25 May 2012

How to Send Me a Story I'll Publish: Know thy editor

All right, Mark, you say. Now that I've gone through this little exercise with you and read your self-important little turd of a blog about how much you hate everything that wasn't written by Ray Goddamned Bradbury, and I've gotten one or two of your "oh man I really liked this story it just got narrowly edged out by a few other pieces" emails, I still inexplicably want you to publish one of my stories.


What's a submitter got to do to get some love, here? I'll bribe you. I'm not above bribing. I want to see my work in print and I'll send you stories until I'm three hundred and eighty years old if that's what it takes. I'll send stories back into the past from a distant future ruled by cyborgs if it means you'll put this story that I've written, which I know for a fact is great, on your site.

All right. I feel your pain. I've got a few more hints and then I'm done with this portion of the blog because I've said all I needed to say and then some about submitting fiction in general and certainly to us specifically. Here's the icing on the cake. The little courtesies that I'll remember when I see the fourth or fifth piece of yours and remember your name, and maybe go rip someone else's story a new asshole and press that green "accept" button for yours this time.

1) When you send me a manuscript, put it in Standard Manuscript Format and then make the following little tweaks: 12 point Times New Roman or Cambria 12, either one single spaced. I like single-spacing because I can get a better sense quickly of how long the story is, and it's easier for me to read on the other end of the Submittable system if I don't have to flip forward and backward pages as much. Regular garden variety Standard Manuscript Format is perfectly acceptable, but I can't fucking stand Courier anything, so please for the love of god, just delete that hideous font from your font folder. I'd rather read something in Papyrus or Comic Sans than Courier. It's like sandpapering my corneas.

2) If you simultaneously submit, that's completely okay. Just let us know with the Submishmash system so I can clear it from the pending pile if it gets accepted elsewhere or if you want to send it somewhere else that doesn't allow sim-subs and we're just taking too long. You can always send it back later if they say no.

3) If I ask you for a re-write, it's because I saw or thought I saw the potential for something superb in a story, but that it wasn't quite ready yet. This does not mean feverishly push out a revision in 12 hours. I can count the number of writers I know that can actually do this well on one hand and not use all the fingers. Take your time. If it comes back to me too fast, there's a good chance it's going to come back to you even faster.

4) If you happen to know us, or know something about us that you've heard or enjoyed, or in particular if there's a story of ours that we put up that drew you to us, just tell me in your cover letter. I don't mind chatty cover letters, and I do read every one with interest. We're a publisher built on community, and we like to know who's sending us work. It's one of the most fun things about the job, actually.

5) We accept material of almost every length limit, but it bears mentioning that the vast majority of our accepted stories fall within a somewhat narrower range. I find our readers tend to prefer stories in the 2500-3500 word size, as do I personally, and unless your writing just floors me, your chances will dwindle steadily the farther you deviate from this.

6) When I say send me more, I'm not just being nice. Chances are, you've got a better than average chance of seeing your stuff get accepted with us. Just keep trying.

7) To every guideline, an exception, and strong writing trumps it all. I published a terrific story last year called "Poseidon's Million Crowns." This thing looked like trouble from the first moment. It was choppy and full of little subsections that seemed too small to be proper chapters. It was almost long enough to be a stand-alone novella, and it was formatted in some sort of difficult two-column document formatting that made it a pain in the ass to read. This story, though, is one of the very best I've ever said "yes" to. It just completely ensorcelled me. If you can write like that, you can safely ignore everything I've just said and just send me whatever you've got.

How to Send Me a Story I'll Publish: The subtle pitfalls

So you've managed to beat the odds. You're in the second-look pile and I'm going over your story like a drug sniffing dog looking for weaknesses to decide who gets published and who gets a disappointing rejection email. Here's what I look for:

1) Don't put action in your dialogue tags. I'm going to say you can get away with this once or maaaaybe twice in the space of a 2500-5000 word short story, but not more. It stands out too much. Here's an example:

"Oh, my goodness," says Janey, as she stands and puts the flowers in her hair.

Do this instead: "Oh, my goodness," says Janey. She stands and puts the flowers in her hair.

2) Make sure your verb tenses match. If you're writing a story in past tense that suddenly switches verb tenses in a secondary phrase, it slows down my eye and weakens the prose. Observe:

"Here are some flowers, my love," David said. It was four in the afternoon and the sun hung heavy against the horizon.
"Oh, my goodness," said Janey, standing up and putting the flowers in her hair.

Do this instead: "Oh, my goodness," said Janey. She stood and put the flowers in her hair. Not only did we eliminate that pesky dialogue tag run-on, but we also now have nice, smooth, agreeable verbs.

3) Don't overuse or misuse Em dashes. We know "(insert trendy beloved author here)" uses them like a Get Out of Semicolon Free card to tack random phrases onto the end of sentences but, as The Slate and Philip B. Corbett point out, this is an irritating and amateurish habit to get into. Em dashes can be used unobtrusively as commas in a parenthetical structure--like this--or they can be used like a strong ellipsis to indicate a speaking person being abruptly cut off, but they are not and should not be used interchangeably with semicolons. Once I started seeing these, I couldn't un-see them and seeing them pop up in otherwise good writing is like watching gnats land on my cake frosting.

4) Passive voice and past perfect tense. If you're using Word, just hit CTRL+F and type in "had" and then "were" and also "being". Find all examples of these and if they're being used to modify other verbs, check and make sure you couldn't make that sentence clearer. Sometimes it can't be helped and past-perfect tense creeps its wheezy, clunky way into your story, but realize that these are moments where your story doesn't shine as well as the punchier, faster, smoother ones I see. Be merciless with your prose.

5) Minimize use of the infinitive and rhetorical questions in the narrative or dialogue. I can stand a little of both, but not a lot of either.

6) Don't box your dialogue in. If all your characters ever do is question and answer each other, it makes for really, really dull reading. Declarative sentences or having characters talk but not listen to each other is a hundred times more interesting to me than deliberate or didactic hand-holding in uninspired dialogue.

7) Don't miss the chance to show off. This is speculative fiction! We're like the Sparta of the literary world. We don't just tell Xerxes' messengers to fuck off, we fling them down a bottomless pit. Think of every great speculative fiction story you've ever read. What stuck with you? Names, places, dates? Nah. It's images. Ideas. Set-pieces of epic proportions. Someone did or said something that made you wish you were there. You looked up and saw the sky blotted out by something that you couldn't quite comprehend. Don't miss the chance to exploit this aspect of the genre. It's a big part of what makes science fiction and other speculative stories so persistently popular and entertaining.

24 May 2012

How to Send Me a Story I'll Publish: Things I shouldn't have to say, but I do

We all remember High School sports, right? For basketball there'd be the starting five, the best of the best, and five more that were almost as good waiting to step up if one of them dropped out. After that there was the bench; guys or girls good or tenacious enough to make the team but each with a weakness or two that made them less than ideal. And then there was everyone else. The people that showed up for that first day of try-outs, maybe came to the second day, and vanished by the end of the week or were cut.

As it happens, my submissions queue is a little bit like this. There's the top three or four stories I find each month that really just blow me away. They're the strongest stories I've got, and I feel confident that if I put them up against the best that other publishers have, they'll do Silverthought proud. Then there's a second string. Three or four more stories that are equally strong and show plenty of talent but may be either flawed in some mild way or don't work as well together for us as my first choices. These stories do frequently still get published by us because sometimes the first-choice writers withdraw their stories or they get accepted somewhere else or they just plain don't respond when I accept their stories. If this happens, you're in and we're glad to have you. If it doesn't work out, chances are you'll get a very apologetic personal note from me about it because I hate, hate, hate turning down good work.

Then there's everyone else. Chances are, if you can even be in the second string, you've got a decent shot at seeing us publish your stuff. The trick, then, is mostly to not be "everyone else". And the best way to do that is to know what everyone else does. Here's a partial list:

-Sending stories with persistent obvious grammar errors. If your eleventh-grade English teacher wouldn't have stood for it, you can bet your ass I won't either.

-Sending stories in strange fonts or with unnecessarily complex formatting. More on this later, but I have to be able to at least read it.

-Sending stories with one or zero distinct characters, little or no dialogue, or massive chunks of descriptive info-dump exposition. We liked table-top RPG's in high-school too, we're not too big to admit it, but no matter how interesting that type of writing is, world-building alone is not a story.

-Sending a story that's too much like a single-note punchline. If the thrust of your story is to play out a joke, cliche, urban legend, or SAW-like contrived gruesome death scene for your thinly-sketched generic protagonist, I'm going to pass.

-Sending a mystery, erotic romance, cop story, ancient myth, or especially 40's style noir detective story gussied up with a light dusting of mostly meaningless and non-central sci-fi details. I get where you're coming from, but I hate these. Yes, I've read good examples of all of these stories but 99.99% of them are contrived crap and just insufferable after the thousands I've had to read. No type of story here (even the ones with grammar errors) gets auto-rejected faster than these by me.

-Sending fan-fiction or very close emulations of other more popular mainstream stories. I don't judge people that do this because on some level almost every serious writer starts in a place of emulation or even outright copying in order to learn, but I think it's possible to not judge and at the same time acknowledge that I personally tend to seek out the most original, highly-skilled presentation I can find in my stories, and that most of the time these aren't that.

-Sending too many stories or sending multiple very long stories. We accept virtually all lengths here at Silverthought Online, but if you're shoveling five 15K+ word novellas at me all at once, I'm probably not going to read any of them. I'm a human being and my poor eyeballs have to last me another forty years. Just try one and see what I say. I'll probably tell you what I liked about it even if I decline it, and ask for more if your style fits us. Just not all at once, please. (NOTE: poems, flash fiction, and very short fiction I actually prefer to read in batches. Don't be afraid to send me three or four at once if you've got stuff that's 1500 words or less.)

-Sending stories that fall too far outside our general scope. I don't mean sending us a brilliant cowboy apocalypse tale told from the point of view of the protagonist's gunbelt leather, because I'd probably publish that. I mean sending us lukewarm Anne Rice-style vampire porn set during the Roman Empire. Our masthead says speculative fiction, but it's more helpful to think of us as "sci-fi plus". Our imaginations undergo a regular stretching and exercise regimen, but there are some things that just clearly aren't for us because they're too cliche, they have a better, more appropriate home elsewhere, or they're just not what turns us on.

How to Send Me a Story I'll Publish: Introduction and Retrospective

Okay, so you've got a killer short story that we should absolutely read right this minute and publish for the world to see. Wow. Okay then. All we need to do is click the little green "accept" button and send you $40.00. Am I following? Great. All right, let's see this badass. Spaceships... check. Zombie apocalypse... check. Something even fresher and more creative... ooh, check! Oh. Oh wait. Oh God. N- No. Don't-

*Sound of your manuscript going in the reject pile*

Don't let this happen to you, friendly, awesome, talented, (dare we say, sexy?) submitters.

But how? you ask. You used to be so accepting; so warm and welcoming to everything I ever wrote. How am I supposed to publish with you anymore when you're so... so... reject-y.

It's not you, baby, it's us. We're different than we used to be. We've come a long way from the old days of blogging and community building and because we've had a decade to discover exactly where we fit in the bigger scheme of things, we now operate quite similarly to most other established small presses. This includes lots of great bells and whistles that early-2000's Silverthought didn't have and that a lot of other small seat-of-their-pants presses still get wrong. Silverthought now has decent semi-pro payment for stories (yay!), no reading fees (double yay!), a submissions queue that's rarely deeper than 90 days (be still my beating heart!) and according to Duotrope an astounding 61% personal response rating for submissions (I need some paper towels, I just peed myself!). We have a dedicated submissions system that assures your work isn't lost or buried so deeply in a pile that it'll never be read. We still get hundreds and hundreds of submissions, and there are still only a couple of us reading them, but now we can work through them chronologically and the process of getting a verdict on your story is faster and more responsive than ever.

A few other things have changed. Paul and I are both fathers now, which means we've had to learn to do more with less. And by less, I mean less time and energy, not less Kraft macaroni and cheese and microwaved chicken nuggets. We've got just acres of those. We've had to re-envision Silverthought's Online component as a sleeker, better, easier-to-manage department. We can't update as often as we used to, and when we do, we accept fewer pieces than we once did.

One thing hasn't changed, though: we still get just piles and piles of short fiction; much of it beyond excellent. If we only publish 10-15 short stories per year at most, from often 100+ subs every month... well, my math gets hazy here because I didn't gradate from the fifth grade, but it sounds like our acceptance rate is hovering right around 1%.

Let's just confirm that with Duotrope... Astonishing. It says zero percent.

Holy shit, are you telling me you accept literally nothing anymore?

No, no I'm not. It's just that we haven't transmitted the acceptances to people whose stories we've green-lit because we're busy trying to pull the rest of the material for the update together to go with them (just as an aside, if you've submitted to us before April 11th 2012 and haven't heard back from us, congrats, you're in the second look pile-and it's a very small pile). Once we start accepting the pieces we're going to take, our acceptance rate will be right around that 1% I mentioned earlier.

So how in the hell am I supposed to beat the other 99%? you ask.

Well, I'm glad you asked. That's the whole point of this blog. I'm going to tell you.