Sunday, April 18, 2010

Learning from Other People’s Mistakes

I’ve talked before about how I believe that the competition is fierce and that most of the work getting submitted to journals – even the tiny ones – is fantastically good. Yes, I know you’ve heard otherwise. I know you’ve read interviews with editors or agents who claim that most of the work submitted to them is terrible, but that is such a load. If that were true than every halfway decent, remotely publishable piece would get snatched up immediately because it would stand out so much from all the rest of the crap, and we all know that doesn’t happen.

A piece of writing can get rejected from a hundred places before it finds a home, and once it does find that home it can then go on to win a Pushcart or get reprinted in a Best American Anthology. I once got a really nasty rejection letter, in which the editor essentially told me my story was terrible and poorly written, and then it later got published (the exact same draft that had been rejected) and was read by an assistant at a literary agency who contacted me and asked me to query the agency. The reason why things can get rejected so many times first is because most of the stuff getting submitted is very, very good, and on top of that, there simply are no objective rules for writing that every single editor, agent, writer, and reader can agree on.

Which means if you want to be competitive you really need to find ways to set yourself apart from the competition. Working at a literary journal gives you a chance to see what other writers are doing and can give you a competitive edge with your own work. Once you get over the shock of seeing how much of the slush pile is great and how often pieces that you would have loved to accept still have to get rejected because there just isn’t room, you start to notice small, let’s go ahead and call them mistakes, for lack of a better word, that are causing other writers to get rejected quickly.

These sorts of mistakes can range from not following professional formatting (using a tiny or strange looking font, say, or stapling the pages together), to coming across like an a-hole in your cover letter (I pretty much immediately want to reject people who seem arrogant in their cover letter and act like they already know their work is going to get accepted), to writing a really great story that gets off to a slow start (these stories, sadly, rarely even get read all the way through because you put them down before you get to the good part), to filling up thirty pages when the story easily could have been told in fifteen. And don’t even get me started on typos and grammatical errors. If you don’t care about your work enough to proofread it, what makes you think anybody else is going to care?

These are sometimes things that writers who don’t understand how the selection process really works will assume won’t end up mattering. I think we sometimes look at the work that’s getting published in books and see things that those writers are getting away with, and we assume that we will be allowed to do that, too. But the difference is that a writer with a book published has probably already won the trust of an agent and/or editor. You probably haven’t. The editors reading your submissions probably don’t have a clue who you are, and they aren’t going to have faith that if they just keep reading, your work will end up coming together in a satisfying way. You’ve got to win them over right away and hang on to them until the very end, and you cannot give them any reason to doubt you.

Seeing what good writers who are submitting good work are doing that’s earning them rejections is more useful, I think, than only reading the stuff that’s getting accepted and published. Reading what’s been published might just teach you that you need to write something good. Reading the stuff that’s getting rejected will teach you to write something good, too, but it will also teach you to avoid any number of pitfalls that writers who are just reading the stuff that’s getting published might fall into.


Anonymous said...

I've read for two major--whatever that even means-- magazines and can't disagree with you more about the quality of the slush pile. Most of the stories submitted are absolute garbage, and that's not hyperbole. You get stuff from crazies, inmates, talentless lawyers, old people, and the list goes on. If anything, the slush taught me that most people, including MFA grads, should stop writing, or at the very least quit bombarding litmags with their submissions, which is why, I think, top magazines fall back on their small group of trusted writers.

Very little is published out of the slush because there is very little that should be published out of the slush. As a writer, my interest, of course, is to find ways out of the slush. I've come to the conclusion that there is only one option: Publish a story in a major journal which will hopefully open doors and catch the eye of other editors. This has always been the story, I think. Of course, to get out of the slush, you'll first need to go through the slush, which might take a very long time.

This is art, sure, but it's also about branding and creating a niche for yourself and your stories. My opinion: Write something great. Submit to top markets (the ones that can help you). Catch the eye of other editors.

Ashley Cowger said...

You make an interesting point. I wonder if the fact that people who know their craft and people who don't all submit to the major journals means that there's a very different slush pile dynamic at the large journals than there is at the smaller ones, which tend to only even be on the radar of more serious writers - writers who have actually done research on the business and know that there are other journals out there besides the ones non-writers are aware of.

An editor of a mid-level journal that only accepts a VERY small percentage of work from its slush pile (but which published a story of mine about a year ago), once said that writers should submit to big journals because the big journals are more likely to take risks since they've already established a name for themselves, while the small journals have to be very cautious because they're trying to build a presence in the oversaturated literary journal market. Basically, she felt that if you've got something good, you might actually stand a better chance of getting it accepted at a big journal than a small one.

I don't know if that's true or not, but if it is, I wonder if another factor causing that might be that the small journals have a higher percentage of excellent stuff coming in - a smaller amount of submissions, the majority of which is coming from people who have really put a lot of practice into their craft - and the larger journals perhaps have a higher percentage of crap - a much, MUCH heftier amount of unsolicited submissions, most of which are coming from people who don't know a thing about writing.

Ultimately, I completely agree with your point that the number one consideration should be to write something good, although I disagree that the only way to get noticed is to publish in one of the top journals. I've been published in a couple of moderately high profile journals and some smaller ones, and it was one of my smaller pubs that got noticed by a literary agency. Any publication at all is still exposure, and while it's definitely true that a higher readership means more exposure, many agents and editors are aware of the quality stuff coming out of those smaller journals.

Anonymous said...

'...old people...'


Ashley, I've been reading your blog every Sunday for ages and decided it was time to blog something.

And there it is!

keep up the good work


Ashley Cowger said...

Ha! Yes, I couldn't decide whether to say anything about the "old people" remark :) Thanks for reading, Adam!