The Art And Science Of Short Story Submission (2)
This month, Monstrous Friends interviews Steve Rasnic Tem and Lyn Worthen of Camden Park Press. Steve speaks from the viewpoint of the writer, while Lyn offers insight into the harried mind of the editor.
As always the responses are surprising, insightful, honest, and provocative.
Grand Master Steve Rasnic Tem has been writing award-winning fiction for over forty years. His novel, Ubo, was a finalist for the Bram Stoker Award® in 2018 and one of the most praised books published by Solaris; it is now available on Amazon. This past year was one of Steve’s most productive years with a new young adult novel, The Mask Shop Of Dr. Blaack, just out from Hex Publications. To catch up with Steve, go to his Web site at http://www.m-s-tem.com or follow him on Facebook.
Q: What secrets can you share about submitting stories to anthologies and having the good fortune to see these tales published?
A: Rule number one is don’t give them an excuse to reject you before they even read the story. That begins with the cover letter. Be brief. Don’t try to be clever. Don’t tell them how much they will love it; don’t try to manipulate them in any way. The simpler the better (unless the guidelines state otherwise). Most of my cover letters are a simple statement that I would like to submit the attached story to their anthology. If I know the editor well I might say something personal about the last time I saw them, or point out a story in their last anthology I liked. But no more than that. If the guidelines ask you to include some information about where you’ve been published, give a short listing of the most prominent titles, but don’t go overboard. Don’t mention what professional writers’ organizations you belong to—many editors find that amateurish. Just remember: a great many writers send cover letters which leave a bad impression because they try so hard to sell and impress. Don’t be one of those writers.
Speaking of guidelines: read them carefully and follow them. Don’t send a story that isn’t about the requested theme. Don’t send a story shorter or longer than the length range specified in the guidelines (or make some excuse as to why you’ve violated those guidelines). Don’t try to sell the editor on buying something she already stated she doesn’t want.
Use standard manuscript format with normal fonts and font sizes. The only time to vary from this is when the guidelines tell you to. Even if the guidelines specify an annoyingly different format (and sometimes they do), still follow those guidelines to the letter. Or don’t submit.
Theme works its way down into the meat and skeleton of a story.
I should note here that when I see guidelines which are unusually long and complicated, which specify an unusual submission format, and the pay rate is substandard, I consider it a warning sign and I usually don’t submit there. In my experience it’s often an indication they will be less than professional to deal with.
Grammar, spelling, and punctuation should be near-perfect. With tools like Word’s spelling and grammar check, SmartEdit, and others, and all the good guides to grammar out there, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be. Watts’ An American Rhetoric is a good one if you can find a copy. Take off a week or so and study it. It may seem unfair to judge your creative work by such mundane standards, but remember you’re trying to create a spell with your fiction—you want your story to quickly absorb the reader. Grammar and spelling mistakes will kick them out of the spell.
The first line, the first paragraph, the first page, the first scene—these have to be as good as you can make them. Most editors will decide whether you can write or not based on this brief sampling. If they don’t like this sampling you’re apt to receive a quick rejection.
So craft an opening that intrigues, which makes the reader want to read on. Starting in the middle of an action often works, or a paragraph crystalizing the narrator’s central dilemma. If this first page directly relates to the anthology’s theme that can also be a help. Show, don’t tell. Write an actual scene. Make it happen on the page. This standard advice is even more important for those first few pages.
Finally, although it’s tempting to revise an existing story to make it fit another anthology’s theme or subject matter, it often doesn’t work—more often than not the seams will show. There will be obvious inconsistencies. In effective storytelling, the theme affects the tone, the choice of characters, the descriptions, the language, the events, everything. Theme works its way down into the meat and skeleton of a story. So if it’s an important anthology take the time to create something from scratch.
There are exceptions to this, of course. Sometimes you’ve written a story that doesn’t quite work and you can’t figure out why. Then you read an anthology announcement and realize the anthology’s theme is the missing element which will make your story live. It’s a revelation when that happens, but it’s rare.
As for what aspect of an anthology’s theme you should write about, be suspicious of the first idea that pops into your head. It’s quite possibly the same idea every other writer has when they read those guidelines—the obvious one. Try to come up with a non-obvious use of the theme, preferably one reflecting your own themes and obsessions.
Lyn Worthen is a gifted writer and anthologist with the 2017 Reader’s Poll Top 10-voted Mirages and Speculations, and the more recent A Year of the Monkeys and Sweet Christmas Kisses 5 to her credit. Her latest release, Quoth the Raven, celebrating the work of Edgar Allan Poe, is just out from Camden Park Press, where she serves as managing editor. She is a self-described “caffeine-to-text conversion unit,” which explains how she gets so much done. Follow her on Facebook, or visit her Web site, http://www.camdenparkpress.com.
Q: Lyn, would you share the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to editing an anthology and selecting stories for the collection?
A: The Good: Collecting lots of good stories into one place.
The Bad: The Slush Pile … Need I say more?
The Ugly: The editor is reading to reject.
Authors routinely hear editors say that they’re looking for “new ideas,” “fresh voices,” and such. And that’s true. But what most of us don’t say in those same conference presentations is that when we dive into the slush pile, it’s not with the idea of looking for those wonderful needles in the haystack—as much as that goal is sitting in the back of our mind. The reality is that an editor or slush reader approaches the slush pile with an aim toward making it smaller.
Is the manuscript single-spaced, and/or in 8 pt font? Great! That’s one I don’t need to read.
Was it submitted in a format other than the type specified in the guidelines? I’m not reading it. Not kidding. I ask for file formats I can read easily on my tablet during the daily commute or while sitting on the couch with the cat and a cup of coffee.
Did the author not bother to include their contact information on the manuscript? Bye-bye! (Or, in the case of situations where blind submissions were required, in which case, including the info would be the disqualifier.) One submission I received for Quoth the Raven had no contact information on the manuscript, and a cover letter that read “Here is my story for your anthology” and a subject line of “my submission.” I’m not kidding. The E-mail address was one of those generic 546jh3pw@ … E-mail addresses that provided no information whatsoever, and the manuscript filename was “story_version32.pdf.” As I was receiving stories for two very distinct anthologies at that time, I had no idea which one they were submitting for. Assuming the attachment actually was a manuscript and not a virus (it all seemed a little sketchy), for all I know the story may have been a future award-winner. I’ll never know, because I didn’t open it, didn’t read it, don’t know who wrote it, and replied to that author with a form rejection letter.
Stories that include themes/topics specifically excluded in the guidelines—or not including key elements that were listed as necessary—both get the boot as soon as I get far enough into the story to know it’s not what I’m looking for. I’m currently building a dragon-themed fantasy anthology, so the very fun story that featured a unicorn as a main character … yeah, I stopped reading it 1/3 of the way in when a fast search revealed that there wasn’t a dragon in the story. Not because I don’t like unicorns—unicorns—I was looking for unicorns last year, but that was then … Keep up! We write submission guidelines for a reason.
All of that comes before the basic mechanics of the story. I’ll stop reading a poorly written story somewhere between the first paragraph and the third page. If I’m bored, don’t believe the situation, don’t find any redeeming characteristics in the characters, I might skip ahead a couple of pages to see if it was just the lull before the storm (which I’ll eventually trim or cut), or if they were suggesting a build-up toward significant character change (which I’ll also eventually trim), but nine times out of ten, I’m not going to finish reading the story.
And about that “I’ll eventually trim or cut” comment, the more things that need to be “fixed” in the story, the less I’m likely to finish reading it. There’s just not time. The more submissions I receive, the less time I have to work with an author to “fix” story issues. If I know you personally, know your skills and writing chops, and know that you’ll be able to turn around changes to a story quickly, maybe I’ll ask you for revisions and take a second look at the story – but that’s a big “maybe.” I’m much more likely to send you a nice “thanks for submitting, try again next time” note and move on.
Why am I reading to reject? There are a few reasons, but I’ll mention two:
First, because I get more stories than I can print. I am a fast reader, and it can still take days to read through all of the submissions for a single anthology.
Truth. My first pass through the slush pile sorts stories into two piles: “No” and “Maybe.” (Sometimes a story will get a “Yes” at that stage, but usually even the top contenders get a “Maybe+” because there are so many other factors besides just “do I like it?” that I have to answer.) That will cut the pile down by at least half, usually 2/3. And then I’ll start sorting through the “Maybe” stack. And even then, there will be stories I reject, not because there was anything wrong with them, but because they just don’t fit into the collection I’m building. It’s sort of like a jigsaw puzzle—it’s not just about the individual pieces, but how they fit into the overall picture.
Which leads to the second reason an editor reads to reject the one we don’t want to admit: we want stories that make us read them.
I’ve read a lot of stories. And every time I dip into the slush pile, I really am hoping (in the back of my mind) that the story I’m reading will catch me and hold me and make me read it all the way to the end, in spite of all the hurdles I put between slush pile and publication. I want stories that make me forget that I’m an editor, and turn me into a reader, and make me want to share that story with other readers. And the only way I can find that story is to get through the ones that don’t capture my attention as quickly as possible.
But here’s the thing. If you send me a great story, one that pulls me into your world, makes me laugh with and cry for and cheer your characters on through their adventures and exploits; a story that carries me all the way to the end … and then you botch the ending—or, worse, don’t even bother to provide one, but just stop writing because you’ve hit the upper limit of the allowed word count—guess what? I’m going to be pissed, and I’m going to reject you, too.
Because, like I’ve been saying all along, I’m reading to reject.