Thursday, February 2, 2012

EDITOR IN OZ: May be human, only behind curtain

When I attended the Dublin Phoenix Convention as a guest last year, I met John Kenny, co-editor of Albedo One magazine. During the convention he solicited a story from me, which I then wrote for the Aeon Press anthology he edited, entitled Box of Delights.  Because I had a good experience with him as an editor, I started following the blog he recently began.  And he recently wrote a good blog article on submission strategies for writers.

It stood out to me for a number of reasons, one is likely because I find myself in a rather new situation as a long-time submitting writer: I have a number of new stories, and all of them are thirty-to-forty pages long.  Most magazines no longer accept story submissions of such length, and those who do typically cut off at 10,000 words. The few remaining either charge a $3 "reading fee" to submit or don't seem really that interested in reading long stories to begin with.

Of course, what writer with half a thought in her head would decide to write long stories ("novelettes", suggests Duotrope) at the very moment everyone else has decided that a story the size of a dead leaf is best?

Image of Writer Submitting Stories Pre-Ebook
Needless to say, I've been spending some additional hours thinking about submissions and, in many ways, feel like I'm re-experiencing what it was to send out my stories when I was 15.  Except it's not as exciting, the dazzle is gone, I don't save all my rejections in a jean purse, and online form rejection letters are--as I'm noticing--often made to seem like they're not form letters, which makes the task of submitting (and managing them) all the more frustrating.

In the good old days, the rejection form, and its variants, implied a certain code to the writer based on how it was written and signed.  Little differently, I would assume, than how a writer's cover letter--its formatting, tone, and content--will say something to the editor about the professionalism, or lack thereof, of the writer.

But in regards to the code of rejection letters: A rejection addressed to "Dear Writer" and signed with a photocopied editor's signature (or simply "The Editors") meant that the story didn't merit more than this.  It was just another story, and so the writer would know something about what just happened and how to think about re-submitting.  The same rejection letter but with a real signature above the photocopied one meant the editor was sending a sort of compliment.  It was a rejection but the editor took the time because of this particular story.  And so that would tell the writer something.  Thus, a handwritten P.S. on an otherwise form rejection was really something.  This is what was meant by "I got a good rejection."

But many magazines are emailing form rejection letters (equal to a photocopied Dear Writer form rejection) but making them look personal.  And while I'll save my deeper thoughts on pseudo-personal form rejections for another day, perhaps you can see why automated online rejections that fill the writer's first name into the "Dear" field and the story's title in the Thanks for submitting your story ___________ can be a bit confusing:

Dear Erin: 

We appreciate the opportunity to read your work, but we will not be publishing your submission, "The Impossible, Electric World." We wish you luck placing it elsewhere. 

Thanks very much for your interest in [Magazine Title was here] - we found a lot to admire here and hope you'll submit to us again! 

The Editors 
[Magazine Title was here]

It's difficult to know if the form rejection is a form rejection or if its personal quality is real, which is often further exacerbated by the magazine using more personalized language in its form rejection letters:  "We found a lot to admire here."  Is this something that these editors copy/paste into their second level-up form rejections?  Do they say this to everyone they reject?  And if they do, why? 

Dear Erin,
Thank you for the opportunity to read your submission. After careful consideration, we have concluded that we are unable to publish your work at this time. The opportunity to assess the unpublished creations of writers from around the world is a great privilege and responsibility, and with that in mind, we want you to know how honored we are that you have trusted us to consider your work. [emphasis mine] We invite your further submission and correspondence and remain grateful for your continued support of the ongoing [magazine title] project.
With best wishes,
[First names of editors were here, followed by the journal's address]

Of course, effective rejection letters of the "good old days" still occur but likely, due to the blurring of intention caused by the pseudo-personal rejection, the "old-fashioned" rejections letters start to take on their own meanings.  The other day I received a rejection letter from The Fiddleback and was SO thankful for it because its content told me everything I needed to know, and I wasn't made to guess what it actually meant:

Dear Contributor,

Thank you for submitting to The Fiddleback. Unfortunately, your work does not meet our needs at this time. Given the volume of submissions we receive, it is impossible to respond personally, although we read each submission carefully and weigh our decisions fully. We thank you for the opportunity to read your work and hope you will continue to support the magazine.


The Editors


And while it may sound strange to be glad to receive a rejection letter, as a result of this perfectly clear communication, I will likely submit again to the magazine again because I am so truly pleased at the time they have saved me.  In the rejection letter, I recognize their professionalism. That's the sort of magazine I want to work with because if they treat their rejection letters like this then they'll likely treat their accepted writers with similar professionalism.  However, one effect of the pseudo-personal letters is that they make the other form of rejection letter take on different meaning--that is, it could be interpreted that because there isn't a fake personal note, the journal really hated my work--so much so that it couldn't even be bothered to fake interest.

But the insult is actually the effect of the pseudo-personal rejection, the rejection that talks about how I shouldn't lose hope as a writer (assuming that, I suppose, one more rejection is likely to send every writer crashing through the glass like the Cowardly Lion), or for example this sentence from a pseudo-personal form rejection that actually seems to say exactly what it's suggesting it isn't saying:  "It's not that your work is bad, it's just that it doesn't fit this issue."   

Likely as writers and editors become more accustomed to communicating in a virtual form, and as technologies increase such that an e-mail can have more--or less--differentiation, these troubles will go by the wayside  (I hope).  Certainly not all magazines take part in the pseudo-personal form rejection, but a number of them seem to.  And while this may only be an interim--just as we're in an interim between print and e-books--one still would prefer a more fluid, less frustrating experience.

Therefore, reading Kenny's article was a breath of air if not simply because I could hear the voice of an editor and know it was the editor; perhaps it was bonus that his article surrounds submission strategies.  Kenny's article on submitting fiction to "high-end" and "low-end" journals using a top-down strategy is written mainly for writers who have recently begun sending their stories down the long glass hallway that leads to the Editor in Oz, but I think it's a useful article to most writers--no matter how many weeks or years they've been standing outside of, walking through, or falling asleep inside that glass hallway.

Pray tell, why?

1) It's good to be reminded that there is a real person behind the velvet curtain where all envelopes--real or virtual--are opened and at least one of them knows that writers are human, too.  

  • This is good for beginning writers but also rather cheering for writers in the creation stage rather than the submission stage or who have been in the submission stage for a while and it's becoming a bit wearying. . . doubts arise--not necessarily always about the merit of one's own work but doubts about the existence of real editors, doubts about the existence of real readers, doubts that editors know how to read or read submissions at all, doubts there is actually a difference between the submishmash Received and In-Progress designation.  If Kenny exists--and I have met him so I have proof--other editors like him must also exist.

2) Due to his realness, an editor may suffer from human characteristics such as memory:

  • Kenny reminds us that as a co-editor, he tends to be the one opening the envelopes--even when the envelopes have the same return-address as envelopes from last year, and the year before.  And not only this, but Kenny may even have feelings of encouragement

[. . .] when I see work by a writer who can clearly write and has come close on several occasions to getting published in the magazine [. . .], I’m immediately on their side, rooting for them, wanting their latest submission to be the one that gets in.

A consequence of this is that even when I’m rejecting a story of this calibre, I’ll tend to add a comment or two on why it didn’t work for me rather than send out a form rejection.

  • Resubmitting to the same magazine may actually be something to do--sometimes, as I've been reminded by Jack Kaulfus, one of my writing comrades, the long list of magazines on Duotrope, in addition to its benefits, has a number of negative consequences for both writers and editors. Kaulfus notes how easy it is "to just blitz the hell out of fifty journals in one night", for example.  And  this may be one more: not becoming a faithful future-contributor. After all, with so many magazines, one has ample opportunity never to submit anywhere twice.  Magazines are born, they die--and like morgues or restaurants, they're always accepting applications. So why return to someone who read your story and sent a form rejection?  Because it could be an editor like Kenny--the one a writer wants in the long-run.
  • As such, it's easy to avoid submitting one's application to the same diner when there are ten others across the street who serve the same palette and whose customers aren't required or encouraged to tip.
    • Of course, many of the form rejection letters encourage this thinking by including generic well-wishes that suggest they've rejected a story not because it lacks quality really, it's not you, it's us, and there are so many of us, we're sure someone will take you.
    • And, not all magazines seem to have dedicated editors.  At least in the U.S., a number of journals are run by universities whose pile of slush-staff graduates every year or two, and as mentioned, a number of non-university journals die so quickly that the editors' ghosts forget the names of the magazines. However, it may be good for us to reconsider where to submit based on the staying power of its editors (and the size of its screening-readers).  

3) Hearing from an editor, at least in the case of Kenny's article, feels like a sort of rallying cry for the troops of writers.  And as a member of the troops, I'm glad to hear what's going on up at the front--even if the front is being invaded by other troops of writers instead of readers.

4) It's especially refreshing to hear from an editor, especially encouragement from an editor (real encouragement, not the typical form-rejection flip, faux flattery)--as it often seems more common to hear, and spread, the bad news, like how all of this fiction-writing/editing business is 

  • For naught because the world is going to hell and is illiterate, to boot 
  • The Short Story . . .  Pulse
    Exists. . .Sort of.
    • (here are 1 million statistics about how children don't read, don't want to read, can't read, can read but only in terms of answering multiple-choice tests about plot points and character description; and anyone who isn't a child used to be that child, is pregnant with that child, or only reads non-fiction books about what it's like to live for one year like a [fill in blank] or without a [fill in blank]) 
  • A laughing-stock due to low readership and, as such, justifiable for editors to charge contest fees 
  • "Alive. . . but not well" (notes Stephen King as he drops the stethoscope and shakes his head in his introduction to Best American Stories 2007)
  • A rather masturbatory art-form due to its audience also being its performers (common knowledge)
  • And so on.  Just a bunch of bad, badness.

So, thank you, John Kenny--either for being a human who happens to be an editor or for being an editor who happens to be human.  I know of a few others, too.  Good.  Glad to know what the situation is, that perseverance is a virtue still admired and condoned, that not all editors turn to ash in the sunlight, and that writing must not be all for naught--as long as readers, editors or not editors, will have feelings of goodness for the writers they read (whether or not they accept, or reject, them)

Now, back to the trenches I go.