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Talking About Short SFF (e001: Writing for Markets)
[Hi all! This is being released for free for everyone. If you appreciate it and want it to continue, please consider becoming a patron or otherwise supporting what I do. Comments are open, either here or on Twitter. The transcript with time stamps is below, and was done by the amazing Keffy Kehrli! For those also wanting to hire his services, he does great work and can be found here. Cheers!]

 

[00:00:00] Hi everyone, and welcome to my first recording. I don’t really have a name for this yet. At the moment, the plan is to sort of see how it goes. I’m going to record some thoughts on short fiction, submitting, reviewing, all those kind of stuff. I just want to sort of get a feel for it and see if people respond to it, so if this is something you like or want more of, please let me know, or do that sort of thing.

[00:00:40] My apologies ahead of time. I’m kind of doing dishes and while it’s an automatic dishwasher, so you might hear it in the background, it also means I’ll have to get up occasionally so there might be some pauses and stuff. I am not the greatest with this whole recording technology. So, it’ll probably be just like… pause, or whatever. I’m not sure.

[00:01:00] So, stumbled along with me as I try to figure this out, without a script and without really much advanced planning. Now, I asked people what they might be interested in hearing from me about with speculative short fiction and the question that sort of leapt out to me is the one that I could talk a lot about and perhaps bring a perspective to was, “How do you figure out what a magazine wants by breaking down and analyzing their publications.”

[00:01:37] As a reviewer and as someone who reads a lot, this is a question that I feel like I can probably speak some to. Especially, because as like a desperate writer person, it’s hard not to sort of fall into this… it’s not exactly a trap. But this pursuit of trying to sell to certain publications, especially because in so many submission guidelines, there’s sort of a, “Look at what we publish.” That will give you a good, sort of clue, as to what we want to buy. While I understand why editors have that in their submission guidelines and to a lesser extent why I—understand why they might send that as part of the rejection, which I have gotten a number of times. These sort of like, “Oh, thank you. This isn’t really a good fit for us, but if you want to know what we take, look at what is on our site, or in our publication. Read us, and then have that guide your submitting.

[00:02:49] My issue with that—I think it’s something that can be done to an extent, and I’ll get to sort of how one can reach for that. I first want to talk about how that also has to be ignored in some extent. Because, as I said, while I understand that editors don’t want a lot of stuff that is what they would consider inappropriate for the market, I also know the reality is, for a lot of people, and especially for people who are writing from marginalized identities who don’t see themselves reflected in the market as it is, hearing that and seeing that is incredibly difficult because you internalize it as a way of saying, “If I haven’t seen it, then I shouldn’t write it.” And, if I haven’t seen it but that’s the thing that I want, is this not a good fit? And from the editorial standpoint, hearing someone say, well, read what we do. So, if you read what they do and you see a lot of similar things but it’s nothing like what your interpretation of their market is. So, if it’s something that does science fiction, and they’re like, “Yes, we like this kind of science fiction, look at this,” and it’s all the same kind of science fiction by the same kinds of people and you’re looking at yourself being like, but I write science fiction, but not this science fiction. You get the feeling that you’re not supposed to submit there, and your chances of getting in there might, indeed, be less because you don’t write sort of the dominant version of this genre. You don’t write what that market puts out.

[00:04:34] But, let’s say this is a market that’s important. Let’s say that this market pays well. It can get you a pro publication credit, which can help you get into the SFWA. It’s one of these things where at that point, you should just do it anyway. You should just submit because while that is something that is saying, “We don’t really want to see your story,” what it means in some ways is, we don’t want to have to reject a story we know that we shouldn’t. And perhaps that’s an echo of me, but I see it sometimes where it happens, where…

[00:05:19] So, it’s not like issues within the genre, or representation issues within the genre aren’t known by the editors at the top. And it’s not like they would never feel a pressure if they saw a good story that wasn’t a good fit, but that they might feel like, oh, but why am I rejecting this. Why am I rejecting that. And that’s a question where I think there should be pressure put on the editors at the top to have to examine why they’re rejecting stories that they get that might seem inappropriate for the venue, but why is it inappropriate for the venue? What part of this? If it’s a venue that does science fiction, or that does second world fantasy and the story is in deed that, then what about the tone, what about the characters, what about the representation makes it feel, then, inappropriate, not a good fit. Because, only through examining those things are editors going to come to terms, or be able to see their own biases at play. So, as writers, I feel like when you see that in a submission guideline…And this is difficult to do, you have to recognize that it might be a reason that you could get rejected but that you should submit it anyway.

[00:06:48] Not in the sort of sense of you’re going to completely ignore all the things, if the publication says no zombies, don’t write a zombie story. But if the publication says, “We publish science fiction and fantasy,” “We publish science fiction, fantasy, and horror.” Even if they don’t ever actually publish fantasy, or horror, I wonder who I could be talking about… You probably should still send those to those places. Especially if they have a quick turn-around, especially if they pay well, because those publications need to see those stories or else they’re going to claim that those stories don’t exist. When they get questioned about why they’re not publishing more different kinds of stories, they’re going to say, “Oh, well, because we’re not getting them. I wonder why that happened.” And they don’t know look at how they have set that up. So, they’re not—if they’re not forced to see that their submission guidelines are pushing for more homogenous, or more flat representation, where you’re not seeing a lot of nuance, where you’re not seeing a lot of diversity, then… If they’re not examining that, they’re not going to examine that. If they’re allowed to get that, then nothing is going to push them out of that mode.

[00:08:23] So, my advice in that regard is if you look at their submission guidelines and you see the, “Read our stuff.” And then you read their stuff, and you’re like, oh, this is nothing like what I write. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you shouldn’t submit there. I feel like, especially if you feel like you’re bringing a different perspective to the genre, or subgenre, then you really should submit because it is on the editors at that point to reject you. And they might reject you and say it’s not a good fit, but do know that not a good fit only applies until it doesn’t. There’s always going to be a first time at a publication. There’s always going to be exceptions. Oftentimes these happen with people who have more clout, who have sort of more of a name so that they can get past the resistance where the editor would think it’s a good deal. But it can happen with debuts. It can happen with people because sometimes it’s going to get through, and it sucks because most of the time it’s not. Most of the time when you see that it really does mean, yeah, it’s like you don’t have a very good chance of doing it, but just to put it out there. Take my advice in this with a grain of salt, because this is something that does need to be pushed forward.

[00:09:49] I guess I should actually speak to how to try to tailor submissions to publicatiosn based on your own observations of those publications. And, I’m speaking anecdotally and in that sort of sense. It’s important to frame this as a way of saying that everyone wants to improve their writing and most people want to improve their ability to sell their writing. The two aren’t necessarily the same. A lot of times people can get to a place where they’re writing very good, incredible work, but it’s fallen through the cracks of what publications accept, and what publications want. There’s a lot of gaps out there, and while it can seem at times like publications will accept anything, in practice that’s not always the case. In my reading experience, that’s not always the case. And who gets to get their stories that are more subversive and that push the boundaries a little bit more is not always fair, we’ll say.

[00:11:16] I mean, there’s a lot of room out there for stories that don’t fit neatly into genre boundaries, but where those appear and how much attention they get, and a number of other things, makes it very complicated. So, I feel like when we’re talking about this, we’re talking about publications that have existed for a long time. Publications that tend to be higher paying or higher prestige, because attention being what it is in short SFF there is this sort of desire that I have, at the very least, to place in a select number of publications that tend to get people to look at them. That tend to get, not only reviews, but more consideration for awards because you’re trying to make a break. You’re trying to get people to notice what you do.

[00:12:15] Writing is oftentimes this incredibly lonely, isolated thing, that you’re doing in a bubble, that you’re hoping that people respond to. At the SFF level, there’s a fierce competition among all of the highest paid and most prestigious publications, and so, you’re up against an international pool of writers and it can be incredibly frustrating when all of your efforts to improve your craft don’t seem to improve your ability to sell.

[00:12:52] The first thing that I’d probably recommend is picking a few publications at the top and reading them fairly consistently. And, I would urge people to read full issues. And I think that that more than anything is going to give you an idea of the style and the kinds of stories, and perhaps the range of stories that publications will accept. Because, while it can be perhaps more time efficient to sort of pick and choose stories that you’re pretty sure you’re going to like, reading some stories that you don’t like, that the publication’s put out will help you understand what about those stories the publication liked, and why they got accepted. Maybe.

[00:13:45] I mean, this is sort of the thing—reading and writing short SFF is a continual learning experience. And my approach to reading a lot of the publications from a writer’s perspective is to try and see what I can do, and where my stuff might fit and to be able to refine my craft in directions that hopefully resonate with readers, which causes an incredible amount of anxiety, because there’s always the fear that you’re going to be losing something when you seek to improve your craft. That you’re not going to improve your craft, that you’re going to lose something, that you’re going to capitulate or compromise on something that you shouldn’t, and that fear is there, and it’s real.

[00:14:45] But, as we’re talking about trying to figure out submissions and figure out publications, if you do this, and I do, to some extent, for some publications, when I’m starting a story I’ll have a publication in mind. I’ll be like, this feels more of a this. To use a recent example, when I learned that Shimmer was closing, I wanted to write a story that was more Shimmery and my approach to that is probably a little bit different than most people’s approach to that, because you can look at Shimmer’s guidelines, and you can get one story. You can look at Shimmer’s publication history, and you get a slightly different story. Now, Shimmer, in their rejections is one who will tell you sort of like, read our publication and let that guide what you submit, because Shimmer’s closed to submissions forever now, I feel like I can talk about this a little bit more.

[00:15:44] So, that, often was frustrating for me to get as a rejection because I read the publication and because I often felt that what got published was at odds a lot of the time with what the submission guidelines were. So, there was a large range of stories and genres and styles that appeared in Shimmer that went against what the submission guidelines said that they wanted.

[00:16:15] Indeed, when I sold a story to Shimmer, it was science fiction. It was kind of space-opera-y which is not what they tend to want and so you get to this place where, well…the submission guidelines say one thing but if you read this publication consistently, a different story starts to emerge.

[00:16:40] Okay, and I feel like I haven’t given a lot of nuts and bolts advice about this because it’s a very complicated thing. The more I talk about it, the more I seem to get to the point where it’s like, huh, yeah. Well, do your own thing, and try to submit it anyway. And that’ll totally work out. But, okay. I want to frame it in this sense. So, writing is a fraught endeavor and education about writing. So, when you’re seeking to learn and hone your craft, the sort of—what is a loss when it comes to your writing and what is a gain when it comes your writing and trying to change things.

[00:17:26] So, to think of it kind of like class work. And each publication can be its own class. Each editor can be its own professor and when you’re in classes like that, at least for me, and I have a BA in Creative Writing so I’ve been in my share of university creative writing classes. Professorial taste does dictate what you’re going to write if you care about your letter grade. And as someone who deeply cared about his letter grade, it was something where I was conscious of what the professor wanted to see and would craft stories more towards that. I feel like when you get out of the university level, this is not letter grades anymore, this is checks. You know, you’re getting acceptances, you’re getting paid.

[00:18:19] And so, the nuts and bolts advice I have is to think of each of these as sort of a class that you’re taking, that you can study for. You can then make the decision if you want to incorporate the lessons that they’re teaching. Some lessons—the lessons are essentially what makes effective writing. And each editor has different opinions on what makes effective writing and if you’re paying attention to what they put out over a long period of time, you get an idea of what they’re teaching, essentially, metaphorically. You get sort of that’s their lesson plan. You read the stuff and you see it. And you try to take apart how they see effective fiction as being constructed, and how they view effective storytelling. This can influence you. You can take that and dissect it and see what works for you. And I feel like what happens with this is not so much that writers will change their writing dramatically to fit a publication but rather writers will eventually find a—will know better where their fiction is a better fit.

[00:19:50] Where your tastes align more with the editorial tastes, there might be that way of saying, “Okay, here’s something that I can do,” and if you agree and really love the stories consistently that a place is putting out, paying attention to why you love them and what you’re responding to is a good idea, and incorporating those lessons into your own writing is a way that you can improve your craft in that direction.

[00:20:21] If you’re not finding that you consistently love publications. If you’re finding that you read a lot of a publication and you sort of get what they’re doing but you don’t respond personally to it, then changing your writing to try and match the editorial taste is probably not going to be rewarding for you. It might be financially, if you can do it, but typically I find that when you’re writing things that you don’t actually feel much for and especially if you’re writing things that you feel like you’re making … if you’re doing things that you don’t agree with in hopes of making money and that sort of bitterness about that comes through, that’s not going to—probably is not going to sit well with anyone that you’d be submitting it to. But, I do feel like if you respond well to a publication, you read the stories, and you look—not so much at plot—but how the stories are constructed. How character is handled. Maybe the balance between character and plot, and look at those sorts of things. What are the themes that you can pull out? What are the approaches? What, in terms of point of view, is acceptable? What seems to be the stories that are a bit weird?

[00:21:51] Especially if you’re a beginning author, who hasn’t a lot of publication credits, I would seek to look at the stories that are by people, other writers, who—it’s like, they’re debut story. So, look to what people are doing who are at about what you would consider your level. If you have—if you feel like you’re not known within the genre, if you feel like that’s holding you back, then it might help you to look at—if the publication has other stories by people who are new, what those stories did. How did those stories sort of get attention? So, looking at those things and being like, well, okay. It is true that certain authors can get away with some more because they have name recognition, because they have history, because they have a relationship with the editor, perhaps. So, trying to see where that’s the case and where it is the case that these were stories that were taken from slush, from someone who didn’t have a lot of credits. Looking at those, and looking at what those did.

[00:23:00] While we want to sit around and be like, what are the stories by the biggest names, what did they do? They must have the most to teach us, I feel like oftentimes, as a writer, what has the most to teach us about the editorial tastes of a publication is what stories they’re accepting that had no credits before, that had no relationship with the editor before, because those are the ones that are probably going to show most frankly what the sort of editorial publication identity is. You’re not going to come to it from a place of, well, okay, if a publication really only does stuff from like, the bigger people, or people who’ve been to Clarion or things like that and that’s not you, that sucks. I’ve—I understand that one, but, I think that looking at these things in that sense, can be helpful.

[00:23:52] Looking at it in a sense of do you like the stories the publication puts out should guide you in these sort of like should you maybe be thinking about making craft-level decisions about improving or honing your craft in that regard. It’s very tricky because if you don’t like a publication’s choices or editorial stuff, then it all gets confusing and complicated. But…

[00:24:29] But, this has sort of gone on for a long time, and I’ve rambled, and I apologize for that. But, sort of the too long, didn’t read version of this is: if you’re going to make craft-level decisions about your own writing based on trying to sell to certain publications, first make sure that you like the publication. Second, make sure that you’re retaining enough of yourself, and find your own ways to sort of be different within that. So, if you like a publication very much, but you want to take that style in a different way. Do so, and then submit it to the editor. Make them reject you. That’s always going to be my biggest piece of advice, is make them reject you. That’s their job.

[00:25:21] Gatekeeping is something that we’re probably never going to get away from because of the nature of publications and that sort of thing, but we shouldn’t seek to make gatekeeping comfortable for the gatekeepers. They should always to question. They should always have to be the ones who are confronted with stories. They shouldn’t get away from that. That’s just…we need to work toward that. So, if you have stories that you feel like, okay, I want to write a story and I have an idea for it. Read the stories, learn what you can from them, submit, submit, submit. And that’s sort of my best advice, again.

[00:26:02] Grain of salt, because I don’t exactly have the largest of publication histories myself, but I do engage in doing this where I have read a lot of publications and I do feel like it has helped me to grow my writing in ways that I’m happy with. Not that it necessarily always means more success when placing stories, but I have sold stories that I thought this is a—that I have taken advice, or that I have learned from publication history of a place, and then I have had some success with selling those stories to those places. And, sometimes you miss your first one that you wrote it actually for, but it hits somewhere else. So, just sort of keep that all in mind. And keep writing, and being awesome. So…

[00:26:57] Sorry, this was weird. Again, this is my first attempt at anything like that. So, if you liked it, let me know, if you have other questions that you would like me to talk about or anything like that, also let me know. And stay cool. Cheers.

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