Hone your craft
Improve your writing
Learn from the best in the biz
The Writer's Gym
Listen to your editor
Listen to your Editor
And for the Love of God, Don't be an Idiot
(Part 1 of 3)
by Danny Hankner
It’s hard enough getting published. Years of your life devoted to perfecting your craft, thousands of hours reading and writing and critiquing, endless nights searching for the right publisher, reformatting, submitting, and waiting…only to be rejected because you made some bonehead mistake. Look, it happens all the time. It’s the other side of publishing that nobody else will tell you, but I’ve seen it, and because I’m rooting for you, I’m going to let you in on these mistakes by telling personal stories of real-life dumb-dumbs who have crossed our paths in this three-part series titled Don’t be an Idiot. Is that harsh? Tough excrement. Now before we get started, have I ever told you what my old roommates referred to as Dan’s Theory on Economics? No? Well then, let me slightly recalibrate it to fit our literary needs:
“Some people were born to make bad decisions…so the rest of us can prosper get published.”
In this article, we won’t be discussing craft, but rather the communal side of publishing – (gasp!) working with other people. Fear not, all my introverted and socially awkward friends! You don’t need experience speaking in public, cold calling, or even peddling vacuums door to door. No, all you need to do is one little thing…
Don’t be an idiot.
Now let me tell you a story.
At some point in our storied past (see what I did there), a writer submitted a nice little diddy to us. It was truly an excellent story – well-written, engaging, funny, and with a satisfying ending and story arc. However, two minor (but glaring) problems needed to be addressed before we accepted. The good news is that both of these issues were very easy to fix. Like, I could have done it in five minutes quick while stuffing my face with cheese-filled breadsticks from Kwik Star. Yes, that easy. So what were these problems, you ask?
First was the title.
Allow me this: titles are a big deal, and they matter. They’re the first part of your story that everyone reads – the frontline in marketing. It’s why so many publishers – Story Unlikely included – often change the title of the original manuscript. This is normal. Especially when the title submitted is bad. And the title of the story was bad. Like, a real doozy, but not just any doozy, it was – and you can quote me on this – the worst title I’ve ever read.
That’s right, folks. Ol’ Danny boy with 20 years of writing under his thinning wings, who reads thousands of submissions every year, just dropped the heavyweight belt for the worst title he’s ever read. I bet you’re just dying to know what this title was, right? It’s not my intent to embarrass this writer, but I can’t properly drive home the point unless I spill the beans. Ok, so here goes. *Griswold family drumroll please* The worst title I’ve ever read was…
A Scary Story Told Not of the Whims of Fireside Horror, but as a Romance of Late Modernity
To this day, I still cringe upon reading that. This title embodies everything you shouldn’t do, and it makes for such a teachable moment, so let’s break down why this title is so rotten.
First, it’s long. Now, I’m not saying you can’t write long titles, but the vast majority of the time, the title of your story needs to be short and snappy, not long-winded and incoherent, like a rambling yarn told from the Alzheimer’s ward.
Second, it’s not catchy. What in this makes you want to read on? As previously stated, titles are your frontline offense in marketing. A good title alone can hook (and sell!) a reader. Never take your reader for granted; ABC folks – Always Be Closing. And closing (selling) your stories starts with a catchy title.
Third, it’s confusing. There’s just so much going on here that it’s hard to tell up from down. It’s simply too much, and because of it, readers will be immediately turned off before ever reading the first page.
So, have I properly made my case? And even if you’ve come across a worse title or two in your journeys, can we all agree that it indeed deserves its place in the trash bin? Great. Now, before I get back to the story, let me tell you the second problem of this submission that desperately needed changing, which was weirdly tied into the title. The story is told primarily by the female protagonist, but in between each segment there were a few sentences from the (would-be) killer’s perspective, in poetic verse, alluding to his plans of carnage after he woos the fair maiden. This added nothing to the story – in fact, it detracted because instead of letting the story (and its twists) play out, you were given a glimpse of the antagonist’s plans so that when they were delivered, there was no surprise - all it did was gut the tension.
No worries! I thought, as both of these problems were easily remedied.
So I reached out to the author with significant and genuine praise for the story and expressed our desire to publish it but with my reservations about the title and the poetic verse between each section. He responded politely but was unsure about changing both of those things. Now you must remember, although I’m the benevolent dictator of Story Unlikely, I’m also a team player. I’m ok with not always getting my way. There are times to give and bend and be flexible, but that works both ways. To extend a little rope to this author, I told him I’d pass this around to our other editors and get their feedback before coming to any conclusions. And I did. To nobody’s surprise, their thoughts were identical to mine – the title was awful and needed changing, and the poetic verses added nothing to the story but only acted as a potential to take away from its potency.
So it wasn’t just me.
I reached back out to the author and kindly explained our thoughts in a bit more tact than shown above. The author, however, was unwilling to budge. He thought the poetic verse was imperative to his story (something about how late modernity demanded such whimsies - whatever the hell that meant) and he liked the title, and because one random person on Reddit commented that they liked the title (I suspect he had asked for thoughts on said title before submitting), and that – in his mind - cemented it.
This segways to our final lesson today: don’t take the word from a random stranger on the internet, especially when it flies in the face of a publisher and his entire editing team. Online Randos are just that – random. They come and go and contain no inherent value. Whereas a publisher with expertise who is willing to pay you for your work and expose it to readers all over the world does have value. And that speaks nothing of forging relationships for future collaboration. Story Unlikely is growing at a rate unseen in the lit mag world – God only knows where we’ll be in a few years, and what opportunities will arise. And when we go to partner with other writers, who do you suppose we’re going to reach out to? Writers Who Know Best and will never give an inch, or the ones who are willing to work with others for a common goal?
The answer is obvious.
So, do you want to help boost your odds of getting those stories published? For starters:
  • Don’t write crappy titles, and if you do, be willing to change them.
  • Be a team player (give and take, by definition, goes both ways).
  • Heed good advice (and throw out the bad, like randos on the internet who have no skin in the game).
  • Listen to your editor. And no, not all editors are created equal, and some of them will be wrong. But generally speaking, editors and publishers who are willing to pay you for your work generally have the best interest of the story in mind. When in doubt, listen to them.
So you want to get published, dear writer? For starters, do all the above, listen to your editor, and for the Love of God, don’t be an idiot.
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