How not to get published – one editor’s opinion


As many of you know, I’m in the process of editing an anthology for Kerlak Publishing. The anthology is entitled The Big Bad – an anthology of Evil. The only real writing prompt I gave when I sent out the open call for submissions was that the protagonist had to be something we typically considered a “bad guy.” Or girl. But whatever, the lead character had to be considered by most folks to be “evil,” “wrong,” “nasty,” or something of that nature. No tortured vampires that don’t want to drink blood – gimme more Season 2 Spike than Angel. You get it? 

Good. Well, along the way I enlisted the help of a co-editor, our very own Emily Leverett, and we started reading submissions. From that reading process comes today’s post. There are a lot of posts here on MW about what to do. How to behave appropriately, how to not make an idiot of yourself, how we’ve made idiots of ourselves so you don’t have to, that sort of thing. 

This isn’t that post. This is about what NOT to do when submitting for an anthology, at least one that I’m editing, and the reasons why. And most of the reasons all boil down to one – the editor of an open call is looking for reasons to reject your story. It’s not that I’m a terrible human being (well, partially). It’s not that I hate you. It’s that I have room for about 15% of the submissions I receive, and that means that 85% of the stories aren’t going to make it into the book. And the faster I can reject something, the faster I can move on to an amazing story that will get in, or the faster I can get back to writing my own work, which is how I put food on my table. That’s the harsh truth of the matter – we don’t give mediocre stories the time to grow because there are plenty of awesome stories already out there and being submitted. So if you don’t take time to polish your story before you send it in, odds are we won’t take time to finish reading it before it gets the virtual red pen. 

So here are a few things to keep in mind when submitting for anthologies in general, and mine in particular. 

1) Spell the title of the story right in the filename, and make the filename be the title of the story (unless the submission guidelines say to do something different). I used to scoff at some of the “arbitrary” submission guidelines I read on publishers/agents/editors websites. That was until I had to sort through a couple hundred submissions to make sure I’d read them all, put them all in my spreadsheet as accepted/rejected, discussed them with my co-editor and notified the author. So make life easy on the editor and they will like you better. And that is a key to getting your work solicited for other anthologies instead of having to do open calls. 

2) Don’t kill puppies, kittens, or other cute animals. Ask Carrie Ryan about this one. People will let you do almost any nasty, terrible thing to a human being. Don’t hurt the pets. The readership will beat you bloody. If your story is not the best thing since sliced toast, puppies, babies and kittens are off limits. It makes it unsellable. Unless you’re brilliant, in which case all bets are off. 

3) Don’t use your story to glorify rape, pedophilia, racism, homophobia,misogyny or whatever other issues you’ve got going on. This is a case of follow the guidelines. I clearly stated that I would not publish stories that had an agenda of hate or a demeaning tone towards any one group. Misanthropy is acceptable, misogyny is not. So follow the guidelines and don’t send me that stuff. 

4) Don’t start off slow and plan on catching us with the “hook” or “twist” at the end. I probably won’t get there. I tried to read the first page of every story. Then I tried to read the first paragraph of every story. But if it’s slow at any point, it better have some amazing descriptions going on to sustain it. The second I found myself starting to skip over bits, the story went into the “rejected” folder. In an open call, you need to hit the ground running with your story. You need to grab a reader by the . . . throat and not let go until the end. It’s a short story, sustain the momentum, sustain the action and keep our attention. This is not a short story in the Bubba the Monster Hunter universe, where I’ve got ten stories worth of reader goodwill so I can take a couple of paragraphs to describe something interesting. This is your audition to the world – use every second you’ve got. My fastest rejection was at the first comma – fourteen words into the story I was finished. I never made it to the end of the sentence, and I didn’t have to – there were two hundred more stories to read, and some of them were going to be INCREDIBLE. Make yours be incredible, from start to finish. 

5) Get your weapon tech right. Nothing drives a reader crazier (if they know guns) than reading about someone flipping off the safety on their Glock pistol. Or someone wielding a claymore one-handed. Or whatever. Get the weapon tech right. Wikipedia is pretty good for this in a pinch. Or just go shoot a watermelon or ten. 

6) Edit your story and polish it before you send it out. It should go without saying that there should be a consistent tense, consistent POV, solid voice and perfect grammar, but if it went without saying, I wouldn’t be saying it. And don’t ever tell an editor in the cover letter that you didn’t polish the story. One – we know. Two – it’s insulting and I’m inclined not to give the story a solid read. And three – we know. So take the time to polish the story and get all the normal issues worked out before you send it in. We’ll still edit it, but we’d rather work from a place where we can edit for story, not because the spelling and grammar is so bad that we have no idea what you’re saying. 

7) Don’t be afraid to follow up. I’ve got more, but I’m approaching Hartley length here, so I’ll end with a positive “don’t.” Don’t forget that editors are people too, and they have a lot of projects going on and may sometimes flake out on something. So if you see on Facebook that an editor has sent out a lot of rejection/acceptance letters in a day, and you haven’t gotten yours, don’t be scared to send a polite email. I found three stories that had gotten misfiled after I’d sent out a bunch of acceptance and rejection emails. Two of them were good enough to get included in the book, and it worked out that we still had enough space for both of them. And if the authors had been shy, those awesome stories would not have made it into the book. So be polite, but don’t be afraid. 

Those are a few of my “don’ts” for submitting to anthologies and open calls. What mistakes have you made that others can learn from? 


16 comments to How not to get published – one editor’s opinion

  • sagablessed

    Never type and send a query letter on three hours of sleep in two days. Did that, and could not blame the agent for a polite: ‘No thanks.’ Actually, having re-read it, I am amazed she did not either pee herself laughing at me, or send a letter going ‘Dude: WTF?’ She would have been in the right for the last.
    Grammar etc are a must in a query letter. Screw it up, and you are chucked in the gar-bage!

  • Great advice, John. And thanks for filing my Friday slot. I owe you one.

  • Gypsyharper

    Great post, John. I will definitely be filing this one away for reference when I get to the point of submitting things!

  • Once a long time ago, I joined several folks who’d decided to produce a genre magazine. This was before social media made the world so small, so we had to send flyers asking for submissions to colleges, universities, libraries and bookstores in Rock Hill and Charlotte, hoping to find the writers wherever they were hiding. We never even made it to one issue, because the submissions were so poor. One of the most common reasons for rejection was the huge number of stories that revolved around dystopian societies named things like Akirema (say it backwards) and Unistats, and starring people named Adam and Eve. So I’d say DON’T assume your way-cool story twist is original unless you’ve been reading, reading, reading.

  • Razziecat

    OK, I’ll tell.

    Many years ago I submitted a story to Marion Zimmer Bradley for her “Sword and Sorceress” anthology. She’d given VERY specific instructions on how to do so, and one of them was to include a stamped, self-addressed envelope for her to return the story to the author. Well, due to a family crisis, I nearly missed the deadline, and when I went to mail the story I discovered I only had ONE big manila envelope left. It had to be mailed that day to make the deadline, so I decided to just enclose enough stamps so Ms. Bradley (or her assistants, most likely) could mail it back, but she’d have to provide the envelope.

    Needless to say, this did not impress MZB. Somewhere I still have the note she sent back with my rejected story. From this I learned to move mountains if needed to make sure I follow an editor’s instructions EXACTLY.

  • May I add that if you’ve gotten beta advice on a story – TAKE IT! Several months ago, Ed Schubert offered critique on MW for the opening paragraphs of stories that MWers couldn’t seem to sell. I put up the first few words of a store that had been rejected at least three times and he immediately pointed out that the second paragraph stopped the action dead. I hadn’t seen it that way at all, but he was right. I rewrote it and sure enough, the next time I submitted it, the story sold. The rewrite wasn’t a compromise of my vision, it was a better story.

  • I’m finding it amusing that people who shook their fingers at me on Tuesday saying that we glorify cute animals too much are not coming here to argue about point #2. Is this just because I’m a short, seemingly harmless woman and John is a big, seemingly scary guy? *laughs*

  • Actually, I think, like everything, if done well and in the appropriate place it can add to the story (as David did lately). If it’s done poorly, it’s like any “killing for the sake of killing” scene and will likely work to galvanize the reader against you. But it is a good tool, IMO, used sparingly and with plenty of forethought.

  • Thanks for the lead-in, Daniel. Yes, I have recently violated rule #2. BUT, I did so in a novel, not a short, which does make a difference, because I had time to build up to it, to establish character, context, motivation, etc. And that violation of John’s rule wound up being one of THE emotional turning points in the story, because I had set it up. And that’s the point. Doing it just because won’t work. Doing it because the story and characters tell you that you have to, that’s something else entirely.

    Great post, John. You left out “Don’t submit a story written in crayon,” so I’m assuming that’s okay . . .

  • The scene in David’s book made me all teary eyed. The scene(s) in some of the stuff we read for Big Bad made me roll my eyes or cringe (not in a good way). In David’s it was a huge moment for the protagonist, and it was horrible, too (in a good way), but so much of the bad violence is just “look! violence! violent, violent violencey violence!” and not much on the plot or characters.

  • In killing animals and people in short stories, sometimes it can be done if done well, can’t be said better:

  • quillet

    I do not at ALL disagree with rule #2, but I totally agree with pea_faerie about the scene in David’s book. That moment was never violence for violence’s sake, or a look-how-dark-my-writing-is stunt. ****Possible SPOILER alert for what follows**** It was built up to carefully and sensitively, and boy did the character pay a price! He hated and regretted doing it, and his decision haunted him. Plus the dog was never just an object. He had/was a character of his own. (Getting tears in my eyes again just thinking of it.)

    Er, end of derail! There’s so much good advice in this post, John, thank you! *takes notes*

  • Pea – That’s kinda what I figured it was. Violence with no forethought to the emotions of the reader. Death should have weight, from the madam’s charge to the dog in the street to the uncontrolled killing that causes the main character anguish and finally growth, otherwise it’s just empty carnage, and if it’s not food, there’s not much point to it.

  • And no, I’m not arguing against #2, but if you’re going to do it, make sure it always serves the plot and purpose, otherwise leave it out. Sustenance against death–character growth–emotional impact. Or it’s just empty killing, and I’ve never been a fan of shock kills, which is why I’ve never been a fan of slasher horror.

  • Megan B.

    Great post. Number 7 really struck me, and will stick with me. I’d also like to point out that *sometimes* a polite inquiry can lead to feedback you wouldn’t otherwise have received.

    As for what not to do… From my own personal experience, don’t get impatient and submit a story too soon. If you know it needs more polish, don’t send it in, even if it means missing out on that particular contest/call. Because if you know it needs work, the editors will too. And if they publish it anyway, you’ll lose your chance to make it the best it can be.

  • […] I want to mention a post on Magical Words that I thought made a lot of really valuable points, “How Not to Get Published – One Editor’s Opinion” by John Hartness.  If you know anyone who can benefit from this advice, you might want to send […]