This is sort of a follow-up to my last post, possibly a semi-related postscript. Whatever you want to call it, it’s relevant in that it deals with another way we authors sabotage ourselves. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “don’t self-reject” or “don’t try to do the editor’s job for them”. Basically, if an editor never even sees your work, they’ll never have a chance to fall in love with it and publish it.
But it’s easy to fall into a self-doubt spiral and talk yourself out of submitting a piece. Maybe you’re intimidated by the other works published by a magazine, by the strict-sounding guidelines, by the idea that editor X could never possibly want story Y. Maybe the story has already been rejected from a few publication, so you let yourself start to think it’s crap and no one will ever want to publish it and you’d be better off shoving it in a drawer and never thinking about it again. It’s easier to talk yourself out of things than into things sometimes.
Speaking with my editor hat on (it’s very fancy; it has feathers), let me just say: DON’T.
Don’t listen to that voice. It’s a jackass; it has no idea what it’s talking about. Again, in the interest of full disclosure, this is another thing I struggle with myself, so do as I say, not as I do etc. You know the drill.
Avoiding self-rejection doesn’t mean you should ignore a publication’s guidelines, of course. For instance, don’t send your 10K+ epic fantasy novella to a horror-only poetry market on the theory that the editor really does want to publish it, they just don’t know it yet. The guidelines are there for a reason; follow them. But you shouldn’t let yourself get intimidated or hung up thinking that a particular publication would never publish the kind of thing that is within their guidelines that you happen to write so why even bother trying. Sure, you can generally get a feel for what editors like by reading what they’ve published in the past. You can get a sense of whether splatterpunk or sparkleponies or hardcore cyber-butterfly stories are their thing. But most editors enjoy being surprised. They want to come across the story they never knew they wanted until they read it, but once they have read it, they absolutely must share it with the world.
Here’s a dirty little secret about editors: sometimes we don’t know what we want until we see it. We know whether we want fiction or non-fiction, something on a particular theme or a particular word length, but beyond that it’s fair game. You know those vague guidelines that are so frustrating as a writer, where editors say they want a story that feels like something they would publish, or a story that grabs them? It’s not because the editors wrote those guidelines at 4am, drunk on power and lack of sleep, determined to fuck over any scribe foolish enough to aspire to appearing in their pages. It’s because they really mean it in a weird, seemingly sadistic from the author’s point of view, way.
The point is – take a chance. If the editor doesn’t like it, it isn’t the end of the world. At least you tried. Some authors won’t even try, and it frustrates me to no end. I want to shake them, even though I’m guilty of it myself. Other people should be smarter than me, damn it! They should know if you don’t even give an editor the option of buying your work, you’re sabotaging yourself. Authors – we are our own biggest obstacles sometimes.
I’ll give your a fer instance. For the longest time, I wouldn’t even consider submitting a story to Tor.com. Why? For the very simple and utterly ridiculous reason that in their listing at Ralan.com it says: Only accepts highly professional material; if in doubt, don’t sub here. Ooh! Me! I’m full of doubt! This market is not for me! I’m not a professional! I don’t know what I’m doing! They’ll laugh at me! They’ll pin my submission to a bulletin board in their offices for the sole purpose of calling their friends, their families, and random strangers off the street to laugh at it too! And so on.
The actual guidelines on Tor.com’s website do not say any such thing. Perhaps they did at one time. I don’t know. I was too scared to even look. I talked myself out of it right quick, because not trying is safer and more comfortable than trying and failing.
Last year, I finally convinced myself I was being a fucking moron and a coward and how the hell would I ever get anywhere if I insisted on standing in my own way? So I submitted a story to Tor.com. Know what happened? They rejected me. And the world didn’t end. You know what didn’t happen? They didn’t laugh at me (at least not to my face). They were kind and encouraging and it made me wish I had something else to send them. I’d been panicking over nothing. I’d wasted several valuable years of being rejected by Tor.com because I was scared and I talked myself out of it. Stupid.
Just because one story isn’t right for an editor doesn’t mean no story of yours will ever be right for them. Just because that story isn’t right for that editor doesn’t mean it will never be right for any editor ever. Just because you think your story isn’t right for a certain publication doesn’t mean you have any idea what you’re talking about. Learn these words. Live these words. Love them. And for thesake of all that is good and precious in this world, don’t make me regret this post by sending your epic poem about rhinoceroses to the Journal of Unlikely Entomology. Obviously you need to save that one for the Rhyming Journal of Unlikely Odd-Toed Ungulates.