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Cat Rambo

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In the Hope This Is Helpful to Others [Mar. 18th, 2009|02:03 pm]
Cat Rambo
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[mood |busybusy]

From my e-mail:

I'm very sorry to pester you, but I write to ask why I'm always being rejected by Fantasy Magazine
 
The rejection always reads something to the effect:  "It's not right for Fantasy Magazine."
 
Then, when you sign it, you say to send many more stories.
 
Cat, is there any way to know what is so bad about my writing?
 
I would really like to publish a piece at Fantasy, because at least then I would have some hope for the future.
 
But the feeling I get is that you and your readers regard me a worthless loser.
 
Is there any way that I could send you a piece that I'm presently working on and receive some feedback before I send in the final draft?

 
And my reply:

We get about 400-500 submissions a month currently, and we print 4-5 a month. You can see from that where, literally, a story has to be better than 99 of its fellows.

As a writer, I know that a rejection slip stings. But as an editor I also know that it's not as simple as good story versus bad story. Sometimes it's a case that the story isn't the right tone - maybe it feels a little too firmly in the territory of horror or science fiction or something else. Sometimes it's a case that we've published too many stories like it recently, or that we've already got five stories about pirates slated for the year and feel a little down on pirates at the time.

I also know as both writer and editor that thickskinnedness and persistence help a lot. In my pre-editor days, I had submitted at least four or five stories to Fantasy Magazine before they ever took one from me. I believe I'm on my 46th submission to the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction right now - but I'll still keep sending, because 1) I know I'm getting better with time, 2) I know that sometimes it's about having a story there at the right time and 3) I'll never get anything in there unless I try.

One thing that I have found helpful is having a writing group that meets periodically and gives each other critiques. There are a number of online ones, if you're in an area that doesn't have a lot of fellow writers. Another is reading other stories and looking at how they work - what makes them stand out? What do they do to grab the reader and make them keep reading?

I hope that's helpful.

all the best,
Cat


I really don't want to sound pissed off, because I'm not, but I will also suggest to readers of this blog that letters like this are a bad idea. You run the risk of irritating an editor by asking for a chunk of their time and energy like this. In my case, I've got a hard enough time getting critiques done for friends, and right now I've got two interviews to prep questions for, queries to draft, a review to write, slush to read, and an e-mail from Lawrence that I need to read and respond to in order to explain why I'm having trouble with one of the stories for the collection -- along with a crapload of other work hanging over my head like a ten-ton sword of Damocles. Plus I'd like to finish this draft of Phat Fairy someday. Meanwhile, the living room calls out for cleaning and I suspect the kitties would like their litter box changed. Be aware that people's time is precious and treat it like the gift it is.
linkReply

Comments:
[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2009-03-18 09:14 pm (UTC)
You should have sent him my way.
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[User Picture]From: catrambo
2009-03-18 09:20 pm (UTC)
The thought did occur to me. Are you still offering critiquing services for people? If so, I'll start just sending the details of your rates and contact info next time someone asks for this.
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[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2009-03-18 09:25 pm (UTC)
Yes and yes. $2 per page.
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[User Picture]From: catrambo
2009-03-18 09:31 pm (UTC)
Just sent him that info with your e-mail address.
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[User Picture]From: reveritas
2009-03-19 12:14 am (UTC)
Really! Do you do all types of writing? *butts in*

(Hi. We know a ton of the same people.)
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[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2009-03-19 01:30 am (UTC)
Yup.
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[User Picture]From: kynn
2009-03-18 09:40 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I was gonna say the author should just time travel back a few years and sub to Clarkesworld.
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[User Picture]From: j_cheney
2009-03-18 09:16 pm (UTC)
Is there any way that I could send you a piece that I'm presently working on and receive some feedback before I send in the final draft?

Oh, dear....

I don't think you could have answered this more professionally and civilly than you did.
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[User Picture]From: time_shark
2009-03-18 09:36 pm (UTC)
I've gotten a few like that for CP. I think sometimes people just can't comprehend the sheer volume of competition there is for just a few slots until they've finally seen it from the other side.

I think you handled this admirably.
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[User Picture]From: tchernabyelo
2009-03-18 11:15 pm (UTC)
I'm glad I never went to college and learned that.
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[User Picture]From: rosalux
2009-03-19 02:03 pm (UTC)
You could learn that just be reading published writers' bios, too.

A lot of my favorite writers are teachers, or nannies, or bricklayers at the same time.
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[User Picture]From: selfavowedgeek
2009-03-18 09:44 pm (UTC)
Handled with class.

RE: "But as an editor I also know that it's not as simple as good story versus bad story." I'd hasten to add that the gulf between a good story and the great story that gets accepted is rather vast. Reading slush for the past month as Farrago's Wainscot has been rather eye opening in that respect.
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[User Picture]From: silenceleigh
2009-03-18 09:52 pm (UTC)
Wow. I don't think it would have ever occurred to me to write a letter like this; it smacks of writing a letter demanding to know why you didn't get a job/date/prize/whatever.

You handled it very well, I think.
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[User Picture]From: silenceleigh
2009-03-18 09:53 pm (UTC)
(and I speak as someone who has actually had people ask her, "so why won't you date me?")
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[User Picture]From: rosalux
2009-03-19 02:05 pm (UTC)
Oh, I hate that question.

Back in the days of yore, when I was still dating new people, I got to the point where I would usually say "Do you actually want to know, or are you just being creepy?"

And if they said "No, really, I really want to know." I would say "I don't like you."

Because, really.
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[User Picture]From: amysisson
2009-03-18 11:00 pm (UTC)
Oh, there is so very much that one could comment on here....

But I'll stick with just this: "But the feeling I get is that you and your readers regard me a worthless loser." If this writer's fiction has never been published in Fantasy, how can Fantasy's readers consider the writer to be a worthless loser, since they don't know of his/her existence in particular?

Is there something going around these days? This is the second such story via LJ in the last week or so.
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[User Picture]From: catrambo
2009-03-19 02:27 am (UTC)
Well, I wouldn't get too harsh. My presumption in cases like this is always that the person is pretty young and inexperienced, and it's not a case of deliberate rudeness. God knows I've had plenty of clueless moments and done much much worse in my day.
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[User Picture]From: tchernabyelo
2009-03-18 11:12 pm (UTC)
But it is sometimes helpful to know these things...

I think I now have a fairly clear idea of what WON'T sell to you, though I'm still not sure what WILL (a couple of pieces I thought were right didn't take; on the other hand the one you DID buy was probably the one I was most optimistic about).

I've always assumed that the "please send more" is editorial shorthand for "you can write; it's obvious you can write; when you write the correct story, we'll buy it". In other words, the mechanics and techniques are all there, it's just hitting the right content and/or tone.

And I will persist - but first I have to write more stories, because you've seen virtually everything of mine that's remotely suitable!
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[User Picture]From: catrambo
2009-03-19 02:29 am (UTC)
When I say outright that I want the person to send more, I always mean it. It may mean that I think that somewhere down the road they're going to produce a killer story or it may mean exactly what you say - not this one, but another may well hit.

Now go write some more, Brian.
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[User Picture]From: icecreamempress
2009-03-18 11:39 pm (UTC)
A) I think this is quite diplomatic and clear.

B) Have you thought about including a less-personalized version of this in the submissions FAQ?

Because the information that "we take 1 out of 100 stories we receive" is something that is well known to pros and comes as an INCREDIBLE surprise to many people new to the idea of seeking publication. If I had a dollar for every client who thought that magazines and anthologies were desperate for submissions in general, I would have many many dollars.

I once asked a college writing class what percentage of submitted short stories they thought The New Yorker rejected, and I swear to god the majority answer was "50%."

Which goes some way toward explaining what often comes off as hubris or entitlement to people who have been doing this stuff for years.
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[User Picture]From: catrambo
2009-03-19 02:30 am (UTC)
I think that's an excellent suggestion and I'm making a note to myself to do so.
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[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2009-03-20 10:49 pm (UTC)
If I had a dollar for every client who thought that magazines and anthologies were desperate for submissions in general, I would have many many dollars.

Even more shocking; ultimately, it is true! Not as regards submissions (too many of those), but good work. Mags and anthos DO want more good stuff than they get.

Just not more stuff than they get.
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[User Picture]From: boonofdoom
2009-03-18 11:41 pm (UTC)
Very well said!

I have occasionally responded to queries somewhat similar to this, where the writer asks for more explanation than I had already given on a story I'd already read and rejected. But asking for a private crit *before* submitting definitely strikes me as going too far.

Also: never a good idea to put words into an editor's mouth when you're asking them for something.

But the feeling I get is that you and your readers regard me a worthless loser.


Something like this, to me, is a red flag that the conversation has moved beyond professionalism.
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[User Picture]From: jimkeller
2009-03-19 12:39 am (UTC)
It speaks very highly of you that you took the time to answer. Thank you on this writer's behalf (because the ones who would write a letter like that are generally the type who won't say it), and thank you for sharing it here, where I can point people who make this same complaint to their fellow writers....
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[User Picture]From: mmuenzler
2009-03-19 12:53 am (UTC)
That was a very classy response, and I hope the emailer appreciates the time you took in crafting it. :)
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[User Picture]From: jeanhuets
2009-03-19 12:59 am (UTC)
I don't think it would have ever occurred to me to write a letter like this

Same here, but I've done so many benighted things in my life, I can only cringe in sympathy.

Anyway, it's nice to see kindness happening. I hope your cats appreciate it. "D

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[User Picture]From: timwb
2009-03-19 02:24 am (UTC)
Well, I appreciate it.

Your response was kind and patient, and the timing in my case was impeccable.

It kept me from doing something I now see is silly.
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[User Picture]From: catrambo
2009-03-19 02:42 am (UTC)
I was hoping it'd be helpful to at least a couple of people.
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[User Picture]From: silviamg
2009-03-19 02:56 am (UTC)
Mmmm... with so much slush I tend to think editor's don't remember me, so I don't take it as a personal slight when someone rejects me over and over again.
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[User Picture]From: rose_lemberg
2009-03-19 04:16 am (UTC)
Cat - thank you for yet again serving as a role model of courtesy and professionalism.

Thing is, that internet networking, and LJ in particular, can create an illusion of false intimacy between writers and editors. A writer follows an editor's blog and feels he or she has a personal relationship with the said editor. Being rejected by someone you feel you know is harder than being rejected by a faceless stranger; and it is also easier, I think, to ask a favor of someone you feel you know.

Those are, of course, false assumptions. The fact that you follow an editor's LJ does not make you a friend of the said editor. Even if a personal relationship does exist, it certainly does not guarantee a sale. I have been rejected by editors who are my LJ friends and who moreover accepted my work at other times. That's part and parcel of this business.
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[User Picture]From: douglascohen
2009-03-19 04:36 am (UTC)
Regarding everything you said in this post after your letter to this person ...preach it, sister!
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[User Picture]From: wendigomountain
2009-03-19 05:06 am (UTC)
And it's stories like this that make me run away like a frightened squirrel if people suggest I read slush. There's a lot of pain in that letter. I think you handled it well.
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[User Picture]From: jeffsoesbe
2009-03-19 06:49 am (UTC)
That's a very kind and understanding response you gave.

I'm sure that we've all felt similar to the way the letter writer did, at one time or another.

Jay Lake's quote about how it takes "near-pathological persistence" to succeed in this business really rings true at times like these...

- yeff
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[User Picture]From: rcloenen_ruiz
2009-03-19 10:36 am (UTC)
You are amazing. I bet the writer of that letter has become a fan forever.

My response to rejection is to grit my teeth, stick out my chin, go write another story, and try again.
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[User Picture]From: catephoenix
2009-03-19 01:26 pm (UTC)
Well put, and further proof of your wonderfulness.
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[User Picture]From: hildebabble
2009-03-19 01:57 pm (UTC)
"But the feeling I get is that you and your readers regard me a worthless loser. Is there any way that I could send you a piece that I'm presently working on and receive some feedback before I send in the final draft?"

Whoa.

Some people's frustration manifests more strongly than others, I guess.

Good response, you. *salute*
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[User Picture]From: accordingto_ada
2009-03-19 02:38 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Cat, for going above and beyond the call of duty as a force for good in the writer universe.

It takes a whole lot more effort for a fiction writer (and I suspect, artist, actor, musician) to advance in their profession than for practitioners of other forms of endeavor. Basically, you need to get an A- to pass the course. So here you are, writing B+ stories, and your friends who are not writers are making a living (well, before this economy anyway) with their B+ work. And the world makes you feel like you're a D student. You need to work on your craft, so that you start writing a few A- stories, and work on your marketing, so you send them to to the appropriate editor, and work on your productivity, so that you have more chances to win.
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[User Picture]From: ken_schneyer
2009-03-19 05:47 pm (UTC)
You're right, of course about the letter. Poor thing.

But there's an interesting observation here:

I also know as both writer and editor that thickskinnedness and persistence help a lot.

Persistence, obviously. Thickskinnedness [a real word?] -- well, yes, in the best of all possible worlds. But there may be an inherent contradiction between "Artist" and "Thick-skinned". Artists put on the line the things they care about most, expose their frailties to the world, and then ruthlessly rip those expressions apart in order to make them work. It would leave anyone a bit touchy.

Back when I was an acting student, I once complained in a journal entry that I shouldn't have to pull out the most desperate, painful pieces of my life to use them in performance. "Shouldn't some things be sacred and private?" I wrote. My instructor wrote back in the margin: "The artist is an imperialist conquistador who plunders his own inner city, again and again."

So writers can be forgiven for taking rejection personally. Of course I (myself) know that it isn't personal, and I (myself) know, in Kate Wilhelm's words, that "I am not my story." But it takes an act of will and self-discipline to stay in that place, and it feels like a tiny victory every time I send the rejected story out to the next market.

This actually reminds me a lot of our earlier conversation about the word "racism." Over-sensitive artists who don't know much about race theory take the sentence "This story is racist" to mean "You are an offensive criminal." Similarly, over-sensitive artists take "This story is not right for us" to mean "You suck." It isn't true; but I know why they feel that way.
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[User Picture]From: catrambo
2009-03-19 05:57 pm (UTC)
We can all TOTALLY sympathize with that, I agree. But I'd argue that a writer needs to build a sense of self that allows them to move forward even when the message they're getting from the world is disapproving or even hostile. I know it's one of life's most difficult tasks to build that, but I also think it's a strategy that writers (and artists of all stripes) would be wise to follow.
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[User Picture]From: silk_noir
2009-03-19 07:37 pm (UTC)
Nope. You didn't sound pissed off.
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From: kelly_yoyo
2009-03-19 10:45 pm (UTC)
Wow, you were way more patient with him/her than I would have been in your position.
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[User Picture]From: eddygrrl
2009-03-20 01:37 pm (UTC)
Cat, as always, I admire your patience and tact in difficult situations. And if thickskinndedness isn't a word, it probably should be :-)
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[User Picture]From: saycestsay
2009-03-20 06:23 pm (UTC)
Cat, good job. Those kinds of emails are always difficult to handle and you managed with class (your usual.)

And yeah, oh man, all writers need a turn at slushpiles, just to get an idea of the competition.
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[User Picture]From: mariness
2009-03-21 03:28 pm (UTC)
Heh. It's when I don't get the "please send more" that I feel like a worthless loser...Otherwise I just feel worthless.

I would advise this writer to keep a stash of chocolate around. I find it's not just helpful, but essential on rejection slip days. But that might be just me.

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[User Picture]From: asakiyume
2009-03-27 12:08 am (UTC)
What a nice letter! (Won't tell you the casual set of LJ hops that took me here, but here I am.) I'm always touched when I see/hear/read about (or actually read) examples of humane friendliness like that.

And I laughed at the comment upstream about people thinking that the New Yorker accepts 50 percent of the stories it receives.
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From: ext_126792
2009-03-30 12:36 am (UTC)

Avatar

Hey, I like how one of your avatars is different from the others. How did you do that?
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[User Picture]From: catrambo
2009-03-30 06:36 pm (UTC)

Re: Avatar

Click on Picture to Use, up under the subject line, when posting, and you should see all your pictures and be able to select the one to use.
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