from Writer's Digest
How I Sell My Stories
by Ellis Parker Butler
Author of stories in most of the better known magazines
It is delightful to send out a manuscript and have it accepted by the first publication to which it is sent. This does happen now and then but it cannot happen always. It does not happen with me. If I write four stories each month and the first on my own market list is a monthly, I must inevitably get back at least thirty-six stories from that magazine, and I may get the whole forty-eight back. Then I have to send the manuscripts out again.
My "A" list has twenty magazines on it. I have sold to all these magazines, and to some of them many times, and they include all those that pay the best prices and are apt to use my stories.
My "B" list has twenty-nine magazines on it, and they are those that have bought at least one story from me but which pay lower prices. My "Occasional" list has nineteen magazines, and these are the magazines that are not in the market for my usual short stories but which do buy special articles occasionally, such as Writer's Digest, Young Men, Printers' Ink, and so on. I have also a "Short Humor" list, of periodicals that buy short humorous material, a "Juvenile List" for boy and girl stories, and a "Syndicate" list of the syndicates that buy short stories, either new or published. On all these lists I have the latest addresses and the names of the editors, and any other vital information. I use a card system for these lists.
But it will be seen that Lists "A" and "B" contain all the most likely markets for my short stories. The periodicals listed have either bought something from me, or have published stories similar to those I write.
On the tops of my bookshelves I have piles of all these "A" and "B" magazines, usually only one copy of each. Once a year, at least, I buy a new copy of each of the magazines. Sometimes I make the change much oftener. It is a good thing to keep a "library" of this sort and to take down, now and then, one of the magazines and study its contents. It keeps a man alive to what his markets are using.
The practical writer, by which I mean the man who wants to sell what he writes, should not be satisfied to know merely the name and general type of story wanted by a magazine. He should have a copy of the magazine and read it. He should come to know, in time, all the magazines on his lists, and there is no other way to do it. I read practically all the magazines on my "A" list every month or every week.
Now, suppose your story comes back from the first magazine to which you have sent it. That means almost nothing at all. The old phrase of the rejection blank "Return of the manuscript does not necessarily imply lack of merit" is absolutely true. You may have sent a golf story to a magazine that is already overloaded with golf stories. There are forty legitimate reasons why a magazine must decline a perfectly good story.
Quite often, however, something is wrong with the story itself, either for that particular magazine or for all magazines. Soon the manuscript, having been sent out again and again, begins to look shabby. The edges of the sheets get rough, the pages show their age. The manuscript shows that it has been sent around to many magazines.
I do not believe that many editors will reject a story because it shows this evidence of much travel, but there is a very good chance that a manuscript that has got into this condition has something the matter with it. The fact that it is frayed shows that it has been read -- and usually hopefully -- even by editors who received it when it was already shopworn.
I find that most of my manuscripts deserve retyping when they have been out from five to eight times, and I then either retype them myself or have them retyped. Sometimes I retype a story when it is returned the first time, and -- as Chic Sale's Specialist says -- I'll tell you why. It needs to be rewritten.
The chance is that when a manuscript of a story has been returned to the writer five or eight times it will be returned twenty more times because there is something wrong with it. The writer most certainly has sent it the first few times to the editors most likely to accept it. Its chances of sale grow less with each additional sending.
That is the time to read the story -- or article -- and see what is the matter with it. Something is sure to be. So true is this that I told an editor the other day that most of my stories were not "written" but "rewritten." It is often the second or third writing of a story that sells it.
Mighty few writers are able to turn out perfect stories all the time at the first writing. Even when stories are revised many times at the first writing they are seldom all they should be, and for a very good reason. Story ideas or story plots usually snap into the writer's mind in a sort of red-hot glow. Even the writer with the lowest sort of enthusiasm greets his new plot or idea with a certain amount of pleasure. He sees a story in it. He thinks it over, arranges his characters, plans his introduction and the development of the story, and his climax for the end.
What happens? Often he loses much that he saw in the first glow. He may have thought of a character that would be delightfully quaint, but in working out the story with its many details the character becomes stale and flat. The writer may not know this -- he still has the glow of the original thought with him -- and the story is half on paper and half still in his mind. He can't help seeing it through rosy spectacles. Even if he half doubts that it is what he meant to write he hopes the editor will think it is great stuff.
The manuscript is sent out and it comes back. It is sent out several times more and it comes back. (Or it may be sent to an agent who gets it back again and again in the same way).
The point I want to make is that when a manuscript gets soiled it should be not only retyped but rewritten. Nine times out of ten a soiled manuscript is a warning that it should be rewritten. Read your soiled story again and you will see at once many things that are wrong with it. Your glow of creation is now gone, you can see the story as it is and as the editors saw it, and I'll warrant that you will be eager to change it in many places. Many times you will say, "Well, I don't wonder no editor wanted this!" I'll warrant, too, that you will have a better chance of selling the story after it is rewritten than you had in the beginning. In other words a "rejected" story has an equally good chance of selling as has a brand new one. It only needs rewriting.
There is another reason for rewriting a story after it has been circulated a number of times. The first lot of magazines to which you sent it usually exhausts the list of magazines apt to want the story as you have written it. Rewriting it with the next four or five magazines on your list in mind is sure to make the sale to one of them more possible.
But what you are able to do to the story in rewriting it is the most important matter. I had one recently that I had written in 1,800 words, hoping to sell it to some magazine on my "Short Humor" list. It was returned until it was soiled enough to retype, and when I read it over I found that the fun I had meant to put into the story was lost because I had not given the characters sufficient background. It could not be done in 1,800 words. I rewrote the idea into 5,000 words, using the same situation and characters, and sold it the next time I sent it out. More often I cut 6,500 words to 4,000.
Rereading the soiled pages is especially useful. Often the entire middle portion of my story remains clean when returned, with the first three or four and last two or three pages much soiled by handling. The editor or his reader has handled only these pages and has read only these pages, and has not read the part of the story where your best work is.
I can't object to this. The editor -- and his reader -- are experts and can judge a story by that much reading. They read the story to see whether their subscribers would like it, and neither you nor I like a story that has a long and tiresome beginning or a stupid and ineffective ending.
That may not be the trouble with any particular story, but it is very apt to be. Too often we take too long to get into our story, waste several pages in discursive descriptive writing that can be just as well left out or cut to half a page. I wrote a full half of my novel "The Jack-Knife Man" -- ten chapters -- and then began the novel with the tenth chapter, discarding the first nine as mere waste paper. You can write a thousand words describing a town, the scenery, what had happened, who the girl was and so on, and then improve the story by discarding 993 words and beginning with "Jane, blithe creature, ran down the walk."
When a story soils after a few sendings get at it and shorten the introductory pages. Nearly all stories are too long anyway.
Then -- and you can usually do it while retyping -- make such changes as hit your eye or mind while you are reading the middle portion of the story. If that part of the story disgusts you it would probably disgust an editor too, but if you see good in it the story is well worth rewriting. Cut anything that seems unimportant and unnecessary for the progress of the story. Watch the dialogue carefully.
Unless the title is an especially good one it is best to give the story a new title. With a new title and with the story rewritten you will send it out with greater confidence.
In rewriting never forget that you have exhausted a part of your list of magazines. Let the new title and the new introductory paragraphs be, as nearly as possible, what would appeal to the next six or eight magazines on your list. This is not bad art and it is good sense. And then consider seriously the last two or three pages of your story.
The end of your story should be a climax. It may be a few words spoken by one of the characters. It is worthwhile rewriting the last two pages of almost every manuscript every time it is returned. In the heat of writing a story the ending of it is far too often slurred. Does not the fact that the editor usually turns to the final pages show clearly that a first class ending might mean a story sold? The editor reads the first few pages and is not sure about accepting or rejecting; he turns to the final pages and then -- rejects the story. Soiled final pages in a story manuscript mean that the story had a chance and lost it.
And, finally, this matter of rewriting a story when it needs retyping will soon lead to greater care in writing stories in the first place. Personally I almost never destroy a story -- I rewrite it. Almost every story I have ever written has found a market sooner or later. But often the first form would not know the last form if they met on an editor's desk.