On Submitting Stories to Editors—a Useful Exercise

I wrote the following for my teenaged nephew, who is also a writer:

I understand that you’re ready to move beyond just writing stories for yourself, and to start submitting them for publication. There are a lot of articles with advice on this topic. You could spend a few hours reading a bunch, but I can save you the time. Their advice boils down to this: “Read the submission guidelines. Follow them.”

In the time I’ve just saved you, I suggest that you do a little exercise. It will take a couple of hours, and it will teach three or four very useful lessons on what it’s like to be an editor—and once you know that, you’ll scarcely need any of those articles.

Set aside two hours during which you can focus, and do this:

  1. Go to ralan.com. It has lists of markets to which you might submit sf or fantasy stories, organized by how much they pay per word. The top two categories are of markets that pay 3¢ a word or more. These are the markets that you’ll soon be submitting to. But for this exercise, we’ll be focusing on the lower tiers: Pay, Token, and Expo.
  2. Click on each of those lists. Look for markets that publish stories in your genre, and that publish them on-line.
  3. Make a list of 10 or 20 such markets. Pick ones that look like they’ll have the sort of stories you’d like to read. In your list, include the URL that will take you to each market’s most recent stories.
  4. Read 50 stories from those markets, and pick the two best.
  5. Write two quick notes about why each of those stories is superior.
  6. If you have time, write another 48 notes for each of the stories that didn’t make the cut, explaining how they fall short.

That last step, of course, is a joke. Obviously you won’t have time. In fact, if you tried to read every story all the way through, you’ll have used up your two hours long before you were done.

Now you know a bunch of things from an editor’s perspective:

  • You’ll know they start each submission they read hoping it’ll be great. They want it to be awesome, because that’ll mean that they get to read an awesome story—and then they’ll be able to print an awesome story in their magazine!
  • You’ll know that they can usually tell in just a few paragraphs that a story isn’t going to make the cut. Oh, they’ll read a bit further—they’ll be hoping that you’ve hidden an awesome story behind a weak opening. But they only get to accept two stories, and if your story isn’t better than the best ones they’ve read today, it’s not going to make the cut.
  • You’ll know why they’re so picky about the format they want submissions in. Editors don’t want submission stories to look awesome. They want them to be awesome, but they want them to look all the same. (How much time did you waste, just getting through each new market’s front page to find the stories?)
  • You’ll know why you aren’t going to get any useful feedback from editors. (How many of those 48 rejected stories did you provide notes for?)

Hopefully, you’ll also know a few new things from a writer’s perspective. You’ll know that there are a lot of crappy stories out there (and those are the best crappy stories—the ones that got published). There’s some consolation in that, but not much. It’s not good enough for your story to be better than the crappy ones—it’s going to have to be better than the great stories, and there are some of those too.

I’m sure you’re going to figure that you can get most of the benefit just by thinking about this exercise, without actually doing it. This is not true. Do the exercise. It only takes a couple of hours, and you won’t believe the things you’ll learn.

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