I just finished reading nearly 100 short stories for an upcoming publication, the third crime-fiction anthology (charity fundraiser) for me as an editor. Writers agonize over editorial rejection, but editors do, too. Here are some things to keep in mind that may help you as a writer or an editor in your next round of submissions.
Why Do Writers Do This?
A lot of stories came in with issues that made me want to stop reading. I didn’t, because you never know until the end of the story what’s great or not so great about a writer’s work. But why, why do people do these things that make life very hard for editors, especially one-person shops who are publishing anthologies for charity?
- Pretextual adherence to the theme or genre. If you aren’t passionate about the anthology’s theme or love writing the genre, don’t submit to the collection. Editors can tell from the story structure if you’ve jammed a thematic element into a story simply to meet the requirement. We can also tell if you’re testing us or arguing with the validity of the theme with your story’s premise. I love it when a theme is interpreted in a new and fascinating way–but when you take an existing story and jam a thematic element into it just to get published, that tactic is unlikely to be successful. Spend that time finding an anthology whose theme is resonate with what you wrote, or write something new that centers the required elements.
- Whackadoodle formatting. There are free templates all over the intertubes. When you use weird Word formats, you’re forcing the editor to waste valuable time reformatting your work. Now, if you don’t have access to Word or regular access to the Internet, I understand, and in that case, just send something in plain text. And no matter what–use formats, don’t insert blank lines, spaces or tabs for paragraph indents. Instead, use a template and use the formats in the template. It’s a basic professional skill and you should master it before you submit your first story. No editor would reject a story simply because of the formatting, and I certainly didn’t, but this simple courtesy will go a long way to supporting a career-spanning relationship with editors and publishers.
- Meet all the requirements. Your story is special, no doubt, but an editor has submission requirements for a reason, sometimes many reasons. So, if it must be a crime story, make sure a crime is core to your submission. If stories have a minimum and maximum size–make sure your story meets those requirements within a hundred words or so. Of course, if you have a personal relationship with the editor, feel free to inquire ahead of time. Even if you don’t, you can reach out (briefly!), but have a good reason–not just “my story will blow your mind!”
- Conflict is not old fashioned. This was a new one to me: stories with lots of atmosphere, but absolutely nothing at stake for the point-of-view character, or nothing thwarting the protagonist’s pursuit of their goal. Character is conflict, conflict is character. Honest. Don’t forget to tell a story in your short story!
Why Do Editors Reject Like This?
After having received three times as many stories as expected, I had to change some of my editing practices. I can’t speak for other editors, but here’s what I was thinking when I did the things as an editor that always puzzled me as a writer receiving rejections.
- Pro forma rejection means my story sucked. I always believed this was true as a writer, but as an editor, there were many reasons I gave a simple “pass” in my rejections email. Sometimes there was just so much wrong that getting into details would have been an act of cruelty, but more often, explaining why I was passing would have taken me an hour to write up. For example, some stories were well written but voiceless. Others were voicy as hell but contained no conflict–explaining story structure was just not something within my time budget. In other cases, issues of taste were so idiosyncratic that I didn’t feel it would be helpful to share. And in a few cases, the action of the story proved the opposite of the theme. As a result of my experiences this year, I now believe that specific comments from an editor are a compliment, but a pro forma rejection simply means the editor didn’t have any special insights to share with the writer for reasons that may or may not have had to do with the quality of the story.
- Originality vs. canon and tropes. As a judge as well as an editor, I have unresolved questions about the role of originality in best-of competitions and submissions acceptance. We say we want originality, but when writers come along who write in a violently different manner from what we’re used to seeing in our comfortable genre of choice we often reject them. Instead of acknowledging that we’re disturbed by the truly new, we claim “quality” issues.
It’s difficult to spot this in your own evaluations of others’ work. For example, my insistence that all stories have conflict–is that a real quality issue or my trope-ish, canon-focused, phallocentric prejudice? Crime fiction in particular needs the fresh voices that are showing up these days. The least we can do is make sure we are reading each story on its own terms. We should not reward obeying canon over truly original storytelling. Remember how the Impressionists were rejected by the Academy? I fear we often replay this history among ourselves and we really shouldn’t. I truly struggled with some of the stories to decide whether I was bothered by a genuine issue of craft or simply disturbed, in the best possible way, by an original voice.
- We aren’t super honest about or even aware of our fictional prejudices. This one I have no answer for. I did not put in the submission requirements the things that I just don’t like to read. Rape-murder revenge fantasies leave me cold, as do many Lovecraftian tales. On the other hand, I’m mad for noir, for crime humor, for conmen, and underdogs triumphing. Truly wonderful writing, original points of view and voice should conquer any prejudice, but do they? Should we just own (if we even know!) what we love in submission guidelines? Would that inhibit a writer from writing the best thing-I-hate story and submitting it? That’d be the worst result of all.
What Was Really Different This Year
This year delivered three times as many stories as the previous two years. And many more of these stories were violently angry. The anthology raises money to help fight voter suppression (Democracy Docket for Volume 3!), and it’s crime fiction. But this year one image kept popping up, a violent metaphor for the change we seek, the return to a one-person, one-vote democracy. More about that in May, 2022, when the book is published.
Meanwhile, keep writing, keep submitting, keep publishing anthologies and novels and making all the art you can. We need nothing so much as clean strong dreams of a better tomorrow.