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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Be Unique

Stan took another manuscript from the top of the slush-pile and propped himself against the wall for a quick read. His eyes grew wider as they scanned down the page until finally he burst into uncontrollable laughter. “Hey Jill…take a look at this!”

His co-editor took the papers out of his hands, skimmed the text, and began to chuckle. She glanced at the author’s cover letter and gave a derisive snort. “I can’t believe she had the nerve to submit this garbage to us. Who does she think she is?”

Stan wiped streaming eyes and drew in a deep breath. “I know…and she works in a food store, for God’s sake…and imagines she’s a WRITER!” His fingers traced quote marks in the air. “She needs to stop daydreaming and do something she’s actually got talent for.”

Jill tossed the manuscript to her assistant. “Form rejection.”

If this little fantasy gives you goose-bumps and a cold shiver, then my words are aimed squarely at you! There’s a great deal of advice out there for short story writers who have already started submitting their work, but I want to address the rest of you. The writers who have dreamed of, but never achieved, that first step – and it is a huge step to some. Submission.

I understand the size of that step, believe me. It’s measured in fear – of rejection. Nobody likes to be rejected, but in some writers the fear can reach a level that seems insurmountable. I was a guest at a writers’ group one time and found, to my dismay, that most of the members had never submitted a piece of work for publication. The reason? Terror of receiving a rejection letter. It was clear that being turned down would be felt deeply and personally. When we write a story we are sharing – exposing – something deep within ourselves. When we offer it up for judgement, we are inviting judgement of ourselves. This may sound frightening, especially to us sensitive writer types, but I’m going to tell you that this is a Good Thing. Sharing something individual – a part of our creativity – is a vital step in becoming unique. There may not be an I in Team, but there is an I in Writer.

This is what makes your stories different from all those others – your own perspective, your own take on life. If you don’t make each story uniquely your own, then what is the point in writing? Hire a ghost writer instead.

Is it just a matter of finding the courage to submit a story? Essentially, yes. But that courage may be hard to come by. It will help if you understand that the fear comes partly from a misunderstanding of the nature of publishing and, in particular, rejections from editors.

Rejection is a fact of publishing – and of life itself. When you go to a restaurant, and read the menu, you engage in the act of rejecting most of what the chef has to offer. Yet neither you, nor the chef, take it personally, or expect anything else. The same is true of the publishing industry. When a publisher is handed a story, he or she must decide if the story is one that they can use. If not, they must refuse it. That means it’s still available to offer to others. Keep trying. If you want to be published, you must harden yourself to rejection. It’s how things work. There aren’t enough slots in all the magazines for all the stories that get sent out.

I want you to imagine you have at last gathered the courage to submit your best story to a fiction magazine. You’ve read the submission guidelines and formatted the manuscript correctly. You’ve done your utmost. You wait weeks, months, and then finally…exactly what you feared. A rejection. What next?

It’s easy to get so depressed that you don’t send the story out again. Surely if one editor didn’t want it then no-one is going to want it. Not true! There’s a whole catalogue of reasons why editors reject stories. There’s only so much space in each issue. This means that while an editor might like your story, he or she might not be able to use it. Sometimes it’s not quite right for their magazine. The wrong tone, or style, or subject perhaps, and sometimes they’ve just bought one almost exactly like yours. Had yours been in their hands first, they would have bought it and rejected the other one. Always remember, the editor is rejecting the story, not the author. It’s not personal (unless you get mad and fire off a nasty email – something that’s definitely not recommended).
You can improve your chances by targeting magazines carefully – be certain that they want what you are offering. Read several issues so you are familiar with what they have recently published. You should also expand your horizons. While it’s admirable to start at the top and submit to the leading magazines, don’t ignore the plethora of other print and online fiction magazines. For example: Bewildering stories, Flashing Swords, Residential Aliens,Fear and Trembling. Visit the markets site www.ralan.com and check out all the places you can try. Although many of these ‘small’ magazines don’t pay for your story, they are often writer-friendly and will help you learn your craft and gain exposure.

Frequently, rejections are just a matter of the editor’s personal taste. It’s out of your control, so why beat yourself up about it? Just keep on trying and, in between those submissions, work on other stories, and polish them till they shine, and submit them and, before you know it, you’ll be acting like a professional.

Don’t imagine it all ends when you achieve publication. If you wind up with a review, you’ll find that reactions can vary from “love it” to “hate it”. As an example, my story “The Defenders”, which appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction and in The Year’s Best Science Fiction #22 gathered the following reviews:

“This is a great short story.”
“I didn't really care for "The Defenders."
“…complex and mystical vignette.”
“Stupid story.”
“…expertly dissects colonialism in quintessential science-fictional terms.”

Writers don’t all think alike. Neither do reviewers. So why should editors?

Think you can find the courage? Maybe it’s time to don your hard hat and bullet-proof vest. Time to get tough.

Time to be unique.


Colin P. Davies

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