I have just endured -- barely! -- the nightmarish ordeal of reading
the execrable so-called short story that you had the
unmitigated nerve to submit to my magazine. Did I say nightmarish?
Nauseating would be closer to the mark. I will not even take the time
to catalogue each shortcoming in style, characterisation, plotting or
dialogue -- it would be an endless task. Suffice to say that it was
the most appalling, witless piece of ordure I have ever seen in my
entire life. One monkey working on a typewriter for ten
minutes could have come up with better. Ye Gods!
I am -- obviously -- sending it back, and yet I feel in doing simply
that I would be letting you off far too lightly. Sir, I am enraged,
and my blood boils for vengeance. Im very pleased to let you
know, then, that in the very next issue of my magazine, I am going to
print a full page advert explaining to my readership exactly what a
worthless, talentless, utterly pointless individual you are. I shall
include your home address and telephone number, email address, and a
photo of yourself so that people may, if they feel so inclined, jeer
and hurl projectiles at you in the street. I would like to go far
further -- namely, kill you -- but the laws of the realm forbid me
from that. They are long due an overhaul, in my opinion.
Never bother me again!
Readable Stories Magazine.
In twenty years of
writing professionally, I have never once received a letter of
rejection anything like that. And Im willing to bet a tidy sum
that no writer in the world has. The worst that I ever did get? An
editor telling me that he found the style of the tale Id sent
him rather repetitive -- it was supposed to be a
Hemingway pastiche, so I think he missed the point just slightly.
But to hear some
people talk, youd think reactions like the one above are
commonplace. What if I send them a story and they think its
no good? Kid, I hate to break this to you, but theyll
post you back a form rejection slip and then completely forget about
your no-good story. Because professional genre magazines receive at
least two hundred unsolicited manuscripts per week, and thats
a conservative figure in some cases. What, you think a year down the
line youre going to bump into Gardner Dozois at a convention
and hes going to yell, Joe Bloggs? Arent you the
guy who sent me that piece of garbage about time-travel? Jeez, dude!
Sorry, but Gardners got other things on his mind.
Where do the real
pitfalls lie in submitting short stories to magazines, then? Ive
already mentioned the first one. Professional genre magazines receive
at least two hundred unsolicited ... no, Im just restating an
important fact, not emulating Hemingway again. Please, pay attention.
Which means two
things. One, the competition out theres pretty stiff. Do the
math, just for a monthly publication. Then do the math for a
quarterly. And two, response times can be pretty lengthy, but more
about that later.
written yourself a tale. Its in the correct format,
double-spaced, ragged right margin, address and word-count in top
left, blahdy-blah ...
Where do you send
it? And when will you get a response? Good questions.
Finding markets is
simplicity itself these days, thanks to that
electro-Internet-gizmo-thing. Sites such as the one youre now
at have a links section. So do the sites for almost every
British genre magazine that I can think of. Out of the best of the
more generalised listings sites, there are the UKs Ansible,
and the massive and extensive HWA site (www.horror.org), the
markets section of which is available to non-members,
although the markets update part is not. And thanks to
the small presses, semi-pro zines, and Internet mags like This Way
Up, there are hundreds of places out there to send your work.
So which one, out
of all the hundreds? Well, most professional editors will tell you:
Study the market. Read my magazine and see what kinds of
stories I publish, and then send me one of those. Which I agree
with only up to a certain point. TTA Press 3rd Alternative
advertises itself as an sf magazine, and yet its little use
sending them a piece of space-opera. They dont publish that
kind of stuff. And its obviously of limited use sending a
non-vampire story to DNA Publications Dreams of Decadence.
But as for the more generalised genre magazines? What those editors
seem to be saying is send me the kind of story Ive
already got, and that hardly strikes one as the recipe for an
interesting, thriving short story scene (I was going to say milieu
just then, but stopped myself in time).
Did the original
publishers of Shogun sit around on their hands murmuring Ooh,
I wish someone would send us a novel based in 17th Century Japan?
No. They didnt know they wanted it until they saw it. And its
the same with short fiction sometimes. So, by and large, I just send
the tale in, and see what the editor thinks of it. He/she can only
And is that the
worst that can happen, hearing no? Er, unfortunately not.
In fact, no can come as a relief on occasion. Because now
we enter the weird and wacky (and other words beginning with w)
world of: Response Times, and How to Re-act to Them.
editor in New York Ive sent twenty stories to over the past
couple of years, and hes turned each one down. And yet I still
send him every new story that I write, before I submit it anywhere
else. For why? Firstly, he makes enough encouraging noises to make me
believe hell actually buy something one day. But more
importantly, he responds unfailingly within two weeks. Which leaves
me free to send the story elsewhere in a -- relatively -- extremely
realistic here. Small presses, part-time affairs, publications such
as the one youre reading which are labours of love as much as
anything else? You cant expect a quick response and I dont.
I never chase Paul because I know hes going to get back to me
when hes ready.
But as for more
professional markets, those who should know better? Some of them are
good, though not quite as good as Two Week Guy. Real pros -- Ellen
Datlow springs to mind -- never keep you hanging around too long.
Others? Let me put
it this way. There is now a site out there which lists realistic
response times for most magazines, and it is called Black Hole
because, quote, most writers feel that when they send a story
out, it disappears into a black hole.
the website of most magazines, click on guidelines, and
youll usually find something along the lines of RT -- 6
to 8 weeks'. And Im sure they meant it when they wrote it down.
But what was it exactly that the Road to Hell was paved with?
How long should
you give them, and what should you do about it next? My rule is:
monthly and bi-monthly magazines, 4 months. Quarterlies and longer,
at least 6. And then, when possible, I chase up with a very polite
I cannot stress enough, very polite. Firstly
because I consider that professional behaviour on my own part. But
secondly because, several times recently, that very polite enquiry
has elicited the response sorry to have kept you so long but,
yeah, we want your story. And from a good, prestigious market
on each of those occasions.
get no reply. In which case, try again. You dont know whats
happening at the far end, after all. The editor might have been away,
or ill, or revamping the mags format or whatever it
is editors do that leaves them feeling stressed. On one memorable
occasion I can think of, the guy Id sent my story to actually
turned out to have died. But always keep it polite. In no
circumstance go hey bollock-brains, wheres my manuscript
huh, you clown!, whatever the temptation.
the temptation can be a strong one. Because the harsh truth is that
-- more and more these days -- some editors
never bother to respond at all.
Learn who the good
ones -- and there are plenty of them out there -- are. Learn who the
bad ones are as well. Im not saying dont submit to the
bad ones, ever. Just know what to expect.
Which brings me to
the one issue that vexes me the most these days, and which can be
summed up in the one word 'simultaneous. Most guidelines for
markets will inform you no multiple or simultaneous
submissions. And multiples okay, it just means send one
story at a time. But 'simultaneous means dont send
your story to us and other markets at the same time, and
frankly, thats beginning to get under my skin a little.
You see, legally,
THEY HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO RIGHT TO DEMAND THAT WHATSOEVER. Why? Because
the storys yours. Its your property. Until you sign a
contract with a publisher, no one but yourself has any say in what
you do with it. You can send it to every magazine in the world
simultaneously if you so desire.
Which means that
when markets ask that, theyre asking it as a professional
courtesy. In which case -- and I understand how inundated most
editors are -- oughtnt they do you the professional courtesy of
replying within a reasonable time?
your story to us, just to us, no one else, and well -- er
-- bury it at the bottom of a huge pile of paper and completely
forget about it.
What the hell is
that? What other profession in the world would put up with
that kind of treatment? I still dont simultaneously submit,
simply because, Soddes Law being what it is, Im bound to
wind up ticking off somebody that I dont want to. But Im
more and more tempted to try it these days, let me tell you.
Rant over. For
this issue at least.
And finally, given
the little maths problem I posed you near the start of this piece,
what are your chances of finally getting a yes response?
I can only tell you what my own experience is, on that score. Im
no Stephen King, but am no novice either, and have sold to most of
the major markets in the fantastical genre. And, checking my records
for the last two years, Ive had nine bounces for every story
sold. Ten submissions for each sale, in other words. And thats
knows, though, you might turn out to be the next Lucius Shepard or
Poppy Z. Brite. In which case ... can I have
one story which demonstrates how curious and capricious this whole
business can be, and it centres round one of my personal writing
heroes, Dashiell Hammett.
When he wasnt
penning modern classics like The Maltese Falcon, Hammett wrote
short stories too. He had a system when sending them out. He had this
list of markets, with the highest paying at the top, the lowest at
the bottom, and the rest in descending order. And yes, hed send
to the highest paying first, and then the second highest, and so on.
Every once in a
while, after a year or so, a story would work its way the whole way
down the list without anyone buying it. And what would Hammett do
then? Hed re-send it to the market at the top of his list. And
usually sell it.