As I write this, we’re wrapping up story selections for Issue # 7. My previous thoughts on “Why We Didn’t Buy Your Story” came out after Issue # 1. What have we, as new publishers, learned in the meantime? Can we give our hopeful writers any new insights?
I think we can.
Let’s start with a telling lament I see repeated in different ways from disappointed writers. It goes something like this: “I really thought I nailed it. I read what you’re looking for and I hit all the marks. I was very careful about meeting your requirements.”
Yes, you were, but in reality, that’s never going to be the deciding factor. Carefully crafting a story to meet whatever we say we’re looking for during a reading period is certainly appreciated. Really! We recognize it; we comment on it internally; it does not go unnoticed.
To understand the problem, it’s important to have some context, along with a bit of perspective, about what it’s like when 630 short stories, poems, novellas, vignettes, and flash fiction pieces come in during in a two-week submissions window.
What are the numbers again? This time we received over 600 works from hopeful contributors. At a guess, over 2 million words of fiction.
The majority of those writers really tried to send us something they thought we could use. For instance, we’re not a horror magazine. People knew that and sent very little horror. We didn’t get much in the way of apocalyptic dystopia either. Sex and swearing were at a minimum, yet people also recognized we’re not a children’s magazine nor specifically aimed at the young adult market.
By and large, the stories contained hopeful themes, big ideas and presented worlds filled with diversity, empathy, heroism, and hope.
I don’t have the exact numbers, but we read a lot of good stories. Let’s say 25% were “good to excellent.” It could be more. Conservatively, that would be over half a million words.
At $0.06/word, that’s over $30,000 (if we were able to buy all those good stories). While we do a good job of making DreamForge look big-time, that’s more than our annual budget for everything related to the magazine. And if we could somehow invest in all those stories, they would fill our pages for the next 3-4 years.
It is not possible to buy several years’ worth of content in every reading period. I’m going to go out on a limb and say even the really successful and truly “big-time” magazines don’t do that.
You see the problem. There are basic limitations that mean only a few, a small percentage of stories (about 3% actually), are going to be purchased in one of our reading periods.
That your story hit all its marks, or even that it was a good story, does not mean we’re able to buy it.
Now you might be thinking that we go on to narrow it down and pick only the best of the best. That the stories in the next issue represent the highest quality, most literary works we could find.
Well, not so much.
First, there’s the “Mars” problem. I’m going to use Mars as shorthand, because I could have called it a Time Travel problem, Superhero problem, Dragon problem, Cyberpunk problem, Space Opera problem, Urban Fantasy problem, or… you may already have the idea.
A lot of the stories we receive are going to tackle the same subjects and themes, while presenting similar worlds and even familiar characters that could have walked over from one story to the next. (It’s like when my wife can’t tell one “cowboy show” from another when I indulge in some Saturday afternoon down time.)
Right now, a lot of people want to write about Mars, often focusing on the struggles involved in establishing the first settlements. I like to read Mars stories; I would like to write a Mars story. However, in putting a magazine together, we can only use so many Mars stories. Have we already published too many Mars stories? Maybe. Yet here’s another one that we all really like.
Similarly, we’ve probably seen enough time travel stories to publish a time travel periodical, but that’s not what we set out to do.
In this way, you’re not only up against the competition this reading period, but up against our publishing history and possibly just what we’re seeing too much of. If we really get tired of Pandemic stories and even the good ones don’t seem to be contributing anything special, well we aren’t going to buy any of them.
Second, creating an issue of a magazine is not just about selecting great stories. It’s about creating a reading experience. Think of it as a variety show. If all the stories are literary, philosophical, message pieces with troubled characters navigating complex plots, our readers aren’t going to make it through the whole issue.
Some stories are challenging, and they require a clear head and concentration before delivering a payoff in emotion or thoughtful meaning. And honestly, I don’t want to read those at 11:30 pm after a long day when I open a magazine for a few minutes of relaxation. I check the Table of Contents for a short story that looks light and easy to get through.
So, I want DreamForge to have some of those too.
When we make our final selections, you could think of it as a search for puzzle pieces that go together. Sometimes we’re creating a thematic experience, at others simply balancing science fiction and fantasy, or weaving a path through short and long, heavy and light, fast paced and contemplative.
That story that you thought was short, light, and predictable. That’s probably the effect we wanted. Think of it as a palate cleanser between heavy main courses.
Third, who the hell are we to judge your story? Yes, we’re here paying money for creative works and putting them in print, but should anything we think about your story have the weight of objective truth?
We’re just people. Like you, we succeed and fail and get some things wrong and try to do better next time. Sometimes circumstances, weariness, and our own likes and dislikes get the better of us.
If you wanted some comments on your story and we gave them, no doubt we pointed out things we saw as flaws. If we were tired and had a bad day, if it was late and we were rushed, if the water heater broke and presented us with an unexpected bill – maybe we didn’t have the clarity of thought to respond to you as well as we could have, or as empathetically as we should have, but our goal was always to boost your awareness not to deflate your enthusiasms.
Keep in mind that we identified flaws in the stories we bought too! Sometimes we argued about them, and at other times we even asked the writer to try to fix them – if every other quality of the story made us want it despite its problems.
Sometimes we don’t see the blemishes in the works we proudly printed until a reviewer brings them to our attention.
No, fixing the issues we identified does not mean your story will suddenly become salable, to us or to anyone else. As you can tell by now, we didn’t pick your story for any number of reasons, and we’re just trying to heighten your awareness of things you may need to work on. In our opinion.
Now, this year 12 DreamForge stories made it to the 2019 Tangent Online Recommended Reading List, and one of our stories is a finalist for the 2020 WSFA Small Press Award, and we’ve been praised on Podcasts from SciFi Saturday Night and If This Goes On (Don’t Panic) to Imaginary Worlds.
So, there is probably some validity to our observations, but there are a lot more experienced and time-honored editorial teams in this industry too. Take what we say with a grain of salt. Get your stories in front of other editors as well, along with friends, family, and your writing workshop colleagues.
A good rule of thumb is when three independent sources of critique tell you you’ve got the same weakness to work on, you should probably work on it.
Why did we send your story back? Because we send back 97% of all the stories we receive.
If we gave comments, they are about the flaws we saw in your story, not a comment on you as a person or your future potential. See if other people agree. If you find an audience for a work we didn’t buy, especially if you sell that story, we’re happy for you! Let us know, we’ll post your success on our Social Media.
What can you do to improve your odds of success? Well, based on our observations in this article: be prolific and put your work in front of as many editors as you can.
Create new worlds and ideas, new characters that we haven’t seen before, or that take us through stories in unexpected ways.
Do pay attention to a magazine’s requirements and requests. Don’t send 10,000-word novelettes if they’re setting a 5,000-word limit, don’t send zombies if they’re done with zombies, etc. Identify and work on your weaknesses. Always try to improve.
Know that, most of the time, the odds are certainly not in your favor, even when you “hit all the marks.”
Keep in mind that there is no way for you to control all the variables; you don’t even know who your competition is during any given submission period for any given magazine.
Nevertheless, we enjoyed hearing from you, we appreciated your enthusiasm, and we especially like to see you get better over time; we’re proud of you when you do, even if we don’t find a place for that next story either.
Writing is often fun and imaginative and fills you with a sense of creative accomplishment. Submitting for publication can be a daunting and disappointing exercise. We know that.
If you think it’s still worth doing, we respect your efforts and we look forward to reading your next story.
Would you like to participate in the DreamForge Adventure? Subscribe today. We’d love to have your support.