What's The Worst That Can Happen?


Tony Richards


“Dear Mr. Richards,

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. I’m 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!

Yours truly,

C. Manson


Readable Stories Magazine.”

In twenty years of writing professionally, I have never once received a letter of rejection anything like that. And I’m 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 I’d 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, you’d think reactions like the one above are commonplace. ‘What if I send them a story and they think it’s no good?’ Kid, I hate to break this to you, but they’ll 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 that’s a conservative figure in some cases. What, you think a year down the line you’re going to bump into Gardner Dozois at a convention and he’s going to yell, “Joe Bloggs? Aren’t you the guy who sent me that piece of garbage about time-travel? Jeez, dude!” Sorry, but Gardner’s got other things on his mind.

Where do the real pitfalls lie in submitting short stories to magazines, then? I’ve already mentioned the first one. Professional genre magazines receive at least two hundred unsolicited ... no, I’m just restating an important fact, not emulating Hemingway again. Please, pay attention.

Which means two things. One, the competition out there’s 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.

So, you’ve written yourself a tale. It’s 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 you’re 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 UK’s 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 it’s little use sending them a piece of space-opera. They don’t publish that kind of stuff. And it’s 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 I’ve 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 didn’t know they wanted it until they saw it. And it’s 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 say no.

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.

There’s an editor in New York I’ve sent twenty stories to over the past couple of years, and he’s 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 he’ll 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 short time.

Let’s be realistic here. Small presses, part-time affairs, publications such as the one you’re reading which are labours of love as much as anything else? You can’t expect a quick response and I don’t. I never chase Paul because I know he’s going to get back to me when he’s 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’.

Visit the website of most magazines, click on ‘guidelines’, and you’ll usually find something along the lines of ‘RT -- 6 to 8 weeks'. And I’m 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 email.

And 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.

Sometimes, you’ll get no reply. In which case, try again. You don’t know what’s happening at the far end, after all. The editor might have been away, or ill, or ‘revamping the mag’s format’ or whatever it is editors do that leaves them feeling stressed. On one memorable occasion I can think of, the guy I’d sent my story to actually turned out to have died. But always keep it polite. In no circumstance go ‘hey bollock-brains, where’s my manuscript huh, you clown!’, whatever the temptation.

And 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. I’m not saying don’t 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 multiple’s okay, it just means send one story at a time. But 'simultaneous’ means ‘don’t send your story to us and other markets at the same time’, and frankly, that’s beginning to get under my skin a little.

You see, legally, THEY HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO RIGHT TO DEMAND THAT WHATSOEVER. Why? Because the story’s yours. It’s 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, they’re asking it as a professional courtesy. In which case -- and I understand how inundated most editors are -- oughtn’t they do you the professional courtesy of replying within a reasonable time?

‘Send your story to us, just to us, no one else, and we’ll -- 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 don’t simultaneously submit, simply because, Sodde’s Law being what it is, I’m bound to wind up ticking off somebody that I don’t want to. But I’m 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. I’m 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, I’ve had nine bounces for every story sold. Ten submissions for each sale, in other words. And that’s fairly good.

Who knows, though, you might turn out to be the next Lucius Shepard or Poppy Z. Brite. In which case ... can I have your autograph?

But there’s 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 wasn’t 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, he’d 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? He’d re-send it to the market at the top of his list. And usually sell it.

Go figure.


Tony Richards writes: "I'm the author of two novels, Night Feast and The Harvest Bride, and have had stories appear in F&SF, Asimov's, Ad Astra, Pan Horror, Weird Tales, The 3rd Alternative, Dark Terrors and numerous anthologies. I'm 46, and live in London with my wife."
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