boots of staff as they came into the office the next morning.)
So, newbie writer, your story is now sitting in the slush pile with ever so many other manuscripts from other unknown writers. How many other stories? A top professional market or anthology will typically have 600-800 submissions to consider for a single issue or anthology.
How Editors Read Slush
Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith run a series of workshops on the Oregon coast for professional writers (which I highly recommend), several of which include an interesting short fiction exercise. All attendees submit three finished but unsold short stories, which form a slush pile for the workshop. In this exercise, each participant gets to play editor by using this slush pile to assemble their own themed anthology.
Sounds easy? There’s another wrinkle. You are given only a limited amount of time to read the slush pile, just like at a real editor’s office. You quickly learn that an editor does not have time to read every word of every story in slush, which is one of the points of the exercise.
And you also quickly learn to read like an editor. When an editor (or slush reader) is reading slush, if a story doesn’t engage them quickly, in the first paragraph or at most in the first page, they will simply toss it aside and go on to the next one in the pile.
“What!!?!?” (I hear you cry.) “They don’t read every single precious word of my wonderful story, a story that I slaved over and poured blood and sweat and tears into?”
Nope. They don’t. Remember, your little tale is only one of hundreds and hundreds of manuscripts submitted. An editor simply isn’t going to read every story all the way through. They physically do not have the time. Or the stamina, since if you ask anyone who has ever read slush, the vast majority of the stories in slush are absolute unadulterated crap. If you don’t believe me, check out this article about the experience of being a slush reader.
That’s the reality. So how should you deal with that?
Read Like an Editor
You need to learn to critique your own fiction by reading it the way an editor reads.
Back to that Kris and Dean workshop exercise. The stories submitted for the workshop anthology exercise also get critiqued in a group forum. Now, the typical critiquing approach in most writer groups is for each member to give detailed feedback on a story, describing what they liked and what they didn’t, sometimes providing suggestions for fixes, and maybe spending five to ten minutes giving that feedback.
Kris and Dean use a different approach. As a story comes up for discussion, each person around the room, in only five to ten seconds, provides one simple piece of feedback: where they stopped reading. Typical feedback will sound like this:
- “I stopped reading after the first paragraph.”
- “I read to the end of the first page.”
- “I read to page twelve and stopped.”
- “I read all the way through, loved it, and I want to buy it for my anthology.”
- “I read all the way through, but I won’t be buying it.”
The point of this exercise is to teach you how to read your own stories the way that a professional editor will, so that you learn to recognize where your stories are weak.
If you’re in a writing critique group, try adding this type of critiquing to your process. If most of the people in your workshop all tell you that they stopped reading your story on the first page, then you have a problem (probably several problems) with your opening. You can’t argue with that sort of feedback. You’re outnumbered. Your opening sucks. Fix it.
If they all tell you that they stopped about halfway through, then your opening engaged them, but you couldn’t maintain their interest. That might be a pacing problem, a plotting issue, or something else, but at least you know where to focus. Again, they’re right, you’re wrong. Fix it.
And if most say that they read your story all the way through but they wouldn’t buy it if they were an editor, then you either have a problem with your ending or your story was good but not good enough to stand out.
Why Good Stories Get Rejected: Just Not Good Enough
“What!?!?!” I hear you say again (I have good ears). “I thought only bad stories get rejected.”
Nope. Although the vast majority of submissions in the slush pile are truly terrible, editors frequently complain that they also find a large number of well-written stories that are perfectly adequate but simply aren’t good enough. They don’t rise above the rest. There’s nothing special about them.
And when you’re competing against hundreds of other stories, you have to stand out from the crowd–or you’ll stay buried in it.
This series isn’t about the craft of fiction, but I’ll throw out one piece of advice on the creative side:
Editors often comment that these “good but not good enough” stories seem to be playing it safe. They make the obvious choices in plot turns and characters and themes and styles, and by doing so, they end up being like most of the other “good but not good enough” stories that are readable but are still rejected.
Write the story that you want to write the way you want to write it, and don’t worry about what people will think of it or what you think the market is looking for.
Why Good Stories Get Rejected: Editorial Need
The other common reason that good (even very good) stories can be rejected is that they don’t fit the editor’s needs for that particular issue or anthology.
Your story might be an utterly awesome zombie-possum story, but the editor already has already bought one of those and can’t see publishing two in the same issue. Or she’s planning a fairly dark issue, and your story is too upbeat. Or she wants an upbeat issue, and your story is a downer.
So why don’t they keep your story for a future issue? Some magazines might, but most don’t keep an inventory of future stories. The editor might explain all this to you in the rejection note, or they might not. Which brings us to next week’s topic…
Now that you’ve seen how editors select or reject stories, you’re ready to deal with the most likely response to your submission.
Next week: Oh God, They Hate Me: Dealing with rejections
As always, please feel free to add comments and questions, and I’ll respond as best (and as soon as) I can.
PLAYING THE SHORT GAME — The Book!
I am thrilled to announce that I have now repackaged the 32 separate posts that make up this blog series into a book titled Playing the Short Game: How to Market & Sell Short Fiction. The book is completely updated and reorganized, with new material not in this blog series, plus an introduction from multi-genre, multi-award winning writer and editor, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Here’s an extract from Kris’s intro:
Douglas Smith is the best person to write this book. … He’s one of the few people who has probably published more short fiction than I have, and in more countries, and more high-paying markets. He loves the short story as much as I do, and he’s good at writing them.
He’s just as good at the business side of the profession. He knows more about marketing short stories to other countries than I do. He understands how to manage short fiction contracts very well. He’s up-to-date on 21st century publishing practices, and he has a toughness that the best business people need.
We short story writers have needed a book like this for decades. I’m glad Doug decided to write it. Read and reread this volume. Because you’ll learn something each time you do. And take Doug’s advice. It’s spectacular.
—Kristine Kathryn Rusch
More information on the book, including full buying links for all major retailer sites, is available on my website here.
As a special offer to Amazing Stories readers, I’m offering discounts in my bookstore. Get the ebook or print edition at a discount by using the coupon codes AS-SHORT-E or AS-SHORT-P respectively at my website bookstore. Enjoy!