Story Worms: Too Far into Horror


Last week I received the nicest rejection I’ve ever had. In fact, I’ve had less polite acceptances than this. This is what the rejection email said:

Thank you so much for sending us [story title] — I very much enjoyed reading it! Unfortunately, it’s not a good fit for us right now. It’s an interesting story, well-told and evocative, but it’s a little too far into horror for our particular project. I have no doubt you’ll find a home for it, though, as it’s quite good.

They went on to offer me a little editing advice, which I have acted on. And, you know, I can’t even be sad about being rejected for being ‘a little too far into horror’. I’m really rather proud of that!

But it’s really made me think about submission guidelines, getting a good feel for what publishers want, and the value of taking a risk on a submission.

Here’s what this particular publication said in their submission guidelines:

We strongly prefer science fiction and fantasy, but will consider just about anything that you think we might enjoy.

Yes, sending horror was a risk, but they also state a turnaround time of no more than 2 weeks, so I figured it was worth a punt. In fact, the turnaround was less than 24 hours, leaving me free to submit it elsewhere. And their lovely rejection gave me all the confidence I needed to resubmit it.

Because one thing I’ve learnt over the years is this: many publications that state they accept ‘any genre’ are less accepting of horror than anything else. Many of them won’t publish horror at all, despite that ‘any genre’ offer. As a horror writer, the safe bet is always to stick to horror-centric publishers. I can’t imagine a splatterpunk horror ever winning the Reader’s Digest short story competition (though I would love to see it happen!) Luckily for us, there is a vast, varied and truly exciting horror market out there.

Most of the rejections you receive will be because your story isn’t a good fit for that publication, not because it is bad. Here’s some tips to help you find the right publisher for your story:

  • Read the submission guidelines carefully. Do not skim-read them. If you can’t be bothered to read the guidelines, they won’t bother to read your story. Why should they?
  • Read the submission guidelines carefully. Yes. Do it again. Do it a third time. Then again, just before you submit.
  • If you’re submitting to a magazine, read a copy of it. Make it a recent copy, as their slant/focus/editors may have changed. If you can, read several copies. Get a real feel for what they want.
  • If you’re submitting for a specific anthology call, check out the other anthologies the publisher has published. The same advice applies as for magazines.
  • If it’s a brand new publisher, check out the editors. What do they write? What do they read? Find them on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Goodreads.
  • If the editors aren’t listed, see what else you can find out about the publisher. Who runs it? Sometimes this information isn’t openly available, but there’s still things you can look at. What can you presume from the company name? The logo? The colour of the website?
  • Follow the publishers on social networking. What other writers follow them? Engage with them. Ask them what they are looking for (but don’t ask questions that are clearly answered on their website)
  • If you want to take a chance, choose a publisher with a quick turnaround.

And now a word on Punching Above your Weight.

As writers, we are constantly learning. You will never know it all. Let’s get that idea out of the way straight off. However long you’ve been writing, there is always something new to learn. Your style will change and mature over time. You are not going to get a professional sale with your first submission. You just won’t. But keep hold of that dream, keep striving, but be realistic too.

Submitting to the big name publishers, the professional payers, is great experience. It’s a valuable experience. Fortune favours the brave, you have to be in it to win it, in for a penny in for a pound, and all that. You have nothing to lose, and, if you should get some feedback from them, you have everything to gain.

But know your limits. If you’re rejected from a pro-paying market, consider lowering your price. Don’t blindly refuse to take anything other than the top whack. I know people who think like that. They’re not selling anything. Build you portfolio, gain the experience, improve, evolve, and try again.

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