When I wrote last week about the “Top 10 Terrible Ways to Pitch a Story,” I got a comment from a local author who asked that I expound on two of my points.
“The writer’s perspective of interesting topic/compelling story may not be the same as that of the editor — hence the query,” she wrote. “We can only do so much research into the magazine (and, yes, read the guidelines). But it inevitably becomes a judgement call for the editor. And…when do we find out? What is the typical time period for acceptance/rejection?”
I listened to a webinar recently in which book agent Irene Goodman (founder of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency) spoke about the challenges writers face getting attention for their ideas within a vast sea of queries. What struck me most about her response was her emphasis on the role of serendipity.
Editors (and apparently literary agents) are human; we have good days and bad days, high-energy days and low-energy days, days when we feel receptive to taking a chance on a previously unknown writer and days when we prefer the security of proven relationships. There are days when we feel inundated and resistant and days when we feel somewhat on top on things and open to something new. On a good day, we may make an effort to respond thoughtfully, in the interest of helping a writer grow. On days when we are exhausted, drowning in emails and feeling like everyone is clawing for a part of us we may respond with a curt “doesn’t meet our needs at this time” — or simply ignore the message.
So unfortunately, a lot of it is timing and happenstance, neither of which offer much help to a writer who just wants an answer. But an editor’s job involves triage; whatever is most pressing for the next deadline is what gets the time and attention. That said, when I see something truly fresh and exciting it rarely gets lost in the queue.
Which brings me to something else Goodman said: “Maybe equals no.” Or perhaps it should.
Like many people who want to be thought of as considerate human beings, I struggle with the challenge of saying “no.” So sometimes I’ll sit on something mediocre for too long, with the good intention of getting back to the writer with some guidance and direction, when I should have trusted that squirmy sense in my stomach that was telling me “just say no.” And then, because each day brings its own ensuing avalanche of messages to consider, I may never get to it. Not because I intend to be mean or thoughtless or arrogant, but because I’m only one person and I only have so many waking hours in the day.
Jana Bommersbach addressed this question in the Piper Writing Center class I took in November. If you haven’t heard from an editor after a month, she suggested, send a follow-up email to ask politely if your query was received and to check on its status. (It’s always possible that the editor never got your email, after all, or that it got lost in the shuffle.)
If another month goes by and you still haven’t heard, I would suggest one more respectful contact. After that, wait another couple of weeks. If you haven’t gotten anything in response by that point, you should probably move on.
What Goodman says about book pitches certainly applies for magazines: “If two months has gone by and you haven’t heard anything, it’s probably a ‘no.’”
In the lightning-fast world of communication, the gears of editorial judgment and feedback still grind painfully slowly. I’m getting a taste of my own medicine lately as I pitch stories of my own to other publications, so I know how discouraging it can be.