The latest internet kerfuffle regarding editing and publishing in the genre community started over at John Scalzi’s blog where he called out a market for paying one fifth of a cent per word (500 words for a dollar, etc.). This has now mutated into an excellent blog post over at Jeff VanderMeer’s blog, by guest blogger Rachel Swirsky, editor of PodCastle. Ms. Swirsky’s point was riffing off of Scalzi’s, that getting published “anywhere” doesn’t necessarily help a young writer’s career– in fact, not only, as Scalzi says, does this potentially devalue an author, it can, as Swirsky says, make an editor less inclined towards your work. Both Swirsky’s and Scalzi’s point boils down to this: often young writers are told to publish, publish, publish: exposure is king, as well as judge, jury, and executioner when it comes to short fiction, if you don’t have credits behind your name you’re flung off of the slushpile and into the garbage, or as Swirsky put it, “it’s this benefit of the doubt that I think newer authors are trying to curry when they say the point of publishing with a market like Black Matrix is to get a credit, any credit. (Either that or they think submissions with creditless cover letters are thrown into an automatic ‘no’ box with a malevolent editorial cackle.)”
This is, as Ms. Swirsky points out later in her post, a total falsehood. I agree with her, at least from my personal experience as a slusher for Fantasy Magazine, and now, as its assistant editor. While it is true that having a list of credits behind your name (Weird Tales, Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, etc.) will get you a moment of “huh” from a slusher or editor who sees your story, or maybe a bump up, it is also absolutely true that, at least at FM, we read everything, credits or not. As a slusher I have bumped stories with “pedigree” and stories where the cover letter consists of “thank you for reading this, it is approximately 4300 words” or “if accepted, this will be my first publishing credit.” True story. In fact, I make it a habit to try to primarily read new authors when I slush, because I enjoy it, but also because as an aspiring author (no professional credits behind my name, no sir, not one) I hope that one day I will receive the same consideration from another slusher– or editor, if I make it beyond the first gate (you know, the one with big breasted sphinxes that shoot laser beams out of their eyes, which is essentially what slushing looks like over at FM). Ms. Swirsky’s co-editor Ann Leckie summed it up on her blog quite perfectly in my opinion: “Look, I read slush. Here’s the bottom line: The thing that makes an editor pay attention to your story is a kick-ass story. Period. The End. It doesn’t matter if you have good credits, or any credits at all. Now, it’s true if you have good credits you can sometimes jump the slushreader. It’s true that if you have good credits, an editor will start reading with the expectation that what she’s about to read is not, in fact, going to be the sort of headdesky slush that gives the slushpile its name and reputation–a reputation, I might add, that is thoroughly deserved.”
So here’s the point: I know first-hand how it feels to get rejection after rejection from professional or semi-pro markets. Hell, I have a big ol’ folder of them in my email (so I don’t end up resubmitting). The thing is, I also know that if I keep writing, keep refining my craft, one day my efforts will pay off, because I also know this quote is also very true (again, from Ms. Swirsky’s blog post): “It’s even worse [than having no credits] when the cover letter comes in with credits from a large number of magazines that I’ve never heard of. At the beginning of our run, we had someone submit with a full resume of over one thousand publications, none of which I’d heard of before. These are, I assume, the fly-by-night for the love markets which publish for a month or two before dying, only to be replaced, hydra-like, by two more.”
I get this tactic by authors in cover letters over at FM all the time, and yes, as a slusher, I do indeed google credits I’ve never heard of. When I have to dig, and dig, and dig some more to find out the credit is a tiny market that doesn’t exist anymore, that has no indication if they were a paying market when they were around, or even what their general content was, it does nothing but make me annoyed that I’ve wasted my time looking for something when I could have been reading that person’s story and assessing its quality– which is, of course, the only thing that matters.
So, in the spirit of being helpful (as Scalzi, Swirsky, and Leckie all were) I feel like this might be the time to reveal something I’ve been working on for a while: another aspect of navagating the sometimes-daunting minefield of professional and semi-professional markets: getting bumped up from the slushpile. It is true that good writing is the most important thing, but there are some other relevant aspects to the sort of professionalism that gets noticed, which is why I’ve decided to call this “The View from Atop the Slushpile” or, to be clearer, “a guide to making the chances your story will be recommended to an editor that much better in an already insanely competitive market.” Now ok hold up, before any hackles get raised or feelings get hurt: just to be perfectly honest, this list contains absolutely no names or mean jabs at people who have gotten rejected from Fantasy Magazine since I started working for them— everything, everything in this list I have seen more than once, from more than one author, so much so that it moved me to notice them as more than anomalies and list them here. It is also pretty personal to my taste, since, as Leckie notes, this is a market of taste.
And, as a side note, if most of these hints seem to deal with “packaging,” it’s because I truly feel that the way writers present themselves often reflects accurately on their work. This isn’t necessarily the publishing equivalent of “put on a nice shirt and comb your hair,” it is about whether or not it seems like you give a fuck about your work. If you care, I’m more likely to. OK?
First: read the submission guidelines. Seriously. Don’t waste your time and others’ by submitting inappropriate pieces to markets. If the title of the magazine is, let’s just say for example, oh. . . Fantasy Magazine, stop to consider if your story has an element of the fantastic or the supernatural. If not, why are you submitting it? Most professional markets will list their criteria, if your story is a decent fit, submit it. Also, no harm was ever done by querying.
Additionally, format your stories as the editors request. Using a smaller font than desired will not make your overly-long story seem shorter. It will make your overly-long story an annoyance to read.
Make sure the title of your submission in your cover letter is the same (or is reflected in) the title of your .doc or .rtf file, which also should, you know, match the actual title of your story. It looks sloppy if you can’t be bothered to know the title of your own work.
In your cover letter, be brief. List professional credits, of course, but really consider whether you want to pad your letter with your life history, the college you went to (even if you graduated with a degree in creative writing, since, as we’ve discussed today at length, pedigree only counts for so much), the novel you have in the works, or anything else like that—unless, of course, the magazine has asked for a bio. If not, it takes time to read all that stuff, time the slusher or editor could be spending on your story. As I said earlier, I’ve bumped plenty of things where the cover letter was “Thank you for reading my submission, “Great Story,” approx. X words.”
If in fact the magazine has asked for a bio, keep it professional and relevant. You may think you sound quirky or twee or adorable or unique when you say something like “so and so enjoys setting things on fire and dancing with monsters in the moonlight” but likely you sound affected, just like the thousand other people who put things exactly like that at the end of their bio. I’ve never seen a professional writer do anything like that, probably because, well, their work speaks for itself. It is certainly my goal to have my writing speak for itself. . . without the need of a “quirky” cover letter to attract attention.
Mentioning that your dream is to turn your short story into a 22-part serial might not work in your favor, unless the market to which you’re submitting often publishes serial stories. If they don’t, you might want to consider whether your story is good as a stand-alone piece before you submit it. The first chapters of some novels would make great short stories in and of themselves, but often, they are simply prologues to greater things to come. If that’s the case with yours, consider expanding it, or submit it to a place that publishes serial stories.
I can’t believe I actually need to say this (remember when Leckie said the slushpile often deserves its name?), but spell check your cover letter (and your story, for goodness sake). If you are just awful at spelling, write your cover letter in MS Word or download that upgrade to Safari or Firefox or God forbid Internet Explorer that shows you when words are misspelled. Also unless the market is the WoW player forums, using abbreviations like LOL, ROFL, OMG, etc. in your cover letter doesn’t necessarily speak for your ability to work well with language.
Don’t disparage yourself. It’s not amusing, it doesn’t come off as appealing; rather, it feels disingenuous. You’re submitting the piece, why would you do that unless you felt it was ready to be published? If you don’t believe in the quality of your work, why should the slusher or editor?
It doesn’t help your chances of acceptance when you format your tale with Celtic knot backgrounds, weird fonts, or other such distractions. Even if you think that dragon image is bad as hell, likely it will just be (best case) white noise to the slusher or editor. Worst case the slusher or editor will assume that your story needs that bad-ass dragon to make it interesting, which isn’t what you want.
Regarding your stories: edit them. Then edit them again. I cannot emphasize this enough. If a jagged red line appears under a word in your tale, this should be a warning light to you—is the word you’re using a real word? If not, is this deliberate? If you have odd names like “Throgdash the Warpdrainer” in your tale consider adding those words to your MS Word dictionary so your reader doesn’t see Throgdash, Throdgash, and Thoshgad all appearing in the story as the same character. Also, before you use an expression like case-in-point you might want to goggle it, because it is an instant turnoff when a slusher or editor sees things like “case-and-point” or “it’s a doggy dog world” in a story.
If your story requires paragraphs of explanation as to why it is interesting or good, that should concern you as a writer. Readers aren’t necessarily going to have the advantage of your explanation, and editors have to think about readership. If liking your short story is contingent upon intimate understanding of the mechanics of modern-day helicopter engines or the nuances of some general’s battle plans in some war, or (and this is something I have to check myself for just constantly) knowing some sort of detail about a historical figure you’re writing about, or even that said historical figure actually existed and is cool, well, again: readers aren’t you, and if your brilliance isn’t going to be recognized by everyday folks. . . if a tree falls, right? That old chestnut applies here, like woah. This isn’t to say don’t write about obscure things, but have them be an added bonus, a delightful enhancement to those in the know, not an essential part of something that then makes the story make no sense to the uninformed.
Basically my advice can be summed up like this: Before you hit send on a submission, think about if the whole package (cover letter, story, etc.) reads as a professional document. If your goal is to be a published writer, that is a profession, so be professional. The trappings of a submission, meaning cover letter, general editing, lack of funny font, etc., all of that generally falls into one of two categories: the “invisible/sweet music to my ears” or “red flag.”
Which do you want?
Note for 12/11/09: Another slusher for FM actually beat me to making a lot of these points! Check out Nick Matthew’s Advice from a Slush Reader. It’s an awesome list, and though we differ in our opinion regarding sending summaries along with your story (I say don’t do it, never-ever, unless the magazine asks you to, of course), we both agree wholeheartedly on the use of Comic Sans as a font (reprehensible), and if loathing of Comic Sans doesn’t bring people together, what can?