How to Write a Short Story/Chapter 7
THE PLACING OF THE STORY
Irank the ability to sell a story nearly as high as the ability to write one. Unless you can dispose of your manuscript, after you have spent hours over it, your work counts for nothing. I have seen a great many young writers, some of pronounced ability, who have given up the literary profession because they were unable to sell their work. For this reason, I say that the selling is well nigh as important as the writing.
To place a story to good advantage, you must know the market through and through. It is not enough to know that the leading ten-cent magazines use love stories. You must know wherein those found in McClure's differ from those in Munsey's, in Everybody's, in The Cosmopolitan, in every other magazine that has a personality. You must know the shades of difference that separate The Youth’s Companion and St. Nicholas; Harper’s, and The Smart Set; The Woman’s Home Companion and The Ladies’ Home Journal. When you begin to detect the points in which the editorial needs and whims differ, you are in a position to become acquainted with the literary market.
If you write stories, it is your business to make a systematic and thorough study of magazines that use short fiction. You must learn to note whether action, complications, character drawing, style, humor, or any one of a dozen other qualities is responsible for the acceptance and publication of every story you read. If you find stories that lack plot altogether, you must discover what feature takes its place. It is only in this way that you can become fully acquainted with the magazines.
Too many young writers consider the ease with which a story may be written, rather than its adaptability for any magazine. A great number of students in high schools and colleges write fiction which is praised by classmates and teachers, and which may really be good from an artistic standpoint, but which is entirely out of line with the needs of any magazine. I have seen stories that were offered to such publications as The Youth’s Companion and St. Nicholas, in which the boys played pranks that would shock the good mothers and fathers of proper children. These stories were about boys, however, and for this reason their writers imagined them fitted for the publications to which they were sent. They had absolutely no chance of acceptance, and a study of the magazines would have shown the folly of submitting such manuscripts.
Not only must you know the market but you must know your own work. You must be able to distinguish between a story adapted to Harper’s and The Century, and one that is fit only for the newspapers and syndicates. You must judge your own work honestly and without prejudice.
A story fresh from your brain will sound better than one that has been laid aside for a day or two. You will be able to pass upon its merits more impartially if you put it away until your enthusiasm cools. You will also find that it is good practice to read your stories aloud to some other person before you submit them to any magazine. The defects and crude portions will become discernible in a way they never would otherwise, particularly if your hearer is capable of criticising.
A good critic is of inestimable value. I would rather have an unbiased, honest opinion of my story, from some one who was capable of judging it, than all the praise in the world. As a matter of fact, the friends who laud your work usually do not appreciate either the defects or the merits. An unprejudiced criticism of your story will benefit you more than anything else in this matter of choosing a market.
The question of timeliness is one that should be studied. A story that fits the season has a much better chance of acceptance than one which may be used at any time and is of equal literary value. Readers expect a Christmas story in the December magazine, an Independence Day story in the July number, and seasonable fiction at all times. A great many writers overlook this fact altogether. Christmas stories are usually weak in plot; they have been done with a regularity that has exhausted all ideas. A fairly original Yule-tide story, offered during the summer months, or a good Fourth of July tale, submitted during the first quarter of the year, stands a very good chance of acceptance. If you will remember that stories should be submitted from three to six months before the issue of the magazine in which they should appear, you will be stealing a march on less experienced and less observing writers.
In considering the type of character of stories, a second side of the question of timeliness also plays a part. Like clothes, stories follow the fashions. Yesterday dialect stories were the style; the day before romantic fiction; the day before that, bald realism. To-day the stories that border on history claim recognition. To-morrow the style may change. By keeping a close watch on what is in vogue, you can more easily please the editor.
Some one has said that there is a place for every story, good, bad or indifferent, that is written. To a great extent, this statement is true. At the top stand the best magazines; at the bottom, the little pamphlet publications that do not pay for contributions. Between these extremes lie hundreds of magazines, papers, syndicates, etc., that purchase stories. Just below the best magazines are the literary weeklies. The religious papers and magazines brighten their pages with fiction. The juvenile publications pay excellent prices. The household and domestic journals run serials and short stories. Even the class publications give space to fiction. Hundreds of newspapers throughout the country offer good markets. The several syndicates purchase liberally and pay well. For no class of work is the market as wide as for the short story. You will meet rebuffs in placing your work, lots of them. You will grow discouraged, no doubt, before you dispose of your manuscript. But if you have not the bull-dog tenacity to stick to it, to meet each returning manuscript with a smile, and to go on hoping and believing in yourself, you have no business in the literary profession. Nor should rejections discourage you. “The story, or the article, or the poem,” says Albert Bigelow Paine, “may come back again and again. The author may rewrite it over and over; but if he perseveres, and the offering is genuine, it will find its place and welcome at last. I have had stories and poems returned to me as many as fifteen times, only to place them at last in a better market than I had hoped for in the beginning. The author who gives up after one rejection, or two, or ten, is unworthy of the name.”