Submission Protocol: What We Want

Okay, you’ve got a story ready to submit. Now where do you submit it? Well, first, sign up for a Duotrope account (see my post about that here), then when you find an appealing market, the very first thing you should look for is the “What We Want” section in the submission guidelines. This is the place where the publication you’ve chosen hopefully tells you exactly what kinds of stories they publish.

In my opinion, your targeting needs to be pretty precise when submitting to genre markets. I know it sounds easy. If you write horror, look for markets that publish horror. Duh. But hold up there; if you’re writing King-esque average-Joe-in-a-supernatural-situation horror and you submit your work to bizarro-Lovecraftian-atmospheric horror magazine, you don’t stand much of a chance of getting published. So read the What We Wants carefully.

The What We Want section is the most basic and elementary part of the submission guidelines, and the penalty for FTFFD (failure to follow fucking directions) or SSD (special snowflake disorder) is severe.

Rejectomancy points deducted for FTFFD or SSD: -15  (What’s this?)

Okay, let’s look at a What We Want section you might see in a typical genre mag:

[XXX] is seeking original science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories, regardless of sub-genre.

This is pretty straightforward. This magazine tells us which genres they publish, and they’re not picky about subgenres. This big spread of genres is pretty common in submission guidelines, even if the publication in question primarily publishers only one of them. I think some publishers like to keep their What We Wants vague because they don’t want to pass up a good story if it’s not in their primary genre. That said, you’ll notice the genres this magazine publishes are not listed in alphabetical order. Does that mean anything? It could. If I were to take a guess, I’ll bet these genres are listed in order of preference, so as a horror writer, I might be a little hesitant to send a story here unless it was a mash up of sci-fi and horror or fantasy and horror.

Here’s another, more detailed What We Want that I’ll break up in pieces so we can completely overanalyze it:

We want horror, dark speculative fiction and noir. No specific sub-genres or themes.

This one is a bit more targeted, and what they’re looking for is more tightly focused than the first magazine. The term “dark speculative fiction” actually tells you a lot, in my opinion. They’re not saying don’t submit fantasy or sci-fi, or hell, even a western, they’re just saying it has to have a dark (horror) element. Think Twilight Zone, and I believe you’ll be on the right track.

The next line from the guidelines is:

Avoid excessive gore and sexuality unless it is essential to the story.

You’re going to see this line a lot in one form or another. Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell you much because “excessive” is entirely subjective. For example, I don’t think the gore in Django Unchained is excessive, and I think it is essential to the story. I know plenty of folks who wholeheartedly disagree on both counts. Who’s right? This is a case where you should definitely check out a sample story or two and try and figure out the publication’s tolerance levels.

Don’t get me wrong, I get why these “no excessive gore and language” lines appear in submission guidelines. I can only imagine the crazy, twisted shit some of these poor editors have to slog through because the author thinks buckets of gore and the use of the word “fuck” every six words is edgy. It’s not; it’s boring and trite. That said, I don’t know if the “no excessive” line in the submission guidelines is going to stop a writer for submitting a story like that. Maybe it weeds out a few. At the very least, it gives an editor an ironclad excuse for shit-canning a story without having to suffer through the whole thing.

Okay, now for the easy part, the last line is:

We are not accepting vampire or zombie stories at this time.

Guess what this means? Do not send them a vampire or zombie story. Period. End of discussion. Do not fall prey to SSD and think for a hot second your vampire/zombie story is so fantastic they’ll publish it anyway. Here’s what’s going to happen. The editor will start reading your story, figure out it’s a vampire or zombie story in the first two paragraphs, stop reading, curse your name, and fire off a form rejection. What’s worse, he or she might remember your the next time you submit.

In my experience, the reason magazines put these restrictions in their guidelines—for horror writers, the no vampire/zombies thing is super common—is because a) they’ve gotten a metric fuck ton of the restricted story already, and b) most of them are terrible. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a vampire or a zombie story, it’s just that with all common tropes, most of the good ideas have been done, and it takes something really unique to stand out. There are legions of would-be Stephanie Millers and Robert Kirkmans just spinning out reams of the same vampire romance tale or zombie apocalypse story. How’d you like to be the editor that has to read through piles and piles of that stuff? You wouldn’t, and you’d add something in your guidelines to ensure you don’t receive any more of them.

To sum up, read the What We Want part of the guidelines carefully, and try and match your story to the publication’s preferred genres and subgenres as closely as you can. You’ll increase your chances of getting published, and you won’t lose those precious rejectomancy experience points.

Up next, Submission Protocol: Length-Wise.

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