Sunday, June 22, 2008

Hijacking Comments (or Best Said By Nick Mamatas and Jeff Vandermeer)

Yesterday, Brian and I went to a fundraiser for the Humane Society. He was bent over, scrounging through boxes of used books. (We bought a signed hardcover of Laura Lippman's latest, and since the proceeds were going to support dogs up for adoption, I didn't think she'd mind... as much. There were some beautiful dogs there, but I digress.)

As Brian was bent over, a woman came up to him and said he should be careful about bending over like that because she just might grab his backside. Now, she looked about 83 and walked with a cane, so when Brian's boss's partner mentioned someone was hitting on my boyfriend, I wasn't too worried about it. And, as one would guess, this charming lady wasn't heartbroken by being let down. It was expected.

However, rejection is often far more complex, and personal, and usually provokes a strong emotional response.

Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt, yaddi yadda. We've all been there, but until it's your story on the chopping block, you never know how you'll take it when your work doesn't make it into a publication.

Every now and again, I deal with someone who ultimately makes me ban them from Spinetingler. It's a surprisingly short list at this stage of the game, considering how long we've been running for. However, I've already pulled back from doing all I hoped to do with the ezine when it started, and that's probably part of the reason.

As a writer, I swore we were going to be fair to writers. Simultaneous submissions were blown by someone who sold first-time publication rights to us and someone else and put us in legal hot water. I find out someone submitted simultaneously, they're on my list. (So, in other words, for the person who recently withdrew a submission by explaining it was being published elsewhere, that really wasn't a good idea.)

And we have never promised editorial feedback on stories. If you ever get editorial feedback, thank your lucky stars and be happy you got more than a form letter.

Because the truth is, form letters are what you'll get 75% of the time. Maybe more. However, I get tired of trying to explain this to people. As much as I understand how frustrating it can be to get a rejection, and to get a form letter, there are some basic things every writer has to come to grips with in the submission process, and Nick Mamatas has already said it so well, I'm just going to quote him.

1. I don't want good stories. I want stories of a certain type. If all I wanted to do was publish good stories, I'd not bother with slush or any of that stuff, but just take a story from the Chekhov archive and paste it up. All the stories in that archive are better than anything I've ever published, or written. I could choose stories from that archive at random and wildly exceed the mission to "just choose good stories" better than every SF/F/H editor ever, combined. Hell, I could publish "Araby" every single month and every single month Clarkesworld would feature THE GREATEST SHORT STORY EVER WRITTEN IN ENGLISH.

Wouldn't you look at a magazine if each month the single best story ever written was in it?

I don't want good stories. I want good stories of a certain length. I'm not going to publish a novella on an online venue, even if other editors think that sort of thing is a good idea. I'm not going to publish a story that takes the form of four interconnected haiku, even if other editors think that sort of thing is a good idea. I'm not going to publish these types of stories regardless of their quality.

I don't want good stories. I want good stories that have certain plots and themes. I do not want any stories, for example, about a woman stitching a stillborn child's corpse to a fish's tail, or about a post-Singularity being who is lonely or of a Filipino goblin writing a letter to another member of the local Communist Party...I've already run those stories. Even if the stories I receive with those plots in the future are BETTER than the ones I've already published, I don't want them. I want something else.

Crystal clear? Okay, let me spell it out, in case you haven't gone over and read Nick's full post already. Sometimes, rejections aren't based on writing quality, they're based on taste. It doesn't necessarily mean you suck as a writer if someone passes on your work. It may very well be that you offered them strawberry shortcake when they were in the mood for apple crumble.

Now, there's a bit of back story to this one, and you might want to just read the whole post, but in a nutshell, this is about the rejection of a story that Nick thought was really good, but it still got rejected with comments. After the writer e-mailed to argue a point, this is what happened.

2. Because the writing in the story was good, I just wrote this back:

There's no good reason to argue with a rejection letter, and normally we ban people who do so. You may feel free to discard our responses unread if you're unwilling to accept specific criticism, as the subject line makes our decision on the story clear.

Further, if you are going to be insulted, you should be sure that what you think was said was in the text. We did not say that you only presented one side of [phenom] or that you didn't understand it, just that you didn't take the time to explore the dual nature of it, and you did not do so. Yes, it is a judgement call -- as far as Clarkesworld is concerned, the judgment is 100% ours to make.

At this point, one would think that a clever man would get the hint and not respond again. Nope — and this guy even slept on it — he wrote this morning: "I took [the line quoted above], quite frankly, as talking down to me, and I saw no reason not to challenge it..." and "...I do not challenge your authority as editor of Clarkesworld. It's your magazine. But similarly, the story is my story, and I see no reason not to defend it when I believe it's been unduly attacked."

Well, now he knows one reason why he shouldn't do so.


I am now much less likely to give second chances as well. If we hit 30 bans by 1/1/09, I am going to 100% form letters.

Now, I understand how frustrating it is to get a 'no'. After all, I've gone through the process of trying to get an agent, trying to get a publisher, trying to get a new publisher. I've been rejected along the way too. I've had comments I agreed with, ones I thought were reasonable although a matter of opinion, and ones I thought were downright hysterical and laughably wrong.

I don't get into arguments with those editors.

Right now, I've got a story that's been in limbo for ages, I'm not sure if it's going into the anthology I put it in for or not, and I'm definitely not stressing about it. I guess I'll find out this fall. I would think I would have found out sooner, as I would expect to sign a contract for it, but what do I know? Well, if there's one thing I know as an editor, it's not to nag editors. It never wins you friends. I'll bide my time, wait and see. Sure, I'd like to promote the anthology if I'm in it, but I figure I'll find out... when I find out. If I'm in it and can promo it then, I will. If it's too late to incorporate it with other promo stuff I'm doing, well, it'll at least get the online push.

Now, for those that want the nutshell version of what's going on at Spinetingler these days, I'll try to make sense of the complicated process of dealing with submissions.

Fact #1. Any of our readers have the ability to outright reject a work and they are not required to explain their reasons to me.

This means that I may not always know why a story has been passed on. If I don't know, and I'm the one sending out the rejection letter, I can't tell you.

Think this is unreasonable? I have a few readers I work with (not all are named on the site, because they have requested it, or because they've had to take time away for personal reasons, so there's no guarantee about who sees what) and I've worked with them long enough to learn to trust them.

The volume of submissions dictates that we sometimes have to make tough decisions. And I don't have time to write up six dozen individual rejection letters in one sitting. If the day comes when nobody will submit to us because I don't do that, well, I'll be damn glad to take the time I give to the ezine and use it for my own stuff. No sweat off my back.

Or, in other words, I won't ever be bullied to change this procedure. I'll pull the plug on the ezine first, 'cos I don't have the time, and the way it is (as with so many things) there are a lot of people who want your help and promotion when it suits them, to get an interview, or a story published or a review, but not all are so willing to pitch in and help out when you need it. I appreciate my volunteers and I protect them.

Fact #2. If you get feedback on the story with editorial comments, thank your lucky stars.

Because I don't usually send it out anymore. It ends up resulting in a lot of extra correspondence as people want comments clarified, or argue points. And I'm already where Nick is approaching - at form letters. I'm trying to streamline this to keep Spinetingler going.

All of the editors are volunteers, but they're also all people with a lot of experience in the publishing world. They've worked in journalism, had books published, had a lot of short fiction published, have worked as editors elsewhere. If I didn't trust their feedback, I wouldn't have them on my team.

If someone's on the fence about a story, or two readers read the same story and come back with wildly different views, then I will make a final decision.

Sometimes, a story is close for one reader and we invite the person to submit it again (and in these cases, provide editorial feedback) but when it comes back in it's read by a different reader. That person has the right to call it like they see it. And they may not provide a reason for the rejection.

Fact #3. I've been turning over more editorial control to Jack Getze.

Jack is our new editor, and he also reads submissions. Sometimes, he reads them after they've been screened, sometimes he reads them raw. He works directly with the writers on changes in the stories now, and ultimately, at the end of the day, even if everyone else likes a story if Jack doesn't, he will not be forced to take it on. I don't work that way. So, if a writer is difficult to work with, if the story isn't something Jack feels fits with the rest of the issue... it gets a pass.

As we say in this house a lot, sometimes, that's just the way the cookie crumbles.

I don't think I'll ever put out an issue where there's universal agreement about how fantastic every story is. Nick has hit a lot of points on the head, and just for good measure, I'm going to toss up a link to another post he did, about endings.

If you're really serious about writing, and being published, you'll read what Nick has to say with an open mind. That means all of these posts. If you won't take it from me because you're choked that your story got rejected by Spinetingler, at least acknowledge that most editors feel the same way about writers who argue, about giving feedback (and the risks of time waste by giving feedback with rejections) and about basic writing issues. In a lazy moment I'm sure I've said I'm looking for great stories, but Nick is damn right - I'm looking for certain types of stories, of specific lengths.

Here's another way to think about it, and this applies for authors dealing with negative reviews as well: some actions will get you remembered for all the wrong reasons.

Check out Brian's post on 'Possible Rules For Handling A Reviewer' because they all apply to writers dealing with editors as well.

One other thing you should read: Jeff Vandermeer's post 'The Difference Between Compromise And Input'.

FYI, I've never had a disagreement with my editor. There have been things he's pointed out in editing that we've had differing opinions on, but we've always discussed various options and perspectives until we reach agreement where we both feel pleased about the result.

Or, as Jeff put it in his post:

I’ve always benefitted from a good editor who shares my vision for a book and, through his or her suggestions–either developmental or on the chapter/paragraph level–has made sure the vision on my head is actually on the page. Because, eventually, the text becomes white noise. Your gaze cannot get a grip on the page. Sometimes this is true even after you’ve had time to reflect. A good editor, even just with questions about the narrative or characters, can allow you to re-imagine and revisit the text in useful ways. I can’t ever remember getting an editorial suggestion I thought was given in a spirit of making something more commercial. Maybe I’ve just been lucky.

If you want to be a professional writer, you have to act like one, instead of whining like a child.


Jack Getze said...

I believe, to be effective for the writer, criticism should be delivered in a certain way, under certain conditions. Sort of like food at a restaurant. You or me scratching a few lines of critique in an email isn't really going to help. That's like the cook throwing meatballs.

Lyman Feero said...

So here's the deal.

Say you write good stories.
Editors say the stories are good.
Editors don't want the stories.
Editors say submit again.
Editors say great story.
Editors don't want the story.
Editors say submit again.

You've read the guidelines, you've read the publication.

What does this cycle mean, really?

Sandra said...

I agree Jack. There just isn't the ability to give a comprehensive critique to each person who submits, and even when you give one, sometimes the points are subjective, down to taste.

Lyman, damn, I have stuff from you on a computer in Canada that I'm waiting for to use one of these days. Anyway, set that aside for the moment (some day, I'll get my documents). In my experience at the manuscript phase, sometimes editors would express interest in seeing different work by the writer. What they're saying is, "Wow, this person is a good writer, really like how they tell a story... but this story isn't quite for me." So it's not about writing but about content.

And it always boils down to other variables. Like how many other fantastic stories came in during the submission window. There have been times when I've said, "If this story came in three months earlier, it would have made the last issue, but it doesn't quite make the next one." That can be because an issue is thematic or all the content that's been selected seems to tie together on some level and this story doesn't quite fit that flavour, or whatever.

And for other publications, undoubtedly there's a 'selling off name recognition' factor that plays in. But I don't want to touch on that.

End of the day, I don't expect anything when I submit. I won't submit to a lot of ezines because I figure it puts editors in a difficult position if they want to reject my story. If someone has a story under submission to us, I won't submit to them either. Reality is, I've cut back with short fiction, because I don't know where to place it anymore, and I'm too busy with the novels. But that's me.

Spinetingler is now going to six stories per issue, three issues per year, so it's going to be harder than ever to get in. We've already selected the stories for the fall issue, which means that we're now looking at stories for 2009. A lot of writers don't want to wait that long either.