Dear editor, are you there?
TEXT AND ART BY MAX SHERIDAN
Is there anything worse than a disgruntled writer?
The miserable editors, agents and publishers who made him that way.
(Note to editor: Leave this article untouched or I’ll do to you what Hunter Thompson threatened to do to Sterling Lord in 1961.)
Actually, this article has nothing to do with editors screwing with texts. It’s about the way editors, publishers and agents treat writers.
(Note to reader: This is not a whiny sob story about how miserable life as a writer is. Being a writer sucks, but this is not a piece about that.)
What it is is a compact etiquette guide for the gatekeepers who even on their good days—and maybe even unwittingly—seem to be bent on making a writer’s life hell.
Literary editors, agents and publishers, this is for you.
Respond to your emails.
When I'm not busy with Lara at Storyline, I'm a fiction writer. I also direct a Nicosia-based creative writing platform dedicated to community storytelling. I'm mentioning this because on an average week I see emails from the full gamut—cranks peddling books, hopeful writers and writing instructors, freelancers looking for work, colleagues with updates, the mass media, thirteen-year-olds with story ideas. I answer all of them. Not because I have to or because it’s good for business—though, literary establishment, you might consider that angle too—but because I don’t want to leave anyone hanging, especially the dude with connections to the Bavarian Illuminati who wants me to showcase his self-published geriatric literary crime novel on my blog.
Respond to your emails, folks, even if it's just a quick "not interested at this time".
Gonzo Letter 1961
Hunter Thompson to literary agent Sterling Lord
Respond to your emails.
Too many emails, you say? Wonderful. Sounds like you’re doing well. Hire an assistant to respond to your emails.
If you’ve asked for a full MS, don’t leave the writer hanging.
Have you asked a writer for a full MS? That’s great. You’ve done a very noble thing. But if you pass, which is likely, let the writer know you’ve passed.
There’s absolutely nothing more exhilarating for a writer to have an agent, publisher or editor acknowledge the quality of her work by asking to see more of it. And there’s absolutely nothing more backwards or wretched than that agent, publisher or editor not getting back to the writer.
I’m sorry, are you Stephen King’s agent? Go on ignoring all the emails you want. Everyone else out there trying to be Stephen King’s agent, you’ve got the time to get in touch with a writer you’ve been corresponding with.
Don't ignore Stephen King.
Take a week out of your hectic schedule to write a story.
I’m not kidding. Try it.
Once you’ve got the rough draft, spend another two weeks editing it. Then send it out anonymously to ten magazines you’ve researched down to the first and last name of the editor on the masthead you’re sending it to. See how you do. Repeat the process if you don’t have any luck. For the next ten years.
Don’t have time for a story? Pitch one.
Ok, I understand. Writing takes a lot of time and guts. If you don’t have time to put yourselves in our shoes, just come up with a concept for a story you can pitch. Two sentences max. Make sure you have a specific editor in mind, and make sure, if you do pitch it, you follow all the guidelines to the letter.
The benefit of this exercise is that if you do it often enough—and eventually find the time to put your concepts to paper—you can cut out the middle man, thus eliminating yourself from the publishing process.
Rebrand all literary contests “operational expense-making subterfuges”.
Editors, you’re confusing some aspiring writers who think they’ve got a shot at winning that $2,000 prize. (I know, I know, someone actually does win it.)
Look, in the 90s there was a huge campaign for more transparent labeling on food packaging. Fee-based entries to literary contests should follow suit.
All submission fees collected from the Alice Rosebush Flash Fiction Contest for Staged Swan Sightings will go to buying the editor a new hard drive. What’s left will cover printing and marketing costs for the spring issue.
Don’t remind us how poor you are.
Paying contributors isn’t going to be possible for every lit outfit out there. But justifying, or advertising, your penury is worse than just being poor. Short story writers aren’t generally in it for the money anyway. We get it. We’re also struggling. A simple “payment for contributors isn’t possible at the moment” will do.
After the submission fees for the Alice Rosebush Flash Fiction Contest come in, you may even be able to afford a $25 donation to the Writers Penury Fund.
Email me for the PayPal address.
Don’t go to town with your submission guidelines.
Do you “long to reach your fingers out and feel the reverberations through the empty air of a heart that is not your own?”
If you do—or the urge to write submission guidelines like this is overwhelming—maybe soliciting writing isn’t your bag.
I know it’s hard. When I was twenty and an aspiring classicist, an aging British classicist who had plenty of air in his heart asked me why I hadn’t become a used car salesman instead.
I thought this was very observant of him and regret to this day not following his advice.
Look in the mirror from time to time and remind yourself that every human shares about 99% of his DNA with his fellow humans.
Empathy is encoded in our DNA, and being empathetic is what writing is all about. If it doesn’t come naturally—it sometimes seems that 99% of that empathy is being hoarded by a very small percentage of that percentage and none of them are agents, editors or publishers—practice before the mirror like Travis Bickle did. You’ll be surprised what comes out. Once you vent all that spleen, disappointment and low self-esteem—and join the rest of the human race–make a cup of tea and open your inbox.
This list only goes up to 9.
Seriously? You think I’m kidding?
I am. There is always a number ten. If you’re an editor, agent or publisher and really want to know what it is, I’ll tell you.
Just email me.
I promise to get back to you.
Max Sheridan's writing has appeared in a number of online and print publications in the US, UK and elsewhere. He's worked as a teacher, journalist, editor and copywriter. He's the founder and director of Write CY, a Nicosia-based creative space dedicated to creative writing and community storytelling. His novel Dillo is due out from Shotgun Honey in December 2017. Talk to him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.