I know, there’s probably ten or so of you that are absolutely devastated that this isn’t a pulp appeal article where Cameron or I talk about some pulp (or pulp adjacent property). Instead, this is going to be about our last submission period, and some of what we saw. So this is for the writers in the audience, which, going by our Twitter and Facebook feeds is, well, most of you.
The Guidelines Are There For a Reason (Part I)
We have guidelines on our website. They detail, in what we hope is clear and concise language, what we are looking for. They can be broken down in two parts. The first is the genres we are looking for:
- sword and sorcery;
- westerns (Weird or otherwise);
- horror (Cosmic, Southern Gothic, visceral, and psychological);
- detective tales;
- two-fisted action;
- retro science fiction
If you can squint real hard and fit your story into one of those buckets, yeah, we’ll read it and give it due consideration. Mash-ups of the above are also great. Here’s what we see too much of:
- Epic or high fantasy.
- Fantasy that is a reskin of a Dungeons and Dragons game.
- Engineering science-fiction where the hero can solve the problem with a calculator and wrench.
- Stories where talking about the problem somehow solves the problem.
- Slice of life stories that would fit better in a literary magazine. No speculative gloss at all which made both editors scratch their heads and ask “Why did they send this to us?”
- Urban fantasy.
- Allegories (religious or otherwise) where a solid chunk of the story relies on telling some sort of moral.
The Guidelines Are There for a Reason (Part II)
Okay, so you’ve got a story that definitely fits into one of the above categories. That’s great! You did read the second part of the submission guidelines, right? No? Well, you are going to get an email that you didn’t follow the guidelines and your story is rejected.
The biggest culprit is word count. We get a lot of stories that don’t fall within our 2,000 to 5,000 word range. Why? I wish I knew. Until I receive proof otherwise, I am going to blame a particularly vicious form of brain parasite that is forcing these writers to do this. We don’t have plans to serialize any more stories.
The other big culprit is formatting. We do ask that writers submit as an attachment (.doc,.docx, .rtf) and to submit in standard submission format. Hey, guess what, if you are submitting short fiction to markets, you are going to see this a lot. It is a bit of an artifact when submissions were being mailed to editors as opposed to being submitted electronically, but you know what’s awesome when you are trying to read through multiple submissions in a short period of time? Not having your eyes bleed because every writer has a different way of formatting. And while we probably won’t reject you based on how you formatted your story, do know that we will be sitting there, judging you and your ability to follow directions.
The Rejections Will Continue Until the Writing Improves
This editor made the fatal mistake of worrying that we wouldn’t get a lot of submissions when we reopened, and that we wouldn’t have a big enough pool to draw from.
Yes, well, we all had a good laugh about that, let me tell you. I’m not saying we were overwhelmed by any stretch, but we did receive a lot of work from very talented people.
We also received work that it was clear hadn’t even received a cursory read through before being submitted.
Here’s the dirty secret: typos happen. They happen to professional writers. They happen in published books. We get it.
If it’s clear you haven’t bothered to do a basic read through, if it’s clear you didn’t have someone read over it to make sure your writing is clear and clean, we’re not going to pick up the slack for you and you will get a nicely worded rejection cautioning you to give it another editorial pass before subjecting any other editor to your abuse of the written language story.
This is also true of the narrative of your piece. If the plot isn’t clear, if the stakes aren’t well established, if it confuses the reader who the characters are… then your story is most likely going to get rejected. Please note that this isn’t the same as having plot twists. Surprising the reader with a logical plot twist is great! But, the reader has to be able to follow along without poor writing and execution throwing up roadblocks making it harder. Again, this is an editing process. If you have a writers’ group you can go to for critique, that’s great. There are also plenty of writers’ groups online you can join and get some feedback.
Make the Stakes Meaningful
Every story we receive should have clear and meaningful stakes. What does that even mean? Think of it this way, what problem is presented in the story? What is the best possible outcome for the protagonist? What is the worst possible outcome? What could be some of the permutations where the protagonist gets what they need but not what they want? What’s the fallout if they fail spectacularly?
If you can’t answer that because the resolution of the story doesn’t change anything, well, what’s the point? We’re not saying that the character’s life has to be at stake in every story, but there’s got to be something there. Something to lose. Something to gain. Something to make the reader care about the resolution. What is the result if the murderer isn’t caught? What happens to the thief if the heist goes wrong? What’s going to happen to the stranger in town if they can’t figure out why everyone else clears the street an hour before sun down?
Honestly, this is the one that trips up a lot of writers and pushes stories that we might have otherwise considered into the rejection pile.
Give Us Memorable Characters
We don’t have to like every character. We don’t need them to be our best friend. What we do want is for them to be memorable, to have more depth than if you are just pulling out stock characters and plug and playing them into your story line. Give them motivations. Give them a hint of back story. Make them stand out with a detail. If the character seems like a character we’ve seen a thousand times before, we’re going to more than likely pass on your piece. If it seems like every character comes straight from central casting, maybe give a thought or two if you are writing new, original fiction, or trotting out the same tired stories.
Put the Action Up Front
It’s true, we’ve published a few stories where the action wasn’t front and center. For the most part, though, what we’re looking for are stories that get the blood pumping, that prompt a physical response, and where the characters are Making Stuff Happen. Yes, we know that dialogue is considered action, but we want stories where the characters do more than talk through their problems. And while even Conan paused every now and again to contemplate his situation, we want stories focused on the characters doing things, actions as a direct result of the situation they find themselves in (even if they deliberately entered that situation in the first place). If your character merely has action happen to them, you will probably have your story rejected by us.
Related to this point is don’t make your readers wait to find out what the action is. You’ve got between 2,000 and 5,000 words to tell your story. If you spend the first page and half describing characters and setting without anything related to the plot happening our eyes are going to glaze over and you will receive a very polite rejection letter. Also, think about the story you are telling. If at the end of the story you read it and think, “Huh, the story is just starting to get interesting,” maybe you should be telling that story instead. This is also a place where getting honest feedback can be critical.
Final words: all of the above advice is only good for Broadswords and Blasters. Other magazines have their own preferences as to what they are looking for and the kinds of stories they prefer. One of the best ways to see the aesthetic a publications is going for is to buy an issue. And. Always. Follow. The. Guidelines.
 Yes, writers. Not aspiring writers. Not wannabe writers. Writers. If you manage to write a complete story, that’s what you are.
 Seriously. We’ve published Westerns featuring aliens, demons, and time travel, though not necessarily all in the same story.
 Yes, I am oversimplifying this kind of sci-fi, but it isn’t far off.
 This is especially sad because almost all of our other rejections include personal feedback to the writer. But hey, if you don’t want to follow the rules…
 Critiquing other peoples’ writing also helps to identify flaws in your own.