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  • Jack McDevitt

Blog #59

When I was in high school I submitted a story to the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I had high hopes, but it got rejected. The editor at that time, around 1950, was Anthony Boucher. He wrote a short letter explaining that the story didn’t quite fit what they needed, and thank you very much. I got frustrated. And faced the harsh reality that I’d failed. Unfortunately I had no idea that a personal letter from the editor as opposed to the standard rejection notification was a big deal.


I’ve done a fair number of workshops with people who would like to be SF writers. And I understand their passion for doing something that seems out of reach. We’ve all been there.

Frequently, the discussions lead into where they might have gone wrong. Editors agree that the most common problem with manuscripts from people they don’t know is that would-be writers trying to establish a career tend to overwrite. It’s easy to do, as I just demonstrated in the previous sentence. The tendency probably stems from the way many English teachers handle the subject. When we are directed to write an essay, there’s frequently a word limit. Not maximum, but minimum. It has to be at least 500 words. Or whatever. Get into that habit and it’s a killer for anyone who wants to write professionally. If we load the narrative with words, the reader gets distracted from the action. When our protagonist faces a life and death decision, the reader should be living through the experience as well. That won’t happen if he’s stumbling through ultra-long sentences and occasionally consulting the dictionary. It’s true that many publications pay by the word, but that doesn’t mean we should pack the narrative.


Everybody gets rejections. Harlan Ellison said that he didn’t think he could write professionally until he sold his first story. Various versions of “Back To the Future” are reported to have been passed on over forty times by Hollywood before Universal finally picked it up.


Something else: we all tend to underestimate what we’re capable of. And that’s not happy talk. I saw it time and again with students during my teaching years. And there’s research that supports it. We’re smarter than we think.

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