A bit back, we were having a discussion on SFFWorld.com about submitting short fiction to SFFH magazines. That SFFH as an area of fiction still has a viable magazine market in this day and age is a truly wondrous thing. It’s due to the deep interest of fans in checking out a variety of voices, a lot of interesting on-line magazines trying new models and older print ones trying new approaches, and a lot of authors willing to give short fiction a shot, even though it no longer pays a living wage.
When submitting short fiction to magazines, writers do have to be aware that individual magazines (and anthologies,) have specific audiences and select stories in line with those needs. Consequently, when the magazine puts down guidelines about what sort of stories they do and do not want to see (as well as the usual admonishment to read their magazine to get familiarity with it,) writers do have to pay attention. There’s no sense in beating your head against a brick wall.
The problem is, writers often don’t know how thick the brick wall is or even if it’s there. You usually can’t know, in fact, unless you submit a story and see if it flies with the particular publication. Because the reality is that the terms we use for various sub-forma of short SFFH fiction are often vague and open to a wide variance of interpretation. Outside of things like sending a science fiction story to a magazine that never publishes science fiction, or vice versa, a writer may not really know what the boundaries are. The requirements of many of the magazines are in fact fairly wide; a magazine might publish science fiction, fantasy, horror and mystery all in one go.
And editors of magazines like stories, so much so that they may publish stories that aren’t quite what they would usually go for in the magazine but they think the stories are too good not to share with their readership. And sometimes, they think a writer’s story does fit within their parameters. A story that a writer doesn’t really think is steampunk, for instance, but does have a Victorian setting and one or two details that might be considered kind of steampunky, may totally work for a magazine editor as steampunk. So the range of magazines a writer can submit to is usually a good deal broader than what stated guidelines may imply. Writers simply can’t completely know what might make it through, and the penalties for trying a submission out within reason are slim to none. (The postage cost used to be considerable, but electronic submissions are fairly common now.)
A clear example of this issue was displayed in an April article at io9.com by Charlie Jane Anders, given the provocative headline: “10 Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories That Editors Are Tired of Seeing.” How useful — stories that editors didn’t like, didn’t want to see anymore, so you know what to avoid and never try. Except if you read into the article, the reality is that editors aren’t necessarily tired of certain stories and are often just noting some recent trends in what they’ve been sent. As Anders herself says:
Also, no editor ever wants to say “I’m tired of unicorns,” because right now someone is probably writing a unicorn story so good it’ll make you weep to read it — and chances are, the editor who just swore off unicorn stories would buy that story in a heartbeat. So this mostly isn’t a list of stories you shouldn’t write — more a list of areas where you’re going to have to work harder to stand out.
In actuality, it’s not even a matter of “standing out” more on a subject that has commonly appeared. Nearly every subject in SFFH has already commonly appeared, and stories about such subjects might not be filled with dazzling prose and certainly not with new plot twists, but may still connect with editors who feel it is right for their magazines. And the situation is often self-selecting — editors may see more of one kind of story because writers have gotten the impression that it’s the kind of story their magazine likes.
Here are some of the quotes from the magazine editors related to the types of stories mentioned:
Sheila Williams, EIC of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine on stories about parallel universes (a staple of the field,):
“Still, I always feel free to contradict myself because I enjoy well done alt history as much as the next editor.”
Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld Magazine on stories about time travel (a staple of the field):
“A few months from now, I’ll probably be happy to see the theme again.”
Lynne Thomas, former editor of Apex Magazine on getting revenge on an ex stories:
“I swore I’d never buy one because I didn’t think it was possible to produce one that I’d find remotely palatable… right up until Rachel Swirsky wrote “Abomination Rises on Filthy Wings” as a challenge, when she heard me grousing about those kinds of stories. I bought and published that story.”
Julia Rias, editor at Strange Horizons on fairytale retellings (a staple of the field):
“These qualities aren’t necessarily going to make us reject them — we just ran a Little Red Riding Hood story in March“
An editor on mermaids (an underused myth in the field, which may explain the current interest):
“I’m not even sure I’d say I’m tired of seeing them.”
Sigrid Ellis of Apex says re pregnancy horror stories:
“When I was slushing for Apex under Lynne’s editorship, I swore up one side and down the other that I never wanted to see another pregnancy-horror story again. …And then I became editor. And the first story I bought was Lucy Snyder’s “Antumbra,” which is a graphic incest bisexual sister mind-control medical experimentation rape pregnancy story.”
This isn’t to say that the editors don’t complain in the article about the various types of stories. Zombies get negative whines, but the horror magazines are still interested in them. Some of the editors complain about “edgy” stories, which is funny, since the conversation at SFFWorld.com was mainly about how it was hard to sell stories that weren’t darkly edgy, as all the magazines seemed to want them. Ann Vandermeer, who has done anthologies of steampunk and knows a lot about the sub-category, complains about steampunk that really isn’t steampunk, but other editors who don’t focus on steampunk may not be as narrowly focused.
At the end of the day, the editors at these magazines aren’t really against trying most types of stories. The odds of selling a piece of short fiction are long — there are thousands of writers trying and a magazine editor might have twelve slots in a year. Taking the shot and seeing if it gets rejected or not is more likely to shave the odds than not submitting at all.
So bear in mind if you are going on the market with short fiction that editors can quite often change their minds and give a lot of wiggle room for what they will look at. If they like a story, they will usually try to make room for it. And then maybe your story will be the amusing anecdote in the quote warning writers about editors’ needs.