Thanksgiving Day and I’m sitting at the table studying the food on people’s plates. My oldest daughter has a pile of mashed potatoes the size of Mt. Kilimanjaro. My other daughter has cornered the market on cranberries and my father is haggling with her to get some. My own plate is a bit more varied, but my wonderful sister made sure I had my own personal pitcher of gravy because I’m renowned far and wide for smothering everything in sight with turkey gravy.
So which plate is better? Which is more appetizing?
It all depend on who you ask. We have a huge family gathering each year there are a lot of people and a lot of tastes represented.
The literary world is much the same; there’s such an amazing range of tastes represented. It’s your job to do your best work, find the feedback/advice that rings true, and then, most importantly, find the markets that best fit your work. Because literature never has been, and never will be, a one-size-fits-all world.
Back in the early days of my writing career, I once got a negative personal rejection letter – the first and only one I ever got. Editors don’t have a lot of time, so if you get a positive personal rejection letter, you’ve made a particularly good impression. It’ even more rare for an editor to dislike a story so much that they take the time to say so, but for some reason this one editor felt the need to let me know he found my story to be “boring and predictable.” Among other unpleasant things.
But you know what? I disagreed with him (surprise, surprise…) so I sent it off to another editor (which is what you’re supposed to do when something you’ve written is rejected). And the next editor who saw it called it “a dazzling original piece, just the kind of thing I’m looking to put out.” Same story, I didn’t change a word, but slightly different results. Just slightly.
Now that I’ve been editing for a while, I can tell similar stories on myself (though not quite that extreme). There was one story I received in the slush pile that I was on the fence about. Some things I really liked, but also some things I wasn’t so sure. After sitting on the fence for a while, I finally rejected it, largely out of a sense of needing to make some decision so the author could get on with his life. Turns out it was the wrong decision, because the story won an award. It wasn’t a Hugo or a Nebula, but still, a story I rejected won an award. I felt pretty foolish.
Until the next year, when I saw a story outside of normal submission channels. I really liked this story. A lot. A LOT. So I asked the author if the story was available, only to find out it had already been submitted to another magazine, one of the big three. My heart sunk. I really wanted this story, it was so good. The author told me if the other magazine rejected it, he would send it to me next, but there was no way they would reject it. No way.
Two weeks later it was on my desk. Two issues later it was my cover story for IGMS. And by the end of the year it was short-listed for one award and scheduled to be reprinted in two Year’ Best anthologies.
The moral of this little tale is clear, I’m sure. It’s not so much a matter of right and wrong; it’s about finding the right market at the right time. It’s about being patient. It’s about believing in yourself. It’ about putting as much gravy as possible on everything in sight.
Well, that’s the way I like it, anyway. Some other editor? Maybe not so much.