Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Learning the Ropes: Criticism and Feedback.

Morguefile, effects by Louis.

When I first began submitting short stories, I made one hundred eighty-five submissions before I got a hit, and that story still hasn’t come out yet.

Since May of 2009, I have made five hundred and ninety-seven submissions. Maybe half a dozen of those were book subs. Previously, I had made an estimated seventy-five book submissions, and a few others. Those were all by post. They also take a very, very long time. I used to submit to contests, which also takes a very long time, but you often do get the jury’s criticisms.

There is a difference in terms of feedback, and it is a vital one. The difference is time. A book rejection rarely if ever has any feedback or criticism attached to it. I know of one exception, and the gentleman edits two pages of your submission and sends them back to you along with your rejection slip. Mine had more red ink of his than the black ink I put there! It hurt like hell. A few hours later, I was re-writing happily enough, because, ‘now I knew what I had to do. ‘

Asimov’s, Alfred Hitchcock’s, or Ellery Queen’s will not send you criticism or a reason for your story rejection. They get tens of thousands of subs a year. To give even one person criticism is an unfair advantage in a competitive business. They don’t have time to do everyone, and how could you choose? Hard-luck stories? It is favouritism, especially at the lowest levels. How they treat top-profile authors is a whole ‘nuther story. (They ask for revisions.)

So the difference is time, and early in the career, criticism is absolutely vital. I never would have figured that out without actually trying different things. People who are further along the learning curve tend to forget what they struggled with twenty or thirty years ago. Maybe they made six submissions and started making money! Their experience is simply different. Mine is not exactly unique.

Some editors do give feedback, and criticism, and reasons for rejection. Rejection hurts? These guys are your best friends. ‘Learning the ropes,’ sounds like a nautical term. But it’s really a boxing term. In the early part of any career, you spend a fair amount of time on the ropes…it’s inevitable, and a part of the learning curve. You will see scars in the mirror, and you will have earned them.

The reason for rejection may be a simple one. Recently I subbed a story unthinkingly, and it was simply too long. The story itself may be fine. By checking the guidelines, I might have saved us both a little time.

My first submissions were combed out of a printed media guide at the local library, but getting on the internet has really freed me. This may seem nuts, but I did everything wrong—and I still got published. I sent original stories to foreign reprint markets, who mostly publish ‘known’ authors previously published in English, or writers in their own language.

Some of the inappropriate submissions I made were too long, or too short, reading period closed, improper format, failure to put my own name on things, no word count, or wrong genre. Every mistake in the book, and I still managed to get in. So far, the rate of acceptance is still running at about four percent, and most of those aren’t even professionally-paying markets. That is still twenty-five in a year and a half, with a few subs still out there. It proves ‘even a dummy like me can do it,’ and who hasn’t heard that one before?

There is plenty to learn. That’s for sure. But it’s just a matter of blood, tears, toil and sweat.

It is a matter of time. A short story has structure, and so does a novel. The criticisms come back to you a lot faster, sometimes three days as opposed to eight months or longer. And so you learn faster.

As far as writing novels goes, the more I do, the better I will get at it, and it is not that hard to see a big difference from the first to the fourth, fifth and sixth, which is where I began to get pretty comfortable with straightforward narrative fiction writing.

I can go back and look at stuff I submitted a year and a half ago, and sometimes I just shudder!

You can’t be afraid to take it on the chin once in a while, or you ain’t going anywhere.

Note: as of this re-post, (May 6/12, I'm up to 693 submissions.)

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