Reading and Writing

For the last 18 months or so, I’ve been reading submissions for a longstanding but “small press” speculative fiction magazine. During that time, I’ve considered well over one hundred stories in the SF, fantasy and horror genres. I thought it might be interesting to share my experiences with my fellow writers, particularly those who like me receive many more rejections than they do acceptances.

First up, if you’ve not served as reader before, it’s a post (ahem, unpaid) that’s well worth considering.  I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t while evaluating the viability of a story in its submitted state, as opposed to a work-in-progress critiqued at a workshop or by a writers’ group. Also, there’s the principle of “giving something back to the community”. We can’t have too many good places to send our work.

What follows is a set of observations based on my experiences to date. Please take them for what they are: my experiences, which are not necessarily representative of the majority of submissions readers.

It ought to be obvious, but I’ll restate it here, that a first (or second) reader’s task is simply to pick out those stories that, in his or her view, the editor should seriously consider for publication. I forward maybe 15% of those I read. Most of those still get rejected by the editor.

If I send a form rejection, it’s usually because one (or more) of the following reasons apply:

  • This story is badly written.
  • The story is competently executed but it covers well-worn territory without doing anything new.
  • The story doesn’t fit the magazine’s guidelines, often because it has breached the word count limits.

I will provide feedback if I believe I can explain in a sentence or two where, in my opinion, the story’s problems lie. You are perfectly entitled to disagree with me, although you’d be wasting your time if you email back to complain about my reasoning or decision. What I would say is this: if you receive several rejections giving similar feedback, such as “the ending doesn’t work for me” you might want to take a look at the story in the light of it.

It’s not a good idea to ask the first (or second) reader whether you can submit a rewrite. That is for the editor to decide.

Here are some tropes and techniques that I’d like to see less of in the submissions pile:

  • The underwhelming ending is the biggie. I’ve lost count of the number of well-written, engaging stories I’ve read that fell flat at the end. A key question for any writer to consider is: how will the reader react when she gets to the end of the story? Will she think “meh” or “wow”? If you’re not sure, ask fellow writers for an opinion.
  • The first person narrator who dies at the end of the story, but somehow manages to inform the reader that she has done so. I’m not saying this can’t be done, but it is really difficult to make it work. One way would be if the existence of an afterlife is central to your story.
  • Uncontrolled viewpoint switching.  One moment we’re in one character’s head, the next we’ve been swapped to someone else. This can easily jolt the reader out of the story’s flow. Now, if this happens after a section break, fair enough, provided the viewpoint transitions are essential to deliver the story. But are they? Usually they are not, althoughas ever there are exceptions. An alternating viewpoint can work well in a two-hander story. A viewpoint switch that occurs at the end of the story is a particularly difficult trick to pull off, although not impossible (I’ve done it myselfand sold the story).
  • Info dumping, which almost always occurs near the beginning of the story, can bog down the plot before it gets going. Drip-feed this stuff. Clever ways to do it include messages passed by a minor character, announcements over the PA in the workplace or a public area, adverts on street hoardings… (There are loads more. Be creative.)
  • The story’s plot is conveyed via a conversation between two characters, typically a pair of scientists going about their work. Generally, the results are dull. Again, this mode can work I’ve resorted to it myself and seen the story published but it’s difficult to pull off. There is a danger of resorting to info dumping via dialogue of the “As you know, Bob…” kind.
  • The story that only reveals its genre right at the end, i.e. it starts as mainstream and transitions into a horror, fantasy or speculative mode on the final page. Again, this can work, but it usually requires particularly vivid writing and, preferably a hint, perhaps noticed only retrospectively, of something out of the ordinary. I usually read to the end of a manuscript, as I always want to know how the story ends, but I can’t vouch for my fellow first readers.
  • Infestations of typos and egregious grammatical errors. Check your MS and then check it again. Read a hard copy. Read it backwards. Read random paragraphs. Let a friend read it. I won’t reject a submission because I’ve found a handful, but when I encounter them in the opening paragraph, someone hasn’t done their job properly!

Finally, a surprisingly large number of writers seem to have no idea how to write a submission letter. The most common mistake is to summarise the story. Very few editors want to see that. Your story should stand on its merits, without additional promotion from you. The best advice I can give is: keep your letter short, simple and polite. Like most readers and editors, I only look at the letter after I’ve made my decision and I don’t change my decision after I’ve read it.

Comments are welcome either here or on my Facebook page. Please note that I won’t be telling you which magazine I read for.