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.