Advice From An Editor: The Three-Word Non-Magic Formula

Writers in the early stages of their paths sometimes have misconceptions about what lies behind the publication everybody else seems to be enjoying:

Like what really matters is whom you know. That conspiracies and invisible walls keep newcomers relegated to the rejection pile. Or that writers — always female writers, go figure — have slept their way to this or that sale.

Not to deny the occasional aberrant exception, or the value of professional connections.

Still, in the main, it’s nonsense. Tempting, comforting nonsense.

It always pains me, somewhere northwest of the liver, to encounter writers who have made the irrelevant the focus of their frustration and energies. And I don’t know which effect is worse: that it reinforces a sense of helplessness, of events being entirely out of their control. Or that it takes the focus away from what actually does matter … the harder truth that some people would rather not face.

The event: A convention of creators and fans. When and where, exactly, forgotten. But that doesn’t matter.

The place: A panel of editors. The overriding topic, forgotten. That doesn’t matter either.

The question, from an audience member to multi-award-winning editor Stephen Jones: “What do I have to do to get into one of your anthologies?”

His answer: “Write better stories.”

Sometimes it really is that simple.

Yes, better is subjective. Better can be a tricky thing to judge about yourself. And better has some powerful enemies. Like complacency. And self-satisfaction. And the urge to stop and stick the label “Good enough” on something when being just good enough … isn’t.

While you’re overcoming those, you do have some yardsticks to measure yourself by. You do have a basis for comparison.

The yardsticks: All the books that light you up inside. All the work that made you not only want to write, but believe you really could. All the stories in an editor’s previous volumes that you would’ve been competing against, and maybe did.

The message: “If I’m going to get here, I have to be at least this good.”

The formula: Write better stories. Write better novels. Work your butt off. And don’t stop.

Sometimes it really is that simple.

And that’s what makes it so hard.

***** In the latest at my own blog, you’ll find a first-cousin of this piece, with “Getting Published: 5 Ways To Increase Your Chances Of Beating The Odds.”

3 comments to Advice From An Editor: The Three-Word Non-Magic Formula

  • In my long-in-progress sort of memoir / book on writing…this is the messages, in a nutshell. I call it “Writing What Hurts”. It could as easily be titled “Writing what matters”. Writing just to fill publishing slots is an example of something I mentioned the other day. A lot of people are in love with the idea of “being a writer” but can’t couple that with wanting to actually write. Writing is not easy, and if you find it easy, you probably aren’t doing it right.

  • Awesome post! This addresses so well a gripe I’ve heard from many writers. The good news is, we’ve got the power to to see that our work gets published if we’re willing to work hard and be open (always!) to improvement. Great message.

  • Robert Jones

    A sharply focused, informative post, Brian.
    Even if negative criticism is thought to be unjustified, any anger it evokes can be advantageously used as a spur to improve one’s writing. One should always at least consider using whatever tools come to hand.

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