Numbers Usually Lie

It was the first writers conference I had ever attended and Michael Curtis, then the fiction editor for the Atlantic Monthly, was sharing some numbers with my fellow writers and me. The Atlantic published one short story per issue, and received, on average, 12,000 submissions a year—meaning what was the then the most prestigious venue for aspiring literary fiction writers had a literal 99.9% rejection rate.

The conference room’s occupants let out a plaintive moan, and my heart clenched. I hated those numbers. It wasn’t just that the mathematical odds of getting published in the Atlantic were worse than winning a scratch lottery ticket, it was the idea that chance had anything to do with success and failure in the game of writing. On good days, writing felt like a game I could only win, for it was played entirely within me and I could change the rules as it pleased me. On bad days, of which there were plenty back then, it felt exactly like a game of chance I was merely waiting to lose.

Curtis smiled and raised a reassuring hand. “Of those 12,000 submissions,” he continued, “about 10,000 should never have been sent. I know within one paragraph it’s not for us. Another 1,000 are decent enough stories, but still needing a lot work. When you get down to it, we probably only receive 250-300 that are really in the ballpark. I know that many of those will go on to be published elsewhere if I reject them. Some will certainly be anthologized.” He shrugged. “That’s how it goes. I can only choose twelve.”

What pleased me about the whole story was not that the numbers got substantially better by the end, but that the numbers had been deceiving. I would rather know that numbers lied so that I could ignore the story they appeared to be telling me, and get back to one I wanted to tell myself.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

Follow wdbk on Twitter

Numbers Usually Lie

It was the first writers conference I had ever attended and Michael Curtis, then the fiction editor for the Atlantic Monthly, was sharing some numbers with my fellow writers and me. The Atlantic published one short story per issue, and received, on average, 12,000 submissions a year—meaning what was the then the most prestigious venue for aspiring literary fiction writers had a literal 99.9% rejection rate.

The conference room’s occupants let out a plaintive moan, and my heart clenched. I hated those numbers. It wasn’t just that the mathematical odds of getting published in the Atlantic were worse than winning a scratch lottery ticket, it was the idea that chance had anything to do with the game of writing success and failure. On good days, writing felt like a game I could only win, for it was played entirely within me and I could change the rules as it pleased me. On bad days, of which there were plenty back then, it felt exactly like a game of chance I was merely waiting to lose.

Curtis smiled and raised a reassuring hand. “Of those 12,000 submissions,” he continued, “about 10,000 should never have been sent. I know within one paragraph it’s not for us. Another 1,000 are decent enough stories, but still needing a lot work. When you get down to it, we probably only receive 250-300 that are really in the ballpark. I know that many of those from that category will go on to be published elsewhere if we reject them. Some will certainly be anthologized.” He shrugged. “That’s how it goes. I can only choose twelve.”

What pleased me about the whole story was not that the numbers got substantially better by the end, but that the numbers had been deceiving. I would rather know that numbers lied so that I could ignore the story they appeared to be telling me, and get back to one I wanted to tell myself.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

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.

More Author Articles