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.”