First, for an informative but humorous take on rejections, please read my short editorial on the subject of Rejectomancy. Obvious things like lots of spelling or grammatical errors will nix a story, as will sending stories outside of our scheduled reading periods, or sending things we specifically say we do not like or publish. But what else will get a story rejected?
The first thing we look at is the opening paragraph, not the cover letter. If we happen to know the name of the writer it is almost of no importance to us because we often get works written by well-known authors that have been rejected by other more profitable venues (sometimes for good reasons). Only the work counts. Does it grab us? And by ‘grab us’ I do not necessarily mean that you have to start with explosions or a chase scene: we are more looking for what I like to call a “What the hell?” moment: a question generated in the reader’s mind that can only be answered by reading further.
Another thing we ask ourselves is whether the opening of tale sets clear expectations. For example, can I see if this will be an SF or F story right off the bat? Some stories are a mix of both, and that’s fine as long as you do not mislead the readers. Finding out it’s one thing when you think it’s another can be a great “reveal” that unravels a mystery, too, but it should not feel like the writer set us up for one thing and gives us another in an incompetent ‘bait-and-switch’ scheme. Misdirection has to be intentional, like a false trail in a mystery plot, to be acceptable. See our “Emmett, Joy and the Beelz” for a tale where you think it’s a deal with the devil story and it turns out to be something else entirely.
Can I tell who the protagonist is almost immediately? Is it obvious even by implication that the lead character is male/female human, magical creature, alien, beast, angel, demon, ghost? If I cannot tell, readers may form incorrect expectations and be blindsided by finding out that the character is male when they thought it was female, young when they thought it was old, inhuman when they thought it was human – and the reader then gets thrown out of their suspension of disbelief.
Okay, aside from mechanical things like grammar and spelling and following the guidelines, you can now see why we might reject something that tells us nothing about the character, or fails to pique our interest with questions in our mind, or makes us wonder what sort of tale we are in or who it’s about.
Rejections are negative space. Let’s talk about acceptances. Why a piece is accepted is more complex and has to do with the editorial team, various knowledge-based consultants, and slotting stories into an existing magazine that has certain goals and has published other potentially too similar things.
Abyss & Apex publishes half science fiction and half fantasy. And we get at least ten times more fantasy than science fiction, so we have to work on rewrites more in science fiction and be a lot more ruthless in pruning the fantasies. That’s one element of an acceptance and I hear it’s the same at other magazines in our field: there is just less SF written than F, and that ups the chances for SF tales being accepted while lowering the odds for fantasies.
Another element of acceptance or rejection is that we might have already accepted or published something similar, and if that story was recent or is slated for an up-coming edition this will knock an equally good story right back to the author, with a regretted rejection. We’d have taken it otherwise. It happens.
Then we come to that hard-to-quantify thing, editorial style. A magazine like Lackingtons is all about the style of writing. Analog is all about science fiction and has more room for hard science and puzzle stories. Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine likes humor. Certain editors prefer sub-genres such as slipstream or steampunk. There is no substitution for reading several issues of a magazine to try and pick up on an editor’s sense of style. I, for example, enjoy stories with a hint of mystery, different cultures, good plot resolution, and circularity. I have an aversion to retold fairy tales, elves, vampires and an absolute horror of zombie fiction. I make my negative preferences known in our submissions pages, but the positive ones are most evident in what I publish. Another example: the former editor of Realms of Fantasy, Shawna McCarthy, famously hated cat stories. It was in their guidelines for all to see.
I do not read everything submitted to us. I have first readers. My staff knows my preferences. They pass science fiction up to me, even if it’s slightly flawed, and automatically reject zombie fiction.
Things that are passed up to me are what I call Second Opinion pieces. Here is what happens with those.
- Sometimes I have to let the stories rest after reading them until I am sure that they are right for us, or at least to get the best feel for why we rejected it, so I can let the author know they were so close with this one, and what was wrong.
- Sometimes I ask for a rewrite on certain lines. Example: I needed a new, different ending for “The Fifer of Moments.” I had several suggestions and the rewrite made it work.
- It’s a good story, but did they get the facts right? Sometimes I am not sure of a piece for knowledge-based reasons. I have a stable of consultants on everything from atomic physics to far-eastern mythology to psychiatric disorders. I send some stories off to one of these experts to ask if the writer got the scientific facts or mythology or symptoms correct. Incorrect facts can kill a reader’s immersion in a story so we have to get that right!
That’s pretty much our process here at Abyss & Apex. We want to buy your stories, so amaze us!
Wendy S. Delmater