Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Letter From A Reformed Editor

Dear WR,

I'm a long-time reader of LROD and first want to say best of luck on your new literary journey. I just wanted to share with you and your readers my experience as a writer-turned-editor of a zine. If anyone is thinking of becoming the same thing, I hope they don't repeat my mistakes.

I have been on the receiving end of more rejections than I can count and I got the point where could no longer bear to be just another insignificant, replaceable little cog in the literary machine. I wanted to be someone who turned the crank--an editor. So in 2009 I started an online lit mag, which thank God no longer exists. I'm withholding its name because I don't want to face backlash from former contributors.

I started out as a good editor, adopted a submission policy that was painless, with just a few simple formatting guidelines that made it easier for me to upload the stories and poems to the site. Reprints and sim subs were OK by me. I sent out polite, encouraging form rejections and called authors by their names instead of "writer." I responded after a few weeks tops. I couldn't pay, but I did nominate stories for Pushcarts, Best-of-the-Webs, and tried to promote good writing.

The magazine's masthead listed several fake names of editors and readers so people wouldn't think it was just another personal website masquerading as a literary journal. In reality, there were only 1 and 1/4 people running the zine: me, and friend who occasionally read batches of poetry submissions. Looking back, it was a mistake to accept poetry. I can recognize bad poetry and know when to reject it, but I'm clueless when it comes to distinguishing between ok and good poetry.

Things went well during the first few months after its inception. I received a manageable trickle of submissions thanks to Duotrope, and I could find enough decent stories and poems to put out an issue every month or so. But as the magazine gained more of a following, reading the submissions became impossible.

The overall quality of stories decreased drastically as their number grew. In the early phase, one out of ten submissions was good enough to publish by my standards. When things got out of control, maybe one out of 250. Even if I had switched to a quarterly schedule, I wouldn't have had enough time to find enough publishable pieces.

I don't want to rag on some of the awful riterz I've had the displeasure of reading. But there was one guy who kept submitting stupid stories ripped off from episodes of popular TV shows (Lost, Mad Men, the Sopranos). Clunky prose, stilted dialogue, inconsistent use of tense and person, not knowing the difference between dessert and desert, or then and than -- and turns out this guy was a current MFA student at a university two towns over from where I lived. He's not even the worst; there was also an ESL guy from Croatia who insisted that his pieces were "endowed of top editing by top English speak." ESL man might have been a prankster; every story was a variation on man meets hooker, hooker under-delivers, man stiffs hooker.

Anyway, one weekend afternoon in late 2010, I was frantically skimming submissions trying to find at least a handful I could bear to publish. I was past the deadline and there was a backlog of months-old stories and poems that still hadn't been read. Even when I filtered out the kooks, and the idiots who sent attachments when I specifically said not to, the slush pile was winning and I was losing.

I took a deep breath and evaluated the situation objectively. Would a sane person do what I was doing? Why was I doing this? Was I getting the fulfillment of being an editor? No. And I wasn't even making good literary contacts. My writing time was being sacrificed for the sake of reading bad writing. I needed to stop immediately, and so I did.

I logged out of my submissions manager, opened up Paint, and created an image that said H4CK3D. I then logged in to my server, deleted all the files from my site, and uploaded the image. Problem solved. My online literary magazine was officially hacked and could no longer publish anything or process new submissions. I didn't notify my past contributors or the authors of pending submissions. I just tore it all down, walked away and never looked back.

It was a shitty thing to do, but really for the best. Everyone whose stories I published could resubmit them to better journals and forget the whole thing even existed. Hell, I've had my stories unpublished when online zines shut down, and I just resubmitted them elsewhere. Other editors don't care.

The experience made me realize several things that I was unaware of or had overlooked before:

  • Being an editor isn't all that it's cracked up to be (unless you edit the Paris Review or New Yorker).
  • Don't let "editors" get you down about your writing. Anyone can call himself an editor.
  • Some editors are more aptly called "selectors," since they do very little editing. Anyone can be a selector.
  • Blowhard editors, like some who have commented here, probably start out as nice people, but reading so much crap for so long will warp your attitude towards writers. I'm glad I stopped before I became a dick.
  • Slow response times and curt form rejections really are nothing personal.
  • The slush pile is as bad as everyone says it is. At a non-paying zine, even worse.
  • On the bright side, if you are college-educated and read and write on a regular basis, your stories are probably in the top 10% of submissions. Even if you think you are a mediocre writer, there are tons of writers much worse. The fact that you can recognize mediocrity in your own writing is a point in your favor. Having to read so much dreck actually improved my self-confidence as a writer, though I don't recommend anyone try it for themselves.

How to not run a zine into the ground:

  • Have an actual staff! You can't do it on your own, don't even try!
  • Pay your writers. It's the right thing to do and your magazine will be better for it. If you can't make enough money from ads, subscriptions, and contest fees, you shouldn't be in this business. Exposure isn't payment.

Not to mention, how to be a better submitter:

  • Follow the damn guidelines. They are not arbitrary.
  • Proofread
  • Don't copy another story/movie/TV show. Chances are your editor is more well-read than you think and will spot it. We're not all boobs!
  • A cover letter with awards, publications, and degrees won't help you if your story sucks.
  • Don't worry if you can't write a cover letter with a list of awards, publications, and degrees. Lit mags want to publish stories, not cover letters. Good writing can stand on its own.
  • Thank the readers/editors for reading your submission. It may work in your favor.

And how to be a bolder submitter:

  • Always sim sub.
  • Never stop submitting to a journal just because they've rejected all of your previous submissions.
  • Don't be afraid to resend a rejected story if you've reworked it
  • If you can handle criticism, don't be afraid to ask why your submission was rejected. You might actually get a response.
  • Thank the editor for his comments, even if they are idiotic and the guy's a dick. Never stoop to being a dick.

I hope that this is of value to some of your readers, thanks for taking the time to read my missive!

Editor, Resigned


Anne R. Allen said...

This is hilarous. Love the Croatian. Maybe your next litzine should be entirely for ESL people with hooker fixations? Might sell big.

Tena Russ said...

Wow. Thanks for posting this, and thanks to Editor, Resigned for speaking the truth.

Anonymous said...

i agree with his point about payment. for me as a writer, submitting to mags that don't pay is questionable practice. i have promised myself I would no longer publish in journals that don't pay and in fact, in 2010, I only published in one journal that didn't pay. and then that story is the one story I published that year—out of eight—that was picked for a big anthology—an anthology that actually pays. so I broke my own rule and was rewarded for it. this year, I'm publishing 8 stories, and four of them are in non-paying venues. I feel stupid about that and in each case there was an attenuating circumstance: I knew the editor, the journal is one that I highly regard or I couldn't publish the story anywhere else

Anonymous said...

Very good analysis.
But you write:
"I have been on the receiving end of more rejections than I can count and I got the point where could no longer bear to be just another insignificant, replaceable little cog in the literary machine."
You haven't offered a solution to the problem you were (and are still?) having. I assume that you believe your writing deserves to be published in a good (and paying) magazine. Why were you unable to succeed in reaching this goal?
Yes, bad writers are clogging up the works. Is there some way to disable these people?

Radek said...

Thank you for this, it will help me with vintage,poetry,publishing

Anonymous said...

"ESL man " would be a lot better of then redneck guy lol

Anonymous said...

As long as bad writing sells, agents and publishers will run after it, and bad writers will continue to clog up the works. Good writing will be drowned out ... unless you are insanely talented and/or get plain lucky.

LLJ (Editor, Resigned) said...

@anon 1:44 pm,

My acceptance/rejection rate hasn't changed, but I suppose I'm more resigned to it now and I don't take it as an indication that I am a horrible writer. (Though I could very well be!) When I ran the magazine I had to pass on a lot of stories that were pretty good but either not the right style or in need of editing to make the publishable.

@anon 12:53

That is also my personal rule. When you think about it, submitting to non-paying outlets is only encouraging their proliferation. What I didn't see before is that little non-paying zines like mine are more likely to fold than lit mags that are run like actual businesses--the paying print journals. Who wants to be in publication that may go belly up?

Everybody wants their writing to exist in a more permanent form, to get paid for it, and to be able to find their writing in a store or library. And racking up publishing credits in non-paying zines doesn't really help anyone get into good, paying journals, unless the zine editor is well-connected. (like, husband of one of the Glimmer Train editors.) I think people who are serious about their writer should boycott the non-paying magazines, leave them to ESL man and remedial English MFA boy.

**Another glimpse into the slush pile: A weirdo of indeterminate gender, whose pseudonym was something along the lines of BaTHeD iN THe uNiVeRSe, kept sending me stream of consciousness acid trip stories intercut with rap lyrics. Half way through each one, the writing would change to all caps and become a dialogue of several people yelling obscenities at each other. I'm ashamed to admit I read them from beginning to end to try to find the meaning in them. Another lesson learned, there is no meaning in some of this shit!

Boris said...

I don't know if agree with anon and others who say only go for paying markets. There are a lot of really good non-paying markets in literary fiction.

But, frankly, only about 1% of the e-zines on duotrope are worth submitting to. And there's some bad writing out there even on e-zines that are supposed to be good. (Who uses "bellow" as a dialogue tag three times in a 2,000 word story?)

I accept the possibility that I may be old and cranky and unhip.

Anonymous said...

I think there should be a magazine that accepts work only from the old, cranky and unhip.

Radek said...

Mr boris maybe right.

Anonymous said...

I'll submit to non-paying online markets, but only if they have been around for at least 5 years, or sustain themselves through contests, or have other funding. Just some indication that aren't going to disappear overnight. What Editor Resigned described is exactly what I'm afraid of happening.

The point about zine editors not actually editing is good. I've seen zines publish otherwise fine stories rife with typos. Or like Boris said, word choice that makes me cringe. I don't know if it's sloppiness, or just overwhelming desire to publish something before the deadline.