Not What We’re Looking For

I love it (meaning I hate it) when an editor rejects one my short stories with the line, “It’s not what we’re looking for right now.”

That’s such a loaded statement.

What are they really saying?

Is the editor telling the truth? “Your story is good, but it doesn’t fit with the theme of any issue we have coming up, so we’re going to pass for now.” No, don’t pass! Accept it and publish it when you’re ready. I’ll wait for years to see it in print if I have to. Just give me the vindication of acceptance.

Are they trying to be polite and let you down easy? “Your story is hot garbage.” Well, thanks for protecting my feelings, but if you don’t tell me I’ve just written something akin to pig vomit how do I know to make it better? Now I’m going to send it off to another publication and get my hopes up all over again.

Does this all have to do with name recognition? “Your story is fantastic, but we can’t sell copies based on your name, so thanks but no thanks.” You know that feeling you had when you applied for your first job and all the positions that justified your college degree or post-high school training required experience, and there was seemingly no jobs open for brand-new professionals like you except for the kind of jobs you would have been over-qualified for in the tenth grade? This is exactly like that. Everybody wants a best-selling author writing for them, but nobody wants to help you become a best-seller. Except there are new authors being published all the time, so somebody (lots of editors, actually) are taking a chance on unknown writers. Obviously, then, the problem is that you’re a no-talent hack that couldn’t write an original and engaging short story if a seasoned veteran just handed you a manuscript and said to copy it word for word and take full credit; you’d mess even that up somehow. At least that’s what I tell myself.

And there’s always the follow-up question: so, what are you looking for? I wish editors would tell me. I’d gladly custom-write a short story that’s more likely to get published. Sure, they say as much in their calls for submissions, but those can be confusing.

“Think Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, and Edgar Allan Poe. We want something fresh and original!” Well, which is it: something that evokes those authors, or something that evokes my own voice?

“We want content that’s new and exciting, that pays homage to the grand adventure stories of old.” So a new and exciting story that’s also a homage? Fantastic.

“We want our readers to feel like they’re reading one of the classics, with an inspiring new twist.” Like, what, exactly? How am I supposed to replicate a classical work yet give it a new twist?

It’s got to be a hard job selecting works for a publication. You need to find stories that will keep readers coming back, and that’s not an easy task. I don’t envy editors, but I do have to wonder exactly what their selection criteria is.

It would be almost easier if every call for submissions was just three words: “Read our minds.”

Music to Write To

Right now, I’m listening to Apple’s Smashing Pumpkins Essentials playlist. It starts off with “1979,” one of the most chill and heartfelt songs I’ve ever heard. The soft echo of the instrumentals and Billy Corgan’s whispering vocals bring me back to a trip I took to Chicago in the summer of 2009. I had taken a taxi cab to meet a friend at a hotel bar. She was someone I knew from the library world, and was a mentor and sympathetic ear to me. I was looking forward to having an enlightening conversation with her over a few drinks.

The cool night air poured into the taxi cab window as dusk settled across the city. The noise of big city traffic and the twinkle of metropolitan lights contrasted with the relative quiet to which I was accustomed back home. It was a magical evening, but not in the romantic or adventurous sense; there was something in the air which I could not explain, not an excitement but, oddly enough, a peace. I felt a sense of belonging despite being so far from home, and was listening to “1979” on my iPod (or maybe my phone, I can’t remember exactly). Then again, maybe I wasn’t listening to it. Maybe I was thinking about the music video, which was set in big city traffic, or this song was just on my mind (the band is from Chicago, after all).

Either way, all of these memories come from a simple song. This is why I love listening to music while I write. Songs really do take you back to a place in time, good or bad. I’m currently taking the Masterclass with Neil Gaiman (which I highly recommend) and he speaks of a writer’s “compost heap:” a collection of memories, conversations, experiences, and all kinds of things that, over time, condense down and fertilize your fiction writing. Most of what’s on my compost heap is music.

Any song from Korn’s Follow the Leader takes me back to college. Korn had been very popular when I was in high school, but now that I had disposable income from a part-time job, I could afford the popular music I couldn’t back then. I listened to that album endlessly, rediscovering some songs and discovering many for the first time. I went to a very conservative college, so I didn’t have to jump over many hurdles to be a rebel/outcast/whatever you want to call the weird kid; wearing black and listening to Korn helped cement that image. I kind of liked it, truth to be told. Granted, I was a good student and stayed out of trouble, but being outspoken and strange definitely made me feel like an interesting character.

“Closer” by Nine Inch Nails takes me back to the night I downloaded it on Napster (please tell me you remember Napster). I knew it was a popular song and wanted to give it a listen. I downloaded it, listened to it, and was instantly terrified. It felt forbidden, taboo even. I knew my parents would disapprove. I immediately deleted it. I didn’t want to be caught dead with it. Now, it’s one of my favorites.

Listening to hair metal takes me back to my childhood, when my mother and my aunt would blast Poison, Motley Crue, and Warrant on road trips to the beach. Old school R&B and hip-hop takes me back to my marching band days, when we played some of the great classics as part of our shows and parades. We played an especially rousing rendition of “Thriller” with a killer bass line pumped out by an extremely talented bass saxophonist. “Calling You” by Blue October brings me back to my wedding day, when I walked down the aisle with my brand-new wife to begin our life together.

Sometimes it can be hard to write to music. These memories tend to interfere with the creative process. That’s why I try to match the music with what I’m writing. Horror has a soundtrack of industrial and black metal. If I’m writing a western, then it’s outlaw country and contemporary blue grass. Fantasy and high adventure get a background of arena rock, power metal, and rousing orchestral arrangements. That way, the linked memories and emotions boost my writing instead of interfere with it.

Of course, sometimes what interferes the most is simply deciding on the right playlist or album for that day’s writing. Much like a driver who refuses to back out of the driveway until they have the perfect driving song, I tend to not bother putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as is often the case) until I’ve got just the right song spinning.

Maybe that explains why I’m not getting much writing done these past few days. I just like music too much.