Sunday, October 11, 2009

Behind the curtain....

I thought it might be helpful for writers to get a peak behind the curtain at our process for selecting stories. For those of you who are soooooo bored that you actually read my publisher's rants in NT, you may already know that I don't like the word "slush". I'm not a crusader against the use of the term, I'm not foolish enough to believe that editors will ever stop using it. I do think that it has very negative connotations, and as such, predisposes the editors mindset toward negativity as well as an over inflated feeling of superiority. I've seen editorials where the editor describes the process as reaching into the filth and muck, searching for that one story that doesn't completely suck. I've seen them describe the process in a way that they clearly feel they are doing something heroic, and expect all of us lowly writers to apologize for our unworthy submissions that they were forced to endure.

I can't change their opinions as an editor, but as a writer, I can choose not to submit to them. Without writers there would be no magazines, and while some editors lament the submission process, no one forced them. I will admit that I do get tired by the end of a submission period, but I signed up for this. The day I can't take it anymore is the day I need to quit and focus only on my writing, or get extra help and just be the publisher and not an editor.

All of the NT Staph that read submissions, are writers. By writers, because opinions vary, I mean people who are actively working on improving their craft and regularly submit work in hopes of publication. We also remember how awful our first stories were, how much we have learned and how it feels to get a rejection. This is important, because rejections will happen. I see no reason to make a person feel bad by sending them a snotty or derisive rejection. Some people will take it that way no matter what we write, but we try to focus on the majority of people who are reasonable.

The fact is that in each issue, we can only take around 21 stories. Sometimes it will be 19 and sometimes 22, because I'm aiming for a word count of 35,000 and we take everything from 100-Word Bites through flash, all the way up to 5,000 word stories. We are now getting a little over 400 submissions during a submission window. That means we are going to send out around 380 rejections. We have to take what we feel are the best stories. That doesn't mean that all the stories we reject aren't worthy of acceptance. What it means is that we need to pick stories that work well together in style, length and premise. Since we want a balanced issue with a variety of story lengths, we will most likely take only around 5 stories between 3,000 and 5,000 words. The bulk of the stories will be between 1,000 and 3,000 with a smattering of flash and 100-Word Bites.

From a simple mathematical perspective, you will increase your chances of acceptance by sending in a story around 2,500 words. That doesn't mean you should hold back if you think you have the best 5,000 story out there. I really hope you don't, since we need and want them. I just want you to know how we select stories and how many of each we take.

As for the process, our submission months have been well thought out. We open only during January, April, July and October, the same months we put out an issue since we are done working on the last issue and have had a break of at least a couple of weeks. We should be going through submission right now, but we are temporarily closed. This is my fault for not having a good process in place. It's a work in progress, and we've learned over the last couple of years. Our new process is to only accept the stories for the next open issue. Before, we sent out acceptances and tried to "plan" each issue up to a year in advance. It didn't work and only caused us more effort and I believe, irritated some writers who had to wait up to a year to see their story published. Because of this, we got too far ahead and now have complete issues through April, 2010.

Our new process will be to open in January for submission and fill July 2010's issue. Then April's submission window will fill October and so on, so everyone that get's an acceptance will only have to wait six months to see their story in print. Actually, they might be only waiting around four and a half months since we would put out acceptances the month after our submission window closes.

This brings me to the mechanics of our submission period. The deep dark inner secrets of how we divide work and select stories. There are currently three of us reading submissions. I am grateful for the help of our associate editors, John P. Wilson and Daniel I Russell. Instead of taking advantage of their assistance and dumping all the work on them, we each take 1/3 of all the stories that come in as they come in. We each have a folder in the email box and as the stories stream in, I drop them in each folder in the order they arrive. If we have a close friend that submits and we get their story through this random process, we ask someone else to take it. Otherwise it is completely random. Each of us get to choose fifteen stories for our short list for a total of 45 stories that survive the closing of the submission month. We all know the split and try to have a balance of long, medium, flash and 100-word stories in our short list. Then the battle begins. First we decide which 100-word stories to take. We usually take around 5. Then we "discuss" which flash fiction pieces to keep and so on. Luckily, we don't all agree on which stories to accept. I say luckily, because we know that tastes vary quite a bit and we doubt everyone will like every story. We try to provide a variety of stories in each issue and since our tastes vary, we hope we are succeeding. The process ends about fifteen days after our submission window closes.

I hope that this process continues to work and that explaining it helps writers understand what happens to their story once they hit the send button. While we don't call it a contest, submitting always is a contest. You are competing against not just 400 other writers for 21 slots, but a smaller sub set for less slots, because we take only some many of each length.

Rejection sucks. The Staph and NT understand this because we are continually getting them ourselves. We hope that we make the process as painless as possible while providing a small nugget of feedback as to why. With 380 rejections in a month to write, there is only some much time, but we try to articulate at least one reason why. Sometimes there are several reasons and we pick just one and sometimes there is only one. We think it helps to know that while we think the story is well written, we may get a lot of stories with a similar premise and the reason for rejection isn't the writing, but the subject. Whatever the reason, take the feedback with a big grain of NaCl, because it is only one persons opinion. Since you only had to wait between five and forty five days to get the rejection, you can submit the story somewhere else, and that is our goal, because rejections happen. They happen to everybody, even writers who have "made it". The worst rejection in my opinion as a writer is one that comes longer than 120 days. Longer than a year really sucks, especially if it's a form rejection. Since rejections happen a lot more than acceptances, we strive to make them less painful and fast.

I hope this glimpse behind the curtain was helpful. I will also give one small piece of advice to all the writers out there. If you ever get a chance to take part in a submission process, take it. I know that seeing the same common mistakes writers make hundreds of time has helped my own writing. Until next time, keep writing and submitting.



  1. Excellent post, Scott. Lots to think about.. :)

  2. Thanks for that, Scott-- I DO in fact read your editorials, and it's always cool to get a glimpse at the process and how it evolves.

  3. Dang it, I need to pay more attention to what I write in those non fiction pieces. I'm surprise how many people read them and how close we can to not even including them. Originally I thought just fiction would be enough, but my friend Dan Barter who does the layout and website convinced me that we needed some non fiction to break things up. I do like think the Help section is valuable, but wondered if anyone even bothered with my rant. With the ninth issue coming together, we have every intention of keeping them (assuming I continue to find things to rant about).