A Cautionary Tale
by Tappan King
Copyright © 1991-1997. This document may not be reproduced in any form without express written consent of the author. You have been warned.
From March, 1986, until its untimely demise in February, 1989, I was the Editor-in-Chief of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine, and Editorial Director of its “twisted sister” publication, Night Cry. During that time, we received an average of one hundred manuscripts per week, in addition to a backlog of more than 2000 manuscripts left behind by my predecessor.
I had never edited a fiction magazine before (although I had been a consulting editor to Bantam Books between 1980 and 1985, and was involved in the founding of the Bantam Spectra imprint for science fiction and fantasy). It was an education, to say the least. During those three hectic years, my colleagues and I (including Associate Editor Alan Rogers, Managing Editors Robin Bromley and Peter “Stoney” Emshwiller, and Assistant Editors Robert Simpson and Margaret McGlynn, and several freelance readers) I made a valiant effort to keep up with the torrent of manuscripts.
During, and after, my tenure, I appeared on several panels at SF conventions which dealt with the basics of submitting a manuscript. Over time, I discovered that the audiences were far more interested (and, I think, learned more) when the panelists presented the information in dramatic form, role-playing the various characters involved, from hapless new writer to grizzled, jaded editor.
I’d been on the GEnie network (GE’s online information service) for about a year, when a side discussion in the Science Fiction Roundtable (SFRT) (in topic on the editorial relationship) spawned a new topic called “Packaging Your Manuscript.” Author Martha Soukup, an Assistant SysOp (System Operator) for the SFRT, gave it the following topic header:
CATEGORY 6 — THE WRITTEN WORD
Packaging Your Manuscript
–physically, that is. The virtues of paper clips, rubber bands, boxes, folders, and enclosed bribes to the editors: when to use what.
The topic proceeded fairly innocuously for about a month, with lighthearted banter about the proper format for pages, preferred type styles, and various types of fasteners.
But one evening at the end of July, some Imp of the Perverse overcame me, and I decided to see if there was any interest in an online version of the sort of dramatization of the editorial process I’d done previously. To my horror, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Over the next week, my waking hours were involved with the extempore creation of a thirteen-part cliffhanger, presenting in excruciating detail the trials and tribulations of Myrtle, an innocent young manuscript cast upon the winds of fate by a fledgling writer.
The response was gratifying. Not only did the members of the GEnie RT seem to enjoy the Saga of Myrtle, they also seemed to learn valuable lessons about the pitfalls of publishing, and the all-too-human nature of the editors who hold writers’ fate in their trembling hands.
A transcript of the Saga follows. It is essentially unchanged from its initial appearance, save for a few alterations for consistency and elegance. If you are interested in the rest of the dialogue, several members of the SFRT have complete transcripts of the discussion.
One disclaimer: The individuals depicted in this purely fictional exercise bear no resemblance whatsoever to actual writers or editors, living or dead, real or imaginary. Especially not the Editor-in-Chief and loyal staff of The Twilight Zone, who were, at all times, prompt, efficient, and thoroughly professional in the performance of their responsibilities.
Message 226 Mon Jul 29, 1991 at 20:43 EDT
A quick poll of the membership: Who’s interested in the Sprawling Saga of what actually happens to an SF or Fantasy short story manuscript from the time it leaves the author’s hands to the time the author gets a “yes” or “no”? Fair warning: It’s not pretty …
Message 243 Tue Jul 30, 1991 at 10:50 EDT
THE SAGA OF MYRTLE THE MANUSCRIPT, FIT THE FIRST
Myrtle is sitting in a mailbox on a rainy Monday morning, waiting for the postmam to come. One of her stamps has already started to curl, and the rain dripping in has started blearing the return address in the upper left corner. But she’s exhilarated to be starting out on her journey.
Wait! She’s been scooped up, tossed on the floor of the jeep, and rides there under Polly the Postmam’s Reebok all the way back to the station. By the end of the day, the side of her flap has gotten bent up. Now she’s been summarily sorted by size and destination, and fed through the cancel machine, and thrown in the bottom of a large canvas bag. It’s dark in here, and most of her company is stuffy business correspondence with no spark of creativity. It’s also cold in the cargo compartment of the plane, and the Indian River Grapefruit is starting to seep …
Four days later, she’s shaken out of the bag she’s been sitting in over the weekend, and dumped on a large metal table. A bored temp, wearing headphones and reading dirty magazines, flips the envelopes out over the post office floor, fifteen feet into a series of waiting mailbags, propped open in racks.
Myrtle lands in the wrong bag …
NEXT TIME: FIT THE SECOND–BENIGN NEGLECT!!
Message 246 Tue Jul 30, 1991 at 19:39 EDT
Our saga continues …
FIT THE SECOND: MYRTLE IN THE HOUSE OF BENIGN NEGLECT
It is now three weeks since Myrtle the Modest Manuscript was placed in a mailbox, and sent on her way to Shameless Stories magazine. But she has only arrived at her destination this morning, as a result of mishandling by the Postal Service.
But wait! When we say “arrived,” what do we really mean? Well, we mean that the canvas bag with U.S. POSTAL SERVICE on it has been delivered to the service entrance of the Smegma Building, where it sat on a loading dock until Tuesday morning, when Jaime, the Mailroom Guy from Chutzpah Publishing (parent company of Shameless Stories), recently recovered from root canal surgery, returns to work and drags the bag up to the mailroom. The bag is then opened on Wednesday morning, about 7:20 am, when Jaime is all alone in the mailroom, listening to Vanilla Ice and drinking a Cherry Coke, and tossing envelopes into various wooden boxes along the wall.
Here’s a sampling of the company Myrtle has on the big dented metal table in the middle of the mailroom: Business envelopes addressed to the Publisher, the Business Manager, the Comptroller, the Circulation Director, the Art Director, the Ad Sales Director, the Field Sales Director, the Publisher’s Mistress, the Publisher’s Bodyguard, and the Nice Old Lady Who Answers the phone.
But wait! There’s more! There are also manila envelopes for Sleazy Stories, Scary Stories, Smarmy Stories, Smutty Stories, Sunny Stories, and Little Baby Bunny Stories, all published by various divisions of Chutzpah Publishing.
Jaime, being a dedicated young man (despite the “J” shaved into the side of his head), works late all that week, and finally gets all of the mail sorted by Friday afternoon, leaving the work table clean as he heads out for a hot date.
Monday morning, he wheels the huge piles of stuff around to all of the different offices. It is now four weeks since the manuscript was mailed … .
NEXT TIME: MYRTLE UNDERGOES TRIAGE …
Message 249 Wed Jul 31, 1991 at 10:47 EDT
FIT THE THIRD: INCOMING WOUNDED
It’s Monday morning <M-day plus 28>, in the offices of Shameless Stories. The Editor-in-Chief, Saul Badliver, is on his fourth cup of coffee, sitting with his feet up on a pile of slush, while his two assistants, Kitty Devonshire <the Managing Editor>, and Byron Wilder <the Associate Editor> sit on the beat-up old office couch (having moved piles of manuscripts onto the floor to make room). They are discussing the December issue …
… when Jaime the Mailroom Guy rolls in a large cart with three large stacks of mail on it. Byron and Jaime slap hands as Jaime hands Byron an enormous stack of manilla envelopes. “Ah, sh*t, says Byron, “more incoming wounded … ” Kitty gets all of the form letters, bills, and other official looking correspondence. And Saul gets a small stack of stuff with his name on it.
Now watch closely: Kitty, with an apparently absent-minded air, flips quickly through the letters she’s holding. About a third of them go directly into the trash, unopened. (They are junk mail, press releases, and other stuff that’s obviously not for Shameless Stories. She rarely makes a mistake.) Byron dashes back to the airshaft he laughingly calls an office, and dumps the stack of manila envelopes (which all bear the words “Editor, Shameless Stories,” or some such variation) under his desk, and returns to Saul’s office before his coffee cools.
Saul, on the other hand, is an old-fashioned kinda guy. He feels he has to open every envelope that has his name on it, just in case it contains money. Myrtle the Manuscript has Saul’s name on it.
Now those of you who followed the narrative this far probably think this is a distinct advantage for Myrtle. For the terrifying truth, read on …
NEXT TIME: SITTIN’ HERE IN LIMBO …
Message 252 Wed Jul 31, 1991 at 19:50 EDT
FIT THE FOURTH: THE FIRST CUT IS THE DEEPEST
As the staff of Shameless Stories sit around drinking coffee and discussing the December issue, bleary-eyed Editor-in-Chief Saul Badliver is slicing open manila envelopes with the miniature Toledo sabre he got in a duty-free shop a few years back. He sticks the end of the point into the small opening made when he squeezes the end with the flap, slides it quickly in, and then saws upward with the razor-sharp blade, until he reaches the other side.
Many things can happen when he does this.
If it’s one of those horrible envelopes with the gritty gray fluff in it, he tries to pull it open by the staples, often lacerating his hands on the little staple points. (If the author has thoughtfully taped it shut with strapping tape, he throws it into the “too difficult to bother with” basket.) If the envelope is flimsy, he can tear a great chunk out of the side of the envelope. If the knife catches on the paper clip, he can gouge a great hole in the first page of the ms, or flip the sucker out of the envelope and onto the floor.
Saul, from long experience, is slitting all the envelopes at once. He will then go back and look in each envelope — but just then the Associate Publisher comes in to scream at everyone about something, and then there’s a meeting about advertising, and then it’s lunchtime, and then an article for the magazine needs editing … .
It’s now Thursday afternoon. Saul closes the door of his office, rolls up his shirt-sleeves, and begins to clean his room. By 5:45, when Kitty sticks her head in the door, Saul has a great huge pile of opened envelopes stacked up on his desk. Including our heroine, Myrtle.
For the next hour, Saul opens each envelope, glances at the cover letter and first page, slips the manuscript back, and flips it into one of five wire baskets on his desk. The baskets are labeled: A, B, C, D, and “BYRON.” At 7:24 pm, 31 1/2 days after the manuscript was mailed, it lands with a satisfying “thump” at the bottom of the basket labeled “C”.
Where it will sit for a surprisingly long time … .
NEXT TIME: BYRON WILDER, MANUSCRIPT WRANGLER …
Message 254 Wed Jul 31, 1991 at 20:27 EDT
FIT THE FIFTH: BYRON, THE BOY WONDER
In the three-and-a-half days it took Shameless Stories Editor-in- Chief Saul Badliver to go through his stack of some 100 manuscripts addressed directly to him, Byron Wilder, Shameless Stories’ Associate Editor, has processed nearly 500.
Byron, whose job is in a bit of a lull because the staff is between issues, is frantic to get caught up on manuscripts, because he knows things will start getting hectic again in a week or so. His first action is to use his Workman Press envelope slitter, which he copped at last year’s American Bookseller’s Association convention, to open all of the envelopes in rapid succession. Since he works with single-minded devotion, and the tool in question is awesome in its precision, he gets all of the envelopes opened by Monday afternoon.
He then peeks into the top of the envelopes while listening to REM on his Walkman, and drops them into three cardboard boxes under his desk. Two of them are labeled RAW SLUSH: JUNE. One of them is labeled SOMEBODIES 6/91. When the first two boxes are filled, they go on shelves in the office of Kitty Devonshire, the Managing Editor. (There are boxes on those shelves labeled “DECEMBER,” so don’t be too surprised if you haven’t heard about your story yet … .)
A few minutes later, Yasha Fitzsimmons, a sometime short feature writer and professional manuscript reader, shows up with a backpack full of manuscripts and hands them to Byron. Byron empties them out, takes the large stack with the rubber band around it labeled REJECTS and puts it behind the telephone on his desk. The other stack, which is labeled KEEPERS, is put in yet another box under Byron’s desk. Byron then takes Yasha into Kitty’s office, and helps him fill his backpack with the December and January manuscripts, and two mysteries from the review mailing pile.
When Yasha has gone, Byron closes the door of his office, and starts in on the KEEPERS pile. By the time he finally goes home at 6:15 on Monday evening, he’s read all 36 of the manuscripts that made the first cut. Twenty-two of them he rejects outright, sealing them and tossing them in the outgoing mail. The remaining four he sticks Post-it notes on with a few key words, and puts them in another cardboard box labeled KITTY. When that box finally gets full, he’ll take them down to Kitty’s office for a second read.
It should be noted here that every few days, Kitty Devonshire takes massive quantities of manuscripts and SASEs out of their mailing envelopes, puts the manuscripts into the SASEs along with rejection slips, and then puts them back on the shelf in those cartons labeled by month. This is less callous than it seems. Since Shameless Stories can buy less than 150 stories a year, the vast majority (something like 399 out of 400) will be rejected. When this happens, all the staff of Shameless Stories has to do is toss it into a large cardboard box labeled OUTGOING MAIL, and their job is done.
Myrtle, meanwhile, is still languishing in the office of the Editor-in-Chief… .
Message 260 Thu Aug 01, 1991 at 11:58 EDT
FIT THE SIXTH: A NEW HOPE
When we last left Myrtle the Manuscript, she was lying at the bottom of a wire basket labeled “C” in the office of Saul Badliver, Editor in Chief of Shameless Stories … .
Forty days and forty nights have passed, and Myrtle is still in that basket, now crushed by the weight of dozens of other manuscripts. In the 71 days since she was mailed, a total of 814 new manuscripts have arrived at the offices of Shameless Stories, and 428 have been read, evaluated, and rejected. Are you beginning to get a sense of the enormity of the situation?
I forgot to mention that the December ’91 issue of the magazine has been assembled, edited, and sent to the typesetters, and the December/January issue is currently being finalized (It’s a big Anniversary Issue, which means the words “Anniversary Issue” will be splashed across the cover … )
And the Editorial Staff finds themselves in another lull …
“We’ve got to do something about all of these manuscripts,” says Managing Editor Kitty Devonshire, clucking her tongue at the huge, overflowing baskets on Saul Badliver’s desk. “I’ve got a whole stack of letters from writers asking what’s become of their manuscripts.”
“Well, I’ve got a meeting with the Publisher this afternoon,” says Saul, rubbing absently at his ulcer, “Why don’t you and Byron go through the stuff in my office and put it in order?”
So while the Editor in Chief wastes an entire afternoon listening to the Publisher’s bad jokes, Kitty and Byron tackle the piles in Saul’s office.
The process yields: Six manuscripts that fell out of the “A++” basket on the top of Saul’s filing cabinet and down behind into the primordial gunk. Eleven manuscripts that were crushed under the wheels of Saul’s vintage 1924 Art Deco office chair. Nine baskets of neatly stacked manila envelopes, labeled “A++,” “A+,” “A,” “A-,” “B+,” “B,” “C,” “D,” and “BYRON.” One hundred forty-seven paper clips of various sizes shapes and descriptions, sixty-six rubber bands, eighteen International Postal Reply Coupons, and forty-nine dollars worth of loose stamps.
Kitty has also managed to match 36 query letters to manuscripts in Saul’s office — INCLUDING MYRTLE!!! She glances at the cover letter, notes that Myrtle’s author has been published in several other magazines (though not in Shameless Stories) and slips a Xeroxed form letter into the SASE sent with the query letter, which reads in part: ” … your story has been held for a second reading … ”
NEXT: THE GREAT QUARTERLY SLUSH KILL AND PIZZA PARTY …
Message 268 Fri Aug 02, 1991 at 11:33 EDT
FIT THE SEVENTH: ONE MEDIUM MANUSCRIPT WITH ANCHOVIES AND EXTRA CHEESE …
The Associate Publisher’s niece’s best friend, who mailed a story to Shameless Stories five weeks earlier, has just called up the Associate Publisher and shrieked that she is being given the runaround by the Associate Editor. The Associate Publisher has just reamed out the Editor in Chief:
“How many damn manuscripts have you got in there, anyway, Saul … ?”
“Conservatively, I’d say about five thousand … ”
“Five-<farking>THOUSAND!!??! Well, I got news for you, <buster>, you ain’t going home tonight until you find my niece’s best friend’s story. It wouldn’t kill you to buy it, either … ”
The Editorial Staff of Shameless Stories exchange Significant Glances. In three separate “offices” the following phone conversation takes place:
“I’m going to have to work late on the backlog. You wanna come over and take part in our Quarterly Slush Kill and Pizza Party? We’ll expense it to petty cash … .”
Imagine this scene:
A half dozen editors, readers, and significant others sit cross- legged on the floor. In the center are several pizza boxes, two gallons of Diet Pepsi, and a bottle of Maalox. Surrounding them are stacks of manuscripts. Play passes to the left. Kitty is reading aloud:
“When I came to the Castle of Count Eripmav, I had no idea what laid in store for me … ” <Loud Bronx cheers and rude noises, “Gong Show” sound effects, etc.>
Byron: “Only the daring dues of Lucas Skysaber saved the beauteous princess Layla from the dreaded Dark Lord Vaguer … .” <More rude noises.>
Byron’s significant other: “The thousand injuries of Fred I had bored as best I could … .” <Still more rude noises>
Saul: “You’ve probably read all the stories you ever want to about killer sows from outer space, but mine is a little different … .”
Kitty: “That sounds like a keeper to me. Next?”
Yasha: “Mightily thewed, Kovacs the Barbarian hacked and slashed his way through the Dread Forests of the Nightmare Goons … ” <More rude noises … >
Outside, a dog is barking …
NEXT: THERE’S GOT TO BE A MORNING AFTER …
Message 275 Fri Aug 02, 1991 at 23:01 EDT
The damn-near endless saga of Myrtle the Manuscript continues …
FIT THE EIGHTH: DAWN OF THE HALF-DEAD
Gladys the Rumanian Cleaning Lady, opens the door of the office of Saul Badliver, Editor-in-Chief of Shameless Stories, at 5:15 am, Friday morning, and recoils in terror. Three huge Xerox cartons heaped high with stamped, self-addressed envelopes obstruct her passage into the room.
The cartons contain one thousand, one hundred and twenty-nine truly execrable attempts at short fiction which will soon be on their way back to their creators. For in four hours, young Byron Wilder will stagger in that door, eyes red from the smoke at the midnight show of “Pump Up the Volume” at the Waverly that he attended to get the taste of bad prose out of his mouth. He now bears an eerie resemblance to Christian Slater. He will arrange the manuscripts in relatively neat piles, and bribe Jaime the Mail Guy to take them with a dub of the new Jesus Jones CD.
Five minutes later, Managing Editor Kitty Devonshire will enter that same room, and gather up a stack of two hundred eleven manuscripts which are held together by three red rubber bands, and covered with a note that reads “SURVIVORS,” traced in anchovy juice on the back of a cover letter.
And, at a quarter to eleven, Saul Badliver will finally enter his office, scratch his head to find it relatively free of manuscripts, except for a single large wire basket labeled READ THIS OR DIE!!!
Saul shakes his head, empties the large flower vase behind his desk that is filled with dead chrysanthemums, rinses it in the Gladys Rumanian Cleaning Lady’s business sink, fills it with overcooked black coffee, walks back into his office, sticks a little magnetic sign on his door that reads DON’T EVEN THINK OF OPENING THIS DOOR and sits down heavily on a piece of pepperoni Pizza which is still stuck to his 1924 Art Deco chair, ready to do penance for his sins … .
A NOTE TO OUR READERS: There is something you must understand. As strange as it might seem, the Editors of Shameless Stories truly love good fiction. They actually live for the moment when a fresh, interesting, or even basically competent and entertaining story will fall on their desks. They edit Shameless Stories, rather than taking a real job, because they, like you, really love this stuff. Really they do.
What you must understand, however, is that reading submissions is for them like making Pablo Casals attend a tuba-testing convention. Like locking Andrew Wyeth in one of those “All the Art You Can Eat” shows at the Holiday Inn. Like taking Paul Prudhomme to Domino’s Pizza. Do you begin to encompass the horror of it all … ?
Saul Badliver picks up an envelope, takes the story out. It is a very flawed leftover series story by a VERY FAMOUS WRITER WHOSE WORK SELLS TONS AND TONS OF BOOKS. He wants to reject it. He knows the letter alone will kill the better part of the morning. He suspects that more people will buy the magazine because of the VERY FAMOUS WRITER’s name on the cover than will cancel their subscriptions because it’s garbage.
His hand trembles. He puts the manuscript in the KEEP basket to the right, loathing himself for doing so.
He will go through a similar process ninety-four more times today before he finally pulls Myrtle out of the basket … .
NEXT TIME: BITING THE BULLET
Message 292 Sun Aug 04, 1991 at 12:42 EDT
FIT THE NINTH: THE MOMENT OF TRUTH
The heart-stopping saga of Myrtle the Manuscript continues …
But first, it might be useful to recall why all of these underworked overpaid professionals are taking the time to read, or at least look at, thousands of terrible manuscripts.
The first reason might be summed up by the phrase: “Stephen King won’t live forever.” (Substitute “Terry Brooks” or “Bill Gibson” or “Toni Morrison” or “John Crowley,” or whoever your favorite writer is, for the proper emotional effect.) New writers have to come from somewhere, and just about everyone who’s writing now once, long ago crawled out of the slush pile.
The second reason is that there is in fact, a magazine to be put out. “Shameless Stories” prints approximately 60,000 words of (semi-)original prose thirteen times a year. A little math will show you that the staff has to actually buy about 150 stories a year so the pages won’t be blank.
The third reason (and one you might not have considered) is that one of the few compensations editors have is to be able to say “I discovered Elizabeth Hand.” (Substitute “Bob Aspirin” or “Mel Brooks” or “Dorothy Dunnett” or “David Drake,” or whoever you like, for the proper emotional effect.)
So Saul Badliver, having read all the way down to poor, long- suffering Myrtle, is engaged in an exercise called “issue balancing,” which might be compared to packing a suitcase …
I’ll describe this process in a moment, but first another digression:
Where did that basket labeled “READ THIS OR DIE” on Saul Badliver’s desk come from? Well, it’s composed of several different kinds of material:
- Stories from Big Name Pros which came directly to Saul’s office, and have never left it.
- Stories from Fairly Big Name Pros which came first to Saul’s office, but may have made a detour through Kitty’s office if she knows the writer, or if Saul is overworked. (The less publishable ones were most likely returned with a nice note from Kitty. Those few that made the second cut were returned to the basket.)
- Not All That Well Known Pros who came first to Byron, were quickly sorted into a pile labeled “SOMEBODIES” (remember?) and then sent to Kitty for “culling” and have found their way to Saul’s basket.
- Stories by nobody in particular that were so well written that they made it past Yasha, past Byron, and past Kitty, and were placed in Saul’s basket with a note that reads “BUY THIS!!”
- Stories that are unpublishable, but require a personal response (the Associate Publisher’s niece’s friend’s story is one of these) and
- Stories that got stuck to the bottom of the basket.
Myrtle falls into category 6 …
Message 295 Sun Aug 04, 1991 at 13:10 EDT
FIT THE TENTH: I SHALL BE RELEASED … .
So anyway, Saul is “balancing” the next couple of issues of Shameless Stories. As I mentioned it’s a lot like packing a suitcase. There are certain large objects that have to go in first. Then there are some medium-sized things that get packed around them. And finally, you stick stuff into the corners and try to close the bag.
And if you pack the blue shirt, you need to pack the blue blazer and the blue socks and the burgundy tie. But if you decide to pack the beige suit, then you need to pack the brown shoes and tan socks and the ecru shirt and the chocolate tie. (Saul is not a very snappy dresser … )
Similarly, Saul has a bunch of sheets of paper with the names of months at the top: FEBRUARY, MARCH, APRIL, MAY, etc., a bunch of pencils, and one of those white cylindrical plastic erasers that come in a plastic holder. As he sits in his stuffy, overheated office, swilling cold coffee from a vase, he keeps juggling forty or fifty stories back and forth between those issues. Asking himself a number of questions: Does the author’s name have any drawing power? How long is the story? How long have I had it here? What has to go in that month? What’s the subject of the nonfiction piece? Does the issue have a theme? What season will the issue come out? Did I publish something by this author recently?
And somehow all of those decisions have to be optimized to make a balanced, pleasing issue that will satisfy all of the magazine’s constituencies.
As it happens, the February ’92 issue is the Christmas issue. [Don't ask. Accept it on faith.] The Large Object that must be included is that awful series story by the Very Famous Writer. As it happens, the first scene of the story takes place in winter, and the protagonist’s name is Noel. Voila! A Christmas Special!
The second thing to go in is an overlong novella by a writer Saul discovered, and whose career he has been nurturing for five years. It’s maybe a bit overwritten, but otherwise it’s award-caliber. And the author has agreed with Saul that setting the last scene on Christmas morning will actually make it a better story. 27,000 words down. 33,000 to go. No, wait. Make that 29,000. The Long-Winded Critic is doing his Year End Wrap-up, which will probably come in about 4000 words.
Okay, what’s left? Well, the VFW’s story is a vampire-detective tale. The Overlong Novella is a winsome contemporary fantasy. The issue needs some hard SF. Right! There’s that “The Stars Are Sentient Goldfish” story by the astrophysicist, complete with a scientific appendix explaining why the story could actually be true. Stan Schmidt, eat your heart out! Gee! Everything’s kind of long. How about some of those shortish one-punch stories that have been sitting in inventory forever? Right. The psychic cannibal story, the last man on Mars story, and that strange thing with the killer sows. Let’s see, 29 minus eighteen equals 11,000 …
Oh! Here’s that story Kitty and Byron liked so much, about the mermaid and the dish washer repairman. Okay, now how much have I paid for all this? Good. I’m still $800 under budget. Well, that story by the Associate Publisher’s niece’s friend isn’t all that bad … Wait! What am I saying … ?!?
NEXT: THE APOTHEOSIS OF MYRTLE
Message 298 Sun Aug 04, 1991 at 14:25 EDT
The harrowing saga of Myrtle the Manuscript continues …
FIT THE ELEVENTH: THE UNKINDEST CUT
It is now ninety-one days since Myrtle, fervid with hope, began her voyage out into the world, dreaming of fame and fortune. She is now a sadder but far wiser dame. She has seen her peers treated with contempt and a cavalier attitude. She has endured physical slights which no self-respecting manuscript should have to endure. (Somewhere along the way she lost her paper clip, her SASE, and the bottom third of her cover letter … ) She has seen stories of far worse quality than she elevated rapidly to cover lines, and stories of somewhat better quality condemned to ignominious rejection because of the state of the internal organs of the editor reading the story.
But now, at last, her day has come.
For on that fateful Friday, at 6:24 in the afternoon of the hottest day in the history of New York City, Saul Badliver discovers he has exactly 2,450 words left in his word-budget, and exactly $150 left in his editorial budget.
And there, at the bottom of the basket, is a 2,700 word short story by a writer with one previous publication credit (a whimsical story about household appliances that got seven Nebula recommendations when it was published the previous year in Asimov’s SF). This one is funny, too. It’s the story of a group of miniature aliens who take over a small boy’s model railroad layout.
And the story begins on Christmas day … .
FLASH FORWARD TO: The editorial meeting for the February ’92 issue.
Everyone is in agreement on the contents of the issue (although Byron thinks the Famous Writer’s story “chokes on the hairy banana,” and Kitty things the Sentient Goldfish story is pretentious). However, a two page ad spread for a mind- controlling cult’s endless science fiction series has just bumped the Xmas Xuiz; and cut into the slack allowed for illustrations, pull quotes, and author bios. Somewhere, 700 words have to be cut.
Saul, who has not actually bought any of the stories for the current issue except the one from the Famous Writer, and the three one-punchers in inventory, has been having misgivings about the “terrier subplot” in that story about the model railroad, which both he and Kitty think slows down the narrative.
“I think I can get 700 words out of the railroad story,” he says. Kitty sighs, gathers up all of the manuscripts in the folder labeled FEB on Saul’s desk, makes three copies of each of them, and hides the originals in a secret filing cabinet whose location only she knows.
Thus it is that Myrtle herself never undergoes the Editorial Process. That honor is reserved for one of her clones … .
NEXT: LET’S MAKE A DEAL!!
Message 304 Sun Aug 04, 1991 at 21:55 EDT
FIT THE TWELFTH: IT DON’T MEAN NOTHIN’ TILL YOU SIGN IT ON THE DOTTED LINE …
Tuesday evening. 96 days after Myrtle left the mailbox. Saul Badliver, who has been phone-phobic all his life, picks up the Xerox of Myrtle the Much-Abused Manuscript, which has the shreds of its original cover letter clipped to it …
… and fails to find a phone number. The author didn’t remember to put it on either the cover letter or the first page of the manuscript. Taking a wild gamble, Saul dials directory assistance for Arcata, California, gets a listing that vaguely resembles the author, dials it with trembling hands …
… and gets an answering machine. But all is not lost. Myrtle’s author, who just got in the door from picking up the kids at the daycare center, picks up the phone just as Saul is about to hang up (which is fortunate, since the entire conversation is thereby recorded for posterity … )
“Ah, hem, this, er, is Saul Badliver, Editor in Chief of Shameless Stories. I have your story here about the aliens and the model railroad, and I’d like to buy it for the magazine.”
Finally, the author answers. “Ah, hem, er, that’s — that’s wonderful, but … ”
“Well, when I hadn’t heard anything after two and a half months, I sent you a letter withdrawing the story, and sent it to F&SF. I just heard from Kris Rusch this morning. She’s considering it for their Christmas issue … You did get the letter, didn’t you … ?”
“Um, ah, yes, we did, and we actually, er, sent you a letter about a month ago saying we were still considering it, so I wonder … ”
“Oh, dear. Now I don’t know what to do. I mean, you did have it first, and I only heard just heard from Kris, and she’s still considering it, so I guess — you pay, what? eight cents a word, right? I think F&SF only pays six … .”
“Um. Eight cents?”
“Well, that’s what it says in Writer’s Market … ”
The house of cards which is the Christmas issue of Shameless Stories is starting to fall apart before Saul Badliver’s eyes. “Um, eight cents. Right. Well, I can have a contract out to you tomorrow.”
“Gee! That’s wonderful!”
“There’s just one small problem. That scene with the terrier … ?”
NEXT: DON’T MISS THE EXCITING CONCLUSION OF THE SAGA OF MYRTLE THE MANUSCRIPT: GOIN’ TO THE END OF THE LINE …
Message 308 Mon Aug 05, 1991 at 13:09 EDT
The Death-Defying Saga of Myrtle the Manuscript continues …
FIT THE THIRTEENTH (AND LAST): THE BEST-LAID PLANS …
Friday morning: 99 days after Myrtle began her journey, she sits with warm contentment in Kitty Devonshire’s Secret Filing Cabinet, while her young clone undergoes The Editing Process.
Saul Badliver sits at his desk, drinking his eighth cup of hi-test coffee, clutching his ulcer-ridden gut, and marking up the photocopy with a recently sharpened blue pencil. First he styles the heading, putting reverse square brackets on either side of the title and author, to center them, and then writing 14 PT AVANT BF in the margin. (These are all Mystic Words of Power which can only be properly explained by Hagia Sophronia, High Priestess of Orthography and Matron Saint of Copy Editors) Then he draws a small left-pointing arrow from the first indented paragraph to the margin, and writes FLUSH beside it. Above the text he writes 9/10 OPT X 14 PIC FL/RR W BRKS. Then he goes through and draws little vertical lines between all the dots that make up ellipses, writes “1″ above every dash and “M” below it, circles every “#” mark and writes “1″ to the left of it and “LI” to the right of it. When he reaches the end, he crosses out the “- 30 – ” at the bottom of the page, and writes “END” above it. Then he goes back to the beginning and starts over …
But not before Kitty Devonshire comes in the door with the signed and executed contract for the story. (The reason Saul took so long to buy the story in the first place is that the publishers of Shameless Stories are cheapskates, and the Bookkeeper begrudges every penny spent on the magazine. In fact, the normal boilerplate offers half on signing, and half thirty days after publication. Myrtle’s author has wisely crossed this out, and allowed the magazine only First North American serial rights and an anthology option. For this, the author will be paid the princely sum of $190.) The author has returned the contract FedEx and Saul knows he’s going to have an unpleasant argument with the Bookkeeper over all of this. Nonetheless, he initials the changes, and Kitty takes the contract down the hall.
A half hour later, Saul has made a large number of small changes to the manuscript. Most of them are justifiable and actually improve the story. One or two are petty and arbitrary. He then puts a cover sheet on top, and fills in the name of the magazine, issue date, title of the piece, and priority (everything is RUSH!!!), and puts it in an out-basket with other edited manuscripts.
In the days that follow, Myrtle (or, more properly, her descendants) will go through seven sets of galley proofs, be styled and restyled by the Art Director, sliced up, waxed, and pasted down on boards by a paste-up artist, along with art commissioned especially for the story and then …
A four-page Christmas ad supplement from the Norwalk Mint comes in, with porcelain “Quantum Leap” figurines at $195 bucks a pop. Something’s gotta go … .
Saul calls a hasty editorial conference. The consensus is that Myrtle is dead meat. She’s the right size, and the boards haven’t been shot yet. Saul agonizes. Myrtle the Mechanical sits on his desk, haunting him with her naive charms.
(“She’s too expensive,” Saul tells himself. “And too long. And we already have a Christmas story in that issue … .”)
“Aw the hell with it,” he says at last. “Leave her in. We can cut the damn Killer Sows story instead, and have room for the Xmas Xuiz, too!!”
Byron grins. He liked Myrtle. Kitty rolls her eyes. Another farking repagination. “This is it, then?” she asks warily.
“It’s a wrap,” says Saul jovially. “Auld Lang Syne” can be heard faintly in the background.
Six months later, Myrtle achieves immortality.
– 30 –
The Posting of the Saga of Myrtle the Manuscript produced a good bit of discussion. Many readers couldn’t believe editors could be that ditzy. Others (some editors) wrote to say that they felt I had glossed over the Awful Truth. One of them (my wife, Beth Meacham, Editorial Director of Tor Books) felt it would be fairer, both dramatically and statistically, to have Myrtle’s odyssey end in rejection, but I have always been a sucker for happy ending.
And then there’s the matter of the terrier.
As an added treat for those of you who are reading this New and Improved version, here’s the part those online didn’t get to see:
The Poignant Saga of Myrtle the Manuscript:
CODA: CARPE CANEM
A telephone rings in Arcata, California. The Author of Myrtle the Manuscript answers:
“Um, hello? This is Saul Badliver again, from Shameless Stories … ?”
“Oh, hi, Saul. What can I do for you?”
“Well, actually, I’ve been doing some thinking. I’m just putting the Christmas issue to bed, and in looking over your story, I realized I’d – um – made a mistake about that scene with the terrier. It really is kind of funny, and I’d – um – like to put it back if you don’t mind … ”
(The awful truth, of course, is that one more full-page color ad came in a short time ago, and the issue has been increased in size by another four pages, and so Saul suddenly has to fill an extra page, and there’s nothing that will fit. And he’s been feeling kind of embarrassed about cutting out the terrier scene, since it is kind of funny after all … )
Finally Myrtle’s author responds.
“Oh. I guess that would be okay. I don’t suppose we’ll bother about the extra money, since it’s so small … ”
“The extra money?” asks Saul.
“Well, yes. I mean if the story is going to be 700 words longer, you technically owe me another five dollars and sixty cents, don’t you?”
Saul laughs hollowly. “I suppose you’re right. I’ll add it onto the contract for the next story I buy from you.”
“That would be fine. Oh, dear! I’ll have to tell Mike Resnick, though, so he can put it back in, too.”
“Mike Resnick?” Saul replies, with a sinking feeling in his gut.
“Oh, I didn’t tell you. Mike wants to reprint the story in his new theme anthology, TINY ALIEN STORIES. It’s going to be out next spring from St. Martin’s Press.”
“When next spring?” asks Saul, warily.
“I think it’s a January or February hardcover. I’m not sure. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, no particular reason.” (Actually, Saul has realized that the books will probably in the stores before the magazine, because of Shameless Stories’ lackluster distribution system.) “Um – congratulations on the sale, by the way … ”
“Why, thank you, Saul. I don’t suppose you have any word for me on the other story yet, do you?”
“The other story?”
“Why yes. The one about the evil creatures masquerading as Nintendo cartridges?”
“Oh,” says Saul, looking balefully at overstuffed basket of manuscripts marked READ THIS OR YOU’RE DEAD MEAT Kitty Devonshire has just set down on his desk. “That story. Right. Well, it’s been held for a second reading … ”