Friday, September 26, 2014

From Me to You: Bios and W a i t i n g

Hi, everybody!

The soup of the day is the fourth installment of From Me to You, a series of Friday posts where I tell you what I've learned about submitting fiction to literary magazines. Previously I held forth on researching markets, getting all your administrative ducks in a row, and how cover letters work. Today's dual topic is writer bios and "What happens next?" Once I got started on bios, I was surprised at how much I had to say about the subject, so away we go.

The standard bio that I send out is, as I've said, this:
Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Role/Reboot, JMWW, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at The Fictator ( 
Writers' bios are often longer than this, with an extended list of publications and educations and "currently at work on a novel"s, and I find these bios very tiresome. They don't tell me much about the writer that isn't...strategic, I guess, or show-offy. They seem to be directed mostly at an agent who might be reading the magazine. If the publication doesn't call for a bio with genuinely interesting facts in it (and some of them blessedly do), then I feel that I might as well save everyone some time and do a short bio that doesn't tell you much about me. If you care, you can come to my blog, and here I am, at great length.

I was influenced early on about what bios can say and not say by the bio David Lynch used for a good portion of his career: "Born Missoula, Montana. Eagle Scout." One of his favorite things to say about his famously weird films is "it is what it is," and I think this bio says the same thing about the course of his life. I tend to be an interpersonal learner, in that I like to know a lot about the person behind what I'm reading or watching or whatever, so a bio like this is extremely frustrating for me. But it also accomplishes a lot in five words. Why did he include Eagle Scout, when that has nothing apparent to do with his films? Such a lot has happened since he was born, so why leave it there? Can't he tell us anything about his life now, or how his aesthetic was formed, or...anything?

Lynch said in an interview that he included Eagle Scout because when he achieved the rank, it seemed like a big accomplishment, something he'd done a lot of work for. (Which is how I see the rank, in truth. I don't really blame him for including it, even decades later.) And the thing he didn't say, the thing I've discovered from studying these five words and all the questions they raise in me, is that no bio can answer all questions about a creator or a personality. Even several-volume biographies can't do that.

In my view, a 200-word bio can provide only minimally more of the insight that a reader like me seeks on a creator than a five-word bio can. So why bore the reader? Keep it brief, keep it simple, and make it so the reader can seek out more information if she wants it. If it's intriguing, like Lynch's, so much the better. For Lynch, I suspect the missing information is either in his films or is not to be found in his public output. For me, that information is in this blog. You won't find it in a list of my publications, and I doubt you ever will, no matter how that list grows over time.

This is not the way that you have to perceive writer bios, of course. It's just how I do.

So now that biophilosophy is out of the way, let's talk about what to do after you submit. Remember, in our real-time example that's taken a whole month to get through, you've submitted "Carlotta Made Flesh" to Western Humanities Review via Submittable. First thing you do is go to Duotrope and enter this information as a new submission. Not just so you can keep track of it, but so your information can be part of Duotrope's useful statistics database. The publication's Duotrope page tells you that (as of this writing) WHR itself estimates a five-month response time, but that in real life, its responses to writers like you have taken roughly six or seven months. To be specific, its acceptances have taken an average of 170 days, and its rejections have taken an average of 205 days.

The best thing you can do with this information is forget about it entirely. Check in on Duotrope once every few months, not daily or weekly. The majority of markets are s l o w, their responses clocking in over a matter of months, and if you check your submissions tracker constantly you'll a) drive yourself bonkers and b) never get any new writing done.

Realistically, it's hard, especially when you're first starting to submit, to log this info and then forget it. It itches, the need to know whether they liked your work. You imagine scenarios where they send you an effusive acceptance letter and through a course of unlikely events you find yourself in a ticker-tape parade down Broadway. The President is there, too, and Buzz Aldrin, and She-Ra, and they're all cheering themselves hoarse over you.


Shut that shit down. Go back to the notebook. I'm sorry to say it this way, but the most probable scenario is that you'll get a form rejection and you'll have to try again somewhere else that will, like as not, also reject you. The sooner you can accept this, and see submissions as a process of rare joy and frequent drudgery, the happier you will be.

My best advice about statistics is that nothing means anything. For instance, the fact that WHR seems to accept, just in terms of timing, before they reject, might lead you to believe that if you check in on your submission and find that it's been out for 185 days, then you're going to get rejected, because your submission is outside the 170-day acceptance window. This is not necessarily true. Maybe they'll hold your submission for 250 days and accept it; maybe they'll have it for 72 days and reject it.

You can't assume anything about how their editorial process works (especially if you have no experience on that side of the desk). You can draw general conclusions based on the Duotrope statistics - like that you'll probably hear from them around or slightly before the eight-month mark - but drawing specific ones will, again, a) make you crazy and b) keep you from working.

Generally, the thing to do is wait. Wait, wait, wait. Be patient and wait some more. Give the market tons of time with your work. You don't want to be a pest, nor do you want to rush them; don't give them an excuse to rubber-stamp a rejection on you without considering your work.

It's not a bad idea to query about your work if their suggested window - in this case, five months - has passed without a peep. But since you have access to Duotrope's statistics, you know that 150 days is a low estimate as to when they'll get back to you. I suggest waiting until after the 205-day mark (or whatever the case may be with each market) until you query. Often I even double the estimated response time (e.g. 300 days) before I query, particularly if the estimated response time differs hilariously from the statistics-demonstrated response time. (Some markets say they'll get back to you in 60 days, but their actual response times are up beyond the 200-day mark.)

Give them as much patience and leeway as you can stand before you query, or before you give up and mark the submission as Never Responded. I usually wait a year before the latter. Meanwhile, you submit other places, as long as everybody takes simultaneous submissions, so you're not just sitting on your hands and waiting for an answer. And you write more, too, always.

Queries themselves are pretty simple. "Hi, I sent you this on this date, and I was wondering if it got lost, because I haven't heard from you." More formal than that, obviously. Just like the cover letter, don't be cute, don't elaborate, don't waste their time. Just get to the point, and apologize for intruding on their editorial process. If you can't find information on the website about how or whom to query, then you'll just have to wait some more.

At the risk of repeating myself again and again and again, the thing you don't want to do is assume that you can derive meaning from anything that goes on at any stage of this process. I'll write a lot more about that in my next post, which is about rejections and acceptances.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

great to read! thank you

cassie a