Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

Reading as an Editor

I Have A Lot of Reading to Do…

As does everyone else who is attending the 2019 Anthology workshop here in Las Vegas the first week of March.

And even better, the stories are all written by writers who sure know what they are doing. This is not slush. This is what Kris and I used to call back in the days (early 1990s) of Pulphouse or F&SF reading, the “pro pile.”

Everyone attending the workshop is reading like editors, not readers, or they should be, even though only five of us professional editors will be up front actually buying stories. But I have a real advantage in this reading. I am reading for the new incarnation of Pulphouse Fiction Magazine.

Now for any of you who have read issues of Pulphouse, you understand that the stories in the issues are not regular, standard stories that might well sell to Asimov’s or Ellery Queen. These stories are not low-hanging fruit or standard middle-genre writing. Nope, Pulphouse stories have to feel different.

For example, I started off Issue Zero of the new magazine with a story called “Spud Wrangler” by Kent Patterson. A story of a young cowboy having to turn a stampede of Idaho potatoes. Not kidding. And it works and is memorable and funny as hell.

The first issue started off with a Robert T. Jeschonek story about sentient underwear. Sometimes what makes a story a Pulphouse story is topic, other times tone, and always high quality and in any genre. Cross genre often really fits.

And the stories have to be to my taste on top of that.

So as I read as an editor, my goal is to give every story the exact same chance. Level playing field completely.

So as I read, these great authors draw me into their stories and in short order I can tell if it is or isn’t a Pulphouse story. If I think it is a story that might fit, I keep reading hoping I will buy it.

If I am in doubt at all, I keep reading, worried I might not be able to buy it.

But with a great number stories, I know pretty quickly, like in a page or so, that even though it might be a great story, it might be perfect for one of the other anthologies, it is not a Pulphouse story.

And with that realization I get to stop reading. And I do.

Not easy, but I can, after long years of training. I just stop. After all, time is the most precious thing any editor has. Why should I spend the time to finish a story I can’t buy.

It is easy to stop on stories I don’t like. Crazy hard to stop on stories I am enjoying, but that don’t fit my publication.

Now, it is sometimes very, very difficult for writers to understand the concept of editing.

— A story must first draw the editor into it. (Topic, or lack of depth, or unlikable character can push me away and not even let me get drawn in.)

— Then it must fit the magazine or anthology (both in topic, feel, and length).

— Then it must be to the editor’s tastes. (Yes, editors are human.)

— Then it must not be too similar to something bought just lately.

So perfectly great stories get rejected all the time for a mass of reasons beyond any writer’s control. Makes my head hurt when some young writer wants to change something in a story, rewrite it because the story was rejected. Never do that. Just get the story to the next editor. (sigh)

So as I read, I get the wonderful task of finding great stories that I love, that are different, off-beam, and high quality. Pulphouse stories.

But sadly, in many instances, my feed back will be what it has been for years on many stories.

“Sorry, not a Pulphouse story.”

And that does not mean the story is flawed or poorly written. It just means for one reason or another it doesn’t fit the market I am editing for.

All writers need to learn this.

And a couple more submission hints to help young writers sending out short stories to top markets.

First, after you finish the story, plan your submission schedule, meaning put the magazines in order from one-to-ten. That way you know where the story is going next after it gets rejected.

Second, make sure the story is back out to a market within 24 hours.

Third, don’t think about rejection time. You are mailing the story to sell it. Who gives a crap how long it takes to reject something. Stupid thinking and negative thinking at the same time. Figure every market you send a story to will buy it. Duh.

Fourth, put it in the submission process and forget it. And for heaven’s sake, make sure you follow the magazine submission guidelines. Another duh.

One note on a personal side. I got a rejection a long time back from the very first editor of Asimov’s magazine. It said simply, “Sorry, we do not want to pioneer new roads into tastelessness.”

I sold it the next time out a month later to Grandmaster Damon Knight for an anthology he was editing and his introduction said simply, “I can’t say a word about this story for fear of ruining a perfect story.”

Now back to reading.






  • Julie

    This is all very useful for us newbie writers to know, Dean.

    You say not to worry about rejection time and I can see that that makes sense. But I’m curious about how it works out. I think that your advice these days is to keep a short story out for a year or two and then, if it hasn’t sold, put it up indie. And I think you’ve also mentioned the example of Doug Smith, who says that his short stories get rejected an average of 13 times before they’re bought.

    I’m wondering what the average rejection time is and how many submissions we can reasonably expect to make with the same story in one year, or two?

    Whatever the answer, I suppose it shows the importance of your advice in today’s post about having a list of where to send the story next, and presumably in the right order of likelihood.

    • dwsmith

      Julie, not likelihood, but who pays more and has the best exposure for your story. You don’t want to prejudge any magazine. But yes, if your story is science fiction, send it to the sf magazines. But always start at the top first and move down in your list. Unless an editor has bought from you. Then loyalty to that editor is critical.

      I sold a story for 10 cents a word on the 36th time out in 1989, and there are more markets now. But I had no indie back in those days. But don’t indie a story too soon. Give it a year or two on the market.

      And Julie, who cares what the average rejection time is???? You are sending the story out to sell. Why would you ever send a story out believing it would get rejected and worrying about how long it takes???? And honestly, I have no idea how many.

      What you have to realize is that it takes a ton longer for an editor to buy a story than it does to reject it. So if you have a story that is getting close on a lot of magazines, it will take longer and if you get in a hurry, you could screw it up. Just put it out and forget it until it shows up again or a contract shows up.

      • Julie

        Thanks, Dean, interesting answer.

        Would you like to say a bit more about loyalty to editors? Do you mean that we should support editors who support us by sending them more stories?

        • dwsmith

          Oh, heaven’s yes. Worst thing you can do it snub an editor who started to buy you and have them see a story from you in another magazine if they didn’t reject it first.

          Especially series. For example, Sheila at Asimov’s gets every novella, short story (and in one case short novel) in Kris’s Diving series.

          Editors once they buy you are looking for more. As a new writer, you cost them money to put your story into their magazine the first time because you bring in no readers. But if you start selling to the same magazine regularly, eventually you become a cover name and readers start looking for your stories and that sells issues. Kris sells a ton of issues for Asimov’s every time she has a story in the magazine.

          All logical. Be loyal to the editors who buy you.

          • Topaz

            Hi Dean,

            thank you for expanding on loyality.
            I’ve another question to the loyality topic. If more than one editor in a genre start buying my stories, whom do I send the next story first, given it’s not part of a larger world or series?

          • dwsmith

            I’d worry about that when it happens. (grin) And no right answer. Depends on the magazine, the editor, the story, and so much more.

  • Raymund Eich

    Dean, thanks for this post. I’ve recently noticed myself finishing fewer and fewer books, including ones I “should” like, award-winning titles in subgenres I enjoy. I had been feeling guilt about not finishing so many books. Your post is a reminder that it’s okay to do so.

    • dwsmith

      As long as your critical voice isn’t taking over control. If you end up not finishing hardly anything, the critical voice has won. Fine balance at times. (grin) And remember, I was talking about editing, not pleasure reading.

  • Tony DeCastro

    “So perfectly great stories get rejected all the time for a mass of reasons beyond any writer’s control. Makes my head hurt when some young writer wants to change something in a story, rewrite it because the story was rejected. Never do that. Just get the story to the next editor. (sigh)”

    I love this. It perfectly distills Heinlein’s #3 & #5.

  • Maree

    If a magazine rejects you with comments (instead of a form rejection) should they be the top of the list for new work?

    • dwsmith

      Oh, course. An editor spends time to write you a personal note, they think there is a chance you might have a story they want eventually.

  • Kate Pavelle

    I’m struggling with my “editorial style” reading for the workshop this year. It’s so hard not to get sucked into a dope story, even with the guidelines in mind. I don’t know whether I’m being self-indulgent or whether the field is just deeper now. I guess I’ll find out in March!

    Also… same issue as above regarding not being interested in finishing certain genre novels out there. I get that “Oh, that’s what she’s doing, that’s what he’s writing” vibe, and unless I’m in love with the character, my curiosity fizzles and I’m off to write my own. I do finish some, so I don’t think I’m being too bitchy. (I’m careful not to be.)