by Lillian Csernica on August 2, 2013
Once upon a time, I wrote columns for Speculations. I also wrote a few articles. One of them was “Horrible Cliches to Avoid” in which I listed the most frequent cliches I came across while reading short horror fiction for my Tangent review column, “The Penny Dreadful Reader.” A noteworthy SF writer was kind enough to credit that article with saving him from making one of those mistakes when he set out to write his first horror story.
Why am I telling you all this? As a reviewer, I’d really like to spend my time reading good fiction and commenting on how good it is. Contrary to what some people have thought in the past, I don’t get a thrill out of reading mediocre-to-dismal fiction and then bashing it in my reviews. That gets really tiresome, but I trudge ever onward in the hope of finding new voices with impressive skills.
With that hope in mind, let me explain some of the errors that will get your submissions tossed out before they even get to the stage of being tagged with form rejections.
One: Ignore the guidelines. C’mon, people! RTFM, or in this case, RTFG. The editors post their guidelines so writers know what they want and what they don’t want. Also, it’s much easier these days to actually read the ‘zines and get a good feel for what the editors’ tastes lean toward. When I started submitting stories, it was all print and you had to buy a sample copy. To make the odds of acceptance even higher, editors are also telling writers what they don’t want, and in much greater detail. I strongly suggest reading this excellent example from Strange Horizons.
Two: Don’t submit the story exactly the way the editors want it formatted. I’m talking about file format as well as font, italics, etc. The submission process moves so fast these days the first readers might very well be happy to spot the error that means they can flush that submission and move on to the next. I’m not saying I know of anybody who really thinks that way, but I have worked as a slush reader and anything that got me through the mountain of manuscripts faster was a blessing.
Three: Send your submission to the wrong editor. This annoys the editor whose in box you have mistakenly cluttered up. If you’re really lucky, that editor will pass the submission along to the right editor. I’m fully aware that with some ‘zines it takes some work to find out who’s in charge of what. You might still not get an actual name, just an e-mail address. Do your best to find the right person. I’ve had query replies and shortlist notices come from people whose names were not among those on the actual contact list. One lovely woman told me to address my correspondence to her so I’d get faster replies.
Four: Exceed the length limits. Don’t do this without asking if it’s OK first. Better yet, follow that excellent piece of editorial advice I learned years ago and “Cut it ’til it bleeds.” Some projects have more flexibility in the total word count. Other projects do not. If you really think your story is a great fit for the project even though you’re over the length limit (and I’m talking no more than a thousand words. More than that is just unreasonable.), query first, and make it the shortest, most professional query possible. Editors are insanely busy, always have been, always will be. Respect that.
Five: List every sale you’ve had since Miss Jenny stuck your poem about your puppy up on the classroom bulletin board. Most guidelines ask for the “most recent” sales. They might well add the “most relevant.” If you work in more than one genre, as many of us do, you want to show off the credentials that will convince the editor receiving this particular submission that you know what you’re doing and other editors think so too. I don’t use my horror sales when I’m submitting a high fantasy story, and vice versa.
Six: Mention your blog, your blogging awards, how many followers you have, average hits per day, etc. Again, the key word here is “relevant.” If your blogging experience establishes you as having knowledge that actively informs the content of your story, great. Otherwise, less is more.
Seven: Machine gun the editors with submissions. Yes, some editors will accept multiple submissions. Editors tend to limit this to three per writer. Also, respect the editors’ time limits on when you can send in a new submission after the current one is processed. I’ve read guidelines that say please wait at least seven days. If you don’t abide by these parameters, you run the risk of getting your name on a list. Writers who ignore the guidelines and clog up the submission channels might just find all of their submissions getting deleted without so much as a glance. I’ve seen editors make this possibility very clear.
(A brief aside: In my opinion, multiple submissions are silly because the odds of acceptance are slim enough without competing against yourself. Response times are so much faster these days. A little patience may result in a higher overall success rate. Still, do as the editor asks, and best of luck to you.)
Eight: Not keeping proper track of your submissions, response times, acceptances, personal vs. form rejections, contact names, etc. Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Of course you keep track of all this data. If you don’t, you’re spiking your career management in a big way. Do you really want to deal with the embarrassment of finding out you’ve submitted the same story to the same editor who rejected it once already? Another potential hazard is committing the multiple submission of the same story to the same market because for whatever reason you have no record of your submissions and you forgot where you already sent the story. This is a worst case scenario, but I’ll bet you a gift card to your favorite indie bookseller it’s happened at least once.
Nine: Cornering an editor at a public event such as a SF convention and asking about the submission status of your story. Unless you’re a Big Name, and I mean a BIG Name, this just isn’t done. Unless, of course, the editor contacts you and says he or she wants to talk about your story. Do the happy dance, calm down, and prepare for that meeting like a professional.
Ten: Bad manners. There is no excuse for being rude and stupid. Why on earth would you want to be rude and stupid to an editor who might buy your story and help push your career along? People do it. People with no grounds for arrogance of any sort get uppity with editors. Listen well, young padawans: Writing fiction means working in a buyer’s market. When you’re selling in a buyer’s market, DO NOT piss off the buyers.