Yesterday I did something I have not done in ages: submitted a short story to a science fiction magazine. The story, however, was not mine: it was my late friend Cappy Hanson’s last work, “The Otter’s Stone.” A few days before she died, she told me which magazine she intended to send it to first, so that was where it went. There’s no guarantee the magazine will accept it, so I’m not going to name it.
Submitting a work, whether to a magazine, a contest, a literary agent, or an editor at a publishing house is an action that readers are blissfully unaware of, but one fraught with tension for the author. There’s no reason why readers should be aware, of course, but for the author it’s a major milestone.
The first step on the road to publication is, naturally, writing the piece. That first draft almost always stinks. Ernest Hemingway himself supposedly said, “All first drafts are shit.” For new writers, this is a tough thing to accept. Every word is pure gold, isn’t it? When the response is, “Um… well, no,” it can be quite a blow. But many edits later, there’s a poem, a story, an article, or a book that might, just might, be worthy of publication.
Then there’s the process of finding an appropriate market. Sometimes that’s easy and obvious, other times not so much. The new or naïve author may pick just one, sure that their work is perfect for that publication. Maybe it will be. Maybe it won’t. There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to send it in.
Oh, but clicking that Submit button can be so hard. What if they don’t like it? What if there’s one typo too many? Like ONE? What if…? What if…? Suddenly, the writer’s imagination runs wild.
When I submitted “Stone,” the magazine’s web site reported that there were 133 submissions ahead of it in the queue, that the average response time was 4 days, but that I shouldn’t query them until 90 days had passed. Huh? These things seem contradictory, but they’re not.
While the submission was addressed to the magazine’s editor, he won’t see the work right away, if ever. Instead, there are an unknown number of “slush pile” readers, and one of them will see the story first.
This is where things get dicey. Great stories get rejected all the time at this stage. Maybe the first page of the story just doesn’t grab the reader. Maybe they’re tired. Maybe they had a fight with their girl- or boyfriend or spouse and they’re in a bad mood. Maybe they’re sick. Maybe it’s not immediately obvious why or how this piece is right for this market. Maybe it isn’t right at all. Agents and editors, if pressed, will admit that they reject pieces left and right, every day. In the book publishing business, if the query letter doesn’t connect with them, they never even see the manuscript, not even the first page.
With short stories, the process is similar but there’s no query letter, only the story.
And that’s how an average response time of four days is possible, even with a stack of 130 stories.
If it seems like a cruel, arbitrary business, well, it is. Even assuming the author has picked the “right” target for their work, and that work isn’t just the best they could make it, but is truly top notch, that story-cream may not rise to the top.
But let’s say the piece does make it through the first round. It’s home free, right?
Oh, no. There will be still more rounds of reviews, and at any point along that road, the story could be shown the exit ramp. That’s why I was told not to query the magazine until 90 days have passed. Chances are that I will hear something. Chances are that the news will be a “thanks but no thanks” note.
And then it’ll be on to the next market… and the next… and the next. Eventually, maybe, someone will say yes, will want to publish the story. Maybe they’ll even send a payment check. There are some publications that pay only in “contributor’s copies,” or even just the satisfaction of seeing your name and your work published there.
In my totally biased opinion, “The Otter’s Stone” deserves more than a thank you note and a byline. But I don’t get to make that call.
So now I wait.