Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Trunk Story Week • Part 2


How do you know when it’s time to give up on trying to sell a story?

In the old days of actual paper submissions sent by mail to magazines, there were two natural and reliable but unspoken indicators. Along about the fifth or sixth time your manuscript went out to an editor with shining bright hopes and came back home with its tail between its legs, it began to look pretty shopworn. The page edges and corners typically became dog-eared and frayed. Sometimes it might even have acquired a coffee-ring stain or two from a careless slush pile reader. 

Editors could see this, too. When a “new” submission came out of the envelope looking like it had already been around the block a few times, their level of interest in it immediately dropped. Every editor wants to believe that they are the first to get a shot at publishing some new story. A shopworn manuscript that plops out of the envelope looking sad and pathetic, with the obligatory SASE trailing behind…

Well, to paraphrase Damon Runyon, when that happens, the temptation to use that SASE becomes too strong to resist.

So back in the day the savvy writer, along about the time of the fifth or sixth rejection, would look at the bedraggled returned manuscript in their hands, glance at the accompanying rejection slip in hopes that it might contain some useful information*, and then think, “Maybe I should retype this one before I send it out again.” Of course, writers being writers, it is nearly impossible to retype a story without also rewriting it, so over the course of time a sort of stepwise refinement did take place, that sometimes actually did produce a story that eventually sold.

More often, though, the rewrite produced a new manuscript that also went out a half-dozen more times, before the second indicator took effect. This occurred when the writer was again holding the rejected manuscript in their hands, trying to discern meaning in the rejection slip and thinking the manuscript would benefit from being retyped yet again, when suddenly this thought occurred to them:

Hold on. It will take me X amount of time to retype this manuscript. I’m spending Y amount of money on 9x12 envelopes and Z amount of money on postage. Even if I sell this story on the next submission, I won’t make enough from the sale to recoup what I’ve already spent on trying to sell it.

Maybe, instead of retyping this one again, my time and money would be better spent writing and trying to sell something

At which point the savvy writer would chuck the manuscript into their “Save for the anthology” file and move on.

The thick writer, on the other hand, would remain forever stuck on trying to sell the same old story. 


* P.S. Speaking of thick writers and shopworn manuscripts, I actually knew an editor who, when he received a really high-mileage manuscript, made it a point not to use a rejection slip, but to hand-write his rejection on the first page of the manuscript. He did this both to insult the author and to force them to retype at least the first page of the manuscript.

The first actual personal rejection I ever received from a pro market editor was one of his scribbles, to the effect that my submission was a really good 1940s Astounding story, but this was 1975 and no one was interested in that old crap anymore. The joke was on him, though, as two years later Star Wars proved that no, recycled 1940s Astounding stories were exactly what the sci-fi fans wanted to see.