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Observations from Atop the Slushpile

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    Posted: Mar-09-2015 at 7:10am
Observations from Atop the Slushpile
by Robert J. Santa

Opening a small press has been a fascinating experience for me, and I have yet to see one of my books in print. When I first created the timetable for getting Ricasso Press off the ground, I thought I was going a bit too slowly. In hindsight, still with no proofs back from the printer, I may find myself scrambling in a few months. Nevertheless, creating a website, determining pricing, marketing, artwork...these have all been challenging and rewarding at the same time.

Yet no part of this experience has been more invaluable to me as a writer than my role as editor. Throughout the course of an open call for submissions to a dragon-themed anthology, I received just over 400 manuscripts. Throughout the reading process, I learned some important lessons any writer should hold dear:

A promise I made to myself was to read from start to finish each and every manuscript. I know all too well the hard work a writer puts into crafting not just the story but the individual segments that make it up. It's not just scenes broken down into paragraphs; it's also single sentences or phrases or perhaps even a solitary word that can make the difference between being bland and exploding off the page. If I found myself skimming the story, I would blink hard, refocus, and go back and do it again.

This was a promise I quickly broke. Once again, in retrospect, I think about the books I've bought. I skim parts of those as well. Why wouldn't I think the same would apply to the writing I didn't buy? Pie in the sky hopes, perhaps. I take pride in the fact that of those 400 submissions I didn't get through less than ten, though I suffered. It was easy for me to see how editors would look at a page or two and make decisions based on those few hundred opening words. I was convinced some of those stories with terrible openings had gold in the middle or end. They didn’t, to a one.

Lesson learned: hook the reader. I've spoken of this before, yet it was not hammered into my writing philosophy more than in recent months. It follows that once a great opening scene grabs the reader's attention, something must follow that would make the reader want to continue through the middle and on to the conclusion. The hook, it turns out, isn't solely located in the first few pages. Perhaps there's another term to reeling in the reader once grabbed (heck, maybe "reelin' 'em in" is it). It is officially now the most important part of my writing, and I will focus all my energies on it.

I can see why some markets refuse to see certain types of stories. Vampire stories, for example. I've written precisely two vampire stories in my entire life. The first one was a centuries-long battle between a "good guy" vampire and a more traditional one. It also read like it was centuries-long, which is why it's never seen the light of day. The second was from the perspective of an addicted vampire victim. That piece has been published twice and must mean something about the vampire genre. The concept came out of the blue as I was struggling to write a piece about addiction for a themed market. Strangely enough, that market rejected the story; it was a couple of horror markets that must see thousands of vampire stories that bought it.

When I went out there to write a "vampire story," I came away with a loser. When I flipped the idea on its head and wrote a story about a woman gripped by addiction that also happened to have vampires in it, it sold.

Four hundred stories about dragons is a lot of dragons. I saw less than fifty non-traditional ideas. A select few stories made it into the table of contents with traditional dragon ideas based solely on the quality of the writing. The rest of them received a nice note thanking the authors for their effort. Those fifty jumped at me, and the well-crafted ones got an acceptance. Originality is like that car in every small town that has buttons glued to it bumper-to-bumper with a plastic cow riding on the roof. Five thousand vehicles pass you on the highway without so much as a second glance from you, but that cow car makes you look every time.

So before I put the time and energy into creating a story, I've learned to sit back and examine it for originality. Is it a plot standard? If so, is there a way I can flip it around? If I can't, then I'm going to file the idea and move on to something else. There's a hundred unsold stories in my writing collection; it's a virtual lock that three-quarters of them failed on concept alone. Why add another one?

I'll preface these remarks by praising the individual authors who submitted the manuscripts I'll loosely reference. I don't always write every idea that pops into my head; there's a file with dozens of fully-fleshed concepts moldering on my computer to prove it. Some of the ideas seem too weak to me. Some more seem like standard plots. Some few are just too odd for me to figure out how to make them work.

The dragon-themed anthology produced a ton of fire-breathing, bat-winged, armor-scaled monsters. But it also gave me the opportunity to see an intelligent dragon trying to break the Guinness World Record for road destruction by eating its way along the highway, gobbling asphalt. Still another dragon was hired to be an intergalactic taxi cab driver. Another philosophically led its race to a war on Heaven's gates themselves.

Where these concepts failed was to make me empathize with the characters because they were a bit too off the beaten path. In all three stories I mentioned, the writing was stellar (no pun intended to the science fiction one). The plots - while maybe not complete in two out of three of those stories - at least had a beginning, middle and end. It's more than I could have done if someone said to me "write a story about a dragon that eats road surfaces."

But that may have also hampered the story in that there was nothing in it to which I could relate. I found myself not particularly caring about how the plot was going to get resolved or how the characters would react/survive/change/grow. Which means I'm taking away a subtle lesson in critical analysis: original stories are great, but the editor must see something in it familiar or else it might seem unapproachable to his or her readership.

Some of the stories I read caused me agony. Not the please-make-the-bad-writing-stop kind but the kind where I had to send a rejection for a really good story that had a fatal flaw. I put myself in the role of writer when reading these on-the-fence pieces and tried to envision the rewriting process. If I felt it could be done without mutilating the story's core concept, I made the request. If I felt the fundamental reason why the author wrote the piece would be changed, I rejected it. Without doubt, these were all well-written stories for they wouldn't have gotten any consideration at all if they weren't. If, if, if.

In retrospect, I can't help but think some of those decisions were hampered by how I felt about other things. Quarreling kids, dirty dishes needing attention upstairs, the washing machine buzzer going off, ringing phone, feet hurt from being at work all day and all night, coffee cup is empty, wine glass is empty, belly is empty. Pick one or more. That little nudge could be all it takes to turn an acceptance into a rejection. Heck, maybe I'd just read ten or twelve manuscripts and rejected them all and had an unfortunately negative momentum built up.

An editor accepting a story is personal preference, first, foremost, and always. Hopefully personal issues don't interfere with the business of writing, but we all know that isn't the case. As a writer, all I can do when I receive a rejection is to not dwell on it. If I believe the story is polished to the best of my abilities, I log the rejection and response time and get that manuscript back into circulation. I learned that lesson a long time ago; sending out nearly 400 rejections only reinforced it.

Does that mean you're writing to an editor specifically or to that editor's readership? Well, both. The editor is making decisions based on what he or she feels the market would appreciate reading. For this, you need to read copies of the publication to get a feel for writing style, story plots, character types and so forth. It is a writing maxim that has been around for decades and will never change.

But what about the individual editors? In this day of instant information, it's possible to investigate editors a little. Are they also writers with stories available for viewing on the Web? This could give you an idea of their writing style, and you could try to emulate it. I did this with a writing contest in which I had read the final judge's work. My story took first place because I felt I knew the judge's preferred plots and style and submitted a piece that was similar. Do they have a bio somewhere that gives you some clue as to their likes and dislikes? To an editor who was an avid card player, I sold a story where the main characters are engaged in a card game. To another editor who plays masters-level chess, I sold a story where the main characters are engaged in a chess match. To yet another editor who I knew from his blog was anti-Government, I sold a story about a modern, post-secession United States. All of those stories had been rejected by other editors more than once.

Did I fall victim to this as an editor as well? You betcha. One author submitted a story that wasn't quite right for the anthology, but I loved her style. It reminded me of Giambattista Basile, an Italian fairy tale writer long before the Brothers Grimm. In my rejection I let this author know I was a sucker for Italian fairy tales (read Basile if you get the chance, and you'll understand how Italian fairy tales differ from Grimm, Andersen and others). Two weeks later another submission from this author showed up focused on two things: dragons and Italian storytelling. Similarly, I've mentioned on forums ad nauseum how strongly I feel about how Ray Bradbury's fantasies focused so deeply on the characters first and the plot second. Perhaps the author that submitted a Bradbury-esque tale to my anthology noticed these remarks, and if he did, I give him the utmost respect for targeting me. I bought both of those above-mentioned stories because I liked them. Me, I liked them. I hope my readership does as well, but in at least one of those cases I know the story was aimed squarely at me and no one else.

Lesson learned is a no-brainer: if the editor likes the story, it'll get bought. Does it have to be perfect? That would certainly help, yet as a writer I've always felt an editor's job is to edit, to make as best as possible a writer's work. I strongly feel that a moderately-written story aimed directly at a market or an editor (maybe both) will hit its target better than a superbly-crafted one that is less centered on the editor's preferences. In fact, between the better story and the better aimed one, I give them even odds.

So how do I wrap this up? As a writer, I've been given the opportunity to see what four hundred other authors are doing. I highly recommend this practice to any writer, if you can do it. What I can impart along with the above concepts is this blunt statement: there's a lot of bad writing out there. As long as you're not part of it, you'll get published. Knowing which of the two camps your beloved story falls into is critical to its success. I'd like to say I never spent a minute of my life spinning my wheels on my stories that stunk. I can't, but I'm proud to report there are dozens (egad, hundreds?) of terrible stories that I've written which have never been sent to an editor. Critical analysis of your own work is the hardest part of writing. Good luck with it.

As an editor, though, I hope I've done some small service to my fellow writers by giving you some inside information as to my likes and dislikes and the process as a whole. Perhaps it will mean an acceptance in the not-too-distant future. And please, the next time I make a call for submissions, I beg you not to send me four hundred Italian fairy tales.

Copyright 2007, Robert J. Santa
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