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In other words, if the writing is poor or not good enough but the editor likes the story, then a revision is requested.

I'd like to add that part of the reason for asking this question is because there is a temptation to try to somehow 'test' the idea of a story first, in terms of whether or not editors will be interested in it, before investing the time and effort to work on making the writing as good as it should be. It is sometimes frustrating to work hard on the writing of a story only for it to end up being rejected anyway because the story itself just doesn't suit them.

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    Why wouldn't a revision be requested if the writing is bad? I mean, if the story is good but the writing is bad then of course you have to revise it... wouldn't you? – Cate Z. Jul 7 '18 at 11:03
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    Hey, how about trying Critique Circle? I'm in the group and am very happy with it. – Cate Z. Jul 7 '18 at 11:39
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    Well, the members of Critique Circle act like editors. You can submit your story or even a part of it, and the members will read it and send you messages about the story. – Cate Z. Jul 7 '18 at 12:17
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    There are pitch events at some conferences where you can pitch ideas to agents and get a sense of the enthusiasm for a story. This may be a mechanism to test the waters on a story idea without polishing an entire novel perfectly. It seems to me that pitch events could be done online as well, although I've not heard of these outside of Twitter, and those tend to have their own set of problems. – DPT Jul 7 '18 at 19:56
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    Could you clarify whether you're talking about publishing a story in a journal or publishing a book? The answers will vary depending on at least that. – Ken Mohnkern Jul 9 '18 at 15:55
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Those are two different questions!

Yes, stories get rejected because the stories are not appealing enough.

No, if the writing is bad, the story premise probably doesn't matter, the writing will be rejected anyway.

Publishers & editors & agents are all basically the same when it comes to judging a book, Let's call them gatekeepers. Gatekeepers are primarily interested in making money by selling books to the public. Cool new ideas? Sure, those can sell.

But gatekeepers are not really interested in teaching, or babysitting, or hand-holding. They have plenty of authors that are good at both writing and inventing stories. Imagination is not in short supply out there!

Many of these gatekeepers look at only the first five pages of a book, no more, before they decide whether to read it. Some will not read past the first half page. That should tell you the answer to your second question: If the writing is poorly done, they reject immediately. First books generally return very little money to either publisher or agent, and are only worth their time and energy if there is very little work to do on the writing part.

If the writing is done well, then the commercial potential of the book becomes an issue: If readers will be disappointed by a poorly crafted story, then again, the book is not going to sell well.

The primary driver of sales is endorsements to friends (or the public) by "early adopters" that took a risk and bought the book. Early Adopters are the small percentage of readers (maybe 3%) that make a habit of reading new authors, taking a chance on buying a new book and being the first to find a new gem, even if they are often disappointed. They tend to be able to afford this habit (in time and money) and to enjoy being in on the ground floor, being the first to discover a great new author, etc. It is a personality thing. Most importantly, they are trend leaders, others that are more risk-averse let the Early Adopters risk and lose, and then jump in when the Early Adopters say it is worth doing. If you don't break through the Early Adopters, you don't sell books.

Agents tend to be an extreme version of Early Adopters, they just figured out how to make money at being the first readers, and recommending their great finds not just to friends, but publishers (with editors).

Many agents request just the first five pages of your novel to judge it. A query letter with that may tell the basic story, but if the writing is not good, out it goes. It just isn't worth their time, and their stack of submissions is typically endless. Gatekeepers tend to be fast readers, finishing quicker than a page a minute. You get about ten minutes of their time to convince them to invest more time than that. Then you are done, or they do the work of requesting your manuscript. They may STILL not represent you if that needs too much work, or if it turns out your story is not satisfying or has big plot holes.

You have to do both. Write well. Write a good story. Even that is no guarantee of sales. For some reason or another, these "first readers" have to feel like they really want to tell their friends about your book and share the experience of it. I'd call that "emotional impact", their takeaway from the first read cannot be just "nothing wrong with it," it must be enthusiasm to share it (or sell it).

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    @CateZ. I would set the bar closer to "intriguing beginning." Gatekeepers know the mechanics of story telling, and that stories generally open on "the normal world", so they don't expect fireworks from the start. The first five pages prove to them you can follow the norms of writing, write something easy to read without effort (no typos, weird word choices or confusing grammar, etc) and also give people reasons to turn pages and follow a character. You get five pages. If they have no interest in seeing the sixth, or selling the work seems too daunting, stamp it "not for me" and on to the next. – Amadeus Jul 7 '18 at 12:04
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    Is it possible to bookmark/favourite an answer? This is really useful here. – Galastel Jul 7 '18 at 12:30
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    Hmm, not sure. But I think if you bookmark a question you'll be able to find the answer easily as well. By the way, @Galastel, you also have awesome answers, too! – Cate Z. Jul 7 '18 at 12:42
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    @Galastel Not that I know of, but you can favorite the question and use answer votes to guide you from there. Or you can bookmark (in your browser) the "share" link to the answer, which will take you directly to the answer, regardless of votes. – a CVn Jul 7 '18 at 20:24
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    "Many agents request just the first five pages of your novel to judge it." It's much more common for them to request either 50 pages or 3 chapters, or slight variants on that. – J.G. Jul 7 '18 at 21:50
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I'd like to add that part of the reason for asking this question is because there is a temptation to try to somehow 'test' the idea of a story first, in terms of whether or not editors will be interested in it, before investing the time and effort to work on making the writing as good as it should be.

Different markets are different, and different types of fiction are different. If you're writing the kind of literary short fiction that gets published in, say, a market like Tin House, then your prose had better glitter in the sun, and a big part of the pleasure of reading your story had better be the pleasure of reading the language (regardless of what the style is -- e.g., it may be written in the voice of an uneducated teenage opiod addict).

On the other hand, a lot of fiction in the genre ghetto is written in a very simple, direct style that just stays out of the way and allows the reader to maintain the "reader's trance" without being distracted. This is pretty much what I shoot for in the science fiction I write. If you are writing for this type of market, then the quality of your prose should be something that requires no extra effort from you -- you simply produce solid, workmanlike prose because you have the proficiency to do so.

In my experience, there is definitely a risk of producing stories that are "not appealing enough." When I started writing SF, I was writing a lot of dark stories with unsympathetic protagonists and unhappy or ironic endings. E.g., I wrote a story from the point of view of a (futuristic) car dealer who wanted to tell you his joke about the Pope and the pygmy, and who considered it a peak experience of his life to make a pass at his teenage babysitter. You wanted to take a shower after reading something written in this guy's POV. I thought it was great, but I learned that SF readers are just not that into protagonists who don't "protag."

What helped me to align my writing better with readers' preferences was attending a summer workshop in which I experienced people's reactions to my work. An online crit group, which others have suggested, can also work for this purpose. My only reservation about online crit groups is that they may not contain a critical mass of people who are sufficiently serious about building their craft.

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    This is a good point. I think part of the issue we try to write something 'new' and one of the reason some things haven't been done to death is because no one wants to read them. – DPT Jul 7 '18 at 22:04
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@DPT has given an excellent suggestion of a pitch event. I wrote a YA sci-fi that was very different and, like you, was concerned about spending a lot of time on a tome that would have no place in the market. Pitch events are good because it's a chance to get feedback from the gatekeepers.

But I would advise against 'testing' the waters with actual submissions. Firstly, unless it's a small publishing house that accepts unsolicited submissions, you have to get representation from an agent before you can 'test the waters' with editors anyway. And agents don't do this. They submit highly polished, marketable books because their reputation with in-house editors depends on it.

Secondly, if you submit work that isn't up to the very highest standards, it will go straight in the trash and you'll get a form rejection. They're unlikely to reply with, I thought your story concept was great, you just need to polish it. Agents rarely give feedback, they don't have time.

But what's really frightening is, they may remember your name! So if you do spend months/years finishing and polishing it, they may take one look at your cover letter and think, I remember user394536, I'm not reading this crap again! And your chance is lost - even if it's no longer crap but a literary masterpiece. Submissions are often a one-chance opportunity and a lot depends on making a fabulous first impression.

Lastly, I would say that if you aren't sure that your story is going to set the agent world on fire, then maybe you need to take another look at your story and ask yourself why you aren't 100% confident that it's worth your time. Because if you aren't 100% behind it, agents probably won't be either.

I feel your pain. It is hard to put so many hours/days/months/years of your life into a body of work you don't know will sell. But that is the nature of this business. You used to be able to get an advance on a pitch and the first few chapters, but it's cut-throat out there now. This is why we're told time and time again to write for the joy of writing, not for the success it may never yield.

Go with DPTs idea and go to a few pitch events. This is the one time that agents will give feedback. They may even say, submit it to me when it's finished!!

GOOD LUCK. And have fun writing it. That's what it should all be about.


p.s. FYI, that literary tome that I wasn't 100% confident about never got picked up. While it got some good feedback during the pitch event, my intuition about it was bang on (I wasted 3 years finishing it in spite of that gut feeling). When I did get picked up, it was with a book I was 100% confident would set the agent world on fire. So unless you get incredible feedback at a pitch event, trust your instincts. If you aren't sure about it, ask yourself why.

  • This seems reasonable if we're talking about a book, although the OP refers to "stories." Some of this material (e.g., about agents) would not apply to short fiction markets. – Ben Crowell Jul 9 '18 at 23:48
  • @BenCrowell Yes, you're absolutely right. When I think of 'stories' my mind goes straight to novels because that's what I write. I also jumped to that conclusion assuming the OP meant investing years in time and effort (my bad! but short fiction... wouldn't you absolutely invest the time and effort to get it bang on first time?) But yes, you are right, I have had a friend get accepted by a magazine after she re-wrote and re-submitted. And to be fair, that does happen in the novel/agent world too sometimes, but I, personally, wouldn't risk testing waters. – GGx Jul 10 '18 at 5:40

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