5 Things I Learned By Being An Editor

by Michael J. H. MacNeill

Two years ago I got a wild hair up my ass and decided to make a fiction magazine. There weren’t many magazines out there that produced what I wanted.

What I wanted was the equivalent of a low budget, terrible-but-great horror movie. Despite having no budget, and despite having no directorial skills and no trained actors and no sober crewmembers, a bunch of enthusiastic fans with a camera and a heart of gold can still make something incredible. And by incredible, I mean incredibly bad. But something magical happens with these kinds of bad movies. The audience can quickly adopt the movie’s shortcomings, and, somewhere along the line, the chemistry of the water changes. It’s the puppet show effect. Don’t bother hiding the strings. Everybody can tell that it’s a puppet. There are no illusions. The strings don’t matter. You can still enjoy the show.

I wanted that DIY, screw the rules, “lean in” quality in a literary magazine. And, equally as important, I wanted to show off the good work that my writing group was producing. Most importantly, I wanted to reestablish subterranean mutants and slimy, semi-erotic monsters into the great Literary Conversation. So I got to work, learned what I needed to learn, and put out the word.

That’s when I realized I had been fucking up.

#1: Make your submission frictionless.

People don’t want to work. We’re all lazy meat mannequins who are wired to find the paths of least resistance. Do you want to increase your chances of having your cuneiform head-movie make it to the final round of cuts? Make your submission the easiest submission to use. What do I mean by use?

Format your goddamned submission to the goddamned submission guidelines. The submission guidelines aren’t just for fun. They are not put into place just to make things easier to read for the editor(which they do. Reason number 1 to follow them to the letter). It’s not because the editorial team simply has a preference for font(which they do. Reason number 2 to follow the guidelines like a religion). Submission guidelines are put in place for specific,  procedural reasons.

We’re just going to use your raw text, and reformat everything based on the intended final product.  We’ll try to achieve the author’s intention to the best of our ability. We’re fancy black-clad beret-capped cigarette smoking artists as well. We get it.

But in order to make a book, you have to format the text in a way that plays nice with the designated output. You want to make an ebook a flowable and resizable, so that people can zoom on their Kindles (because that’s half the reason why people buy stuff on a Kindle)? Producing that ebook with those properties requires specific formatting. Chapters get formatted to work with tables of contents. Pagebreaks are manually input in order to make things clean when a chapter ends. Margins can’t be played with, because that’s automatically generated based on the device. Your phone will have a smaller margin than your big tablet, and that’s all done by the device and the reading app. Users on Kindles or other ereaders can manually change the text size and font.

So make your submission a dream to work with. Avoid fancy, artistic funny business. Some places would love to reproduce your E. E. Cummings-style fan poem retelling of House of Leaves. Don’t take my word for it. If your’e trying to do something specific, then be very aware of what you’re doing to who has to create the damn book.

Most places will look at your fancy page and probably automatically say no. Why? Because Including special characters, custom margins, images, funky fonts in different sizes means that you’re creating a giant bucket of extra work. And most places won’t take the time to send you a response saying “We’d love to read your submission but could you reformat it to…?” Your artistic vision is important. But know that you’ve created a lot more work. And the more work the editors have to do, the worse your odds are to make it in.

Follow the submission guidelines. Are they ambiguous? Use exactly one font. One size. Consistent line spacing (single or double). Beware of paragraph breaks. Keep it dead simple.

And for god’s sakes, spellcheck your document. I shouldn’t have to say this. I shouldn’t have to say “please wash your hands after you use a toilet in the airport.” But here we are, in an airport, and everyone has smelly hands. Spellcheck your document.

#2: Kill ‘em with the first line. Then the first paragraph. Then the first page.

Remember how you’re trying to make things easy for the editors? Well, reading a ton of submissions is a lot of work. Popular venues for fiction get hundreds if not thousands of submissions. Some poor, underpaid sap with a dream in their heart has to sift through all of that for minimum wage. Or free.

You’re at a desk, sitting in front of a stack of paper that’s three times as tall as your coffee mug. It’s your job is to find the good stuff. It’s rather soul crushing as a writer, but after a while, you can become a good judge of someone’s writing by reading the first paragraph, if not the very first line.

Whether you’re submitting a quiet, domestic lit-fic piece, or an erotic spy thriller, or an erotic lit-fic piece of domestic spies, you have exactly one line. Hook me with a sense of mystery, a sense of tension, or purpose, or eroticism, or humor… whatever kind of drink you are, you have to give me a sip. Immediately. If you’re going to polish anything, spend your time at the start. It might hurt, but let it sink in. You’ve got to give me some juice with the very first line.


Did you make a sweet first line? Alright. Hit me with a sweet first paragraph.

If you can make me finish the first page, you’ve already bought your way out of the trash can and into the slush pile. It’s that fast. You have one line. Then one paragraph. Then one page.

Your middle can suck. Your ending can suck. But if you’ve made me get to the middle, you’ve already illustrated that you’ve started something worth reading. You can fix a middle or an end, but only after you’ve bought yourself the time to get there. And you only have the space of the first line, then the first paragraph.

#3: They can’t wear the dress if it’s not in their size.

You’ve written a masterpiece. It’s incredible. Really, truly, it would be a service to the world if it was out there, available for the public to read. Who ever publishes your story would be honored to do so.

It’s a grim sci-fi space opera, as if Star Wars was written by Cormac McCarthy. Wow. A real stunner.

The trouble is, I publish lighthearted cowboy romances.

I’ve read and fallen in love with your sci-fi story. Not just as an editor. You’ve made a fan. I’ll recommend it to friends.

I’m still not going to put your grim space opera in my cowboy romance anthology. I love the dress. It’s just not in my size.

“But you could lose weight!?”

Seriously? Did you just ask your customer to lose weight in order to buy your dress? You’re not going to sell a dress to a person if it’s not in their size. They can love the dress. But it’s not what they’re looking for. This is truly nothing personal.

Know who you are submitting to. Know what they make. Could you possibly, maybe fit in? Throw in the submission. You never know. But keep your expectations realistic. Cowboy romance readers are picking up a book because it’s got cowboy romance in it. Don’t ever expect people to make special accommodations because you’re just that damned brilliant. Because, honestly? None of us are.

#4: Write for your benefit.

I don’t think that people should not restrict themselves to only write what they love. If you love a genre or format, it will shine out from the page. You should write what you love. But there is a cost to writing what you love, and that cost is stagnation. Sticking to your lane is a recipe to avoid confrontation and growth.

You should also experiment. Read everything. Try everything on for size. A lot of it won’t fit. A lot of the food won’t be to your liking. We learn from failure. Every failed attempt at something is a lesson. If you love horror, try writing YA romance. If you love fantasy with swordplay, try writing a political thriller. Congratulations. You’ve written a lopsided, failing example of a YA romantic political thriller. But I guarantee that you’ve learned a lot, or discovered something about yourself, some weakness in your armor, some tendency in your style that you wouldn’t have noticed until you wrote out of your genre.

Developing catholic tastes and broadening our vocabulary of story will bring you joy. It could also bring you profit. You might not realize it, but you have a knack for writing children’s books. Or fantasy stories. Or multigenerational family dramas. Lots of people just write what pays. You should try that too.

Get out of the box that you’ve made. You will learn a lot about storytelling from unexpected sources. Only write fiction? Write a sports op-ed. Seriously,  try it all.

So find some places that publish stories. Buy a few copies. Review what they publish. And write specifically for that magazine. Recognize and understand its audience, and its fans’ expected tropes or themes, and give it a shot with that venue or periodical specifically in mind. If you write a story that’s right in the magazine’s wheelhouse, that points right at what the readers want, and followed the submission guidelines…you’ve bought yourself another ticket out of the trash can, and probably to the top of the slush pile.

Write what you love and what fills your heart. But try targeting your audience too.

#5: Respect.

Throbbing Tales has exactly one reliable worker: me. Some friends help with small things when they can and if I have the presence of mind to ask, but it’s more or less my monkeys and my circus. I designed the various versions of the cover myself. I navigated how to format documents to make things work. I happen to do graphic design on the side, and I’m a fairly computer savvy millennial, so I was fortunate enough to have a perfect combination of skills and spare time to make things happen. I put out the calls for submissions, and coordinated with people(who volunteered for free) to scrub the names and be an alpha reader, in order to give all of the submissions a fair shake.

Based on some cursory research, most anthologies, lit magazines, or similar operations are run by a surprisingly small number of people. People who might end up making net negative money when it’s all said and done.

I’m not connected to anybody else, but it is a remarkably small world. If a submitter sends a rude email, a complaint, an argument, or something like it, they better have a damn good point. An irrefutable point, hopefully backed up with evidence. Something that makes me take a long look in the mirror. If you’re just cranky, or angry at the world and taking it out on the editor, say goodnight. Don’t bother submitting something else. This has never happened to me and I am blessed by Crom to be surrounded by such awesome people. But I can only imagine the malevolent cackle that would escape my lips during a thunderstorm if I were to receive someone’s digital clapback, the omnipotent smile on my face as I type their name in the Official Literary Industry Blacklist database, the satisfying click of the enter key as I destroy their futures, then thirst for their imminent lamentations.

Be respectful.

Your Homework

Learning these things in a visceral way has opened my eyes. I genuinely hope that you decide to try it for yourself. I’m different now that I’ve glimpsed the other side of the veil. Here’s how you take it home.

Make one yourself. Seriously. Try it. It’s awesome, it’s rewarding, it’s difficult, and it’s a game changer for your own writing practice.

Find some places to submit to. Buy a copy of their thing. See what they’re all about. Review their submission guidelines. Literally construct your writing document to the specifications outlined in the submission guidelines before you even start. Write something specifically for them, just to try and flex your muscles. And hit them with the first line. Then the first paragraph. Then the first page.

Then you win the jackpot. Or you don’t. Either way, try to be respectful.

Michael J. H. MacNeill is an author and editor. You can find the most recent issue of Throbbing Tales on Amazon.

Leave a Reply