Thursday, August 25, 2016


INSTEAD OF PENNING A LETTER to writers who shall remain anonymous, I thought I'd create a list of some of the things I've seen in the On Spec slush pile that make me reluctant to support publication. These flaws don't necessarily mean a rejection. If the story is good and the problem fixable, I'm as likely to suggest a rewrite. I should also point out that these are my particular pet peeves. At On Specwe don't always agree on what's good and what's not (which is a good thing.) So, in no particular order:

Ten Things That Make Me Less Than Enthusiastic About Publishing a Short Story:

1).  An unsympathetic protagonist. I'm especially not keen on protagonists who prey on children, even if they get their comeuppance. An unsympathetic protagonist is a hard sell. There needs to be something I like about him. If I don't, why should I care?
2). A Mary Sue protagonist, in no matter what guise she might appear. If she's always good, she's dull. For me, innocence and naivety also tend to be boring. This character isn't so shallow, as she lacks depth. (There is a difference.) Victimisation is also a turn-off, unless there's some kind of gain to be made.
3). Sexual stereotypes, particularly of women. Prostitutes are a hard sell unless I get a glimpse of their interior life, their humanity, and even then I might question, 'Why does she have to be a prostitute? Is the writer trying to be provocative or titillating?' (Don't try to be glib, worldly, or sensational. We editors are a jaded lot.)
4). Openings that introduce the main character(s) as 'he', 'she', or some other undefined term. Give them a name from the get-go. For me, this is almost always a give-away that the writer is still working on their craft. Usually, the rest of the story proves me right.
5). Details in the opening that have little (or nothing) to do with the plot later on. It's important to flesh out a story, but everything needs to be there for a reason - details should be pertinent to plot or character.
6). Anachronisms - in particular, modern slang in an historical story (unless time travel is involved). If you're not sure, don't use it.
7). Lack of a definitive ending. If the story doesn't go anywhere, what's the point? Day-in-the-life stories often have this problem. It takes solid writing to pull these off, and in good ones, there is always a point to be made.
8). Conflicting mythos - when a story fails to explain why it differs from the traditionally held ideas about setting or character. For example, fairies who tolerate iron. The common myth is - they don't.
9). Too much exposition. This usually involves back story - how characters met, their history, etc. Sometimes, the back story is more interesting than the plot. It's the story you wish the writer would have told.
10). Not SF Enough: sometimes, we get stories that are well written, but the science fiction or fantastic elements aren't strong enough. I always feel bad about turning these down, but On Spec is a science fiction and fantasy magazine, after all.

I'm only half-way through reading the slush, so there could well be another list forthcoming. As I said earlier, if you think you're even the slightest bit guilty of these, don't worry too much. There might be enough good stuff in your work for us to ask for a revision.

- Susan.

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