Sunday, March 3, 2013

[Link] Urban Myth vs. the Truth

by Nancy Kress

Publishing, no less than any other field, is full of stories presented as truth—call them urban myths. Like the alligators in the New York City sewage system, these myths are often sworn to by people who have not actually experienced them. The danger for aspiring writers is that you may believe publishing myths that are not true—or discount those that are not myths, but fact.

So which is which? Let’s drain some water pipes and see what alligators we find.

Myth #1:
The odds and evens

This “truth” is, for some reason, often presented by writing instructors with minor sadistic tendencies masquerading as helpfulness. It goes like this: Every month a major magazine or publishing house may receive about 800 manuscripts. Therefore, the odds of acceptance are very low, about 800 to 1, and you shouldn’t get your hopes up too high.

As the maxim says, “There are lies, damn lies and statistics.” This is a good example. Yes, the 800 figure is correct. But publishing is not a lottery. The editor does not put all 800 manuscripts in a giant drum, rotate it wildly and choose one at random. The 800-to-1 odds, however much they may apply to lotteries, do not apply to fiction.

Instead, the editor (or his assistants) will read those manuscripts. No, not all of them all the way through. Some will be eliminated after a page or two, others because they clearly do not fit publishing requirements. Some will be read all the way through but simply don’t impress the editor because the ending doesn’t work, the idea is old, the characters are unbelievable … you know the list.

However, this means that a story suitable for the place you’ve sent it, with decent prose that’s plausible and interesting, enjoys considerably better odds than 800 to 1. The odds may shrink to, say, 20 to 1, which means the editor has seen 20 stories he could conceivably publish.

The point here is that talent outweighs numbers. If your manuscript is truly good, it doesn’t matter whether the editor has received 10,000 other manuscripts. Yours will stand out. Forget the odds and concentrate on the quality.

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