How to Read
THOUGH publishing isn't-and shouldn't be-the primary measure of artistic worth, it goes a long way toward affirming one's status as a writer. It certainly provides a lubricant in the complicated business of bringing together the writer and his or her audience.
Ultimately, of course, the "validity" or excellence of a piece of writing is subjective, and no writer should be intimidated by critical standards that seem unduly rigid or limiting, or which rest on arguable assumptions. On the other hand, the people who decide what gets published will necessarily have decisive ideas about where value lies in arrangements of the written word. Within reason, the more writers can do to engage the interest and sympathy of these editors, the more their manuscript submissions will get fair readings and eventually make their way into print.
Some writers unintentionally reduce their chances of getting this sympathetic and attentive reading, often for reasons that, in a perfect world, would seem only marginally relevant to the serious business of editorial assessment. Manuscripts that are single-spaced or printed on both sides of the page, for example, place a burden that gets in the way of friendly consideration. Similarly, narrow margins-which result in lines of type too wide for the eye to grasp without moving from side to side-can interfere with attentive reading. Other potential obstacles are misspelled words, faulty punctuation or grammar, needless adjectives and adverbs, repeated use of ellipses, sentence fragments, non sequiturs-in short, any writing lapse or quirk that seems certain to be followed by others, and to disappoint even the most willing reader.
What most editors look for, in addition to a respect for the conventional strengths of orderly composition, is a sentence or two sufficiently complex in structure and idea to signify a serious mind at work. Editors look for an engaging sensibility, a writer with wit, imagination, and an appreciation for the benefits of a well-constructed sentence.
Eventually, of course, a fiction editor will look for fully developed characters, for plausible and distinctive dialogue, for themes (or at least variations of familiar themes) that seem fresh and perhaps even (though not necessarily) redemptive. Editors will normally want something to happen, unless the story is static by design and offers shrewdness or an eye for unexpected detail in place of narrative momentum and resolution.
Careful writers will not lose sleep over these matters, which tend to sort themselves out automatically. Even so, they need to be on the alert for awkward repetitions, or for sentences that sprawl out of control.
With a well-honed manuscript, a helpfully phrased cover letter (of which more later), and a stamped return envelope, a writer can reasonably expect sympathetic attention and a timely response. If all goes well, the manuscript may win acceptance, and even a check.
The road to publication is long and bumpy, however, and a few of the rough spots are worth examining.
A friend told me recently that she was struggling to recover from a letter of rejection she'd received from an editor at The New Yorker. Knowing that magazine's reputation for gentleness in such matters, I asked for details. "He did say my story was 'nicely done,'" she told me, "but he explained that The New Yorker wasn't taking that kind of story for the time being."
As someone who has been writing letters of rejection 30 or 40 times a day for more than 35 years, I have considerable sympathy for my friend the writer-and an appreciation for the dilemma of "the editor," someone compelled to reject far more often than accept and to manage relationships with writers that are wildly lopsided. The editor has almost obscenely exaggerated power, since the ratio of candidates to published stories is so enormous (at least 1,000 to 1 at the Atlantic Monthly) and the writer's emotional stake in acceptance or rejection is so huge.
I tried to soothe my writer friend by pointing out some obvious mitigating factors: The letter was, after all, more complimentary than assaultive; most stories, inevitably, have to be returned, in spite of their virtues; editors vary widely in their tastes and tolerances; rejection at one venue doesn't mean that it won't be embraced at others; some work is too demanding for general readers, and is better suited to the quarterlies and other periodicals whose readership, though small, is also well educated, in literary terms, and is more receptive to experimentation, testing of boundaries, deliberate challenge of the conventions of mainstream narrative.
The truth, however, is that publication in large commercial magazines offers far more material reward-in fee, potential audience size, and stature among literary high rollers-than does an appearance in a quarterly, no matter how honored by academic or literary professionals. The pain a writer experiences in rejection, therefore, is more than a gauge of authorial tenderness. It has also to do with the wish for fame and fortune, a conviction that the smiles of certain gods are measurably sunnier than the kindly benevolence of certain others. And to some extent, of course, this perception is accurate. Publication in Magazine a rather than Magazine b may well multiply the chances of being noticed by literary agents looking for promising new clients, or book editors scouting for undiscovered talent. In an important sense, however, authentic gifts have a way, even if a slow and meandering one, of making themselves known to respectful and discerning audiences. Every magazine, no matter how rigorous in its screening and selection of candidates for publication, has a history of writers misjudged, talent unappreciated, opportunities for discovery overlooked.
Some writers are spotted early and spend years struggling to justify substantial but premature reputations. Others labor fruitfully in the vineyards, publishing their work in obscure magazines and small or antiestablishment publishing houses, and then emerge suddenly and spectacularly, most often because a careful reader has written the sort of detailed and appreciative review that encourages a long second look at writing not widely circulated or taken seriously.
An overriding truth about the business of publishing is that the "good" is permanently locked in a struggle for attention with the "bad." Much of the writing that pours onto the desks of literary editors at both the serious-minded but commercial general magazines and the smallest, most fiercely independent quarterlies is inept, undeveloped, amateurish, crazed, obscene, unintelligible, or some combination of the above. Sometimes the problem is developmental: The author may well have talent, but has little sense of form or is lazy about detail, mechanical or otherwise. Such writers may develop the discipline and controlled imagination necessary to engage the attention of serious readers. Others won't: They are like untrained athletes who haven't learned fundamentals, good practice habits, or how to position themselves in relation to the competition. Or they are handicapped by temperament or other cognitive shortcomings. Whatever the problem, their work must be assessed by readers who bring to every manuscript the hope that it will prove artful or publishable. Being this open is time-consuming, and can often break down into impatience, irritation, and eventually a resignation that gets in the way of attentiveness to the offbeat, slow paced, loosely stitched, or otherwise idiosyncratic fiction offering. Fiction editors may read as many as 40 or 50 stories a day, and the chances are that the ratio of good to bad will be roughly one to ten. Writers can do nothing about this, of course, but realism about the process may make living with it more comfortable.
How to Read a Rejection Slip
Virtually all magazines use printed rejection slips. Some make their points succinctly, with little attempts to soften the blow. The basic message is straightforward: "We've decided not to publish your story." Some rejection forms make a halfhearted effort to explain away the obvious: "We're not reading fiction for the time being" or "Another editor may think differently" (i.e., the problem may be ours, and not yours). A few try diplomacy: "We're grateful for the chance to read your work." And others are mildly apologetic: "We're sorry that the quantity of manuscripts we consider makes it impossible to reply to each one personally." At bottom, however, the message is no more and likely no less than, simply, "No."
Some stories returned with form rejections may have intrigued an editor or two, or even been seriously considered for publication. The vast majority, however, have simply failed to make the cut, though they may have inspired reactions ranging from instantaneous and wholly justified disenchantment to deep admiration. Either way, a writer ought to fight back the impulse to read the rejection as a repudiation, a sign of hostility, or proof of ineptitude.
Magazines that have a reputation for thoughtfulness in their selection of fiction-particularly magazines that, like the Atlantic Monthly, read all work submitted, whether sent by an agent, a writer, or some other friend of the court-receive many more manuscripts each day than the fiction editors can respond to individually. In a typical day, roughly 100 fiction manuscripts arrive at the Atlantic. Of those, no more than a dozen or two are likely to be returned with a personal reply. Apart from the most pressing reason for this impersonal response-the shortage of staff members to write personal notes-most editors would rather not explain how unimpressed they are by a story that wildly misses the mark. Nor do they want to take the time to think through and then articulate their reasons for deciding against a story whose first few sentences or paragraphs are grammatically unsound, visibly inept, or essentially incoherent. Why make explanations that can only wound? And why misrepresent your judgment by pretending admiration that isn't felt?
In short, little can safely be read into a form rejection, and the safest course, it seems to me, is to accept the verdict as gracefully as possible and to try other markets-very quickly, so as to transfer emotional energy from the depleting slough of despond to the hopefulness that arises while a manuscript is "under consideration elsewhere." One writer I know took the further step of using his rejection forms as a style of interior decoration. He covered his bathroom door with them, and thus greeted each new one as an artistic challenge: He sought the most pleasing assemblage of typefaces, paper qualities, and manner of editorial apologetics.
Some magazines confuse the issue by using more than one rejection form. The Atlantic Monthly, for many years, sent a rejection slip printed in italics, conveying measured admiration for the work being returned and apologizing for the necessity of the printed form. Many writers who received this form (some of whom had long experience with the more cursory basic rejection) believed they were finally on the verge of an important breakthrough and would remind us with every submission that they were now among the chosen. Little could they have imagined that those italicized forms were intended, by a now-departed editor, to be sent to the population groups who seemed most likely to expect special handling: the very old, the very young, prison inmates, mental patients, and others with an exaggerated sense of professional importance. Editors or others at The New Yorker have for years diluted the damaging potency of form rejection by adding, in pencil, the simple word sorry. I'm certain that thousands of would-be New Yorker contributors have been heartened by that small note of personal regret, and have felt, rightly or wrongly, that an actual person had read their story submission and had felt right at home in it.
A significant step up from the rejection form is the personal letter, no matter how brief or general in its response. Fiction editors rarely write such letters unless they've seen writing of real quality, even in stories they don't want to publish. The exceptions: manuscripts from writers who seem to
warrant a personal response by virtue of professional reputation, personal acquaintance, or documented volatility. Editors know, however, that once a writer hears personally from an editor that writer will expect personal communiqués from then on. As a consequence, the temptation to use form rejections is all but irresistible.
The personal letter may or may not offer detailed criticism or suggestions for the repair of "flawed" stories. One reason they don't: Some writers are fiercely protective of the quirkiness in their work and resist the idea that editorial resistance equates with authorial flaw. Editors are entitled to their opinions, such writers reason, but the "problem" may be less in the writing than in the limitations of the readers. From time to time this position is surely justified, and writers ought not to blithely accept criticisms of their stories that don't seem sensible or sensitive to their intentions. On the other hand, the editors are speaking for the sensibilities that determine what is chosen for publication and what is not, and their letters should be read with that practical object in mind-and not taken as definitive judgments of a story's worth, tactical logic, promise, or objective coherence. A balance is useful, however, between writers' wholly understandable and necessary obligation to defend their work and the possibility that an editor's trained eye has spotted genuine flaws or has at least made intelligible the reason(s) for rejection.
In most cases, the editor will have responded favorably to aspects of the work and is hoping that a revision, or another story by the same author, will lead to publication. The desirability of this stance cannot be overstated, and wise writers will do all that is possible to nurture it-all that is possible, once again, without abandoning their creative vision and purpose.
Most short story submissions arrive accompanied by a cover letter, introducing the story and its author and effecting a sort of breaking of the ice, rather like a hand-shake greeting with a complete stranger. This introduction is a good idea, for the same reason that a brief, general greeting helps set the stage for other, more complicated social occasions. The absence of a cover letter signifies if not a disdain for interpersonal protocol, at least an indifference to it. I doubt that a publishable story has ever been turned away simply because its author failed to send a cover letter, but editors are as susceptible as anyone to the small gestures that convey friendliness. Too, just as an overly aggressive or inappropriately personal greeting can undermine a social transaction before it has a chance to develop, so a poorly conceived cover letter can discourage an editor from proceeding on to read the story to which it is attached.
Some mistakes are fundamental. Few editors like to have a story submission explained to them, and few experienced writers feel they can "explain" in a few short sentences what required the length of their narrative to express. Indeed, stories that can easily be summarized in a sentence or two may be little more than exercises extending or dramatizing the proposition embedded in those sentences. In general, the more sophisticated and successful writers resist the impulse to encapsulate stories that, to borrow from Archibald MacLeish, "must not mean, but be."
To make matters worse, writers-particularly beginning writers-are not always clear about the purposes or effects of their stories, and their cheerfully sculpted explanations may differ markedly from the conclusions likely to be drawn by a careful reader. Better by far to let the story speak for itself.
Another occasional error, usually made by beginners (and thus inadvertently damning-why advertise your relative lack of experience, when what you hope to do is convince an editor of your wisdom and mastery of craft?), is a reference to the response of other magazines to the story now being submitted, or, in extreme cases, a copy of another magazine's rejection letter.
While intended, no doubt, to suggest long and complicated involvement with the inner world of literary publishing, this recounting of one's history of rejection has several unintended consequences, none of them fortuitous. In addition to announcing yourself as a beginner, your shared confidence permits magazine editors to surmise at least the following: (1) Their magazines are well below the top of your list of preferred markets; (2) Their magazines may even be the sort of "what's to lose" fallback options, to be exercised only once you've exhausted the markets you think may be appropriate for your story.
The truth, of course, may be quite different. A writer's order of submission may have to do with which editors he knows personally, for example, or a willingness to honor a specific request for material from one editor or another. These aren't matters to be discussed in a cover letter, however, and the best solution is to keep a dignified silence about them.
In keeping with the above, a battered, coffee-stained, oft-folded-and-unfolded manuscript suggests that a story has been making the rounds for years without success. Prickly editors may well come up with, and be displeased by, the notion that their magazines are courts of last resort.
These matters aside, some writers believe their cover letters provide an opportunity to catch the eye of an editor with witticisms, evidence of substantial ego strength, or thinly disguised declarations of artistic independence. These messages do catch the eye of editors, but historically they have been coupled with inept or artless manuscripts so frequently that their unhappy effect is often to discourage further reading.
One writer, for example, sent me a cover letter with the following candid note:
I have taken writing courses at [schools A, B, and C] but none of them have done me much good. Currently I teach at [school D], where they have been unable to nullify my contract. My publication list is unimpressive, and I am ugly.
This is hardly an in-your-face cover letter, and it conveys, at the least, a disarming humility. It does not, however, inspire an editor to read further.
Another, noticeably less self-effacing writer accompanied a story submission with a letter that included the following:
This [story one of a series] is enclosed for your reading satisfaction. You won't understand it, so don't even try. All you need to do is assess its value.
You must naturally assume that the less you understand of it, the better it is. All you need to determine is whether or not you can market this talent. That you are inept at judging its merit I already know from experience. That you will probably waste a lot of time and continue in your blindness, I already know.
I think very little of your profession. People like you have been wasting my time for almost half my life now. Since I already know that the likelihood that you are qualified is extremely low, would you please do me the favor of responding in a timely fashion so that I may attempt some other method of gaining notoriety?
All this from a writer unknown to us and submitting to the Atlantic, so far as we could tell, for the first time. This letter has the virtue of finely honed pugnacity, and it makes mildly interesting reading. But would any thoughtful reader expect the story attached to it to be inspiring or artfully imagined?
What should a good cover letter include? In my judgment it can provide at least two kinds of helpful information-helpful in the sense that it may dispose the editor to whom it is
addressed to give the accompanying story the benefit of the doubt, to trust that if the beginning is slow or eccentric, further reading may reward. The information that may fortify an editor's willingness to push on is this: (1) citations of stories published elsewhere, particularly in periodicals of comparable size and reputation; and (2) mention of the fact that the writer is or has been enrolled in a reputable MFA program or has in some other way (residence at Bread Loaf or Sewanee, for example) demonstrated an interest in writing as a long-term endeavor, along with a willingness to be helped toward that end.
Virtually all editors of serious fiction realize that today's Iowa or Stanford or Johns Hopkins MFA student may be tomorrow's Raymond Carver, Flannery O'Connor, or Ethan Canin. These and other graduate writing programs generate a steady flow of talented, still-forming writers of fiction, and work from such programs tends to merit close readings.
Finally, a cover letter ought to be brief and to the point. It should not be an impediment to respectful attention, and it may greatly increase a writer's opportunity to be read with seriousness and conditioned hopefulness.
C. Michael Curtis is a senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly, where he has edited fiction and nonfiction articles for over 30 years. This article is excerpted from his essay "Publishers and Publishing," which will appear in On Writing Short Stories, a collection of essays, edited by Tom Bailey, forthcoming in November from Oxford University Press.