by Weston Ochse
So you’ve sold a story and you’re ready to pop the champagne. Isn’t this the goal for all short story writers? It’s all over but the awards voting. Maybe a Stoker or a Pulitzer or a Pushcart Prize. Maybe a movie director is going to stumble across your story and decide that this would be the perfect vehicle to carry some hot movie star to the pinnacle of Hollywood stardom. Maybe someone on the verge of doing something irrevocable is going to read your story and in a moment of catharsis, redeem his or herself and decide not to do whatever irrevocable thing they were about to do. Or maybe your story would change the world, bring people together until they threw down all guns, discarded all hatred and learned to sing Kum-bay-yah in Esperanto.
Or maybe you’ve decided that you want to pull your story and none of this will ever happen.
What would make someone want to pull a story and lose the chance to achieve one of these lofty goals? Why would someone change their mind about a story appearing in a venue? Well if you give me a few minutes I’ll tell you.
Now before you ask, yes this is a true story. And to answer your next question, I won’t tell you who the players were. The main reason is because I don’t want to turn this into a swipe at a specific market, but instead, make it a look inside my head as I made the decision to pull a story and what occurred during the process.
About three years ago I wrote and submitted a novella to a magazine that’s been around for quite a while and is held in particular esteem. They don’t pay professional rates, but that is offset by the prestige with which some hold the magazine. Me included…at that time.
The novella was accepted. I was told that it would be in a specific issue, one in which I was frankly, proud as hell to be in. It took a few years as these things sometimes do, but finally that issue of the magazine was published. When I heard, I was a bit stunned. I never signed a contract. I hadn’t been paid. But hell, I’ve been published before by a magazine and then the contract and payment came later. Not so big a deal to me.
Then I checked the table of contents and no Weston Ochse.
Thought balloons with WTF circled my head. At first I figured there must have been some mistake, but in the end, there wasn’t one. After emailing the person who accepted the story, I discovered that there’d been a conscious decision to hold my story over for the next issue because of its length; remember it is a novella. The person apologized, acted like a professional and admitted that the magazine dropped the ball in not informing me of the situation.
I accepted that apology because I understood the thought processes and how this could happen. Was I happy? No. I almost pulled my story at that point, but figured I’d let the process work a little more. After all, I’d submitted the story and they were counting on it, so I’d give them the benefit of the doubt. But I indicated that I’d like to hear from the editor personally on the subject.
Then a second person in the magazine emailed me and apologized. This person said that the editor would contact me. I was pretty satisfied at that point. I was still a little angry, but not so much.
You see, I’ve had stories published before that I wasn’t happy about, and that’s one of the worst feelings. When you have something published you shouldn’t be embarrassed about it. You shouldn’t feel bad about any part of it. Instead, you should be reveling in the achievement and preparing yourself to receive accolades. The stories I wasn’t happy about were earlier stories that had some grammar errors or some plot problems. These are stories that I dread seeing. In fact, someone came to the mass autographing at WHC in Toronto with one of these stories. The fact that I hated the story and was embarrassed to even see it was hidden from the fan. I signed his autograph just as proudly as every other one I’ve signed. But a part of me felt bad for my achievement and I didn’t want that feeling duplicated ever again.
And that includes the novella that I wrote that was accepted for a specific issue in this magazine, then was bumped to the next issue. I had to think to myself. Would I be happy with that? Would I forever look upon the published magazine and be disappointed? Was I settling for second place?
Three weeks passed and no email contact by the editor. Over those three weeks I had a personal come to Jesus meeting. Ultimately, due in large part to the unwillingness of the editor to contact me (who was cc’d on every single email in the chain by her staff), I decided to pull the story. Out of respect to the two people I’d been in contact with previously, I informed them first, and in that email I cited that one of the mitigating circumstances was the editor’s apparent unwillingness to contact me.
Then the shit hit the fan.
I got a heat rocket sent back from the second person I’d emailed telling me I’d ‘burned that bridge.’ Then the editor finally got into the fray and began to lecture me on the publishing industry actually using the words, ‘Let me give you a lesson,’ and then sliding into the trite Never Assume diatribe.
I couldn’t have been more shocked. I actually thought that I’d send the notification that I was going to pull my story, then get a few short replies, and move on with my life. Boy was I naive.
Never afraid to stand up for myself, I fired back, then the editor fired back and so on. I probably should have let it go, but it was the high-handed lecturing that I wasn’t taking well, especially since I felt that I was the affronted person. This went on for several emails until the editor unveiled the largest weapon in an editor’s cache—the threat of blacklisting.
Editor– “Here’s one final tip, and then I am done with this: Don’t piss off a publisher who has close, personal connections to every other publisher in the field. It gets you blacklisted.
No reply is necessary.”
I have to admit that I felt fingers of fear dance across my future for a moment. I’ve never had anyone actually use those words to me before.
Then I got pissed.
After storming around the house for fifteen minutes, I sent back a concise email that said that I found the threat extreme
ly unprofessional and that I would provide copies of these emails to my agent and the presidents of the professional writing organizations of which I’m a member.
And I did.
I also spoke to a few of my close writing friends.
The specifics are a private matter, and will remain so, but in the end, the great wave of advice I received went something like, “Wes, don’t even worry about it. No one has even heard of this editor before and you’re established in your field. People know and respect you. Don’t worry.”
And I’m not.
Everyone was right.
No one is going to turn down a story or a novel or a screenplay of mine because I pulled a story from a semi-professional magazine. I pissed off an editor. I burned a bridge. Both of those things are regrettable and I’ll learn from them, but it doesn’t change the single important fact that I’m no longer going to be disappointed because of a story sale.
So gone is the chance to win a Stoker or a Pulitzer or a Pushcart Prize. Gone is the chance for a movie director to stumble across my story and decide that this would be the perfect vehicle to carry some hot movie star to the pinnacle of Hollywood stardom. Gone is my chance to stop someone from doing something irrevocable. And gone is my opportunity to change the world, bring people together until they throw down all guns, discard all hatred and learn to sing Kum-bay-yah in Esperanto.
At least until next time.
Because I still have my story.
If it was good enough to be accepted in one place, it’s good enough to be accepted in an other.
And most of all, I have my self respect. At the end of the day I have to look myself in the eyes and like what I see.
And I do.