Submission Reading

When I stepped up to be the Managing Editor of Black Gate, I started running a live journal. It seems hard to believe that was already so long ago, but when I got to looking up a post I’d written that might be of interest I saw that it dated from 2007, which kind of floored me. The years have sped past.

Anyway, prior to this post I had just finished reading through a big batch of Black Gate submissions, and the percentages of rejections I discuss seemed to hold in the years going forward. I expect they’ll be true when I start reading magazine submissions again, so I thought I’d give you a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to pull manuscripts from the envelopes, or e-mail. Have a look at what kind of things I found there, and perhaps most importantly, what submitters have done wrong. Better than learning from your own mistakes is learning from those that other people have made, right? That’s less painful.

Believe me, when we finally get around to asking for subs for Tales From the Magician’s Skull, these are the things writers really need to be aware of.

Here’s what I said back in 2007 about reading subs for Black Gate:

Of the 130 stories from this batch I forwarded some dozen to John O’Neill for further consideration. Since I started reading I’ve gone through a little over 550 Black Gate submissions, and of those I’ve sent some 50 on to John.

It doesn’t take too much mathematical effort to realize this means I turn over about 1 in 11 tales. Sometimes there’ll be a string of really good ones in a row and sometimes I’ll read dozens and find nothing that catches my eye. It’s not that I’m looking to pass on 1 in 11; that’s just how the numbers average out.

I thought it would be interesting to provide you with a rough statistical breakdown of those other 10 subs. After all, if I’m only passing on about 1 in 11, what’s wrong with the other 10?

  1. It’s just wildly inappropriate – it’s a gangster story, moreover, it’s an entire gangster novel, or it’s modern poetry with no fantastic elements.
  2. It begins with a very, very long infodump describing the history of the fantasy world, or the science fiction world, or the demon world.
  3. It’s a fable or a myth that leaves us far removed from the characters.
  4. It is overloaded with familiar elements like elves and quests and dragons and quests and wizards and quests OR monsters (oh no, it was REALLY a vampire!) handled in familiar ways.
  5. It’s a bleak story about the end of the world and the few human survivors scrabbling over what’s left as they all die off. I’ve seen some very, very good versions of this story, but I’ve turned them away. If the point is that we’ll all die with a whimper, we won’t be publishing it, even though on some days I’m inclined to agree.
  6. It opens in generic medieval tavern A and is populated by extras from D & D central casting, or begins in the midst of an adventure that reads like dungeon module B with extras from D & D central casting.
  7. It’s a Twilight Zone style horror story or science fiction story where it’s all about the twist and not the characters.
  8. It is dripping with adjectives but virtually devoid of character, as though whomever wrote it has been locked in a room reading Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft night and day for a month before putting hands to keyboard (and it must be said that it NEVER sounds as lovely as CAS, no matter how hard someone tries).
  9. The writing’s good, but the story doesn’t have any fantasy or fantastic elements, or it’s all about the characters emoting rather than actually DOING something. Sometimes it’s a fine story and it’s just not an adventure.
  10. The writing shows promise, but is rough around the edges. Stories like this sometimes garner a rewrite request, sometimes a “close but not quite” kind of letter, with an invitation to try again. Occassionally the writing’s quite good, but the story’s just not as original in character or world building as the last I sent on to John. These are the hardest stories to turn away, but I have to do so, because we already have more good stories than we can publish.

I can usually tell in the first paragraph whether I’m going to read very far into the story. Traits like what I call “word echo” (repeated use of the same word in nearby sentences), plodding pacing, infodumps, over abundance of gerunds or adjectives, generic characters or situations, even subject matter, and the names of characters and places can clue me in pretty quickly. If my attention isn’t caught by the first page and I’ve seen weak world building or matters like those I mention above, then you’ve probably lost me and I’m on to the next.

I’ve had some people get angry with me once they realize I don’t read every word of every submission, but really, if I’m not interested in the first few pages, then why would a Black Gate reader be? If my attention is caught, I keep reading. Statistically, you can see my attention is caught enough to read all the way through in only 2 or 3 out of every 11.

Oh, and if it’s really a satire on fantasy and sword-and-sorcery conventions, I won’t be interested. Our slots are few, and we want to use most of them to provide adventure, not parodies.

6 Comments on “Submission Reading

  1. My greatest learning experience as a writer came from a nine-month stint reading slush for a small literary agency. I did it gratis, just to see what I could learn . . . and I learned I never wanted to do *that* again. Everything from wildly inappropriate manuscripts shotgunned to every agency listed to barely literate attempts at rehashing Dan Brown (honestly, as much crap as that man gets for his writing, his imitators in that slush pile were truly cringe-worthy. Most of the promising manuscripts fell into two camps: those who could write well but couldn’t tell a decent story, and those who could tell a great story but couldn’t write worth a damn. Ultimately, in the nine months I spent reading slush I found nothing that fit the agent’s criteria. Indeed, 99% of her clients came via referral rather than over the transom.

    It made me sort of sad that there were so many people who shared the dream of being published but who lacked the most basic skills. Very few were the sort who’d take the rejection and learn from it. Most were deep in Dunning-Kruger-land — resolute in their high opinion of their work and by turns dismissive, bemused, or downright hostile over being rejected. I could tell from their cover letters (when they deigned include them) which submission would net me a snarky-to-angry response to my rejection.

    The whole episode made me feel much better about my own work. It made me realize I did not suck quite as bad as I imagined I did . . . 🙂

      • I must be living in a cave, because I didn’t know about Dunning-Kruger and the “idiots who are too stupid to know they’re stupid” discussion until I looked it up yesterday.

    • I remember you telling me about this, but I’d forgotten the specifics. The amount of bad fiction written by people who don’t know it that you’re citing absolutely stuns me. It sounds like your experience was even more frustrating than mine. Nine months, and NOTHING fit. Wow.

  2. Thanks, Howard. While I’ve seen lists that are nearly identical to yours, it’s always helpful to be reminded of what can get your story rejected quickly.

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