Wednesday, November 18, 2015

An Education in Submission Etiquette

This post is timely today because I have just sent rejections to a group of high school students who were apparently given the assignment to write a story and submit it somewhere for publication.

It's good that they're writing.  It's good that they're learning.  It's good that they're learning what it is to try and fail.  These are all good things.

But there is a difference between a story written by someone who cares about writing and someone who has written something because it has been assigned.

Don't get me wrong.  I love to encourage young writers as they develop their skills.  I love to see the excitement in the eyes of a young writer as she tells you the synopsis of her story.  I love to see raw talent on the page, to see the potential that lies therein.


You knew there would be a but.

Flash Fiction Online is fast approaching a submission rate of 7000 stories per year, with an average daily submission rate of 18 stories.  That's a whole lot of stories.  And I am in charge of processing every single one.  My staff is in charge of reading every single one.  My managing staff is in charge of deciding which ones come back to me for inclusion in the final selection round.

18 stories a day doesn't really seem like a whole lot.

And it wouldn't be if editing were my day job.  

It's not.  

While higher in priority than playing Zelda: Twilight Princess for the 5th time (I love that game!), it is not as high on my priority list as my family, or my service work, or the work I do to bring in a bit of bacon--all of which take quite a lot of time.

For me, the quality of the slush pile is important to me.  Every submission I receive that is less than ready for publication ticks minutes away from my life--minutes that add up to hours that add up to days.  And the older I get the more I miss those wasted minutes.

I have many experiences being the parent of young children who need help with difficult assignments, and because I am the parent and invested in my child's future and happiness, I willingly give up my time to help.  Of course that was elementary school.  By the time my children reached high school age they were expected to be able to do the vast majority of the work on their own, with plenty of support and minimal help from me.  Again, willingly.

I also remember high school.  Sure it was a long time ago.  But I remember it.  I remember doing assignments that I didn't really want to do.  Words on a page that meant nothing to me except that they fulfilled some arbitrary busywork assignment.  They meant a grade.  

How much of my greatest skill do you suppose I put into those assignments?  How much of my heart do you suppose I invested in them?  How much study do you suppose I put into them?  Minimal.

Most writers who submit to our magazine are genuinely presenting something meaningful, something that represents their best selves, that represents months or years of study.  They have an intimate relationship with grammar and style.  They consider every word choice and plot turn.  When they submit a story they do so at some risk to their heart and soul.  Even hardened veterans experience some anxiety with every submission and pangs of disappointment with every rejection.

And this after years of investment in what they love.

No matter the quality of the result, I can almost always be certain that the person behind the words in every story I process considers herself a writer.  And most of them have earned that title.  Most of them have sacrificed the blood, sweat, and tears.  Most of them have worn their fingers to the bone on their computer keyboards.  Most of them have enough rejections to wallpaper the Sistine Chapel.  

So when a 16-year-old takes a single semester creative writing class for an English credit, have they paid the price?

It's entirely possible some of them have.  It's entirely possible some of them have been writing since they could.  That they've read books and taken classes and participated in workshops and paid attention in grammar classes.  It's also entirely true that some have the knack for it.  But even those with the knack require time, experience, and a serious study of the craft to be able to hone it to an acceptable level worthy of publication.

How many of those high schoolers who submitted this week had that knack?  Not a single one. 

It's like the life-sucking machine in The Princess Bride.  Please, teachers, don't make me weep as Wesley did.  Don't make me an unwilling participant in your students' assignments.  By all means, if you see a story with some real potential, encourage that individual student to submit.  But not the whole class.  It's not fair to those students who will needlessly be rejected, it's not fair to me and my time.  

Tick, tick, tick.  Minutes gone.

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