Monday, May 05, 2014


On Spec cover by Chuck Bazaar
A SHORT TIME AGO, A WRITER LEFT A NOTE ON SUZENYMS asking, among other things, to consider walking readers through the On Spec submissions process. I asked Diane Walton, our Managing Editor, if she would tackle those questions, as she's the best person to field them. This is what she wrote: HI, ALL. DIANE, HERE. Susan has asked me to respond to this reader’s questions, and I am glad to do it. 

Are there more submissions now? The short answer is, yes. There are more submissions now—many more. In the olden days, when we’d go to the post office and empty our box every week, there would be anywhere from five to twenty large brown envelopes (or horribly stuffed business-sized white envelopes) shoved in the box, or (when we were using an arbitrary quarterly deadline) piled in the overflow bin on the floor behind it. 

When we finally joined the 21st century and announced we’d be accepting e-mailed submissions, our gmail account was flooded overnight. It’s as if writers around the world were waiting with their index fingers poised over their keyboards, ready to hit SEND as soon as those doors opened. In that first rush, there were so many manuscripts that we were forced to close the floodgates for a few months until we could sort through them all. Lesson learned

Since then, we have controlled the submissions process even more, by announcing from time to time, that we’d be accepting submissions during a six to eight week period. And only during that periodwith the exception of poetry, which we accept on an ongoing basis. In our recent window for submissions, we received over five hundred stories, many of which were in the 5,000 to 6,000 word category.  

How are the stories divided up for review? This process is purely arbitrary. The slush is divided as evenly as possible among the editors who are available to read at any given time. The editor becomes the First Reader for that batch of stories and is also responsible to write the rejection notes for those stories not deemed publishable. For a mild-mannered control freak like me who used to read EVERY STORY in the On Spec slush, this was a leap of faith. On Spec has excellent editors. I trust their judgement. 

We currently use a process for submissions that allows us to select and use an automated form rejection letter, a real time saver. There is a space for comments, where the editor can write a brief critique or some helpful constructive hints for improving the story if they so choose. It’s not a guarantee, although we try our best to find something useful to tell writers who don’t make the cut. 

How many make it through the first pass, the second, then to Fight Night and so-on? There are no hard and fast rules, here. A batch could hold a dozen pretty decent stories, or it could have less than a handful. Each story is evaluated on its own merit. Some stories get to the second pass, simply because they aren’t to a particular editor’s taste butto be fair to the writerhe or she wants the others to have a look. Getting to Fight Night isn’t a guarantee of a good story—sometimes we do it because the story is so obscure that there must be some deep literary significance that one editor simply isn’t “getting”. 

Once each editor finishes a batch and sends on their short-listed stories, all the editors dive in and give those stories a fresh look. Fight Night will occur on a designated date, once we have made our choices about the stories we will champion, and the ones we’ll argue against.  

Of the stories On Spec receives, how many are finally published? In general, no more than four or five stories from every one hundred received will ultimately reach the stage where we are prepared to offer a contract. This hasn’t changed radically over time.  

How have the submissions fared over time in terms of quality? This can go both ways, actually. The good stories that we end up buying have been improving in quality, and it isn’t even related to the publication history of the writer. We do, of course, enjoy buying new stories from writers we have published before, but we are also thrilled when we make a new discovery. 

The not-so-good stories, on the other hand, have not improved. People used to actually proofread their own work, and it was a real commitment to use the paper, envelopes, and postage to send out a mailed manuscript. If a writer had been to at least one lecture or workshop on the techniques of writing, more care was usually taken to check spelling, punctuation, and so forth. Now, it is just too easy to hit Spell Check and expect it will actually catch every error (it won’t). 

Another error made by inexperienced writers is trying to write to suit a trope and ignoring the characters in the story. They’ll send “a vampire story”, or a “space battle story”, or “a ghost story” and it shows in the telling. After we read it, we may be able to tell you where the vampire came from, but we won’t remember what the protagonist’s main character trait (or flaw) was, or why he/she was caught up in the situation in the first place. 

All in all, the discussion of what we don’t want in an On Spec story is a never ending one. The fact remains we know what we like and that translates to what our readers like. What we do want are engaging stories about vibrant people. Even green, multi-tentacled creatures can be vibrant characters if you do it right.  And remember: if you open your story in a bar or a tavern, you probably do so at your peril. The editor reading it will mentally leap ahead to the scene where the vampire appears to seduce the hapless protagonist, or where the thief is offered gold to steal something magical, and so forth. 

Then it’s time to go to the kitchen and make a cheese sandwich. 

- Diane. 

(Thank you, Diane. - S.)


  1. Anonymous5:57 PM

    Wow! Thanks for answering all of my questions!! That was super interesting. Many thanks.

    May I have two follow-ups??

    Diane says that, "In our recent window for submissions, we received over five hundred stories" but later says, "no more than four or five stories from every one hundred received will ultimately reach the stage where we are prepared to offer a contract."

    If I understand correctly, this suggests that if you get 500 stories that would equal 20 - 25 publishable stories, but the latest issue of OnSpec holds 7.

    So, do authors pull their stories when offered contracts or does one submission intake provide material for several editions? Or does the "one hundred received" exclude stories that haven't made it to Fight Night?? Or am I not understanding and being confused? Sorry if I am!

    The other thing I wondered about while reading the posting was this remark, "many of which were in the 5,000 to 6,000 word category." I wondered why the word count was mentioned, and if it played a role in the selection process.

    Obviously the longer the story the more effort to read it -- I get that -- but I guess my question is: it better to have a shorter story?

    If you have one really great story that is at your limit at 6,000 words, and another great story that is of equal quality in every way but is 3,000 words -- would the word count play a role in deciding which one to publish?

    Super big thank you for the posting! Educational and informative as always!

  2. Of course, you can have follow-ups! I have to admit to some editing, here. Originally, Diane had said over 400 stories, but I remembered it as around 500 (as in, I had about 125 stories to read, so I assumed the other three editors did, too). These numbers are approximations. I expect we will get about 20 - 25 publishable stories for which we will offer contracts. And yes, we hang on to these and publish them in subsequent issues, as an issue can only hold 7 to 10 stories, depending upon word count. Some of our writers will tell you that they have had to wait a year (or more) to see their work in print. (Even with magazines, the publishing world moves at a snail's pace.) The '100 received' refers to those that have made it to the second tier of reading and are waiting to be discussed at Fight Night. As Diane says, just because a story makes it that far doesn't necessarily mean publication.

    The word count is mentioned because we can only print so much per issue. As editors we need to keep the maximum in mind. This has to do with printing costs. Story length doesn't play a role in acceptance, but that said, we always prefer it when we can put more stories in an issue. If a story is great, it's great, and we won't notice the length because it holds our attention. In the case of two great stories, one that is 3000 words and one that is 6000 words, we are likely to buy them both. Word to the wise here: for the most part, we do draw the line at 6000 words. We have published the odd one that is over that length, but only if the writer has queried us first, and if we know their ability. Even then, we will usually work with the writer to trim the length. We tend to be sticklers about that.

    I hope this answers all of your questions! (And thanks again, for asking.) - Susan.

  3. Gregg Chamberlain10:21 AM

    great article.

  4. Anonymous12:16 PM

    Thank you so much for answering my follow-ups!

    So, 500 intake, then 100 or so make it to fight night and out of that, 20 - 25 get published.

    This means that every editor reads about 125 stories per intake then out of those, put (super rough) 25 stories forward to fight night. So, then each editor reads maybe another 75 other new stories that the other editors have passed along?

    This means you read about 200 stories per intake, correct?
    And I bet you read some more than once!!!

    Wow. That’s a CrAzY amount of reading and time!

    Pro-tip -- don't go into publishing for money, do it for love, right? If you work out your hourly compensation, it's got to be miserly. Much like writing. But -- for me -- I feel like there's no other choice. I can't imagine not writing.

    Thank you!

  5. Hi. I think I put about 40 stories forward. Some of us put in more (me), some less. I had to read another 70 or so stories, so about 110 made it to the second tier. So, yes, about 200 stories to read in all for each of us, and I will have to review some of them before Fight Night.

    I suppose the hope is that some day, the money will be good. But you're right - that's not why we do what we do. The biggest pay-off for writing is the doing of it, of seeing that you have created something that others will hopefully value and enjoy. It's similar with publishing, although for me, not quite so personal. Thanks for your comment. - S.