So you’ve had a short story accepted for publication! Congratulations. Paid or unpaid, it doesn’t matter, I bet you’re tickled pink! Someone else believes in your work and soon real readers are going to see your story in print. Hallelujah!
I know what it’s like to be an author, and I know what it’s like to be editor. First-time authors are sometimes some of the most annoying people on the planet.
Authors, just be cool and don’t screw it up.
I did this as an author. I’ve seen it many times as an editor.
The first time I had a story accepted for publication, I had already been working in the industry for a while. It quickly became clear to me that the editor genuinely didn’t know what he was doing, either from an editorial or a business standpoint. When he added a bunch of exclamation points to my story (come on, man!), I told him so and ended up pulling my story from the publication. I just couldn’t abide with those changes.
Today, that story is still sitting on my hard drive. I never found another home for it. That particular anthology didn’t really go anywhere big, but it still would have been a decent publishing credit and I would still have a relationship with that editor. The story isn’t doing my any good on my hard drive, and in my zeal I turned a friend into an enemy.
In hindsight, I was 100% correct about his editing. But really, did those exclamation points actually matter? Wouldn’t publishing a story with a little extra punctuation have been better than not publishing at all?
As an author, you’re just so darn excited, and you’re usually carrying unrealistic pressure. For you, this feels like the World Series, it’s your make-it-or-break-it moment. You’ve finally made it! In reality, it’s more like your first high school game. The stakes matter and your performance can have an impact long term, but by the tenth game you’re more interested in getting pizza with your friends after it’s over.
You’re going to publish a lot of stories. Right now everything feels so important, but by the tenth time you publish a story you’re not going to care what revisions the editor wants to make. “Yah, do whatever you want,” will be your attitude.
Your editor is going to ask for revisions. She’s going to shape the story, the way it’s presented, and even how you’re presented. That can be challenging and scary the first time, and authors sometimes freak out and ruin the opportunity prior to publication.
Here are six keys to remember the first time you publish a short story so that you don’t foul it up and tank yourself before you start:
1. Your editor is not as excited as you.
Remember how excited you were on Christmas morning as a kid? There could be anything downstairs under the Christmas tree. You’re dancing around at the top of the stairs while your parents take their sweet time getting out of bed. Don’t they understand?
Now I’m the parent, and my kids pile into my room at six in the morning. They wait until six because that’s the rule, and not a minute longer. Now it’s me who has to go to the bathroom and get a drink of water before we tumble downstairs and dive into the present opening. It’s not because I’m selfish, it’s because I know that if I can just have two minutes I’ll be a much better dad, and everyone will have a better experience. My wisdom trumps their excitement.
This is not dissimilar to the author-editor relationship.
There’s a real power imbalance in the author-editor relationship. For the editor, this is just another day at the office and another story in the stack, it’s important, but only as important as six other things. For the author, though, this might feel like the most exciting and important thing ever!
Be patient and graceful with your editor. They’re not ignoring you, they’re probably just managing several projects at the same time and you’re not always at the top of their list. It’s OK to follow up if you haven’t heard from your editor when you were expecting to, but otherwise let them do their job.
Your editor very likely cares about your story (a lot!) and is deeply invested in its success, but chances are that his little heart isn’t pounding when he thinks about running his hand across the printed ink like yours is.
If you become contentious, annoying, or defensive with your editor, do you think they’ll be excited to work with you? Or do you think your story will somehow always find its way back to the bottom of their stack?
2. Your editor has a process.
Your editor is managing lots of projects, which means that she has a system and an order in which she does things. She’s (hopefully) not making it up as she goes along for each author.
You may want things to go faster or disagree with certain steps, but submitting to the editor’s system without complaint is the best way to ensure that the job is completed correctly and on time. If you’re kind she’ll be excited to work with you and keep your story moving along.
3. Your editor knows the publication’s audience.
Before you balk at a revision the editor wants, consider that your editor knows the audience of her publication better than you do. You may have written it just the way you wanted it, and it might have been excellent in its own right, but that doesn’t mean it was perfect for that publication’s readers.
If your editor is any good, she knows exactly who is going to be reading this publication and exactly how to help your story achieve maximum impact.
4. Your editor needs this to be successful even more than you do.
As important as this story feels to you right now, it’s actually more important to your editor. He’s the one whose job depends on publishing great content that connects with the target audience. This is his only life line, for you it’s just one little hook in the water.
He needs this story to contribute to the overall success of the enterprise and at the end of the year, he’ll be evaluated based on the success of his work. For you, next year this event will be a blip, it will just be that one story you published that one time.
5. Your editor is connected.
There are real stakes for this publication. Maybe an agent will read your story and reach out or it will win an award! Maybe a thousand people will join your mailing list, or your social media will get a huge boost.
But there are also stakes for you right now in this pre-publication phase. Editors usually have friends throughout the publishing industry, and they love to trade war stories. It doesn’t take long for an author to develop a reputation as a pain in the butt, and that can tank your career.
I’m not suggesting that your editor will be vindictive if you’re unpleasant to work with (again, they really don’t care as much as you do), but word spreads, and agents and editors sometimes ask for references. What do you want your editor to say when an agent calls them and asks, “What’s it like to work with…?”
It’s not all bad! It’s entirely possible, likely even, that your relationship with that editor will be the biggest advantage you gain from this publication. After the story is published, an agent probably won’t call and you’ll probably only get a few new fans, but if you prove yourself as a person who gets it and is fun to work with, you will gain an advocate in the industry. That’s how you get ahead.
6. Your editor is on your team, with the same goal—to make you look good.
Your editor wins when you win. Your editor wants your story to go gangbusters. He wants people breaking down the door for more. That’s how he wins.
It’s part of the editor’s job to be critical in order to improve the work so that you can reach your maximum potential. It’s too easy to start thinking of the editor as your enemy—this foe that you have to battle against for the integrity of your work. Don’t go there!
Your editor is on your team. If he’s asking for changes it’s because he genuinely believes that it will make your story more successful for this publication’s particular audience.
Don’t get hung up on the minutiae. One year from now you’re really not going to care about that sentence that feels worth dying for right now. Ten years from now, you won’t even remember there was a sentence.
Editors can be wrong, so I’m not suggesting that you can never push back. Just try to say “yes, no problem” as much as you can.
Editors can be forgetful, I’m not saying you can’t ever send a “Just wanted to check in” email. Maybe just wait an extra day.
Editors can even be unqualified. But, they’re still the editor—that makes them the gatekeeper. When you agree to publish, you agree to accept that relationship, but it’s only temporary.
In fact, you really want to work with an editor who is an absolute pain in the butt. You want the guy who’s going to overhaul the whole thing and build it stronger and better than it started. You want the guy who is going to tear you apart and make you look like a rockstar.
If your editor doesn’t push you at all, if he never makes you uncomfortable, that might not have been the publication to work with after all.
You’ve been accepted for publication, and that’s great. Now…be cool. Go with the flow. Build a great relationship and have a fun experience collaborating with a partner who is investing in you!
Ten years from now, that relationship will matter far more than the adjective that you couldn’t bear to change on page 4.
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