The Numbers

At the recent PNWC I found myself telling the same story to a few different audiences, so I thought I’d share it with you now.  It’s all about numbers.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, Michael Curtis used to be the fiction editor of the Atlantic Monthly back when The Atlantic published fiction.  I heard Curtis speak at the first writer’s conference I ever attended and he reported that his magazine received approximately 12,000 short story submissions a year of which he published exactly twelve.

A sound that only writers make when faced with these sorts of numbers rose from the audience—the sound of a group of people possibly coming to terms with the futility of life.  Michael Curtis could have stopped there and left this crowd of aspiring writers to face the harsh numerical reality of their chosen profession, but he was a kind man, and so he elaborated.

Of those 12,000, he explained, approximately 11,000 probably never should have been submitted to The Atlantic. By which he meant, the writers weren’t ready. The stories had not been honed enough, the writer had learned his or her craft well enough, or the writer didn’t actually want to writer short stories, or even be a writer—and yet they submitted anyway and were rejected and added their number to the Depressing Statistics.

Of the other 1,000, two thirds were in the ballpark, as it were, but still not ready.  It was the much smaller percentage that were fully realized pieces of fiction that simply didn’t fit his need or taste. Many stories like this that he rejected went on to be published in prestigious journals or quarterlies and were frequently selected to the Best Stories of the Year collections.

The lesson? Forget numbers. They tell you nothing, really. Be the monkey with you hands over your ears when someone starts reciting “the odds.” If you really want to write, the odds mean nothing. Hone what it is you have to say, learn to say it as clearly and honestly as you can, and when it is ready, it will find it’s readership. If it is ready, if you are ready, it will.

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