What editors want

Caren Gussoff writes urban science fantasy, whatever that is. She’s also co-founder of Brain Harvest: An Almanac of Speculative Fiction. She lives in Seattle with her husband, the SFF artist Chris Sumption, and their two cats, Molly Bloom and Paul Atriedes.

So, not only did I get to see Jeff read from Finch last week, but this past Monday, I attended a salon/lecture he hosted on some ideas taken from Booklife. I’m not gloating–OK, maybe a little–but the salon/lecture got me thinking about my own “book life” and inspired me to read the whole book in pretty much one afternoon. I’m neither here to praise nor bury Caesar here (but it is an excellent and brutally honest book that shares a lot of hard-won wisdom about making your way through the world as a writer), but instead to add a pseudo-addendum about what I’ve learned from getting to don an editor’s hat for Brain Harvest. I’ve blogged personally about this a few times (what I’ve learned from reading slush, the truth behind your query letter, etc), but for you, the writers among you dear Ecstatic Days readers, I humbly present to you “Five Truths About Editors” (the brutally honest, hard-won wisdom edition).

1. Editors want you to follow their guidelines. Seriously. It doesn’t matter how arbitrary, persnickety, or obsessive-compulsive they seem to you. The guidelines are there for a reason–even if that reason is to simply make that editor happy. Editors usually make as much money at editing as writers do writing–you know, not much–and so they do this for the love. They’re just as cookoo-bananas too. So, keep them happy; move up in the line.

1a. A corollary to this is that these cookoo-bananas editors can also be a bit delicate. Do yourself a favor. If you are going to address your cover letter to them (as opposed to “Dear editor,” which is usually sufficient), spell their name correctly. Really. It’s a small kindness. A cheap show of respect. Just a good citizen thing to do.

2. Once in a blue moon, contests will charge a reading fee. Yes, this seems to initially violate the infamous Yog’s law (coined by James D. Macdonald), that money must always flow towards the writer. Thing is, if a magazine is reputable, established, non-profit, or doesn’t sell advertising, this reading fee is, indeed, counter intuitively, flowing towards some writers: paying the judges some sort of honoraria and funding the prize money to the winning writer. That money may just not initially seem to flow to you, in particular. But karma has a long memory.

2a. Did I mention that editors do this for the love? Editors of reputable, established magazine are not taking your reading fees or subscription money and living fat on a tropical island. Trust me. Most of them realize at this point in the game that if they wanted to be rich, they’d have learned to play the electric guitar.

3. Some editors are jerks. Just because they’re an editor doesn’t mean that they have unquestionable taste, good manners, or common courtesy. That being said, if you run in with an editor who’s a jerk, or for that matter “just doesn’t get you,” move on. Don’t argue with them. Don’t send them hateful emails. Don’t badmouth them at cons. Don’t endeavor to teach them manners. It’s probably not you, anyway. Just send your work elsewhere. And if you must hold a grudge, then remember: when you hold up your first Hugo and pump your fist at the adoring crowd, that will be crow enough.

4. I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating. As a general rule, editors are harried, overworked, and 2 weeks behind on everything. Slush piles grow exponentially. They have no desire to make more work for themselves. So. If they ask for something else, they mean: send us something else because this piece doesn’t work, but we think you’ve got potential.
Asking for another piece is not a blow-off. It’s a rejection of one piece, yes. But it’s an open door. Come through it, and don’t be shy about reminding them that they asked to see something else.

4a. The ugly flip side of this is when they say something along the lines of “Good luck placing this elsewhere,” they mean, um, exactly that. They are not asking to see a rewrite or another iteration. You should never need a decoder ring to decipher a rejection letter. While they are usually couched in politeness, they pretty much say what they mean.

 5. This sounds like 2.a, but editors are your ally, not your enemy. I know it more often feels like you are a lone warrior attempting to execute a novel strategy against an enemy as you pack up your latest literary gem and send it off, fingers and toes crossed, that it will land on some human person’s desk or screen and that they will, you know, like it. But editors like writing. They like writers. They open the slush pile rooting for you. They do. It’s every editor’s secret dream to be a part of discovering the next genius god, to have a small hand in helping that genius god develop and get their genius god work into readers’ hands. We’re gatekeepers of a sort, yes, but we’d dying to let you in. Keep knocking on the door.

11 comments on “What editors want

  1. Nick says:

    As an editor (although not a genre fiction editor or any sort of fiction editor – technical finance authors feel free to get in touch) it’s not a ‘secret dream’ to discover the next genius god – it’s an actual, fully concious and desperately hoping to be realised dream.

  2. @BenDawe says:

    Entertaining. Didn’t Mel Gibson start in a film of the same name?

  3. @BenDawe says:

    Make that star. Don’t want to upset editors.

  4. Well said, Caren.

    Hey, didn’t we just publish you at Abyss&Apex? Great story! I suspect you followed the “rules,” which are, after all, just guidelines….

  5. Cat Rambo says:

    Thank you for this post, Caren. Great stuff that’s very on the mark!

  6. Kristan says:

    Thanks for the insider info! ;)

    Actually, I’m curious: I got what seems like a form rejection, but instead of just “place your work elsewhere,” it said something like, “we look forward to seeing more of your work” or “please don’t hesitate to send us another piece.” Is this what you’re talking about in #4? Or would a real request for more work be personalized (i.e., handwritten and/or signed)?

  7. Nick, how does one recognize the next genius god of technical finance? I ask merely in case one wanders in the wrong door and winds up in my slush pile.

  8. Re: items 4 & 4a.

    I wonder if you ever read our piece on “rejectomancy” at A&A. It’s worth a laugh,and reinforces a lot of your points. http://www.abyssandapex.com/200901-editorial.html

  9. Rachel Swirsky says:

    Wendy: That was awesome.

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