I am an editor for a speculative fiction magazine; I get to read a lot of interesting stories and work with dedicated people. It’s a fun job and I’ve learned a lot. Like other magazines/journals, we have a slush pile, but even if your story makes it through the first round, it’s not guaranteed to make it past me. Many don’t. So, at the end of the day, what does it take?
An editor’s literary tastes are idiosyncratic, so I wasn’t lying when I said that you can’t know why someone rejected your piece. I had a flash fiction piece rejected a couple months back by Daily Science Fiction. It made it past their first round and into the second, final one, which means it was a strong contender for publication. But, ultimately, the gatekeepers decided my story didn’t make the cut. And though the rejection was a form letter, they essentially told me what I’m telling you now: My piece was a strong piece and they liked it, but someone’s story suited them better.
How is that fair, you may be thinking? And maybe it’s not. But that’s the way it goes in the publishing industry. At least they were nice about it.
How can you get past the gatekeepers then?
Below I’ve written some tips that might help you get further — at least for the speculative fiction (fantasy, sci-fi, horror) magazines.
Make sure your piece is polished. Have it edited by a critique group, a friend with a no-nonsense eye for detail, someone who has read a lot of stories. SOMEONE. As with many editors and readers in the small magazine industry, I’m a volunteer. I have a certain amount of time I’m willing to give any story I agree to edit. If I sense your piece is going to take more time than that, then I will probably reject it.
Avoid overdone subjects or at least attempt to do something new with them. Here’s the thing: Readers of the slush pile and the editors read a lot of stories. Certain plots and settings, for instance, come up again and again in certain genres. What you think is a unique story may be something we’ve already read hundreds of times. The best recent example I can give: I read a few stories back-to-back primarily focused on battle. They were well written; they had characters that were fleshed out. But I was laden with the more-of-the-same feeling. Speculative fiction offers far more opportunities for literary exploration than battle and war. Send those stories.
Put your characters in a setting no one would imagine, use intriguing and original characters, write a plot that is going to make me want to know more — about the world, about the story.
Subjects that may classify as overdone or hard sells are going to be, as I said, dependent on the editor, but there are a few that may have trouble getting past more editors than just me:
- Elves, dwarves, dragons, wizards etc. The presence of these characters doesn’t mean I’ll say no, but it does mean you’ll have more to prove.
- Clearly black and white characters
- Twist endings. You think they’ll catch us by surprise, but they don’t.
- Time travel
- Revenge stories
- War/soldier stories
- Ghost stories
- Government or science as root of all evil
UPDATE: I forgot to add this, but Strange Horizons has an EXCELLENT, comprehensive, and somewhat humorous list of stories they have seen too often. DO check it out!
Personal hard sells:
- Gratuitous violence
- A woman as nothing more than the “wench in the tavern” or the temptress
- Stories set in bars or taverns or battlefields
- Masculinized woman as a means of providing the story with a ‘strong’ female character. A warrior woman does not a strong female make.
- Same with the overdone sassy woman character.
- Stories starting with dialogue (if I accept the story, I’ll ask that you change this)
- Stories with an antagonist created solely for the purpose of the protagonist. I mean one forced into the narrative just to give the story’s MC a foe.
- Magic as the answer to problems (thank you Robyn for reminding me of this one) or illogical/unbelievable systems
- Characters that fit nicely into archetypes
Try for depth. When I read a story, I’d like it to linger in my thoughts — I’d like it to make me think. I take great pleasure in seeing the parts of a story fall together, connecting, giving me reason to care about the direction it’s going. It’s like unraveling a special piece of chocolate. I read a lot of stories that have plot but no characters. What I mean is that the characters are simply pieces on the board, plugs, in a sense. But I am 99% of the time more interested in the characters than the situation. I want to see how the characters are reacting, who they are. The setting/plot should be secondary to the characters, not the other way around. (Unless the setting itself is the character.)
Make sure the story fits within the story you’ve written. This happens more often than you think: the writer has a good idea and writes well but has bitten off more than he can chew for the size of the story. When this happens, the story has pacing issues or attempts to cover more ground than it feasibly can, which means I feel that something in it is totally lacking or that the author has missed the mark. Some things in a story are meant to be ambiguous (endings for example) or left to the imagination (certain elements of the world), but the story still has to feel complete.
In conclusion . . .
I’ve said no to stories for a good many reasons — and not all of them were because the story or the writing was bad. Some of the reasons may have been for those I’ve listed above. Many times it happens that I’ve read a similar story already and the other person simply did it better. And that’s precisely why you should persevere. Keep writing and submitting. Keep reading and learning.
In the end, we’re all in the same boat.