I’ve never avoided cracks in the pavements. I stroll with insouciance (but appropriate care, I’m not stupid) beneath ladders. I don’t check my horoscopes. I’ve never even sacrificed a small animal in the hope that its freshly spewed innards would provide some an insight into the future.
I have never been superstitious.
Never, that is, until I began submitting myself to the mind-breaking, soul-shattering, self-confidence-destroying exercise in futility and humiliation that is trying to get editors to accept (and, preferably, pay for) the stories I’ve written.
Now there are signs and portents everywhere.
Editors are lined up against me, as implacable and unreadable as those giant stone heads on Easter Island, and I feel like part of some vast cult. Like the Polynesians of old Rapa Nui we’re deforesting the land at an ever faster rate as we try to give these cold, primeval gods their proper tribute. Please accept my manuscript, we beg the mighty ones. Please be happy with it.
So off goes the story and then comes the waiting. A quick response is usually bad news – the offering was unworthy. Greater sacrifices required. Then time begins to stretch. At first there’s hope. Perhaps you’ve scrambled over a few hurdles and made it closer to the holy grail of (whisper it!) publication. Then hope starts to curdle into the fear. Has your manuscript ended up lining the cage of a postman’s gerbil?
One magazine has had a story of mine for seven months. I contacted them after three. “Yes we’re considering it,” the magazine said.
I want to contact them again, but a story in limbo is like Schrödinger’s Cat. As long as I don’t force them to open the box, then the cat/story isn’t dead yet. There’s still a chance, although – unlike the probability pussy – the odds are always stacked prettily heavily against a happy ending and a bowl of Meow Mix.
And, when (if) an editor does respond I find myself compelled to pore over every syllable for meaning, as if the words belonged to golden Apollo himself and had fallen fresh from the mouth of the Pythian priestess. No Delphic pronouncements were ever so carefully analysed.
This month I received a rejection from the editor of one of the big American magazines. There’s nothing strange in that, I could paper the walls of my home with rejections from magazine editors (not that I would, that would be crazy… and my wife wouldn’t let me. Pesky wife.).
But this rejection was slightly different. Not much different, but just enough that I noticed and, having noticed, began to obsess about it.
Normally the rejections are a polite “no thanks” or “this isn’t what we’re looking for” – which presumably covers all points between “go away and stop writing to us in green ink you weirdo” and “we just didn’t think your story was very good.” Since I don’t write in green ink, often, I’ve always supposed it means the latter. But this one said: “This isn’t what we’re looking for… I look forward to your next one, though.”
Oh… Is that meaningful? Is it just the random word generator that editors use to throw together rejections churning up a phrase or did this editor notice my story and actually welcome the idea of reading something else I’ve written. Is it an omen?
How do I tell?
And what should I do about it?
I haven’t got “a next one” – not one that would suit that magazine. I’m working on something, but it’s not ready. Should I rush it in an attempt to strike while the iron is hot? Or should I take my time and work on it so that I avoid using terrible clichés like “striking while the iron is hot”.
I could write back to the editor and demand that they clarify the meaning of their gnomic blatherings, but I’m just neurotypical enough to recognise that this is the behaviour of a borderline sociopath and probably won’t help my cause in the long term. Or I could surrender to superstition. There’s a goat that lives in the field at the bottom of my road. Goats are a traditional beast of sacrifice and the use of their warm intestines as instruments of soothsaying is well established. However, loud spousal sighing and screams of outrage from my daughter suggest this may not be considered appropriate. Also, although the goat is old and looks stupid, it is surprisingly hard to catch.
Which leaves me with only one option… write, submit, wait, repeat.
And hope that the great gods of magazines will look favourably upon my offerings.
(This was originally published as the editorial of Focus no. 57)