I haven’t mentioned it all that often on this blog, but these days I edit the audio fiction website Dark Fiction Magazine, and over the last year or so reading submissions has given me a new perspective on the short story market.
I know what it’s like to get rejections. I even have one from Black Static which I’m quite proud of, just because it came on a slip of paper and this somehow made it seem ancient and special, and I’ve lost track of how many I’ve received by email. It’s a very painful process, and I have ground my teeth and cursed the gods and the demons and all the little goblins in between, but after a while it doesn’t hurt as much. There are those markets, of course, which you’re desperate to break and each “no thanks” email is a kick in the writerly-ball-sack, but eventually you do start to form the beginnings of a crusty carapace that protects you from the worst of the agony.
Now, as the editor of DFM I’m the one sending rejection notices, and for a writer that is a very odd experience indeed. I feel bad. I feel conflicted. I occasionally cackle with the power of it all and stroke my evil cat. Mostly though, it’s a sobering process because it demonstrates exactly how complicated a rejection can be. I have, for example, said no to plenty of stories that are actually very good, but not right for DFM, or not a good fit for the upcoming episodes. I struggle with this a lot, because I don’t want to say to these writers, “you are crap”, because even though the email will say this isn’t quite right for us, it always feels like you’re being told “you’re crap”. Often though there simply isn’t room for everything good that hits the slush pile; last year we did five episodes (four stories an episode) and next year we’ll probably do four episodes, and that just doesn’t leave much space. Every story has to be very, very good and every story has to fit the episode – that leads to a lot of rejections.
There’s a lot of crap too, of course. For every story I agonize over there’s probably another two that get chucked pretty swiftly. Most of the time someone’s had an idea for a story and hasn’t quite got the craft to tell it yet, or, being a genre magazine, the story falls into common genre patterns, such as “It’s horror! Stick loads of blood and guts and possibly some uncomfortable sex in there!” I do, admittedly, have very high standards for short stories and a lot of submissions will come a cropper, and that’s as it should be; I want DFM to host the best weird fiction, after all. Some stories we receive just aren’t SF, Fantasy or Horror at all (which puzzles me a little – the website banner is a giant green zombie person, so you’d think that would be a big clue) and some are just too long or obscure.
If knowing how these things work hasn’t quite made rejections easier for me to stomach, it has at least made them easier to understand, and a year of chomping through the slush pile has taught me an awful lot about editing as well as writing. For 2013 we’re going to announce the themes of the episodes beforehand, giving writers more of a chance to refine their stories for the magazine, and hopefully this will lead to me sending fewer rejection emails. Plus the cat finds all the cackling puts her off her lunch.