When people learn you’re the editor of a short fiction magazine, they press you for all the lurid slush pile stories. They understand that the world overflows with twisted, confused individuals and that, as an editor, you have chosen to make your living with the creative output from that crowd. Due to ghastly curiosity, they have questions.
What’s the craziest story you’ve ever received?
Oh, I’ll get to that later.
Have you ever read anything that made you want to call the police?
No. But other things related to editing have. I’ll get to that later, too.
Has anybody famous ever submitted a story?
Stephen King, if you’re reading this, I’m still waiting for your story.
Any experienced editor who works with a slush pile will have a litany of odd encounters to share. It’s part of the burden of working with the public-at-large. The privilege of working with the ‘outside the bell curve’ types is a necessary part of the job.
The boring truth is that most slush stories are simply unremarkable. You read them, you reject them, you move on to the next one. But once in a while, strange and unfortunate stories find their way to the submission stacks like fruit gnats magically appearing around your kitchen table.
Lesson one as editor: Don’t place your home address in the magazine’s masthead. I did just this in the first two issues of Apex Digest. I had yet to learn the hard lesson that some people accept rejection in less-than-professional ways.
I received my first threat of violence (this implies more than one because, of course, there has been more than one) while reading submissions for the third issue of Apex Digest. Years of managing a small business has taught me that a smart business tactic is to always be a professional, so my rejections are concise, short, and polite. Should the mood hit, I’ll include personal feedback, particularly to authors I know personally and won’t take my suggestions as an insult. However, a majority of the time I’ll send a form rejection. Not because I don’t like to help people with their writing, but more as a matter of personal time restrictions. Form letters are an evil necessity in the publishing business.
A form rejection ignited one man’s irrational anger in a memorable and frightening way. Six minutes after I emailed the rejection notice, the author wrote a heated response.
Before I go any further, let me give writers these words of advice: never, ever respond to a rejection. You’re not going to change anybody’s mind. Move on and try again with a different story.
Also before I go any further, let me give editors these words of advice: never, ever respond to a rejection response. The writer at the other end of the letter is likely in an emotional and irrational state. Move on, you have hundreds of stories waiting for you in the slush pile.
At that point of my editing career, I had never received an argumentative, impassioned response to a rejection. Perhaps a few “Thank you for your consideration” and “Maybe next time” notes here and there, sure—harmless stuff that wasted my time. But this author had a beef with me over a most unusual thing.
I’ve always worked hard to make sure Apex has a reasonable response time. Back in those halcyon times, my goal was to answer all submissions within seven days. I had rejected this upset gentleman’s story in two days. Two days! The author’s polemic made it clear he felt that two days was not sufficient time to read, assess, and reject his story. He then went on to say mean things about Apex Digest, and said he wiped his ass with the pages of my zine.
I wondered then and I wonder now: who gets upset over a two-day response time? I’ve had publications hold on to my work for two years before they reject it. Compared to that, two days seems like a minor miracle. And if you hate a magazine enough to wipe off your derriere with it, why submit your work to us? Trust me there are more derriere friendly options available in the personal hygiene aisle.
Being naïve and a bit brash, I wrote him back, providing a moderately polite, yet stern explanation of why his story didn’t work for me, of how great it should feel to receive a response in two days, and why he might wish to refrain from making accusations and insults.
The guy pounced back in mere minutes. I’m going to paraphrase his letter:
Dear Mr. Sizemore,
The arrogant tone you take with me indicates a dismissive nature. I don’t let anybody talk to me that way. Not my wife. Not my own daddy. And especially I won’t let it happen with you.
I should remind you that I know where you live. It’s in every issue of your precious magazine I’ve seen. In fact, I’ve been past your house on several occasions. If you had taken the time to read my submission, you would have seen that I live in Lexington, too. Do me a favor. The next time your kids are outside playing in the yard, you remember that I might be watching.
Personal threats have never bothered me. As a certified Kentucky redneck, I’ve been in plenty of altercations. But to have a crazy guy insinuating harm to my family scared me. And the reason for the threats? I had rejected his story too quickly. I considered giving the Lexington police our correspondence just in case, but in the end I didn’t. Perhaps I should have.
I blocked the guy on all my personal and business accounts and hoped he would go away. Fortunately, that appears to be the case, as I never heard from him again, unless he submits work under a pseudonym.
Between the release of issues 1 and 2, I realized I needed help with the slush. In a case of wildly fantastic luck, I made friends with a British writer and editor named Gill Ainsworth. She’s a few years older than me, but we were like two peas in a pod. Our personalities and corresponding sense of humor matches well. We just click. I don’t recall how I discovered that she was a talented copy and line editor… perhaps it was in a cover letter to one of her submissions. In any case, I asked her to join the team, to be a part of the Apex Global Empire. She accepted.
As Gill and I read for issue 3 over the Christmas holiday, she shared a submission that still makes my stomach turn when I think about it.
Some groundwork needs to be laid so that you’ll comprehend an appropriate level of grotesquery on display. There’s a filmmaker named Fred Vogel who in 2001 directed a disgusting pseudo-snuff film titled August Underground (and its two sequels). The IMDB synopsis of August Underground states: “Two serial killers go on a murdering rampage as one films the outcome from behind a cheap video camera.” The movie’s tagline is “The sickest film ever made.” Having watched it, I can say it is the sickest film I’ve ever watched. Other than a few botched special effects, the whole thing feels real enough to make you want a hot shower.
The story that Gill had sent me as a Christmas ‘gift’ would make Fred Vogel proud.
To preserve the innocence of any untainted souls reading this, I’m going to make my description as straightforward and gore-free as possible. Or you can play it safe and skip to the next section.
The story: A guy is driving home late one night from a rock gig. Along the way, something falls out of the sky and lands in front of his massive Cadillac. A huge impact crater is created in the road. The man, who is drunk and stoned, gets out of his car and discovers a beast that resembles a demon: horns, red skin, and cloven hooves. The demon’s body is busted up from the fall and it appears to be dead, but the rocker plays it safe, takes out his guitar from the backseat and gives the demon a bloody beating that would feel at home in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. Satisfied, the guy throws the body of the demon into his trunk and continues his drive home. Along the way, perhaps drawn by the demon’s body stink or blood, animals of all varieties jump in front of the Cadillac. The rocker mows them down, relishing the crunch and ‘thunk thunk’ of God’s creations under his wheels. Rabbits. Cats. Deer. Multiple foxes. Dogs. Frogs. He finally reaches home and drives his gore covered vehicle into a garage attached to the house. The unfortunate reader discovers that the rocker lives with his grandmother when she dodders through the doorway and he demands she help him with the ‘meat’. Together, they hoist the demon from the trunk and cast him to the floor.
Something unholy happens involving the demon, the rocker, and grandma.
Thinking about this abomination makes me want to return to Preacher Hayes’ church in Big Creek and plead to the Good Lord to have mercy on mankind.
Readers and writers often query me regarding the pathway from submission to publication. The peek behind the curtain is much less glamorous than many think.
It all starts with the writers. They submit work to the magazine. Lots and lots of writers do this. When I tell someone that Apex Magazine (the current, digital-only, incarnation of Apex Science Fiction and Horror Digest) has 21 submissions editors, a managing editor, and an editor-in-chief, they stare at me in disbelief. They want to know why the heck we have so many people on the team. As of April, 2015, our zine receives on average 800-1,000 submissions a month. Distribute that evenly to 21 slush readers and each editor has to plow through approximately 50 stories. Lesley Conner, our managing editor, reads the stories that are passed up to the next level. These she filters for quality control and sends to me. There are a small number of writers that are allowed to submit directly to me. On average, I read and consider 25 high-quality shorts a month.
Of those 25 stories, I’ll usually reject all but five. The last five I’ll hold for two additional weeks. I’ll read them again. I’ll compare them to stories we’ve published in the recent past and stories we have scheduled to be published in the future. Sadly, this process will occasionally exclude fantastic stories. For example, I recently had to turn away a fantastic circus-themed fantasy piece because we have one in our inventory and we published another in the previous issue. You know how it goes, too many clowns and readers will complain. Weighing all these factors, I’ll decide on the best of the best-fitting two or three stories and make an offer of publication to the authors.
I say ‘offer of publication’ because there have been times where a story will be accepted and the author informs us that the story has already been sold elsewhere. Sometimes a withdrawal notice is missed. Sometimes an author makes a mistake and doesn’t realize he or she has simultaneously subbed to two or more publications. Sometimes an author simply doesn’t care about the guidelines.
When I have any major development edit requests, I make them prior to my offer to publish. Generally, it goes something like “So, hey, if you can clean up this one big plot hole to our satisfaction, then we’ll buy your story.” However, this does not happen often. Most of the time, the best three stories out of 1,000 submissions will be near-ready for publication upon submission.
If the author accepts our offer of publication, things move quickly from there. The managing editor will send the author a contract for publication. Once signed, authors are encouraged to announce his or her sale to Apex Magazine. The more they brag, the happier I am.
The stories are copy edited (red-line edits). These edits are sent to the authors for review and approval. As an inexperienced editor, I once made the mistake of copy editing a story and publishing it without running the changes past the author. That was a memorable, unprofessional, rookie mistake I won’t make again. The internet shaming I received still hurts.
When the story reaches its ‘golden’ state (a term I stole from my software development days), it and the rest of the issue’s content is sent to our digital conversion programmer. She puts the PDF, ePub, and mobi files together. We provide these to the authors and several editors for one final proofread.
On publication day, the issue is posted on our website and made available for sale via our vendors. 
We take a day off. Then we start the process all over again. The needs of a periodical never cease.
All the reasons I enjoyed being an editor back in 2006 still apply today. The thrill of finding diamonds in your slush pile never fades. Those moments when you’re able to humblebrag to your readers that a story you’re publishing is the author’s first professional sale feels really, really great. You can tell the world you’ve birthed a new writer.
When you’re an author and your story is one of three selected from our slush that month, you know you’ve accomplished something big. Approximately 0.33% of stories we receive are chosen for publication.
We at Apex like to think being published by us is a big deal. The machinations of publishing are slow, but when they’re done, the results are beautiful.
By the time I came along, Jason had figured everything out. Except how to pronounce “Glossolalia.” The hillbilly still has no idea what he’s doing there. (Janet Harriett, senior editor of Apex Publications)
 Way back in the Year of ‘When I Was Lots, Lots Younger!’ that happened to coincide with the Year of ‘Apex Global Domination Starts Here!’ I wrote an e-mail along the lines of:
Dear Mr Sizemore, Would you please consider [my latest short] for publication…?
The reply came quickly: Thank you for your submission, but I’m afraid it isn’t quite right for Apex Digest [or something along those lines but definitely phrased more politely] then the e-mail continued with something akin to: However, would you consider [see, so polite!] a job as a slush reader [for that read Brit-Editor-to-Be]?
To which I replied: Well, I’m English and I spell words differently from you… And let’s not mention punctuation!
‘You got the job!’ he replied by return. (Gill Ainsworth, the original Apex minion)
Jason always knew how to pick stories. I remember the first time I read an Apex story, I realized it was better than the entire last issue I’d read of a certain big-name big-shot publication that shall remain nameless (only because I dozed off while reading it and probably dreamed the whole thing). He was also stubborn…whether that was the redhead thing or the driving force of the aliens controlling him, I have no idea. So I kind of always figured the rest would fall into place for him and for Apex. Or at least it would if he could tame that hillbilly accent into pronouncing “horror” without it sounding like “whore.” I think that was always his biggest challenge…especially after that border patrol incident on the way to Canada for a con. (Deb Taber, first senior editor of Apex Publications)