At least in the science fiction community, there’s a lot of false community wisdom floating around about the editorial process. Some of them may have been true once. Some were probably invented to mess with the heads of noobs. Some of them are carefully nutured lies, like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Well, no longer. I’m here to tell you the truth, no matter how ugly it may be.
LIE #1: Editors give every story fair consideration. OR: Editors reject stories without reading them at all.
The truth is, the slush is deep, and it’s rarely an editor’s favorite part of the job. Why do you think so many places have slush readers?
Every story doesn’t get fair consideration. Not every story deserves it. If you can’t be bothered to read the submission guidelines and follow them, it’s an easy rejection. If you have five grammar and spelling mistakes in the first two paragraphs, it’s an easy rejection. If it’s a story about vampires, and I hate vampire stories, it’s mostly an easy rejection.
Most stories get at least a page out of me. Then I skip to the last 3 paragraphs, if I’m feeling generous. Some get less. Some work is so obviously bad that it’s startlingly easy to know it’s not going to work. But every story gets looked at. Nothing ever gets rejected without being partially read. Honest.
LIE #2: Editors never reject a good story.
I rejected plenty of really good stories at the Fortean Bureau. I’ve even rejected a couple at Escape Pod. The reason is pretty simple: editorial vision or scope. The Fortean Bureau was looking for a particular kind of story. Your space opera, no matter how good, was never going to appear there. Likewise, we don’t accept horror or fantasy at Escape Pod. If the story is good, and sucks me in, I will recommend sending it over to the other editors.
Stories get rejected for being too long, too short, too similiar to another story the editor has already bought… there are as many reasons for rejection as there are stories. And not all of them involve you making mistakes. There are aspects of the process that a writer cannot control. Best to just relax about it.
LIE #3: Editors don’t foster new writers like they did in the old days, and don’t care about new talent.
John W. Campbell was a meddlesome bastard who sent his writers specific ideas for stories. He was not what you call a “hands off” kind of editor. He wrote his fair share of stories, and some of the tales I’ve heard about him make me think that he was often thinking as a writer as much as he was an editor. He wasn’t afraid to rewrite someone else’s story.
For whatever bizzare reason, some people wish editors would take that level of interest in their work, and they lament that editors no longer foster new writers, giving them the kind of constructive criticism that leads to their personal growth. Everything for writers was just wonderful back then but these editors today are jerks!
Not true. Campbell may have had time to do this with a larger percentage of his submissions, but the field was smaller then. Today, there are tens of thousands of writers all trying to break in to the same publications. We simply don’t have time to give personal feedback to each submission. These days, sometimes the best you get is an encouraging rejection. My first came from Stanley Schmidt: “I like your writing, so I hope you will send more in the future.” Not very specific, but it does the trick. It tells you that you’re on the right track.
As much as I give Gordon van Gelder a hard time for his opposition to online media, the man writes a very succinct and helpful rejection letter. Even the form letters have a system to them to help you figure out why the story was rejected. I always simultaneously feared and looked forward to his short notes.
Editors do build a stable of writers. The reason most people don’t see it is because by the time you come along, the editor has already established a group of authors he or she can count on. But short story writers in particular are always going on to write novels, so openings do occur from time to time.
If you really want feedback on your work, join a workshop or critique circle. It’s not the editor’s job to help you become a better writer. Sometimes, we’re helpful, but we can’t do it for everyone.
LIE #4: Editors are people too.
“Editors are just like us.” No, we’re not. You don’t have a neverending stream of bad writing coming at you day in, day out. You get to read for pleasure, selecting material that has been through at least one filter. Whereas you turn on the tap and get a stream of nice drinkable water, we put our mouths to a sewer pipe and hope to get at least one swallow that won’t give us raging diarrhea.
I know the sentiment of the phrase is meant to imply that we’re not godlike arbiters of taste, making and breaking careers on a whim. But editors do wield power. And it changes us. Generally it makes us ill-tempered and easily distracted by shiny objects. I’ve yet to feel godlike, but I’m not ruling out the possibility. Maybe when something I’ve published wins a Hugo, I will ascend to Asgard.
LIE #5: Editors (and critics) are failed writers.
As a rule, no. A lot of us are moderately successful writers. Some of us have never wanted to write and never will. There are a few who have started out as writers and given it up for the editing/publishing game (Gordon, I think), but not all of us have.
We’re not driven to become editors out of bitterness. We all come to the position for different reasons, but I think most of us start out as optimistic and hopeful. We think that maybe we have a vision for a type of story that nobody else has seen before. We day dream about finding writers that amaze us and publishing them before anyone else.
It takes a peculiar sort of ego to take up editing. And thank god. If it wasn’t for editors, we’d all have to sort through the kind of self-published garbage that made it possible for Geocities to stay in business for so long. I shudder to think of a world without editors.
And finally, a well-known truth:
You can bribe an editor.
Most of us are broke and driven to drink copious amounts of alcohol. See the sewer pipe analogy above. That gives us a weakness you can exploit. Next time you’re at a convention, go to the bar, and buy a drink for your favorite editor. Make sure you do it early on, because seven or eight drinks in, we’ll never remember your name. We’ll be lucky to wake up in the right hotel room, or even the right state. Who bought the drinks on a night like that will be the least of our concerns when we wake up naked atop a desert mesa covered from head to toe in blue paint.
Putting a name to a face, along with a mental database note of “bought me a beer” doesn’t hurt. One of the things that makes editing easier is pretending that the stories aren’t all written by human beings with heart. Sometimes, we have to put that out of our minds. And if you find a way to politely shatter that illusion, well, it can be good for you. But only if you are likely to start selling stories anyway.
There are no great secrets to being published. Read lots. Write stories. Lots and lots of stories. Submit the work until the stories are either accepted or rejected by every market you could bear to see your name associated with. That’s pretty much all there is to it. Everything else is basically unimportant.