writing

How to Write Realistic Legal Objections

Of all the law-related things I see writers get wrong – in books, in TV and in films – objections are the worst.

On television, objections are raised to heighten tension. They’re most often raised when someone mentions a piece of evidence the objector does not like. And they’re usually resolved telepathically, with a series of meaningful glances between the attorneys and the judge.

To anyone who has ever practiced litigation, fictional objections are maddening.

I don’t think writers can be entirely blamed for this state of affairs. After all, the vast majority of people only see objections play out in books or in courtroom dramas. Even if they’ve had the misfortune of being present during a courtroom trial, they may not have understood why certain objections were being raised – especially if they were raised via motion or resolved in a sidebar.

If you want to write a courtroom scene that doesn’t make lawyers tear their hair out, here’s what you need to know about objections.

Objections are for improper evidence, not “evidence that’s bad for my side.”

In fiction, objections tend to get raised whenever a piece of evidence comes up that is somehow bad for the person/side doing the objecting. As a result, many people who represent themselves will yell “Objection!” whenever something comes up that they don’t want the court to hear.

In legal practice, however, objections aren’t for “evidence I don’t like.” They’re for evidence that violates the rules of evidence in some way – evidence that is not admissible at trial.

US federal courts follow the Federal Rules of Evidence. State courts follow their state rules of evidence. Some state rules of evidence are very similar to the Federal Rules of Evidence. Some are very different. Most are similar in some ways but different in other ways.

If this all sounds very confusing, that’s because it is. The rules of evidence are Byzantine. Law schools teach “Evidence” as a semester course all on its own; some law schools teach Evidence as a two-semester course. (Having taken the single semester, I wish I’d taken the two-semester version.)

Fortunately, as a writer, you don’t have to spend an entire semester on the rules of evidence in order to understand how to write a scene in which a lawyer or pro se litigant objects. Some objections are far more common than others – I’ll get into those below.

Most objections are handled before the trial date.

Jurors do not like objections. They interrupt the flow of the trial. They waste time, and they tend to make whoever is doing the objecting look like a jerk – or worse, like they have something to hide.

As a result, most attorneys do whatever they can to resolve objections before they can come up at trial.

There are several ways to do this. One is by holding pre-trial hearings on matters that are likely to make a trial drag or to raise significant objections. Expert witnesses, for example, are often qualified in a pre-trial hearing, just so the jury doesn’t have to sit through the qualification process (on which the jury gets no say anyway, because “Is this person qualified to serve as an expert witness in this case?” is a legal question).

Parties to a lawsuit can also use motions to raise and resolve evidentiary issues before the actual trial. One of the most common of these is a motion in limine (pronounced “LIH-min-ee” or “LIH-min-ay” depending on who taught you to pronounce it).

A motion in limine is a motion made before the trial begins, seeking to keep out certain evidence. If the court grants the motion, the evidence at issue can’t be brought up – and if it is, you may hear an objection from opposing counsel.

Another tool lawyers use to keep from interrupting a trial every five seconds with “Objection!” is the “continuing objection.” In short, the lawyer tells the court that they object to every question on a particular topic, or every piece of evidence on a particular topic, and all for the same reason.

Continuing objections can be very useful if, say, your motion in limine has been denied, but failing to object to the evidence could have a serious negative effect on your case or your client’s Constitutional rights.

For example, say your client’s house was searched without a warrant or without any exception to the warrant requirement applying – a situation that would make any evidence found in that search inadmissible in court. Nonetheless, the judge decides to let all that evidence in for some reason. By lodging a continuing objection, you preserve your client’s right to argue on appeal that the trial judge messed up, but you don’t keep the jury there for hours longer than necessary – or worse, make them start to hate your client – because you’re yelling “objection” every time someone mentions what was found in your client’s house.

Objections are not resolved by telepathy, but they can be resolved by sidebars.

In fiction, attorneys and judges often resolve objections by glancing meaningfully at one another, followed by the judge saying “sustained” or “overruled.”

In legal practice, none of us are telepathic (though it would have made more than one of my court cases much easier). Instead, the process of resolving an objection after it has been raised goes something like this:

Attorney 1: [Speaking]

Attorney 2: Objection, Your Honor, [basis for the objection].

Attorney 1: [Explains why that basis for the objection doesn’t apply or why the evidence should be allowed even if it does apply]

Judge: [Decides to allow the evidence and replies “Overruled,” or not to allow it and replies “Sustained.”]

There are, I think, two main reasons that most writers don’t portray objections in this way. First, it’s not particularly dramatic. It’s certainly not as dramatic as a well-acted Meaningful Glance.

Second, even people who have attended court trials don’t actually hear this back-and-forth. That’s because a lot of objections made during a trial are resolved in what’s called a sidebar.

You’ll know a sidebar is happening if you see the following:

Attorney 1: [Speaking]

Attorney 2: Objection, Your Honor, [may or may not state the basis]

Judge: Counsel, please approach the bench.

[The attorneys and judge hold a whispered conversation, usually with the judge’s microphone turned off.]

Judge: [Announces their decision and the trial continues.]

The purpose of a sidebar is to resolve objections without revealing the entire process of resolving those objections to the jury. The idea is that if the witness doesn’t hear the back and forth, it can’t affect their testimony, and if the jury doesn’t hear the back and forth, it can’t affect their decision in the case.

I’m not aware of any studies indicating that use of sidebars in fact results in better witness testimony or juror results (nor am I entirely sure how one would even design such a study), but that’s the theory.

The most commonly-used objection isn’t “hearsay,” but “relevance.”

Ask most novel and screen audiences to name a legal objection, and they’ll name “hearsay.”

Hearsay is the most complex single area of evidence law, but it’s not the most common courtroom objection. That title goes to “relevance.”

Federal Rule of Evidence 403 (and similar state rules) prohibits evidence whose “probative value” (i.e. usefulness in helping to resolve the case) is lower than that evidence’s likelihood of prejudicing the hearer, time-wasting-ness, and so on. This makes FRE 403 the all-purpose evidence rule: If something can’t be objected to on any other terms, it can probably still be objected to for its relevance.

In practice, objections as to relevance don’t get sustained as often as you’d think. Judges assume that most evidence is going to weigh against one party or the other. If everyone agreed that all the evidence was perfect as it is, the case would have been settled before trial. To win a relevance objection, the lawyer/party has to prove that the evidence’s prejudicial effect outweighs its probative value.

The prejudicial effect of your fingerprints in the victim’s blood on the murder weapon? High. The usefulness of that fact in helping the jury decide whether you were the one who did the killing? Also high.

By contrast: The prejudicial effect of news that you sold meth to children from your dorm room in 1998? High. The usefulness of that fact in helping the jury decide whether you cheated on your taxes in 2019? Low.

“Relevance” is perhaps the closest objection to “I don’t like this evidence,” but it’s not the same objection. If you have a character use it, be prepared to have them explain it.

Other common objections:

Asked and Answered

Pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. If a lawyer asks a witness a question and the witness answers it, the lawyer doesn’t get to ask again just because they did not like the answer.

Argumentative

If the lawyer/party tries to make an argument disguised as a question,, or to badger the witness, the opposing party/counsel can object to the question as argumentative.

“Are you afraid of the defendant?” is not argumentative (generally); “Oh come on, how can you be afraid of someone who’s a foot shorter and 100 pounds lighter than you are?” is argumentative (generally).

Foundation

If there’s been no attempt to establish what a piece of evidence is or where it came from, that evidence may face an objection as to lack of foundation.

For example, a witness who testifies “I answered the phone and heard Patty’s voice” may hear an objection if there’s been no attempt prior to this answer to explain who Patty is or how the witness would recognize Patty’s voice on a phone. (This is why witnesses often seem tedious at first; the early questions are often about laying a foundation.)

The phrase “Objection, assumes facts not in evidence” is an objection to foundation.

Leading Question

A question that contains its own answer, usually phrased as a “yes” or “no.” For example, “You saw him leave the bar, didn’t you? He had the gun in his hand at that time, correct?”

Note that leading questions are usually disallowed only on direct examination (i.e. when a lawyer is questioning a witness they put on the stand themselves). They’re allowed on cross-examination.

To complicate matters further, leading questions are also allowed on direct examination, if the lawyer has permission to treat the witness as “hostile.” It’s relatively rare to ask for or get permission to treat your own witness as hostile, but it does happen. For example, a prosecutor in a domestic violence case whose only witness is a victim who doesn’t want to press charges may ask for and receive permission to treat that witness as hostile, and thus to ask leading questions like “The defendant hit you in the face, right?”

Opinion

As a rule, most witnesses cannot offer opinions on the stand. They can only offer facts: Things they saw, heard, smelled and so on. But be aware of the two main exceptions: (1) expert witnesses may offer opinions based on their expertise, and (2) fact witnesses can offer opinions if the issue is whether they do in fact hold a particular opinion.

That last one can get tricky, so here’s an example. “Are you afraid of the defendant?”, above, is not an opinion question. Rather, it seeks to establish the particular fact of the witness’s feelings toward the defendant, which may in turn have spurred particular actions on the witness’s part. “Should we be afraid of the defendant?” seeks an opinion.

Speculation

“Speculation” is an objection that can cut two ways. First, it can be used against questions that ask the witness to speculate: “How many piano tuners do you think are in the city of Chicago?” Second, it can be used to address speculative answers: “If I had to guess, I’d say about 400.”

Often, a question or answer is speculative if it asks for a guess. If the information would not be a guess with the proper foundation, the proper objection is to foundation. For instance, “I’d say there are about 400 piano tuners in Chicago” is not speculation if the witness is an expert in the demographics of Chicago professionals and a foundation has been laid to demonstrate such.

Vague

A question that’s not specific enough for a clear, direct answer can be objected to as vague. “Can you tell the court where you went earlier?” is vague (when was “earlier” – this morning, last week, 1976?). “Can you tell the court where you went between eight am and noon today?” is specific enough for a clear answer.

“Vague” is also a good catch-all if the question is obviously some kind of trap, but you’re not certain what kind of trap it is. “Have you stopped beating your wife?” is one example: As a yes or no question, the only proper answers are “yes” or “no” – as in “yes, I’ve stopped beating my wife” or “no, I have not stopped beating my wife.” There’s no way to answer “I never beat my wife in the first place.” (This particular question can also be objected to as argumentative or compound.)

Speaking of “hearsay”: It’s harder to use correctly than you’d think.

“Hearsay” is one of the most popular legal objections in fiction, but the vast majority of readers don’t actually understand what it means. That’s okay. A lot of lawyers don’t properly understand hearsay objections either.

There are two reasons hearsay is so hard to understand:

  1. Hearsay has a very specific definition that’s not entirely covered in the word itself, and
  2. There are several exceptions to the prohibition against hearsay, as well as a handful of “exclusions.”

First, the definition of “hearsay” is not merely “I heard someone say.” Rather, hearsay is 1. a statement 2. made out of court 3. mentioned in court in order to prove the truth of the statement’s contents.

In practice, few disputes over hearsay are actually about whether something is a “statement” (although there are some really interesting recent ones over whether things like a Facebook thumbs-up counts). Similarly, whether a statement was made out of court is not usually at issue.

Rather, the vast majority of fights over a hearsay objection is whether the statement is being presented to prove the truth of the statement’s contents.

Here’s an example:

Witness. …And that’s when I went to the bar.
Prosecutor. What did you do when you got inside the bar?
Witness. Well, I saw Casey sitting there. And I walked up to Casey and said “Hey, I saw Robin run over Pat with a car last week down by the Try ‘n Save.”

The vast majority of lawyers representing Robin at this point are going to object to this statement as hearsay. But is it hearsay?

If it’s being offered to prove that Robin did in fact run over Pat with a car, then yes, it’s hearsay. It’s an out of court statement being offered to prove the truth of what’s in the statement: “I saw Robin run over Pat with a car last week down by the Try ‘n Save.”

But: If it’s being offered to prove something else, then no, it’s not hearsay. Suppose the judge lets the prosecutor continue:

Prosecutor: Why did you tell Casey this?
Witness: Well, I wanted Casey to go beat the sh*t out of Robin. Because I hate Robin’s guts.

Suddenly, “I saw Robin run over Pat with a car last week down by the Try ‘n Save” isn’t hearsay, because it fails that essential third part of the test. It’s not being offered to prove that Robin ran over Pat; rather, it’s being offered to prove that this witness has a grudge against Robin.

(Note that “I hate Robin’s guts” won’t survive an objection as an opinion here, either. In this context, it’s a fact: The fact that the witness hates Robin is relevant to the witness’s behavior toward Casey.)

To make matters even more confusing, there are about 25 exceptions to the hearsay rule, most of which are listed in FRE 803 and 804. The thing that connects all these exceptions is the belief that, even though the information is hearsay, it is sufficiently reliable that the court’s not too worried that a witness is just making it up on the spot.

Common hearsay exceptions include:

  • Present sense impressions and excited utterances. A recording of the above witness yelling “Holy crap, Robin’s running over Pat in the Try ‘n Save parking lot!” over the sound of squealing tires and Pat’s screams would fall into both categories. It’d be considered reliable because it’s being made as the event happens. (Note that this recording would have to meet foundational requirements to be admitted.)
  • Business and medical records. Robin’s timecard from the day of Pat’s vehicular squishing could be admitted to prove Robin was at work, since it’s a record of the type Robin’s business routinely keeps. Similarly, medical records from Pat’s ER trip would probably fall in this area. (Foundational requirements apply here too. You can’t just make a timecard out of your phone bill and assume it’ll get admitted.)
  • Previous court judgments. If Robin was found liable for wrongful death in a civil case involving the Robin-Pat incident, that judgment could be admitted in a criminal case against Robin – and vice versa.

There are also a handful of exclusions. My personal favorite are statements by a party-opponent. In a criminal case against Robin, these would include the prosecutor introducing evidence like Robin posting to Facebook, “I ran over Pat and I’d do it again,” “I hate cleaning Pat guts out of my radiator” or “Karma’s a b***** and so is being run over by my car, Pat!”

This is why you never, ever post your criminal escapades to social media – they can’t be kept out by the hearsay rule.

Tl;dr

There are plenty of things I didn’t, and can’t, cover in this blog post. If you’re really interested in knowing what all the rules of evidence are, you can find copies of the Federal Rules of Evidence online and in just about any university library.

For writing purposes, keep the following things in mind:

  • There are always reasons an objection is made in court, and that reason is never just “This evidence makes me look bad.”
  • The vast majority of things that parties might object to are handled in advance and/or outside the hearing of the jury. During a trial, most objections arise from unexpected turns of phrase by witnesses; anything that could have been seen coming before the trial has usually already been settled.
  • Jurors hate objections, so most lawyers try to avoid them unless the damage to their case will be worse than the annoyance of the jury.
  • When in doubt as a writer, fall back on a relevance objection, not a hearsay one.

Note: This blog post is not legal advice; it is a general overview of trial objections meant to help fiction writers. If you need legal help, contact your local Legal Aid office or a lawyer who practices in you area.

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How to Submit to an Anthology

The call for submissions for Spoon Knife 7: Transitions dropped today.

I have submitted to, and been published in, every volume of the Spoon Knife anthology published to date – including Spoon Knife 5, which is currently available for pre-order. I also edited Spoon Knife 2: Test Chamber.

Here’s what I’ve learned from being on both sides of the Spoon Knife submission process – and how you can apply it to submit works to this anthology or any other outlet you may come across.

Step One: Read the Call for Submissions

The first step to submitting anything to any outlet, ever, is to read the call for submissions and/or the general submission guidelines.

I don’t just mean skim them, or read them once over casually. I mean a close reading – the kind you did in school when you knew you were going to be quizzed on the material.

Because you’re going to be quizzed on the material. “Did you read the call for submissions?” is a pass-fail test. If your submission doesn’t follow the instructions in the submission guidelines, you fail the quiz, and your piece is rejected as a result.

Here’s the entire text of the Spoon Knife 7 call for submissions. I have bolded the parts I always look for in any call for submissions, and to which I think authors should pay particular attention. I’ll discuss why below.

Autonomous Press is now accepting submissions of short fiction, short memoir, and poetry for the seventh volume of Spoon Knife, our annual multi-genre neuroqueer lit anthology.

In these two sentences, two things stand out: (1) the call is for “short fiction, short memoir, and poetry,” and (2) Spoon Knife is “our annual multi-genre neuroqueer lit anthology.”

Right away, I as a writer know what types of writing I can submit and can’t. Short stories, poetry, and memoir are in; how-to articles and book reviews are out.

I also know that Spoon Knife has a history. There are previous volumes, which I can and should go read if I’m not already familiar with the kind of work that gets published in them.

(Secret Spoon Knife Hack: Nick Walker, one of the two editors on this volume, has also edited a previous volume, Spoon Knife 3: Incursions. Checking out that volume in particular will give you an idea of the kind of work Nick, specifically, is likely to want. Nick has also published stories in previous Spoon Knife volumes, so you can even see how she interprets things like “neuroqueer” and a volume’s theme as a writer.)

The theme for Spoon Knife 7 is transitions. All submissions should deal in some way or another with this theme, interpreted however you choose: transitions from one way of being to another, one stage of life to another, one perspective to another, one world to another…

This information further narrows down what I should or should not submit. It even provides some examples of what the editors are picturing when they use the word “transitions.”

(Secret Spoon Knife Hack: Spoon Knife is a particularly good place to interpret the theme/prompt broadly. Not all outlets are, but here, you can take the idea of “transitions” just about as far as your imagination will ride it.)

Preference will be given to submissions that are in some way flavored with queerness and/or neuroqueerness. These elements need not be central or explicit––we’ll consider submissions in which queerness and/or neuroqueerness are explicit themes; we’ll just as happily consider submissions in which queerness or neuroqueerness don’t show up directly at all, but subtly inform the author’s voice or aesthetic.

If the mention of Spoon Knife as a “neuroqueer” lit anthology didn’t tip me off that my submission should be somehow (neuro)queer, this section makes that very clear. It’s another clarification as to what exactly the resulting work should look like – and, once again, it points to “read a previous volume” as an excellent way to understand what kind of work is more likely to be accepted here.

(Secret Spoon Knife Hack: One imprint of Autonomous Press, the publisher of Spoon Knife, is Neuroqueer Books – where all the titles are in some way neuroqueer. Full disclosure: This includes my novels.)

Spoon Knife 7 will be co-edited by Nick Walker (co-founder and Managing Editor of Autonomous Press) and Mike Jung (author of Unidentified Suburban Object and The Boys in the Back Row), and will be published in Fall 2022.

Sometimes, knowing who the editors are helps. Among other things, you can go look up their work. You shouldn’t try to imitate their work, necessarily, but knowing where they’re coming from may give you some ideas to work with while writing a piece or deciding which of your existing works has the best chance of being published.

We are accepting submissions until January 31st, 2022.

All submissions must be sent as Word documents (.doc or .docx files). Prose submissions (fiction and memoir) must meet the following criteria:

12-point Times New Roman font, double-spaced.

First line of each paragraph indented.

No extra whitespace between paragraphs.

Consistent use of Oxford commas.

Thoroughly proofread and spell-checked.

Possibly the most important part of the entire call for submissions. Here’s the stuff you’re going to be quizzed on. If your work doesn’t look like this when you submit it, expect to be rejected – no matter how brilliant your writing is.

(Secret Spoon Knife Hack: There isn’t one. Follow these instructions.)

If you’re submitting poetry, you may send up to 5 poems (please put them all in a single document). Poems should also be in 12-point Times New Roman font, but do not need to be double-spaced.

Note the special rules that apply to poetry, especially if you are submitting poetry.

Maximum length for submissions is 10k words. Exception: you can assume this limit to be as flexible as you need it to be if you’re an author whom we’ve previously published or whose submission the editors have actively solicited.

Another rule with which your submission will need to conform. Or not. You’ll know if you’re one of the exceptions (and if you are, you probably aren’t reading this guide).

Authors will be notified of acceptance or rejection by the end of June 2022. Payment for accepted submissions will be 1 cent per word, to be sent by check near the time of the book’s release.

I cannot stress how important this line about payment is, nor how disturbingly many calls for submissions do not mention whether, how much, how, or when the writers will be paid.

Look for this line. Insist on it. Don’t be afraid to email the outlet to ask about payment if the call does not mention it. If the outlet has a problem with that, it was never one that deserved your work in the first place.

Email all submissions to nick@autpress.com. The title of your email should be “Spoon Knife 7 Submission.” The body of your email must include a 3–4 sentence bio written in the third person, with the exact name under which you wish to be credited in the book.

There are so many final rules here that they can be easy to skip over, but don’t. This part of the call is a case study in why it’s important to read the entire call for submissions and read it carefully.

(Secret Spoon Knife Hack: We copy-paste your bio out of the email and into the book – or at least I did. That’s why you need to make extra-sure your name is spelled correctly.)

Step Two: Ideas Are Cheap As Free

Now that I’ve read the call for submissions pretty closely, my next step as a writer is either to identify something I’ve already written that might fit the theme, or to find something I can write that might fit the theme.

Some writers write ideas as they come, then let the resulting story sit around until they find a home for it. I don’t. I rarely have finished stories (or anything else) that don’t have a home. For me, then, this step is about exploring my list of ideas that could make a cool story until I find one I think I can run with.

For example, here’s a quick stream of consciousness on the Spoon Knife 7 topic, Transitions:

Transitions…the first thing I think of is marching band season and winterguard, the trouble we have with what we call transitions there – moving the ensemble from one staging point to the next, meshing that with the music in some meaningful way. A lot of us struggle to write them; I remember Ibe (Sodawalla, director of Legends) once saying that he worked extra-hard on writing transitions precisely because he was aware of how much he struggled with them. Same in synchronized skating. What is it that’s hard about those transitions – timing, coordination, knowing when to hang on and when to let go, dropping the performer face as if you’re not still being watched, maintaining the energy from there to here even though you are neither here nor there…okay, that sounds like my gender performance, lol.

This is one of probably a dozen things my brain will ruminate on before I decide on what it is I’m actually going to write. Fortunately, I have over a year to play with ideas before the deadline.

Step Three: Write Something (and Edit)

This stage is, to some extent, unique to every writer. Eventually I’ll hit on an idea that won’t let me go, and I’ll sit down and write a rough draft, probably in one go. I’ll sit on it for a few weeks, edit it, pass it around to my beta readers (my spouse and best friend), edit it again, and eventually submit it.

Because the process of writing is so personal, I don’t have advice for the writing stage itself. I do, however, highly recommend referring to the call for submissions again before you start to write. Set up your document so that it automatically meets as many of the submission guidelines as possible: auto-indents, font style and size, margins, spacing and so on. This frees you up to write without having to think about going back and fixing things after the fact.

Step Four: Triple-Check and Submit

Here’s where you get the call for submissions out, read it again, and make sure everything lines up. This is the part where your goal is not to fail the quiz on “Did you actually read the call for submissions?”

For Spoon Knife, this means sending a piece to the right email address, with the right subject line (please – it really does make the editors’ lives so much easier), and that 3-4 sentence author bio in the body of the email.

If you’re not sure what to put in your author bio, think about what’s relevant either to your writing career or to the story itself. For example, if I do end up sending in some memoir piece about marching band, I’ll probably mention in my bio that I’m a colorguard/winterguard director and avid DCI fan.

Here’s my bio from The Spoon Knife Anthology, the last volume in which I wrote memoir:

Dani Alexis Ryskamp

Dani Alexis is a Michigan-based writer and Autonomous Press editor. In between freelance writing projects, she enjoys reading our submissions pile, writing science fiction, and ignoring requests for contributor bios. Next year, she will be the lead editor on Spoon Knife 2: Test Chamber.

One of the things I love about Spoon Knife, and about publishing with Neuroqueer Books, is the opportunity to try things I probably wouldn’t be allowed to do with most publishers – like weave a nexus between my pseudonymous persona and my novel universe such that my author bios become part of that universe. To that end, here are my bios from 2, 3, and 4, all of which contain short fiction in my Non-Compliant Space series universe:

S. Verity Reynolds writes science fiction and changes addresses every six months. She is a co-founder of the Non-Compliant Space Project. Her first novel, Nantais, will be published by Neuroqueer Books in 2017, or you can read her short story here for an introduction to its universe.

S. Verity Reynolds is an anagram of Lee Harvey Oswald. Verity is the author of Nantais, Book 1 of the Non-Compliant Space series. The Non-Compliant Space expanded universe resides at danialexis.net. Book 2, Nahara, will appear in 2021 from Neuroqueer Books.

S. Verity Reynolds is 30-50 feral hogs in a writer suit. The author of the Non-Compliant Space series, she blogs under a stolen identity at danialexis.net.

If you’re not sure whether an outlet will grant you creative license in your author bio, you can of course write a straightforward one.

Step Five: Edits

Once you submit, you may or may not be asked for edits, depending on the outlet and the editors involved.

Do whatever the editors’ notes suggest, or explain why you cannot/will not make such changes, and send them back. If you do this enough times, eventually the editors stop sending you notes. Instead, they send the piece to someone who isn’t you, and you get to go write other things and wait for your big fat writer paycheck* to show up.

*fatness of paycheck is relative to thinness of wallet


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The Atlantic vs. My Impostor Syndrome

The day my recent article in The Atlantic ran, one of my fellow writers congratulated me “on landing that pitch.”

“They asked me,” I admitted at once. “My impostor syndrome would never.” I said it jokingly, but it wasn’t a joke.

I’ve tweeted before about how the biggest misconception people tend to have of me is that I’m fearless, when I’m actually afraid of just about everything. If I were a pony, I’d be Fluttershy.

One of the biggest things I feared, before the Atlantic piece, was putting myself in positions where I might get shot down. I feared querying publications in case my best understanding of the things they published was somehow not even in the same universe. I feared editorial feedback because it would surely reveal that I am a fraud who doesn’t understand the basics of the English language. I feared extending myself in any way lest the entire world find out I’m a fraud and kick me out of the Adults Allowed to Do Things Club.

None of these fears, of course, is remotely rational. But it didn’t stop them from lighting up my lizard hindbrain like a pile of old tires doused in gasoline. And that tire fire has burned uninterrupted for my entire writing career.

At least until last week. Publishing in The Atlantic had some interesting effects – including cracks in what I once thought was an impenetrable fortress of my impostor syndrome.

Writing That Atlantic Piece Was Literally Just My Job

I’ve been writing since I was 7 and publishing since I was 17. I co-founded a publishing company. I’ve been an editor in some capacity for at least four publications I can recall, plus probably dozens more I’ve worked for on a freelance basis. I haven’t even tried to count the number of outlets I’ve published in or the number of pieces I have out there (with or without my name attached).

And yet, for some reason, I was convinced writing something for The Atlantic was an achievement I could never hope to attain. Writing this article disabused me of that notion completely.

Writing this piece for The Atlantic turned out to be a surprisingly familiar process. I wrote a draft. The editor sent back notes. I did whatever the notes said and sent the draft back. The editor sent back more notes. After a few rounds, there were no more notes. The piece got sent to someone who wasn’t me, and I turned my attention to making a coherent article out of the next pile of undifferentiated idea-slush on my desk.

This is literally just my job.

This is exactly the same process that my freelance work goes through every week. It’s exactly the same process I go through with my editor on each book. It’s a process I’ve been involved in as an editor and a publisher, so I know what it’s like to be the person sending notes back, as well as the person who gets the piece after there are no more notes.

My impostor syndrome had convinced me that The Atlantic and similar publications occupied some rarefied land beyond the mundane daily tasks of writing, one that would be forever beyond my plebian reach.

It doesn’t. It’s just writing.

I’m Wrong About Everything – Or At Least About Myself

One of the most nerve-wracking things I did post-Atlantic publication was to respond to email and LinkedIn messages from people responding to the Atlantic piece.

These weren’t nerve-wracking because the feedback was bad. On the contrary, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

Rather, they were nerve-wracking to read and respond to because the feedback was positive. Because these were people who actually wanted to talk to me. Some of them even wanted to ask if I’d write stuff, for pay, for their outlets or businesses.

WE ARE DOOMED, my inner anxiety troll screamed. THEY KNOW HOW TO REACH US. THEY’RE SAYING NICE THINGS. IT BURNS, PRECIOUS. OUR SKIN IS MELTING.

(Thank you to everyone in elementary school who pretended to be my friend for laughs. You trained the troll well.)

What the hell am I thinking, answering these emails? I asked myself yesterday, while procrastinating on the task of answering those emails. These people are just going to find out I’m not really as cool and competent as they think!

Then it hit me: Maybe I’m the one who’s wrong about how cool and competent I am. Maybe everyone else is right.

Because it’s not just people who read the Atlantic piece who think I’m cool and competent enough to want to work with. It’s a wide range of people, from folks who know me not at all except what they learned from reading that piece, to the people who know me better than anyone else in the world, like my spouse. Lots of people, with varying degrees of familiarity with me, think I am cooler and more competent than I imagine myself to be.

Maybe it’s time for me to stop arguing with them.

I Still Hate Networking But Now I Understand It Better

The vast majority of the messages I’ve received in response to the article have been pretty standardized. Any of them could have been a template in a book about networking. Hello, here is my name and what I do. I read your article and enjoyed it. Would you perhaps like to discuss this topic of mutual interest?

I’ve never sent these types of messages myself. The impostor syndrome wouldn’t let me. After all, who the hell was I to think anyone would want to hear that I enjoyed their work – much less discuss with me a topic of mutual interest?

Being on the receiving end of these messages, however, taught me a few things about them.

First, they’re not the presumptuously intrusive nonsense I assumed they’d be if I sent them. In fact, they’re pretty easy to ignore if one has the desire to do so. Their impact on my mental health, once I got past the reptile hindbrain response of MY FACE IS MELTING, was actually neutral to slightly positive. I wrote a thing other people enjoyed! Enough to send me an email about it! That’s pretty cool.

Second, they are 100 percent about relationship-building, which means sometimes they go nowhere, and that’s okay. They’re the digital text equivalent of a handshake and a “So what do you do for a living?” Sometimes they pan out and sometimes they don’t, and either way they aren’t really causing harm. They’re also far less likely to transmit COVID.

Now that I see these types of emails as non-scary, I’m also able to see other types of emails as less threatening. Like the “Would you like me to write a piece about this topic?” email, or the “Here’s a story I wrote, publish it maybe?” email.

I Didn’t Know What I Didn’t Know

One of the main reasons I rarely submit short stories to publications, and almost never without an invitation, is because my impostor syndrome took that advice about “knowing your publication” a little too seriously.

You probably know the advice: Before you submit, read a few issues to get a feel for the kind of work they publish. Apparently, my impostor syndrome thought “a few issues” meant “entire back catalogs,” because I rarely felt like I knew a publication well enough to submit to it.

When it comes to writing sci fi and speculative fiction, my particular hobbies, I felt especially lost. What kinds of things do sci-fi and spec fic magazines accept? What are they looking for? Whoever shall solve this, the greatest mystery of our age?

(The fact that I co-founded a press that specializes in spec fic and edited a volume of its flagship spec fic series is not lost on me. Nor is the irony. Behold the awesome power of impostor syndrome to obscure even the most obvious facts from rational consideration.)

Since deciding that queries and submissions were probably just as not-scary as networking emails, I’ve looked up a few publications that might be a good fit for the kind of writing I enjoy. And I discovered something:

I could tell what kind of work a publication did by looking at the lists of authors it published.

That’s what years of making friends with people whose writing interests are similar to mine has done for me. That’s the result of heading up Spoon Knife 2 and getting to know the authors who go through AutPress. That’s how much I actually understand about this business.

I still read the stories, because I loves me some spec fic. But I found that I could predict pretty accurately what the oeuvre would be before I even opened the (digital) covers, because I already knew many of the authors.

As it turns out, I know quite a bit more than I thought I did. I certainly don’t know it all – the day I do is the day I need to quit writing – but I’m not the pathetic, ignorant sad sack my impostor syndrome convinced me I was for so long.


If I had my way, I wouldn’t need food to live – but alas, I am a meat being. Please help me eat food and keep writing: Share this post or buy me a coffee.

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