Sunday, January 16, 2011

Taking The Plunge

            This year I start sending out stories.

            I write a lot of horror fiction, and those may be the scariest words I’ve ever written.

            But, I’ve been working hard, writing a lot of stuff, and taking my medicine at the writer’s group in an effort to improve my work. It’s time to put up or shut up.

It’s a terrifying objective, for a number of reasons.  First, because the fiction magazine market has withered into a shrunken, dried out little prune in comparison to the big juicy plumb it once was. Second, because what little market remains is an intensely competitive, live-or-die Colosseum of Blood, where one has little chance of even being noticed, let alone surviving and thriving. Third, and most depressing, the money involved is either non-existent or hovering around 1935 pulp magazine standards at only a few cents per word! (How is it possible rates have not gone up in nearly a century?)

However, these are not the things that truly terrify me. It’s the impending judgment that causes my blood to turn into sand and a girlish shriek to rise unbidden into my throat.

While it’s true that I face summary judgment at the hands of the Moosemeat writers group on a fairly regular basis, these rulings do not spring from faceless editors existing only in the misty, white ether of some distant Literary Limbo. When a Moosemeat associate comments on one of my stories, positively or negatively, I can look them in the eye, take the measure of them, and even offer a reasonable counterpoint to their comments at the end of the discussion. These are not luxuries afforded me by magazine editors.

In fact, the usual response is by way of a form letter, faceless, impersonal and utterly devastating to one’s ego. There are no eyes to look into, no way to assess their sincerity or insight, and no one to punch in the groin, should the occasion call for it. 

Many moons ago, (about a decade or so), I sent out a few stories to some magazines. I had three stories, which I submitted to a total of five magazines. None were accepted.

To be fair, I gave up after only about a year of submitting. The rejections hurt, to be sure, but what hurt much more was the stated, or implied justification for the rejections. Those really made me feel like an idiot. I simply couldn’t work out the seemingly inscrutable wants and needs of the magazines and their editors. Especially since they bore no discernable relationship to the stated parameters in their submission guidelines.

Here’s a reply I got from Marion Zimmer Bradley’s magazine, unfortunately now defunct.

This was by far the most frustrating response I received. Now, don’t get me wrong. If you don’t want to publish my story, that’s okay by me. Just say so and move on. But, damn people, don’t give me a lot of baloney.

Apparently my story lacked any discernable elements of “classical fantasy”, oh and by the way, it also has no “sense of wonder”. It also tells me to read a few issues to get a feel for what they publish.

Well, okay… I guess.

But, just for fun, let’s look at the submission guidelines for the magazine, which I sent for and received by mail in May of 1998. That date is interesting, so remember it for later. 

What an incredible list of do’s, do not’s and beware of’s. What the hell is left? What elements of classical fantasy remain if you obey that extended shopping list of taboos? Those are almost all the damn elements of classical fantasy.

And, just for the record, I bought and read three issues of the magazine before submitting. I’m a Virgo, damn it, we always do our research. And you know what, in those three short issues I read a story that was an angular take on Sleeping Beauty, one that was pure, unadulterated romance with an inter-dimensional twist, one about a ghost and one about a sorceress. Clearly, I was getting some mixed signals here.

The last line of the list is the key I suppose. “We reject all but the truly unusual and well written ones.” Hmmm… that gives you a nice little trap-door escape hatch doesn’t it? In other words; “We don’t like that sort of thing, unless, of course, we happen to like it.”

In the immortal words of Good Old Charlie Brown as Lucy pulls away the football at the last moment: AAAUUUUGGGH!

Remember that date from earlier? I got these guidelines just a few months before the North American release of the first Harry Potter book. A book for which J.K. Rowling received 12 rejections before Nigel Newton of Bloomsberry publishing, not bothering to read some sample chapters, gave them to his daughter Alice to read instead. His daughter loved the chapters and demanded more. Newton basically bought the book to stop his kid whining.

Rather like the record companies that passed on the Beatles, isn't it?

Sadly, I think Marion Zimmer Bradley would have been one of the ones to reject the book. After all, it includes half the stuff on her list of no-no's.

Am I saying I'm as good a writer as J.K. Rowling? 


I'm saying, publishers and editors, that having a long list of taboos and bugaboos predisposes you to instantly reject that which may be quite special based on the sudden appearance of a Troll. Perhaps that's a short sighted approach for someone looking for a "sense of wonder". 

Bottom line?

I liked my little story a lot, and still do, but I stopped sending it out because I got discouraged. Well, not this time. After freshening up the story a bit, I'm sending it out again. And this time I'm not stopping until someone publishes it or I have exhausted every viable market.

I have some pretty good new stories to accompany it, and I'm going to be just as steadfast with them this time around.

So look out editors. I will not be discouraged this time.


  1. I completely believe it's all about finding the market for your story. And it may not be the market you thought it was, but eventually you find it. We've all read books that make us think "how in the hell did this find a publisher?" Given that, it's my belief that ultimately, there's a market for everything out there. Whether that'll be a paying market--well that's another thing entirely.

  2. Basically, it seems like you either get rich or make absolute peanuts. There seems to be no middle ground these days.