I thought it was time to share a little of my story as a submissions editor; to tell of the things that hook me or - more often - kill me. Please keep in mind these are only my private thoughts, are personal to me and what I'm looking for in the current series of themed anthologies, and I'm not suggesting all editors think or feel this way.
0. Spell-check and read through before sending your submission!
Should this go without saying? I don't mind the odd misplaced or mis-spelt word or two, but if your submission hasn't been read through and (at least!) spell-checked, it will be discarded and I won't even read the story. I prefer English (UK) or English (Australian) spelling, but will happily accept English (US) although I will generally translate the 'z's to 's's etc. and will otherwise Anglicise it.
This also sounds obvious, right? But the number of submissions I've had that bear little or no relevance to the title, the subtitle, or even the genre, has bewildered me. Dear writer, the first thing I do when I receive a submission is a keyword search. Let's suppose the title of the book is "Below the Stairs" and its subtitle is "Tales from the Cellar." Now take a guess what keywords I'll start with? That's right: Stairs; Cellar; Below, Beneath, etc. and if none or few keywords are found, I'll search for some synonyms: Steps, Basement, Chamber, Dungeon, underground, downstairs, and so on. If I don't find anything with these keywords, I might read the accompanying email, which hopefully explains why the submitter feels their story is appropriate. I may even scan the story, or I might read the opening paragraph to see if it hooks me in, is well-written, and fits the genre, in which case I'll scan ahead. Maybe I'll jump to the ending to see if that's great. If not, off goes the rejection slip.
Another 101 lesson... If, dear reader, your editor stipulates a preferred word count or formatting style, stick with it. If they state they don't want torture-porn, that means they don't want torture-porn. If there is a scene or theme that's essential to an otherwise amazing story, sure; go ahead, but make certain the story carries itself and not the gore or doesn't pander to the macabre vicariousness of you, the writer. If I read about one more eyeball popping out and hanging from a cord while slapping against some poor victim's face, I might just throw up, not with disgust but with tedium. Guess what? People who read horror stories were de-sensitised long ago, so if you want to shock or disgust someone, you'll need to do better than that. If you really want to include such a scene, why not write it from the victim's POV, or the poor detective who has to solve the crime, rather than the torturer's? Or the children or spouse of our poor victim? I really don't want to be drawn inside a killer's head, especially if it means having to empathise with them to get through the story!
3. Metadata and the Story
By metadata, I mean the email (or submissions form.) Choose the subject of your email well, and stick to the suggestions provided by the callout if there is one. Don't use generic subjects like "Hey, Steve!" even if we do email each other on a regular basis. I have over 5,000 social media friends alone, and I have to use email auto-folders and filters to collect all the submissions together and ensure they don't get missed. On that note, please use the correct email address not my personal one, although it's okay to reply to that one if I email you in reply. In the body of your email, there's no harm including information such as your bio or publishing credentials and history, but please don't be offended if it doesn't get read. I might ask for your bio later on, but there's always a gap between submissions callout and final proof, so I will ask for bios late in the process in case you need to amend it later on. Please do NOT include your name in the actual story, as I prefer to read these without knowing who submitted... I will know who wrote the stories once I've read them and gone back to the email. Instead, attach your story as a Word document (doc or docx or RTF) rather than PDF or something obscure, and please, not in the body of the email, as then I have to copy and paste to Word, and try not to notice who sent that story...
4. Be honest, but not too honest
It's obviously important that you're honest about your writing as well as your submission. If you really want your short story to develop into a novel, or you've submitted it elsewhere, or you've rushed it, or haven't edited it yourself yet, feel free to let me know. But don't volunteer information that could jeopardise the submission. If you've never been published before, or your story has been rejected elsewhere, I don't really need or want to know that. It could influence my opinion, but not for the better. Again, I prefer to read the stories anonymlously, so I don't know who wrote it, so please try to give it your best shot.
5. Don't be shy, but don't push
If I've expressed a preference in my callout - as I've done in the past for female writers or for members of the HWA or AHWA - please let me know in the subject of your submission email or in the first line of your email. And if you have a question, or an idea for a story you haven't yet written, don't be shy. Ask away, but please keep it brief and to the point, and please don't harangue me for answers or in-depth responses. And please, please don't query it if you get a rejection letter; unless you genuinely feel you've received it by mistake, i.e. with someone else's name or story title in the rejection email 😊
6. Be timely with your submission
I once received a submission for ˜Between the Tracks - Tales from the Ghost Train," and as it involved a tube station in London it would have been perfect for the anthology, but unfortunately it was a tad too late as the book had been published, and the story was totally unsuitable for the anthology about cellars :o Please try to submit early, but don't expect me to read it early. I might, and that could be in your favour as I can give you early feedback with suggestions, or an early rejection which can prompt you to submit a different one. Also, if you leave your submission to the last week (or day!!) then I will have to work harder to short-list it, because I may have already filled my quota in my head, if not officially. And please, please don't submit two or more stories, especially in the same email. That's just not fair on me or you... it makes me think you're trying to get lucky, and that never works. Your story has to be one of the best I receive to get in...
7. Don't Rush
I know you're keen to submit, dear writer, especially now you've read the above, but please do me the courtesy of having someone else read your story, or read it out loud first. I know that sounds school-ish, but it works. If you're one of those who are convinced that the story is best if it's written in one pass, rapidly in one session as though writing itself or being channeled from Poe, Lovecraft, Bloch or whoever, then it's probably going to come across as lazy at best. Please use spell-check, but don't rely on it. But if there are any wiggly underlined words or phrases in your submission, please make sure you've seen them, read the recommendations and chosen to fix it or ignore them. Then read it again. Out loud if you missed my earlier point. Make no assumptions the reader will understand your grammar. Try to avoid using 'perfect' English because people do not don't generally speak that way. Try to use the voices of the protagonists in your story, to gauge if the dialogue is appropriate for that little child's age, or that old person's vibrancy, or that person's level of education. If it doesn't sound right, it probably won't read right. Right? Right.
A lot of publishers get hung up on formatting, but I'm happy to accept any standard so long as it's a standard and is formatted simply. I can readily re-format things like spacing, font, remove leading tabs, etc. but there are some formatting rules that really do matter to me because they can be time-consuming. Quotation marks, for example. I insist on using "double quotes," and when I receive stories where dialogue uses 'single quotes' it's really hard for me to fix that, because I can't do a simple search and replace, otherwise mistakes happen and Johnny's becomes Johnny"s. So please read guidelines when you're submitting and stick with the stated preferences. Also, I abhor underlines. Why do people still use them when you can easily use italics (I use italics for thought-speech.) I don't like to see bold face unless there's a reason such as a heading, and I'll take care of that in the final page drafts. I don't mind if you use commas, or semi-colons where they're required, or em dashes if you prefer, so long as you're consistent. Again, I can fix that up and make it consistent later. Double spaces and double lines? No. Tab characters? No. Don't bother, I have to replace them. Weird fonts or mixed fonts? Why??? Please, no.
9. Write well enough
I'm not audacious enough to try to teach anyone how to write, but some people have a gift for writing while others like me need to work at it. I have some preferences, of course. I prefer to read stories that flow well, where I don't have to stop to get the dictionary out or wonder if a particular word is in context, so keep it simple where you can, and only use elaborate words where required for the character or the plot. I also prefer stories that mean something - the story within a story - rather than just a story about Jack and Jill going up the hill. I want to know in a subtle way if that represents a class struggle, or encroaching puberty, or is about war or religious persecution. If your story has any deeper context (sub-plots, metaphor, social commentary, etc.) and it isn't drawn out enough, perhaps you could go back, read it again, and try to slot these references in where you can so we don't get to the end to find out you're writing an anti-war story. Write a synopsis and read it back. Can you summarise the story in 2-3 sentences? If you can that's great, but make sure the story contains the elements you've just captured. For example: "A slave escapes captivity only to be recaptured by a greater tyrant, highlighting to him that the world works in loops. He uses this knowledge to escape again, but this time he knows how to master the loop." - This is an invented example, but if I do ever write that story, I'd better be certain I make references to loops throughout the story. Over and over.
I talked earlier about timely submitting. This is to remind you that, above all, you should submit. Even if it's an early draft, or synopsis (see above) so your trusty submissions editor can give you early feedback (maybe I have ten stories about loops already.) Don't submit rubbish, submit your best - a sample here, a quote there, an idea, a synopsis, a metaphor you'd like to explore. The reason you're writing the story. It all matters as much as the story itself. And on that note, as a reward for reading this far, here's the details for the next anthology in the series, "Beneath the Waves - Tales from the Deep."
Submissions editor, Oz Horror Con's 'Things in the Well'
series of themed anthologies.
To order Beyond the Infinite - Tales from the Outer Reaches, please email Steve at:- [email protected]
(This situation has arisen through Amazon's restrictive practices regarding reprints of public domain stories - #AmazonFail)