Some thoughts on censorship and debate

I am what you might call a fan of free speech. I err on the side of people being able to say pretty much whatever they want, as long as they can’t say the bad stuff with impunity. I appreciate subtlety. I infuriate people frequently with my ‘it depends’ – maybe I’m a little too fond of nuance but everything happens or is said in a particular context, and I think there’s a worrying tendency lately to forget or disregard that, and to want to see everything in stark, simple terms.

Take the ‘statue wars’ in the UK. Tearing down statues does not erase history. Both the erection and the destruction or removal of the statue tell us something about the prevailing mood of the time. They’re symbolic, that’s the whole point, and therefore symbolically removing them can make sense. Do I think all statues of ‘questionable people’ should be torn down? No. Partly because I’m not sure who gets to decide what ‘questionable’ means and partly because we’d end up with no statues at all, except the one of Paddington Bear in the station he was named after, and there are better things to do with the time, money and energy we have available. It reminds me of something Billy Bragg said at a gig many years ago, it’s all very well smashing in a McDonalds as a representative of global capitalism but there’s another branch round the corner, and before you’re halfway across town you’ve encountered six more and run out of steam and maybe you’d have been better off doing something more productive about it all in the first place.

Leaving statues up and defending them at all costs can lead to erasure of history. Churchill is a case in point: inspiring wartime leader he may have been but he was also responsible for famine in Bengal and some heavy-handed tactics against strikers at home. Yet any attempt to point out his flaws and failings is seen as denial of his achievements, as though one cancels out the other. They are both true. Either looking up to someone as a hero or decrying them as pure villain misses the truth of their humanity. As former US President Obama said this week (himself a role model for many despite leaving Guantanamo Bay untouched) the world is messy, there is such a thing as moral complexity. People are rarely all good or all bad and once you start trying to find ‘pure’ people to have statues of, you start tying yourself in philosophical knots about why these ones are ok despite the inevitable flaws and these aren’t. Here’s a thought: why don’t we openly talk about all the aspects of someone’s character, and when as a society we decide that the good no longer outweighs the bad, take the statue down and say why we’re doing it. Debate and discussion don’t seem to get much of a look-in in modern life, unfortunately.

I haven’t read the JK Rowling stuff that’s caused such a stir, and I don’t intend to. I don’t read her novels, she isn’t a politician, I don’t need to know what she thinks about anything. However, I can’t escape the fact that there has been uproar, and some people at her publisher are saying they won’t work on her new book. I confess my first thought was that it’s a job, you don’t get to choose which bits you want to do. Then I thought I’ve clearly been living in a Tory town too long, and surely that’s the point of a union. I thought about Lancashire mill-workers who underwent hardship themselves rather than deal with slave-picked cotton during the American Civil War, because they felt strongly enough about it. I thought about how various staff at the publishing house would have to meet or speak to an author to ask or answer questions, discuss a marketing plan etc, and how I’ve sat at work in the past hoping I don’t have to join a meeting with a particular person who’s a friend of a friend at home and who I find odious – above all, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to stay professionally detached, that my personal feelings would come through and reflect badly on me. So after brief thought, I could see a few reasons why those publishing staff might revolt, and good luck to them. The point at which I’d worry is if they tried to prevent other staff who didn’t feel as strongly, or were happier about separating the creator from their work, from working on it.

I have mixed feelings about the blurring of the line between art and artist. For instance, everyone now knows that Eric Gill sexually abused his daughters which obviously entirely changes how a viewer sees or interprets any of his depictions of them. But does it – should it – change their views of his other work? And should we tear it all down and hide it away, or keep it on display with a note on context, or simply brush his biography under the carpet as some seem to advocate? The Guardian had an interesting article on this a while back. If he was still alive I doubt there would be quite as much debate about it, I have to say, but with a dead artist the argument can be made that we’re neither rewarding nor punishing him by our actions and so it’s more down to how the art itself makes people feel.

Which brings me to the litmags. If you’re running a small literary magazine with no pay then the main perk is getting to publish exactly what you want, and by extension not publishing whatever you don’t want. Nobody has any kind of a right to be published by your magazine, and if you want to never publish anyone called Tom because someone of that name bullied you at school, that’s your prerogative (depending on the jurisdiction you may have a hard time defending it legally if it’s a stated aim, but that’s another matter). However, I’m seeing again (it arose a couple of years ago and I’m sure I wrote about it at the time) statements on Twitter saying that ‘abusers’ and ‘bigots’ will never be knowingly published by certain magazines and if they have unknowingly published them, please let them know so they can remove their work. The aim, it seems, is to ‘not give them a platform’ – I’ll come back to no-platforming in a moment but take it at face value for now. You may have overlooked a term that’s offensive to particular groups and you weren’t familiar with it and would never have accepted the piece if you’d known the connotations. Fine. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here, and certainly when this flared up a couple of years ago the main fuss was about elements in the life of the artist, not the work itself. So if there’s nothing offensive in the work, that means you’re objecting to the writer as a person. Again, your prerogative – they’ve been rude to you, you saw some views you didn’t like on Twitter, by all means don’t publish them. The bit that makes me uncomfortable is asking people to shop them and taking their work down retrospectively, it veers a bit too close to witch hunt territory for my liking. What evidence do you require? Could I contact you and make up a story about a rival and make you take down all their work? Do they have a right of reply?

I don’t like no-platforming as a response. I’ve spent most of the last 24 years studying or working at UK universities and every so often you hear that some student union or other has decided that someone or other shouldn’t be allowed to speak at their event. Most of these turn out to be a storm in a teacup that’s being wilfully misrepresented as ‘no-platforming’ but a few are genuine. I can understand that at a particular event you might be worried about a fight breaking out (context, see) but in general I think shutting down debate is a bad idea. If the person’s ideas are self-evidently ludicrous, let them expose themselves as fools, you could even help them along with some well-chosen questions. If you’re genuinely worried that exposure to these ideas might persuade people to join the dark side (whatever the dark side is in your opinion, in this situation) then it’s better to have them in the open being challenged than for their ideas to filter through quietly with no opposing voice. Shutting people up also lets them be portrayed as martyrs, as people who were so dangerous they had to be silenced, which only adds to their appeal.

There will be many people who disagree with this post but I think we’ve established that I’m ok with you having different views from me. When I was an adolescent I wanted all my rock heroes to live up to my expectations but one after the other they blotted their copybooks. For a while I stopped listening to interviews on the Radio 1 Rock Show. Then eventually I realised that if there wasn’t a single member of my own family that I agreed with on everything, I wasn’t likely to find a stranger that made the grade. So there are bands where I will only ever buy a second-hand album, won’t listen to them on Spotify or buy their merchandise, because I don’t want to give them money, but I’m not going to stop listening to them. I’m not even going to deny liking their music (Motley Crue are first on the list, since you ask). People are complicated. That goes for me, too.

Two anthologies and a magazine

This is a busy weekend, or to be precise, coincidentally three stories of mine are being released into the world within a few days of each other.

Firstly, I have a 100-word story in Tritely Challenged Volume 1, one of Christopher Fielden’s challenge anthologies which is out today. With this one, the challenge was to fit as many cliches in as possible and as it was kicked off while he was hosting workshops at last year’s flash fiction festival in Bath, there are contributions from Jude Higgins, Kit de Waal, Louise Mangos and Helen Rye, among others. Every book sold shoves a quid in the direction of Book Aid International, so it’s all in a good cause and is a fun collection. You can find more info, and links to buy paperback or electronic copies here.

Secondly, if you’re in the Middlesbrough area, I believe the Crossing the Tees short story anthology is now available to buy in libraries. Inside is a 700-word story of mine called Ghost Bridge, which was inspired by an episode of Time Team (for those of you outside the UK that’s a long-running, popular, and now sadly defunct archaeology series) and I guess might come under the magic realism heading. I couldn’t attend the prize-giving on Thursday evening but it sounds like a good time was had by all.

Finally, Confingo issue 9 is out on Monday. You can buy a copy online or at a handful of shops in the UK, and if you do you’ll get to read my story Last Post. It’s roughly 1700 words of a man not coping well with bereavement, but I think (I hope) you can see in its absurdity and sparks of humour the debt my writing owes to Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman.

The pitfalls of story submissions

You’d think after more than ten years of submitting short stories to magazines and anthologies I’d have got it down to a fine art. Satisfied with the finished piece even after you’ve left it alone for a couple of weeks? Great, now slap the right formatting on and send it in, awaiting the inevitable acceptance with your feet up. Five minute job, right? Wrong, particularly if you’re prone to procrastination (most authors) and worried that a submission that fails to follow the guidelines to the letter will send you straight onto a blacklist. How is it so difficult, I hear you ask (pretend you asked). Fellow writers, prepare to nod along in recognition. Readers, let me tell you a story…

I’m not even going to talk about picking the right place to send a story to, that’s a whole different hours-long process. Particularly with online magazines, I can’t always remember where I’ve read something, so even if I think this piece would be perfect for the one that had that story about dancing hippos last month, I’ve still got to find which one that was. Let’s assume I’ve decided, by whatever process, that War Story needs to go to the Bumper Book of War Stories, it fits their requirements on length and subject matter, they’re still open to submissions and they don’t need me to send it through the post (temperamental printer, amazing disappearing envelope stash, and remembering to go to the post office? No thanks). Even if I’ve submitted to them before, I need to check their guidelines because a) they might have changed and b) I might misremember.

Now comes the tricky bit. A few bewildering places don’t specify much other than that it’s legible, so inevitably I spend five minutes looking for the checklist of guidelines I must have overlooked somewhere. Most want 12-point font, the odd few want 14-point, and most want double-spaced. Times New Roman or Courier are the standard fonts, some want another specific font, or don’t mind as long as it’s not Courier. Some want anonymised manuscripts, some want name and address at the top of the first page, with name and page number in the header. Some want a word count at the top of the first page, some want it in the header, some at the end of the story. Some want you to write END at the end. Some want indented paragraphs, some want no indents, just a blank line between. Some want italics as italics, some want them indicated another way.

Some places want a 3rd-person author bio at the start or end of the manuscript, some want it in the cover letter, some don’t mention it at all (and then accept the story, don’t ask for one, and leave you as a detached name with no background information or links. Some even ask for one and then don’t use it). Some want a proper cover letter, some say it’s optional. Then we’re onto how they want it to reach them. The two main choices are Submittable or email. With email there’s then the question of do they want an attachment (and what kind), or the story pasted into the message body, and do I have to lay the subject line out a certain way, e.g. SUBMISSION: JY Saville, War Story. Some places ask for submissions via a form on their website, with all the usual pitfalls there (looking like it hasn’t submitted anything, going through endless rounds of I Am Not A Robot photo-clicking).

Submittable is a bit like Paypal for stories. The writer has a Submittable account, which stores name, address, email address so you don’t have to re-enter them each time. A magazine that uses Submittable for submissions will have a button (like the Paypal button on a shopping site) that lets you upload a file and fill in the title, sometimes a cover letter too. So, I would log in to my Submittable account, state that it’s War Story I’m submitting, upload WarStory.odt (unless they’ve specified a different filename structure, like Fiction_WarStory_Saville.odt) and ignore the optional cover letter box, because I never know what they’re looking for. That sounds reasonably simple, but .odt (open office format) is rarely accepted and I mostly have to convert to .doc or .docx which means headers and footers aren’t always as I expect them to look, and one particular story often acquires a page break. There’s also a problem with Libre Office or Open Office .doc files in Submittable losing the last line, so I have to remember to add blank lines at the end without adding an extra page.

Once I’ve gone through all that and updated my submission spreadsheet, I’ve usually had quite enough and declare myself through with story submissions (until the next time). This is why, despite dutifully noting which markets accept simultaneous submissions, I rarely end up sending the same story to more than one market at once. Despite that, I’d made more than 100 submissions this year by the end of September and I’m still plugging away at it when I’m feeling particularly patient. Here’s to the patience of magazine and anthology editors too, I know there’s usually a reason for the rules (like email subject lines used to filter messages to the right folder) and they’re not just being arbitrary. Except of course the evil ones.

Success all round: new story and a litfest connection

I have a new story in a magazine, and some hot off the press litfest news. I can feel the excitement from here.

First of all, I have a long-ish short story in the latest issue of Romance Magazine. Yes, I said romance, though as this is me the heroine’s reawakened passions are for literature and her husband, in that order (though she does nearly get carried away by a holiday friendship). It’s set in the Lake District in the early 1980s and here’s a taster via wordcloud:


If you enjoyed any or all of The Little Book of Northern Women, you’ll probably like this.

The other news is that the writing group I belong to is going to be appearing at the Ilkley Literature Festival fringe in October. I’ve seen some great stuff at the fringe over the last few years, all for free, so that’s going to be an exciting event to be involved in.

Phew! What with all that and the heat as well I need a bit of a lie down now. By which of course I mean I’m off to put the finishing touches to a couple of stories. Honest…

The bright side

I’m cultivating a positive outlook at the moment; maybe it’s the cold affecting my inner curmudgeon, but there you go.

Strange, Weird & Wonderful has published its final issue, just before the one that my story was due in. So while that’s a sale I won’t make (payment on publication, not acceptance), a credit I can’t chalk up on my scoreboard, and a story that’s back to doing the rounds, if I was looking on the bright side I’d say at least I don’t have to produce that audio version after all (though I’d actually started to feel good about the challenge).

NaNoWriMo is going slowly, probably even slower than I’d anticipated, but if you know you’re not going to make it to 50,000 words, any number’s an achievement and you don’t end up feeling stressed and guilty if you do other things for a while during November. Such as a 2-day comic convention.

Thought Bubble is less than a week away which is a bit scary (in an exhilirating way). I also know that I’m not going to get an early night before it, and I’ll probably have had to put up with a late-night long-distance taxi ride. The bright side of that one is positively dazzling though: we’re off to see The Damned on Friday. Excuse me while I touch up my black nail varnish.

The criminal career takes off

Or, I have a detective story available in the brand new e-zine from New Zealand, Comets and Criminals. I urge you to check out the issue, it has some good stories in, an interesting mix of thrilling genres from authors whose other work has already appeared in some quite impressive places. My contribution is The Dovedale Affair, in which a murder in a small Yorkshire town causes panic in the mother of a disturbed young man – what does he know about it, and how?

New genre excitement

It’s reasonably apparent to anyone reading this blog that (Anthony Trollope aside) I go for genre – count the references to sci-fi, fantasy, the occasional bit of horror, and detective stories, and…actually you’d be bored quite quickly so I wouldn’t bother, but you get the gist. OneMonkey likes a similar mix, and my dad got me into both Raymond Chandler and Philip K Dick. So for all of us, and those with similar tastes, Comets and Criminals sounds like a good plan. Starting in October, this New Zealand-based outfit will be offering up sci-fi, crime, adventure and westerns in a quarterly package. Why am I telling you this? Well, the eagle-eyed will have spotted earlier in the week the new ‘forthcoming’ line on my list of successes, though this post is scheduled for my usual weekend sort of time (at the weekend I will probably be writing the detective novel: 24,000 words and counting). Ladies and gentlemen, I have sold a detective story; all that wearing of a trilby at a rakish angle was not in vain.

Impersonal efficiency

Another story rejection (I could start getting a complex) – but this one got me thinking. Gavin Broom at The Waterhouse Review had taken the time to write some words of encouragement and some constructive criticism, and sent it off to me via Submishmash. Quite a few magazines seem to be moving to online submission via something like that, and I imagine it makes the whole process easier from their point of view, as well as allowing the lazy or time-squeezed writer to input their contact details just the once and check the status of a few pieces at a time. However, it introduces a middle-man, and instead of pressing reply on my email and writing a quick thanks to Gavin (not something I make a big habit of, I admit, but the personal touch from a small or new set-up like The Waterhouse Review will sometimes provoke me into courtesy) I just had to think kind thoughts.

I’m not saying the efficient online systems are a bad thing, and I can only guess at the inbox-clogging flood of email some editors were getting in the past, and how in a way those quick emails of thanks were probably a bit annoying if they were busy. But still I can’t help feeling slightly sad and like we’ve lost something, like when you go to the supermarket and no words are exchanged between you and the checkout person because speed is of the essence and you’re paying by card (or worse, using self-service tills).

Great view from here

My long-awaited contributor copy of  The View From Here arrived this week, to much excitement in the Monkey household.

Illustration credit: Conor Tarter, Gavin Schaefer.

I thought I’d share with you what it looks like (I’m quite pleased with the layout and illustration) but you’ll notice that the words have been tampered with in the gimp (that’s the gnu image manipulation program, for those that don’t follow me on deviantArt) so if you want to read it, you’ll still have to buy a copy.

As further enticements, there is an article about and interview with Booker-shortlisted Damon Galgut; an article about the changing nature of literary coverage by the literary editor of The Guardian (and Observer, and website); book reviews; poetry; and of course, short stories. I enjoyed (and would imagine anyone who likes Gwendoline Riley’s style will enjoy) Thanksgiving by Meredith Miller, a slow gaze across friendship, closeness and dreams; that was the other short story which was only available in the print edition (there is also part 2 of a serial by Kathleen Maher, which I confess I haven’t read yet).

The view from here

The February edition (issue 32) of The View From Here is now available, featuring a story of mine called The Fan-boys on Tour. Selected parts of the magazine are available online but if you want to read Fan-boys you’ll have to obtain a print copy (available by mail order from their website). It’s a reasonably short story (not micro-fiction, but what a lot of people would describe as flash – about 500 words), mainstream (i.e. non-genre) and is about brotherly love in the scuzzy underground of devoted followers of half-forgotten punk bands. For you, it may be about something entirely different, such is the beauty of fiction – read it and discover.

Go hug an illustrator, tell them I sent you

It’s the second annual International Illustrator Appreciation Day – I know this because I made it up a year ago. The aim was to draw some attention (no pun intended, I swear) to the illustrators who interpret and enhance stories (or novels, with cover art) and enrich the reading experience. It’s probably more relevant if you read a lot of sci-fi or fantasy but I’d like to encourage you to take this opportunity to highlight an artist you’ve enjoyed in a recent magazine, or leave a comment on someone’s blog. You might think they won’t care, but even apparently successful artists may well appreciate some confirmation that someone’s noticed what they do.

To that end, I’ll point you at Darren Winter, stand-out artist in the last Interzone I read, and of course Mark Pexton who hasn’t been in Interzone for a while but we’ll forgive him because he’s been working on our stunning graphic novel (I’m allowed to refer to the art as stunning, I didn’t do it).

Long-awaited appearance in Bards and Sages Quarterly

It seems ages since I had my story All the Room in the World accepted for Bards and Sages Quarterly, but the October 2010 issue in which it appears has now been released. Unusually for me (at least so far) it’s not free to view, you actually have to buy a pdf or a paper magazine if you want to read it. To encourage you in that direction, I’ll let you know that it’s a kind of lightly humourous science fiction (science fantasy? If you call Doctor Who sci-fi, then this is probably sci-fi, if not then we’ll stick with fantasy but of a sciency bent), it runs to two pages and is set in a British university (or probably strictly an English university). I enjoyed writing it, several people have enjoyed reading it so far, so I hope at least some of you do too.

The etiquette of book reviews

I haven’t had a book review anywhere except on this blog of mine for ages, so I was wondering recently if there were any suitable places to consider. A quick search and I’d found a few likely contenders, but I’d also crossed off a couple due to what I saw as bias.

If a website or magazine only allows its reviewers to go as low as ‘good’ in their ratings (as opposed to ‘excellent’, ‘life-changing’ etc), that can go one of two ways. Either you follow the old ‘if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all’ (leaving the reader to assume that if there’s no mention of a book it must be rubbish, when in fact it could just be that no-one’s reviewed it yet), or if you’re reviewing to get your name out there, you might be tempted to put a positive spin on a poor book (or out and out lie about it). Neither approach seems particularly helpful to the reader, which surely is the point of the review.

I’ve been reading Private Eye on and off for the last 17 years, and I know there are plenty of reviews out there written by friends, relatives, colleagues etc of the author which say overwhelmingly good things about a book (deserved or not) in order to pay back or call in a favour, or to drum up trade. I also know that any book reviewed in Private Eye itself is likely to be there to allow the reviewer to exercise wit and venom in tearing it apart (so if that doesn’t happen, I tend to assume the book’s a superlative effort, though maybe it’s just been written by a friend, relative or colleague of the Eye’s reviewer…), not so much a book review as a catty erudition article.

What a review should be (in my opinion) is as fair an assessment as possible by someone who would generally read a book of that sort. I wouldn’t review a romance novel because I’d be prejudiced against it from the start and know nothing of the conventions or expectations of the genre; I wouldn’t ask a literary snob to review a science fiction novel for similar reasons. If my dad says the latest Robert Rankin’s lacklustre I’ll take notice of him, if my mum (assuming she could force herself to read it all) said the same thing I wouldn’t care because I know it’s not her kind of thing. While I don’t in general want to read or write negative reviews, I’d want to be warned by someone else who’s enjoyed a particular author’s work in the past that their latest offering is below par, and I’d want to be able to say ‘normally I like this kind of thing but the characters in this book are just wooden’. Constructive criticism is part of a writer’s improvement process, and if I was disappointing my previous readers, I’d want to know.

A few story recommendations

For no particular reason I thought I’d mention a few stories I’ve enjoyed lately while checking out places to submit, or reading magazines.

Mannikin by Paul Evanby was a good start to Interzone 229: an alternative 18th century in the West Indies, politics, slavery (both manifest and subtle), and a scientist who believes he’s acting for the best. Some pleasing detail and an interesting premise.

At The View From Here magazine, Cling by Andrew Hook grabbed my attention. Well-written, capturing the complexities of friendship (particularly when it involves writer/editor roles as it does here with an ongoing film project) and leaving an unsettling feeling of otherness.

De facto date of marital termination by Leslie Coleman at 50 to 1 is one of the neatest pieces of microfiction I’ve seen in a while. Often (my own included) they verge on poetry or leave things a little too open. This one seems to set a scene that tells you pretty much all you need to know about what’s just happened and what the current mood is.

Back to my magazine-surfing…

Acceptance rate recovery

Phew! Temporarily at least, official acceptance rate for the last 12 months is back up to 21%. The nice people at The View From Here have decided to use a story of mine called The Fan-boys on Tour – it’s not in the speculative field, firmly mainstream in fact, and depending on your viewpoint it’s about brotherly love or a couple of punk losers. I’ll let you know when it’s available, and then you can make up your own mind.

Acceptance rate critical

My Duotrope Control Panel now informs me that my acceptance rate for the last 12 months has dipped to 19%, a sorry state of affairs. Spurred on by an arbitrary desire to keep it at or above 20%, I’m in the middle of a whole big batch of submissions (5 in the last 24 hours, at least 3 more planned). This may well just lead to a further reduction, and of course it’s preventing me from the list of rewrites I wanted to do and the 2 or 3 stories I’ve almost finished, not to mention the crime novel (please – don’t mention the crime novel, it’s going badly and has barely begun). However, it may also lead to glory (or a very rough approximation thereof) and gives me a cast-iron excuse for not increasing any wordcounts or finishing the new comic script for Mark. More tea, and back to Duotrope…

Must try harder

With absolute horror I realised yesterday that I last submitted a story in May; I double-checked but no, it really is August now. Today, when I haven’t been playing piano (and it’s not even Christmas!), going on a history walk round a nearby town, or watching the cat frantically chase pens he’s rolled along the floor (good job I didn’t want to write longhand), I’ve been submitting stories, mug of tea at hand and internet radio tuned to alternative rock. If this frantic burst of energy pays off I’ll let you know in due course, and in the meantime I’ll forget all about this aspect of the writer’s life for another couple of months and get back to the actual writing.

Hard or soft copy?

In the quest to lengthen the publications list, it’s easy to sell yourself short. Either through ignorance, desperation, or lack of confidence you settle for an acceptance by a market that isn’t that useful – it bestows neither kudos, new readers, nor decent payment. Which, unless the magazine’s run by a friend of yours, is presumably what you were after. So how do you decide where to submit?

Stephen King (in On Writing) refers to non-paying markets which are nevertheless reputable and so are good places to start out. This is clearly the kudos angle – a magazine that is genuinely well-known and respected (even just within your chosen genre) is a great place to be able to say you’ve been published, even if the pay is poor or non-existent or the circulation’s limited. If everyone knows it’s not that easy a magazine to get into, it means a lot more that you were accepted there.

I saw a writing guidance book from a few years ago which mentioned electronic publishing in passing, saying that online story venues had sprung up but there was little merit in them as of course they didn’t pay and were completely open and available. Many electronic magazines now pay, from token to professional rates, and while some are freely available, others need to be bought (as a pdf, for example). Some have built a reputation over several years and are highly regarded (and every bit as hard to get into as similar print magazines), while others are short-lived or publish anything they can get their hands on. The same could be said of print magazines yet some people view all electronic magazines with suspicion and only consider print magazines to be worthwhile markets.

As with most things, the answer is balance. If you personally like a particular magazine (in whatever format) then it makes sense to submit work there if it fits, and if you’re accepted you’ll be happy to be in the company of writers you’ve enjoyed. If you’re looking for notches on the writing desk, beware: just because it’s available as a stapled pile of paper doesn’t mean it’s worth associating with, if Duotrope shows a high acceptance rate it doesn’t mean that much that you got in, and if few people have heard of it and it’s subscription-only, it won’t get your name imprinted on many impressionable minds. I’ve wondered lately where that leaves magazines like Interzone and Mslexia (both of which I’ve submitted to in the past) – the now-defunct Borders is the only shop I can remember seeing either of them in, so while they’re both well-regarded they must have a smaller circulation now than they did last year and only subscribers will come across your work should it be accepted. I guess that makes you ‘critically acclaimed’, which (depending on what you’re in this game for) probably gives you a better feeling than making money would. Or so I keep telling myself.

Narrowing the field

Looking for somewhere to place a story can be a tedious business. It’s made slightly simpler by Duotrope, where you can search for markets by genre, story-length etc but it can still take a while. Even when you’ve narrowed it down to a few and read stories from their archives to see how you’d fit in, the final choice for submission sometimes comes down to a coin-toss. So it’s thoughtful of the odd editor to do a bit of self-selection and save me some time.

Arrogance. That one helps. I’m not talking ‘our magazine’s fantastic and of course you’d want to submit here’, that’s the kind of thing you’d hope they think. I mean the clique thing, the ‘we don’t want you if you just cruised in from Duotrope’ thing. When there are so many magazines out there, in print and on the web, how do they expect contributors to find them? It might be nice to think that it’s all down to word of mouth in the literary salons, but I don’t think it works like that. By trawling Duotrope I’ve come across some good magazines that I haven’t always submitted to, but I go back and dip into their offerings now and then because I’ve found they have good stuff on show. I don’t subscribe to any magazines because I know from past experience of print copies that they’d pile up unread.

The other main strand of arrogance comes under spelling and grammar. One of my recent rejections hinged on a grammatical transgression I’m still not sure I understand – the sentence reads OK to me (and to the friends of mine who’ve read it), and I regularly wince at mangled sentences in published novels. I’ve even come across a ‘hall of shame’ on some magazine websites, where those submissions that didn’t reach the lofty standards of the editor are paraded for the world to laugh at (often there are spelling and grammar errors on the website. I have much better things to do with my time than point them out in an email to the editor, but I hope someone with more time on their hands has taken the trouble). Aside from the obvious pitfalls (dyslexia, anyone?), I seem to recall some of my contemporaries were taught phonetic spelling, and while it’s legitimate for an editor to reject a well-paced and engaging story on the grounds that they don’t have the time or inclination to correct the their/they’re/there etc that the spellcheckers haven’t dealt with, it’s not legitimate to hold the sins of the teachers against their erstwhile pupils and say ‘this author is thick/lazy and should be ashamed’. What kind of person humiliates a novice author in public? Not any kind of person I’d want to be associated with.

Which brings me to the other big one: unprofessionalism. That’s a broad term and largely subjective, but I’m willing to bet that most definitions would cover submission guidelines that include the phrase ‘fuck off and don’t waste my time’. Funnily enough that made me feel similarly about the magazine, but I’m too polite to say so. Yes there are plenty of time-wasters, yes it must be frustrating as an editor of a small magazine to have to wade through the no-hopers that haven’t remotely followed your instructions, but do you have to be so rude about it? I don’t care if I’m not included in the category of people you’re dismissing so brusquely, the fact that you’re doing it at all to anyone makes me add you to my ‘ignore’ list.

So here’s to the rude, arrogant, snobbish, petty and unprofessional editors that whittle themselves out of my field of potential story markets. Your tactics for reducing the number of submissions you have to deal with seems to be working, and your vibrant displays of reasons not to work with you save me a lot of time.