Submission Spotlight: Fun With Formatting

If you’ve sent out any short story submissions, you are likely very familiar with Shunn Standard Formatting. If you’re not, follow the link in the last sentence and GET familiar. Now, the vast majority of publishers ask for Shunn (often just called standard manuscript formatting), but sometimes it’s a starting point more than a formatting destination. So, like everything in this series of posts, it’s important that you read very carefully to pick out all this little formatting idiosyncrasies in the guidelines.

Let’s take a look at some examples of how publisher formatting guidelines vary from Shunn.

1) 99% Shunn. Sometimes a publisher wants just a slight deviation from standard formatting, like this:

Submissions should generally follow standard manuscript format, though we prefer single-spaced instead of double-spaced.

A slight change to standard formatting is pretty common. These small changes can be easy to miss because, however, so, as always, read very carefully. The other change I often see looks like this:

The Editor MUCH prefers Times New Roman.

Not every editor is down with Courier, and you’ll often see a request for a different font. Times New Roman is the most common, but I’ve seen other serif fonts requested as well. Again, this is a simple change to make, but if you’re not looking for it, you can miss it.

2) Mostly Shunn. Publishers sometimes ask for a larger deviation from standard manuscript formatting, but often with good reason.

Standard Manuscript Format, but with all author information removed from the manuscript.

For publishers who read submission blind, standard formatting presents a challenge in that it lists an author’s name and info on the front page. I see this request a lot, and it’s fairly easy to implement. If you’re like me and you have a standard manuscript template ready to go, remember to remove your name from the header too. I’ve almost missed that one a few times.

3) Doing our own thing. The last group of publishers are those that do not reference standard formatting and give camplete, albeit brief, formatting guidelines.

Double spaced Docx or RTF files set in a 14 point serif font like Times New Roman.

Often times when a publisher break from standard formatting, they’ll have very simple formatting guidelines like what you see above. That’s pretty easy to follow, and honestly, you could probably just use standard formatting here, change the font to Times New Roman, and be good to go. That said, sometimes the formatting guidelines will be more in depth.

  • All manuscripts should be double-spaced with broad margins and numbered pages.
  • Use 12 pt Times font, or a similar serif font, such as Cambria, Palatino, Baskerville. No other fonts, please. Italise words and passages that you want italicised. DO NOT underline words or passages you want italicised

Again, you could probably start with standard manuscript formatting (if that’s your template), change the font to one they have listed, and italicize words and passages you want italicized. Everything else in standard formatting conforms to what they want (broad margins, double spaced, numbered pages), and my guess the small additions (name and title in the header, for example) won’t be an issue. Rarely will a publisher have more detailed instructions outside of standard format, but I have seen one or two that are as in-depth as Shunn yet completely different.

4) It really doesn’t matter. The last type of publisher breaks from standard manuscript format because formatting isn’t all that important to them.

Don’t worry about standard manuscript format, as long as we can read it we’ll read it. 

Some publishers aren’t that concerned with formatting as long as the story is legible and you don’t use some crazy, weird font. A lot of the time when I see this in guidelines it’s because you’re pasting the story into a submission form that’s text only (or even into an email), so you couldn’t do standard manuscript format even if you tried.


Of the four examples above, the one I personally have to be watch for is the first example. That one little change to standard formatting can throw me because it’s not a big enough change (nor does it take up much real estate in the guidelines) to catch my attention if I’m not careful. Will a publisher auto-reject your story for a minor formatting mistake? Most of the time, probably not, but there are publishers who will (and they’ll tell you right in the guidelines). So, as always, it’s incumbent on you to read the guidelines completely and carefully every time for every submission.

Know of any other ways publishers deviate from standard manuscript formatting? Tell me about in the comments.

NYCM Round 1: No Guns, No Knives

Recently, at the urging of some folks in my writing group, I entered the NYCM Flash Fiction Challenge. You can get all the details on this particular flash fiction contest by clicking the link in the last sentence, but here’s a short explanation from the main site:

The Flash Fiction Challenge is a competition that challenges writers around the world to create short stories (1,000 words max.) based on genre, location, and object assignments in 48 hours. Each writer will participate in at least 2 writing challenges and as many as 4 depending on how well they place in each challenge.  When the competition begins, writers are placed in groups where they will be judged against other writers within their same group.  Each group receives its own unique genre, location, and object assignments (see past examples here).  After 2 challenges, the top 5 writers that score the highest advance to the next challenge.  In Challenge #3, writers are placed in new groups and given a new genre, location, and object assignment.  The top 3 writers from each of the groups in Challenge #3 advance to the fourth and final challenge of the competition where they are given the final genre, location, and object assignment and compete for thousands in cash and prizes.  

Pretty straightforward, right? Well, I didn’t make it past the second round, and both my stories came in 13th place (out of like 30, if I remember correctly) in my various heats and did not score enough points to put me into the semi-finals. Despite my lackluster showing, I thought it would be fun to share the prompts I recieved AND the stories I threw together with them. So let’s do that.

Round 1

  • Genre: Thriller
  • Location: A commuter train
  • Object: An ethernet cable

Not the toughest assignment, and the idea for “No Guns, No Knives” came pretty quick. You can read it below.


No Guns, No Knives

Kissinger’s target walked past his seat carrying a black laptop bag. Andrei Volkov was short, solidly built, and his heavy limbs and black beard gave him an almost bear-like appearance.

Outside the commuter train, the Pacific Northwest sped past. The Sounder ran from Tacoma to Seattle, and the few people on board were absorbed in books or smart phones. None of them noticed Kissinger reaching beneath his coat to touch the cool steel butt of his Beretta. The handgun was uncomfortable to carry with the suppressor attached, but it and the subsonic ammunition made the weapon no louder than a sharp clap, easily obscured by the noise of the moving train.

As Kissinger rose from his seat to follow Volkov his phone buzzed. Frowning, he pulled the cheap burner from his pocket and sat down again. It was Frank. “Jesus, I’m about to go to work.”

“I know,” Frank said. “But there’s a problem. The client has, uh, changed his mind on the details.”

“What?” Kissinger said, alarmed. “This guy is twenty minutes from the Federal Building. If he gets there, our client is fucked.” Volkov was an accountant who’d been cooking the books for Ivan Kuznetzov, a local Russian mob boss. Word on the street was he’d been indicted for tax fraud and was eager to make a deal with the Feds. The considerable information he had on Kuzentzov would be irresistible to the FBI.

“Turns out Volkov is Kuznetzov’s cousin,” Frank said. “He wants him . . . intact for the funeral.”

“What the fuck does that mean?” Kissinger hissed into the phone.

“No guns, no knives.”

“Goddamn it, Frank. I didn’t bring tools for that kind of work.”

“I know; I’m sorry, really.”

Kissinger considered his options. They were few and unappealing. “What if I didn’t get this message?”

Frank was silent for a moment, then, “You want to fuck around with Kuznetzov? I like you, Kissinger. You’re precise and professional. But if you shoot or stab Volkov, there is an excellent chance the next contract across my desk will have your name on it.”

Kissinger sighed. Frank was right. “Fine, I’ll do it.” He snapped the phone closed.

During Kissinger’s phone conversation, Volkov had moved to the next car. Kissinger got up and walked slowly toward it. By the landmarks whizzing by outside the window, he estimated he had about ten minutes before they reached Seattle.

The gun under his jacket and the knife in his right boot were useless weight at best, dangerous temptations at worst. He’d killed men with his hands before, but it was slow, loud, and likely to draw attention. His preferred method was a single gunshot to the head. Quick, painless, certain. Unfortunately, a hollow-point 9mm slug often did not leave a pretty corpse.

Volkov rose from his seat when Kissinger entered the next car. He froze, wondering if his target had spotted him for who and what he was. Instead, the Russian ambled slowly to the tiny bathroom cubicle at the other end of the car.

Kissinger looked around and realized the car was empty except for him and his target. Hit men did not ignore good fortune when it smiled on them, and he raced forward, slamming into Volkov as the Russian opened the door to the bathroom. He ended up in a three-foot-by-three-foot cubicle, pressed up against the back of the man he was supposed to kill.

Volkov’s right hand shot to his left pants pocket, scrabbling at what had to be a concealed pistol. There was no room to aim it, but if he fired the weapon, the whole train would hear the shot.

Kissinger threw a short, sharp punch into Volkov’s kidneys, keeping him from pulling his pistol, and desperately searched for something to fight with. Volkov’s bag was open, and Kissinger pushed his left hand inside while he held Volkov in place with the right. The Russian grunted and struggled, but didn’t cry out. That wouldn’t last.

Kissinger’s hand became entangled in something in Volkov’s bag. It felt like thin, plastic rope. His eyes widened, and he yanked out a coiled length of blue Ethernet cable. Kissinger pulled away from Volkov’s body as much as the small space allowed. The Russian used the tiny bit of freedom to go for his gun again and managed to get it out of his pocket. Kissinger used the space to bring both hands up and wrap the Ethernet cable around Volkov’s throat. He spun around, bent forward, his forehead brushing the bathroom door, and lifted Volkov off his feet, drawing the cable tight around the Russian’s throat.

Volkov made a terrified gagging noise, and his pistol clattered to the floor. Kissinger hung on, the cable digging furrows into his hands. Volkov’s feet drummed against the sink, and he jerked and writhed. Finally, his struggles weakened, then stopped. Kissinger held on for another thirty seconds to make sure.

A sudden latrine stench told Kissinger the hit has been a success. He sat Volkov’s body on the toilet, pocketed the ethernet cable, and checked his handiwork.

Volkov’s eyes were open, bulging and red, and his tongue protruded from his mouth. A livid red line encircled his neck. It would turn into an ugly purple bruise in a few minutes.

Kissinger slipped out of the bathroom, shutting the door behind him. The car beyond was still blessedly empty, and he made his way to the next one, praying no one would need the toilet.

He spent a tense few minutes waiting for the next stop. When The Sounder pulled into downtown Seattle he was through the doors and walking away from the station in less than a minute.

He called Frank when he was far enough away to avoid suspicion.

“Is it done?” Frank asked.

“It is.”

“Were you able to meet the client’s request?”

Kissinger snorted irritably. “As best I could, but they’re gonna want a high collar and a necktie for the funeral.”


As you can see, all the prompts added up (for me anyway) to an assassination or hit on a commuter train with the ethernet cable as the weapon. Since it was a thriller, I needed the story to move quickly and have a fair amount of action. I also needed some kind of wrinkle that would force my hitman to use such an unorthodox weapon without stretching belief too far. I think the story accomplishes what I needed it to. It is clearly a thriller and the object and location are strongly incorporated and integral to the plot. It’s failing, I think, is that it’s not particularly memorable. I like some of the dialog between Kissinger and his handler, Frank, and the bathroom scene was fun to write, but at the end of the day there’s probably not much that makes this story stand out. It gets the job done, but not much more, hence it’s relatively low score.

Well, that was round one of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. Check back next week and I’ll show you my round two story 🙂

Submission Spotlight: Regional Preferences

Today we’re talking once again about potentially unexpected elements of submission guidelines. As always, you should read the guidelines completely and carefully every time you submit a story. These articles simply highlight the many reasons why. This Submission Spotlight focuses on regional preferences and how they could affect you if you live outside a market’s targeted region.

1) If you live there, you can submit here. Sometimes a regional preferences is so focused, a publisher will not accept ANY submission outside of that region.

[Publisher] is looking for original science fiction and speculative fiction from New Zealand, Australian, and Pacific writers. This means that (for now) you can only submit to [publisher] if you are a citizen of New Zealand, Australia, or the Pacific, or if you are a resident of these areas.

Pretty straightforward, right? If you don’t live in that part of the world, don’t send them a story. Markets with these restrictions are generally pretty easy to spot and usually have this part of the guidelines right at the very top (but not always). In addition, market databases like Duotrope will mark a publisher like this with a limited demographic warning at the top of their entry.

2) Limited seating. Some publishers that focus on a specific region might allow submission from outside that region, but can only publish a small percentage of them. There’s often a very good reason for this, such as:

Our mandate is to give our readers the best SF we can find, regardless of the author’s nationality, and we have published authors from Canada, the U.S., Britain, New Zealand, South America, and more. In order to qualify for grants, we do have to maintain 80% Canadian content.

This market must publish mostly Canadian authors to qualify for grants, which no doubt keeps them in business and publishing (a good thing). They’re open and upfront about the restriction, and if you live outside of Canada, it’s something to take into consideration. Should you submit to a market like this if you’re outside of their region? Absolutely. If you’re story is good enough, you always have a chance.

3) Small window. Other markets with a regional preference may choose to publish authors from outside their region but might give them a shorter window to submit. Like this:

Submissions from Australian and New Zealand writers: 1 February – 30 September

Submissions from anyone anywhere: 1 August – 30 September

This market gives authors from their part of the world a big window in which to submit (eight months) and authors outside of that region a much smaller window (two months). This seems to me a pretty equitable way to do things. If you’re not from Australian and New Zealand, you simply treat this publisher like any other with a short annual submission window.


As I said in the opening, always read the guidelines completely and carefully. There’s no good reason to miss something like a regional preference (or anything else, for that matter). Most publishers are going to put something like this right at the top of the guidelines, and, as previously mentioned, market databases like Duotrope often note a market’s preferences in their entry.

Know of any other way publishers handle regional preferences? Tell me about it in the comments.

Submission Statement: October 2019

Finally getting one of these out in a timely manner. Here are my submission endeavors (and results) from October.

October 2019 Report Card

  • Submissions Sent: 6
  • Rejections: 8
  • Acceptances: 1
  • Publications: 1

I’m still behind on my goal to reach 100 subs for the year. I’m sitting at 69 at the moment, which means I need to slam out 15 subs in November and December to hit 100. I think that’s pretty unlikely at this point, and I’ll end up somewhere in the high eighties (maybe). With 14 acceptances, I’m still within striking distance of last year’s number of 19, so it’d be nice to hit or exceed that, even if I don’t reach 100 total subs.

Rejections

Eight rejections this month.

  • Standard Form Rejections: 5
  • Upper-Tier Form Rejections: 2
  • Personal Rejections: 1
  • No-Response Rejection: 1

Mostly form rejection in October, with one rare no-response rejection. The personal rejection was a shortlist rejection and is worth taking a look at. See below:

Spotlight Rejection

This is one of those useful rejections that can sometimes highlight the idea that “good stories get rejected too.”

Dear Aeryn,

[story title] made it through to our final round of consideration, but unfortunately it was not a good fit for us at this time.  We wish you the best of luck in finding a home for it elsewhere.

Thank you for thinking of us at [publisher]. We hope you’ll consider sending us more of your stories in the future.

This was a shortlist rejection, the story’s third. I know this one will eventually get published, but I just have to find the right fit. I know “right fit” can seem like a platitude, but I think it is one of the most common reason stories get rejected, especially good ones. It could be a wrong fit for the issue, the market, or they’ve simply published something similar recently. Hell, it could also be that you’re good story was passed over for better ones. Sometimes the competition is fierce. So, if you get a shortlist rejection like this, send that story out again right away (I did).

Acceptances

One acceptance this month, and it was a good one. Here’s the acceptance letter. You’ll note I’m revealing the publisher here. That’s simply because I asked and received permission from the publisher to announce the sale.

Thank you for sending us “The Back-Off”. The editors were impressed with the story, and we are pleased to offer to purchase the rights to use your work in an upcoming issue of On Spec Magazine. If the work is still available, kindly let us know with a brief note to [email address].

You will be sent a standard contract offer in due course, and we’ll let you know the next steps in the process.

I’ll be straight with you. I didn’t expect this acceptance. I mean, I don’t usually expect an acceptance, but there are certainly times when I feel I’ve got a better shot than other. Here, I thought I had no shot. And that, friends, is why you should never, ever, ever self-reject, no matter how much you think a market won’t be interested in your work. Send it anyway because you never know. Anyway, this story had been rejected a fair amount, but it kept getting these nice personal rejections. The problem generally was the story wasn’t horror enough for the horror markets or fantasy enough for the fantasy markets, so I finally got wise and sent it somewhere that published speculative fiction in a broad sense. That, uh, worked. 🙂

Publications

One publication this month from one of my favorite markets, The Arcanist. The story, “Small Evil,” took second place in their Monster Flash contest, and you can read (or listen to) it below:


And that was my October. Tell me about yours.