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.

Revise, Retire, or Resubmit?

I got a rejection letter today. (Send cards and flowers to my home address.) It was the sixth rejection this particular story has received in its current incarnation. After five or so rejections, you can’t help but ask yourself, “Should I retire this one?”

It’s an understandable question. Repeated rejection is no fun, and it can certainly make you wonder if one of your darlings isn’t in dire need of killing. That said, I think you have to look a little deeper before you pull the plug on a story. Here are two anecdotal examples from my own experience, and, as they are from my own experience, you may consider them incontrovertible proof of whatever point it is I am about to make.

I published a story a while back that had received thirteen rejections before it was accepted. It had received thirteen form rejections. Not nice little personal notes expressing how much the editor enjoyed the story but it wasn’t a good fit or informative personal rejections that told me what was wrong with the story. Nope, just piles of “not for us” and “I’m going to pass this time” and “best of luck placing this elsewhere.” Hell, the story didn’t even get a “send us more work” rejection. In other words, it looked pretty fucking bleak.

The thing was, I really liked this story. It was quirky and weird and unlike most of the stories I had written. I had faith in this story. Now, that’s not always a good thing, and that kind of blind confidence in the face of repeated rejection can be an early symptom of SSD (special snowflake disorder). Still, I had a gut feeling the story was a good one, so I ignored my baker’s dozen of previous rejections and sent it out again, this time to a magazine that tended to publish horror on the quirky side.

Bam! Acceptance letter. They loved it. On top of that, it was my first publication with a webzine that I’ve since published with multiple times. They apparently dig my style (poor fools), and I definitely dig them for digging it.

So, what happened there? Why did that story get thirteen form rejections before it found a home? In this case, I think it was an example of poor submission targeting. I was sending the story to publications looking for classic horror tales, and this story absolutely wasn’t that. When I wised up and sent the story to a publication actually looking for the weirder side of horror, I hit pay dirt.

Okay, now the second example, the story that was rejected today. This one is a bit different. It’s been getting rejected, but it’s getting personal rejections and invitations to send more work, only one straight-up form rejection (today). What does that pattern tell me? The glass-half-full guy might say it’s getting close and just hasn’t found the right home yet. Might be some truth there. I think a large part of getting published is actually finding an editor that likes your work. On the other hand, the glass-half-empty guy might say it’s getting close but not landing because it’s a good example of my style but a very flawed story. In other words, revise or retire.

So do I continue to send the story out in its present form? Yeah, I think so. There’s been enough positive reinforcement that I’m going to listen to the glass-half-full guy. This might be just a matter of matching up the story with the right editor and publication. I could be very wrong—the story might really just suck—and there may be another half dozen rejections in my future, but at this point, I feel confident enough about the story to keep firing it off.

What is the take away from my two rambling examples? I think it’s the primary thrust of this blog: rejection, although an unavoidable part of the writer’s life, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re failing. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes you absolutely do need to retire a story or revise it heavily, but ask yourself a few questions before you do. Are you sending it to the right markets? Are you getting any positive responses? The answers to these questions might suggest you do need give this one a rest, or, maybe, that you need to hitch up your britches and fire off that story one more time.

Duotrope – You Need This

If you’re a genre writer and you’re going to start sending you stories out into the cold, cruel world, your first step should be to sign up for a subscription at Duotrope (www.duotrope.com). What is Duotrope? Why it’s only the handiest, dandiest resource for genre authors on the whole goddamn internet. The front page of Duotrope describes itself thusly:

Duotrope is an established, award-winning writers’ resource, and we’re here to help you spend less time submitting so you can focus on writing. Whether you’re an experienced writer or just getting started… whether your creative leanings are literary or genre, factual or poetic… our listings cover the entire spectrum.

Basically, Duotrope is a search engine for genre markets. You can input search data based on the content of your story (genre, length, pay scale, etc.), and it’ll give you a list of markets that match your criteria. What’s better, it’ll give you some solid info on those markets, like their acceptance/rejection ratios, how long they take to respond to submissions, and if they tend to send personal rejections over form rejections.

They’ve also got a handy submission tracker that allows you to keep track of all your pieces, where you’ve submitted them, if they were rejected or accepted, and so on. It’s really helpful, and it’ll keep you from doing embarrassing, dumbass things like sending a story to a market that’s already rejected it, which I’ve very nearly done. Duotrope saved my ass.

The information they gather on various markets largely relies on authors correctly reporting their submission activity. So if you do use Duotrope, report everything. Report the submissions, report the acceptances, and when you get a rejection letter, fight through the tears and report that too.

A subscription to the site costs you the princely sum of $5.00 a month. Yes, there are other websites that do basically the same thing for free, but, in my opinion, they don’t do it as well. So pony up your five bucks and get the subscription.

Know about another invaluable writer resource? Tell me about it in the comments.

Short & Savage – My Latest Publication

SIX_Iron Kingdoms Excursions s2 6_working-2

This short collection of flash fiction is published by Skull Island eXpeditions and is part of the steam & sorcery Iron Kingdoms setting, which includes the award-winning games WARMACHINE and HORDES. My story, “Uncommon Allies,” can be found within. It’s a touching tale of violent frog men and savage trollkin putting aside their differences to violently savage someone else, together.

The collection can be had for the paltry sum of .99 cents. Buy it here:

 

Rejection Letter Rundown: The Improved Form Rejection

Welcome to the next installment of Rejection Letter Rundown. Today, I’m covering that first baby step forward on the path of rejectomancy, the improved form rejection. If you’d like to catch up and read the first post in this series, click here.

At first glance, the improved form rejection might look like the common form rejection, but it carries an important distinction—it says something other than no. It’s still a no—don’t make any mistake about that—but hidden within this rejection is the first sign you might be making progress with this particular publisher.

Here’s one of mine:

Dear Aeryn,

Many thanks for sending “XXX”, but I’m sorry to say that we don’t think it’s quite right for [our publication]. We wish you luck placing it elsewhere, and hope that you’ll send us something new soon.

You’ll notice this letter has many of the same components as the common form rejection. It says the publisher received and read my submission, they’re not going to publish it, and it has the very common nicety of wishing me luck placing it elsewhere. The distinction between the common form rejection and the improved form rejection is the second part of the last sentence, “…and we hope you’ll send us something new soon.”

There is some debate on the improved form rejection, and there are writers who believe the line “…send us something new” in the letter above is just as sincere as the one right before it, “We wish you luck placing it elsewhere.” They’re both just the garden variety niceties you find in the common form rejection. There’s likely some truth in this, and I have no doubt some publishers use this model.

On the other hand, I’ve heard there are publications that have multiple tiers of form rejections. A series of letters that, while still form rejections, offers encouragement or a sincere invitation to submit again. The first tier is the common form rejection. The second form letter (and some even have a third or fourth) is sent to authors whose work shows some promise. Maybe not enough promise to warrant a personal rejection letter (we’ll cover those later), but enough to say, “We’re not entirely opposed to reading another one of your stories.”

So here’s the big question: Is the improved form rejection more often just a common form rejection in disguise? Sometimes, yes, but I’d rather err on the positive side of this thing. Here’s why. I was an editor for a long time, and without exception, I never sent a request, of any kind, to an author I didn’t want he or she to complete. I just didn’t have the time look at emails and stories from authors whose work doesn’t fit the style or tone I wanted. I like to think I’m not the only editor that feels that way.

My reason for believing the improved form rejection indicates you’re making progress comes from my own experience. This is anecdotal as fuck, but, hey, it’s my blog, and around here anecdotal is ironclad proof. I’ve sent a story to a publisher, got the common form rejection, sent another and got the improved form rejection, sent another and got the improved form rejection (verbatim) again, until, finally, after two more improved form rejections, I got a personal rejection that said, “Hey , dumbass, stop sending us your shitty stories.” Kidding! Nah, the editor took the time to tell me he liked my work, but I was just missing the mark, and he offered some helpful advice on how I might improve. I’ve yet to submit again to that particular publisher—I’m thinking very carefully about what I should send—but I certainly felt encouraged by the progress I made, moving up through the various form letters to the pinnacle of rejection, the informative personal rejection (we’ll cover that one eventually).

Bottom line, if an editor requests that you send more work, even in a form letter, they probably mean it. So, go ahead, reload, and fire off another piece. Keep in mind, though, if you don’t progress to a personal rejection, or, even better, an acceptance, or you stop getting the improved form rejection and start getting the common form rejection again, it might be time to give this particular publisher a rest and send your work somewhere else.

How Much/Often Should I Write?

This is a question writers hear a lot. Hell, it’s a question writers ask a lot. The most common answer is something frustratingly vague like, “all the time” or “as much as you can.” Easy, right? I mean who has a day job, a significant other, friends, a life that requires occasional routine maintenance, and all that other shit that gets in the way of writing all the goddamn time?

My problem with the “all the time” answer is the implication that if you’re not writing 24/7, you’ll never be any good or have any success. That leads to the feeling that you’re never writing enough. That feeling sucks, and I don’t recommend it.

Yes, you need to write a lot to get better, but that doesn’t mean your writing can’t fit somewhat comfortably into the rest of your life. Writing is my fulltime gig, and I don’t write all the time. I have a daily goal of 2,000 words on my current fiction project and then another 500 to 1,000 words on stuff like blogging. Those numbers allow me to comfortably hit my deadlines and still have something resembling a life.

I get not everyone has eight hours a day to devote to writing (and intermittently fucking around on the internet), but I think my method works even if you can only find an hour a day to write. So, my answer to the age-old question “How much/often should I write?” is the following incredibly complex formula. Try to keep up.

Step 1: Figure out what you want to write: short stories, novels, blog posts, whatever. It doesn’t matter what it is; just pick something with a quantifiable length.

Step 2:  Set a daily writing goal. Start small, even as small as 250 words per day. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but that shit adds up. In a week, you’ve got a solid flash fiction story; in a month, a reasonably sized short story; over a year, we’re talking novel-length. (By the way, I’ve highlighted the 250th word in this post, so you can see how much actual writing that entails.) If a word count goal feels too much like accounting, set a time limit. I’d recommend starting with a solid hour. Whatever the metric you choose, it should be something you can easily measure, so you’ll know the exact moment you achieve it.

Step 3: Hit your goal and bask in the warm glow of achievement. That sense of achievement is really important—next to getting published, it’s my favorite part of writing. When I hit my word count, I feel good. What’s better, I don’t feel guilty for paying attention to the other parts of my life. I get more shit done when I don’t feel guilty (so will you).

If you’re new to this whole writing thing, I think setting small, measurable goals is the way to go. Try it out. My guess is that you’ll start hitting that initial goal, and then, in a very short time, exceeding it on a regular basis.

Already got a method that works for you? Tell me about it in the comments.

Rejection Letter Rundown: The Common Form Rejection

Rejection Letters – An Introduction to Disappointment

If you are going to send out your work to genre magazines, webzines, and book publishers, you are going to get rejection letters, probably a lot of them. It is vitally important you understand this is both inevitable and unavoidable. It is totally going to happen to you. Even when you break through and start publishing, you will still get rejected. Until you reach that vaunted place where your name alone sells books—Stephen King could probably sell his grocery list—you will get rejected.

So make peace with the rejection letter and accept it as part of mastering the art of rejectomancy.

Rejection letters come in many forms, and some can tell you a lot about your writing. They all sting, but each one stimulates the growth of an ever-thickening skin all writers need to survive the pain of rejection, and while this protective integument is never completely effective against that pain, it can blunt its impact.

In this series of posts, I’ll break down the various types of rejection letters I’ve received, dissecting them in an attempt to uncover their meaning and potential use to the aspiring author. I’ll give you examples from my own copious and ever-growing pile of the things in hopes you can learn something from them or just take some comfort that you are not alone.

Take note, I will not be revealing the names of editors, publications, or even the stories I’ve submitted. If you’re looking for that, you’ll have to look elsewhere. There are blogs that do that kind of thing, and while I have no problem with the concept, I’m taking a different approach.

Okay, let’s get to the rejections!

The Common Form Rejection (Rejectio familiaris)

When you start sending your stories out for publication, the rejection letter you are most likely to receive is a boilerplate, copy-and-paste kind of deal I call the common form rejection. It is the simplest and most efficient way for an editor or publisher to politely say “no thanks” without saying anything else

Let’s look at an actual, real-live common form rejection I recently received:

Dear Aeryn,

We have read your submission and will have to pass, as it unfortunately does not meet our needs at this time. Thank you

Short and to the point, this is a pretty typical example of the common form rejection. It says three things: we received your story, we read your story, and we’re not going to publish your story. It also includes the ubiquitous phrase “does not meet our need at this time.” You are going to see that and others like it a lot. Every industry has their lingo, and publishing is no different.

Can you read anything else into this letter? I don’t think so. You may be tempted to think they hated your story or they think you’re a bad writer. You may ask yourself does “unfortunately” mean they reluctantly passed? Does “at this time” mean they came close to accepting it? It’s possible any of these things (good or bad) are true, but the real truth is you can’t know and you never will. This is your first test on the path of rejectomancy, and to pass it, you just have to move on. Don’t think about this one too much. It’s not worth it.

Here’s another example of the common form rejection from my own collection:

Hi,

Thank you for letting us read your story. Unfortunately, at this time, it’s not a good fit for our magazine, so we are unable to accept it. We wish you good luck placing it with a different market.

All the best!

At first glance, this looks more promising than the first. It has a more casual tone and uses apologetic and even encouraging language, but it really says the same things as the first letter. The only real difference, you’ll note, is the last line, “We wish you good luck placing it with a different market.” This is another one of those lines you’ll see in a lot in rejection letters, and I wouldn’t read too much into it one way or the other. It’s another, nicer way to say no thanks. Editors are people (and often writers) too, and they aren’t out to hurt your feelings or ruin your day. So, in my opinion, this letter is just an attempt to soften the blow, and as a writer, I can appreciate that.

Should you submit again to a publication that has sent you a common form rejection? The answer, in my opinion, is yes. Neither of the letter’s above says anything other than they passed on this story. They might love the next one. That said, if this is the tenth letter you’ve received from the same publisher after submitting ten different stories, then, maybe, you should begin questioning if this is the right market for you.

Now for the things you probably don’t want to hear. If you’ve been submitting work for something like a full year of committed submissions, and this is the only type of letter you’re getting, and you’re getting it from multiple publishers, then you may need to ask yourself some important questions:

  1. Do I need to work on my craft? Your work might not be ready for publication. How can you know that? The best way is to find objective readers who will give you an honest appraisal of your work. Note, objective people are generally not your family and friends—objective readers aren’t afraid to tell you what’s wrong with your work. Your friends and family might actually give a shit about your feelings. That’s no good to a writer.
  2. Am I submitting to the right publishers? Make sure you’re submitting to markets appropriate for your work. If you write horror, my advice is to submit to markets that are horror markets first, not, for example, markets that primarily publish fantasy but are willing to read the odd horror submission. There are a lot of publishers with ambiguous guidelines that seem to encompass every genre under the sun (more about that in another post), but if you read between the lines, and more importantly, read the publication in question, you can usually zero in on what they really want.
  3. Do I need to submit something else? If you’re sending the same couple of stories around and they’re just not landing, it might be time to retire them or at least give them a rest and come back in a few months ready to make some changes. Often times you just need to get some fresh meat out there.

That’s all I have to say about the common form rejection, but I’d like to hear about your experiences with this type of rejection letter. If you want to share an actual rejection, please make sure you remove all identifying marks: the editor’s name, the publication, the name of your story, etc.

Next up, Rejection Letter Rundown: The Improved Form Rejection.

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