Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Rule of Pees

I have found that there's one secret to getting your stories published. The secret is, there is no one secret. There are many secrets, and many that aren't secret, hidden in plain sight. Like a ninja. A robot monkey ninja.

One secret is that you have to write stories and send them out to try to get them published. You'd be surprised how many writers never send their stories out. I don't know what they're waiting for, to be honest. I've been editing Southern Gothic for over two years now and I have never received one submission from a current creative writing student. Why is that? If you want to be a writer, you have to write, but you also have to publish. Sure, it's frustrating, but so is trying to get laid, but you keep trying, don't you?

In the last twelve months, I've had seven stories published (one of them twice) and five more accepted for publication in the next few months. According to my records at (an invaluable resource for writers, by the way), in that same twelve month period, I have sent out 274 story submissions. That's roughly one story published for every 23 stories submitted. It's a wonder I still try. But the truth is, that one success is worth suffering through 23 rejections.

Just today, I sent out seven stories. I currently have stories out at 45 different magazines. Some stories are picked up quickly ("The Sum of Man" sold to the first place I sent it) while others are rejected time after time (17 times for "The Prettiest Woman in the Room.")

Each time a story is rejected, I revisit it and try to figure out why. How can it be made better? On rare occassions, an editor will tell you why your story was rejected, but be warned, all an editorial comment really means is that the editor liked it enough to not send a form letter. Chances are her reasons for rejecting it, if she gives any, are just some shit she made up to try to soften the blow. It has been my experience with editors, and as an editor myself, that editors don't really have the first clue what they like, they just know what they don't like - and only after they see it.

So the first secret is Perseverance, along with the ability to self-edit when needed and to not edit when not needed and the confidence and experience to know the difference.

The second secret is knowing people. This isn't really a secret, as you will quickly learn as soon as you visit a Con for the purpose of getting to know editors and publishers so you can bypass the slush pile. They see a thousand people just like you every day at these gatherings. They're not there to meet people, they're there to sell books, but since a good portion of their book sales are to hopeful, starry-eyed writers trying to wrangle an invitation, they try not to be too rude. Nevertheless, if you know the right people, you often don't need the first secret.

As with wine, the label can and does affect your appreciation of it. Blind tastings are a nightmare for wine critics and editors alike. A lot of what is rejected is as good or better than much of what is published.

So one contact is worth 25 blind submissions. There is an old saying - it's not what you know, it's who you know - that is universally denounced by the publishing world. That doesn't mean it isn't true. "The devil's greatest wile, Baudelaire has said, is to convince us that he does not exist."

One major fiction magazine, who shall remain anonymous because they have a story of mine in their slush pile, publishes roughly 120 stories a year. But of those only four or five come from the slush pile. Which means the other 115 stories are by authors with whom the editor already has a personal or professional relationship.

Don't get me wrong. They're not publishing any old crap their friends send them. They consistently publish some of the best fiction around, year after year. But the truth is, famous names sells subscriptions. Famous names sell books. Look at your own bookshelf. How many novels do you own by writers no one has ever heard of? How many are by Steven King? Fiction publishers are in the business of selling fiction. Discovering amazing new future best-selling authors and publishing their first story ever is merely a perk. If they get two brilliant stories, one written by you and one by Ursula K. LeGuin, guess who's getting published. Her name on the cover sells magazines. Yours doesn't. Sorry. As the Dread Pirate Roberts tells us, "Life is pain. Anyone who tells you different is selling something." Most likely subscriptions to hopeful, starry-eyed writers.

What you have to do is work. Write. Submit. Rewrite. Work. Submit. Write, rinse and repeat. The best contact in the world means nothing if you don't have finished stories of quality. Then go places and meet people. Don't sit at home waiting for New York to beat a path to your door in East Cupcake, Idaho. Na gah happen. You have to sell yourself as much as your work. Opportunities will appear, but you have to make them happen, and you have to have done the work beforehand so that when you get your chance, you can jump on it.

So the Rule of Pees is:

Prepare + Persevere + Pimp = Publication

Or you could just wait to win the lottery.

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