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I received a story lately from an author who I had bounced earlier, and rather than send a form reject, I told the writer why I rejected this one.  I don't know why I did that, other than it seemed to me I could offer some easy to apply advice, but the note took me about fifteen minutes to write, way more than I would have spent if I had just sent a pre-typed note.

It's probable that sending feedback will just encourage the writer to send more stuff, or, worse, to send me notes asking for me to elaborate on a point  or, even worse yet, to send me a note explaining in depth why I am full of it, but maybe, just maybe, it will help.

At any rate, here is the text of my note (with the title and other manuscript-identifying information removed):

Hi, (name removed),
I'm afraid this one won't work either.
Generally I don't offer any feedback on why a story wasn't accepted, but you've been persistent, so I hope you will take this in the spirit of one writer to another, knowing how frustrating the writing process can be.
As an editor, it was pretty easy to see early that your new story wouldn't get in.  In the first two paragraphs, there are 13 sentences.  Twelve of them begin with "Edmund," "he" or "his."  Sentence variety alone told me the writing wasn't as professional as I was looking for.  There were also five cliches or near cliches in the first paragraph, including the line that became your title, "scent of death," but also the "nostrils quivered," "like a bloodhound on the trail of its prey," "rubbed his hands together in anticipation," and "his eyes glowed with self-righteous zeal."
Although I've been writing and publishing for a long time, I haven't done much editing.  I hang around with editors, though, and they tell me that the only way to get through the constant flow of  manuscripts (600-800 or so a month at the bigger magazines), is to learn to reject a manuscript early because of the writing, not the story, since if the writing isn't at the level they are looking for the story won't matter.
I've been receiving four or five manuscripts a day since I opened for submissions.  That's no where close to the twenty to twenty-five manuscripts a day the big magazines get, but even so the reading piles up in a hurry and I have to read a bit for survival too.  If the writing isn't strong enough in the first few pages, I know I don't have to continue to the end.
I'm just one reader though (allbeit, an important one if you're trying to get into this anthology), and another editor might have a very different reaction to your story.  In fact, I'm no different than a member of your writing group, if you have one, who is offering a reaction to the story.  The story is your story, not mine or anyone elses, and my thoughts don't trump what you think is right for the piece.
For me, however, that's why the story didn't get in.
James Van Pelt
Editor, Hardboiled Horror
Guidelines at http://www.notoriouspress.com/?page_id=9

In the meantime, I was without the Internet for a couple of days (it's been so hot here that the circuits in our phone junction into the house fried), and I have fifteen new submissions to look at.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 1st, 2007 07:12 pm (UTC)
That is about 90% kinder and more useful than many of the rejection letters I've received. I hope that writer learns from the unexpected gift. :)
Jul. 1st, 2007 11:16 pm (UTC)
I almost always use form rejections now. After being told several times what an idiot I was and how crappy the zines were, I decided it's just not worth it. Sadly, a couple of idiots ruin it for everyone else. And I've heard this from a lot of editors...

It is great that you gave the guy feedback...I really hope he appreciates it, because I know I've learned more from what editors have told me didn't work than I have from selling stories...

Jul. 2nd, 2007 02:45 am (UTC)
You've done that writer a kindness. (It's *possible* he or she will learn, but a tin ear is a tin ear.)

BTW, don't you reveal that the title involves "scent of death," or did I misread?
Jul. 2nd, 2007 04:00 am (UTC)
"Scent of death" wasn't the title. I changed that from another common phrase the author actually used.
Jul. 2nd, 2007 04:04 am (UTC)
Ahh. I thought that might be it. Sneaky.

Say, I think I forgot to congratulate you on your upcoming anthologized appearances. Wonderful.
Jul. 2nd, 2007 04:08 am (UTC)
Thank you! It's been a good first 1/2 of the year.
Jul. 2nd, 2007 11:42 am (UTC)
One of the advantages I enjoyed while reviewing submissions for Prime Codex was we were only looking at reprints. This meant that whenever I rejected a story I could tell the author that while the story didn't work for me, it had previously worked for some other editor.
Jul. 3rd, 2007 05:02 am (UTC)
Very constructive feedback Jim, but to my mind it half wussed out.

You know that bad writing is going to do badly everywhere except in bad zines - that's why you wrote the note. The use of cliché and unvarying sentence structure is not a subjective impression - it's objective and verifiable. You have objective evidence for how such writing does based on your professional experience.

The message that writer needs to hear is "Stop subbing for a while and go back to polishing your craft." That's this writer's fastest path to success, and helps you and other editors to boot. There's reason to be sympathetic but not apologetic for delivering that message. Yes it's opinion, but it's well-substantiated professional opinion.

A doctor's professional duty is sometimes to say "Stop smoking or you'll die". You're allowed to say the equivalent to authors who are consistently missing the mark.

My advice is based on my own professional experience as a consultant. Often, I have to tell clients to stop doing what they're doing when multimillion dollar projects are at stake. If I over-qualify that advice then it does them no good. So my advice to you: don't give authors permission to go into denial. They won't thank you the more or hate you less, and it won't help them any better.

Good luck with this editing gig, and chin up!

Jul. 3rd, 2007 05:21 am (UTC)
Hi, Ruv. Good points. So many literary judgments are subjective, though, including what is a bad zine and what is a good one. From my point of view, the story was unpublishable (and for once in my life, my point of view really counted *g*), but it's entirely possible the story could find a home somewhere else, despite the problems I saw in it. It's also possible that other readers might enjoy the heck out of the piece.

I may have given the writer permission to go into denial. What I hope happens instead, though, is that the writer heard the message. Hope springs eternal, after all. It's the curse of being a teacher first and an editor second.
Jul. 3rd, 2007 09:55 am (UTC)
Jim, you might think it's possible, but you don't think it's even remotely likely. The issue here isn't truth, balance or objectivity, it's candour.

You wouldna said "only publishable in a bad zine" either; you'd have said something like "not publishable in any professionally-edited zine I know of", which has the same intent.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )