Monday, July 2, 2018

When publishers ask writers to "blow their minds."

Not long ago, I ran across a tweet that embodied pretty much every feeling I have about calls for submissions from literary journals. It's since been lost to my timeline, but it was a parody — only just — of the sorts of things you see when publishers are asking you for a story.

If you've ever submitted a pitch or a manuscript to a lit journal or magazine or anthology, you probably know exactly what I mean. "We want stories that make us question our very existence. We want characters that blow our tits clean off and replace them with geese. We want metatextual works of art that use media in ways previously impossible in our measly four dimensions. 5k-7k words."

So, first things first, I am not against experimentation, weirdness, and boundary-pushing in writing. Shit, I enjoy it. And I enjoy the encouragement to do it. But I have seen the difference between publishers who embrace and encourage that, and publishers who don't know what they want. Guess what the above is.

There's a reason it's mocked, there's a reason writers get frustrated, and there's a reason why a lot of these lit journals that demand something new and exciting end up getting stories that come out... pretty samey. And when prestigious or aiming-for-prestigious publications are doing this, it's little more than a bullet in their own foot.

When expectations get ridiculous.

As creators, on some level we all want to create something that's new and mind-blowing and genre-changing. It might not be our daily goal, but we all want to leave our mark in some way. And we, of course, admire people who manage to do something new with whatever format we work in. Evolving our art, whatever it is, is a part of being an artist.

Too, there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting prospective writers to push their boundaries. The writing field is enormous nowadays, and new stories are coming into the world by the minute. Many of those stories will be safe and standard. Many of them will not be publication material. And many of those will be sent in for consideration.

I can completely understand wanting prospective writers to know that you as an editor or publication do not want "safe and standard." I can understand wanting inventive, experimental, and exploratory. At the same time, being told "Change the world in 20 pages or less" is both daunting and unhelpful. And it doesn't lead to the creation of good, strong fiction.

They don't know what they want.

I don't do short story calls as much as I used to, but I highly recommend people dig into them if they're looking for a place to get started as a published writer. Sadly, that means you're going to occasionally run across these publishers who are asking you to write Klingon free verse with a mixture of stardust and your own blood or... whatever it is they're going for. I've never been entirely sure.

What I see in these requests, as I said above, are people who genuinely couldn't tell you what they're looking for. And the thing is, they know this. This isn't some sort of lurking subconscious thing. They're well aware they don't know what they want, and they think they'll just know when they see it: that they will read a story and go "Oh God, yes, this is it!" and they won't have to question anything. That sort of mentality is fine when you're buying a birthday present for a friend; less so when you're assembling a publication.

I've never done story selection or curated an anthology, but I know plenty of people who have. And while I know that "magic moments" are possible when it comes to arranging them (happy happenstances such as two pitches from two complete strangers feeding nicely into each other), the bottom line is you will have to exercise some brain power and do some decision-making. You will have to know what the publication is going to be, even if that's just working upward from a one-word theme. And that means you'll have to read critically and deeply, and not every story will magically hit you with an inspirational spark. In fact, that's kind of rare.

Saying I eventually stopped even considering submitting to publications with that sort of description may sound like I'm blocking myself off from tons of opportunities, but it's really not. There are lots of great publications out there, of all levels and all types, who are clear about what they're looking for. And when calls for submissions are clear rather than demanding every pitch be a rare innovation beyond their wildest dreams, they produce much more solid works.

Largely because you're a lot less edgy about sending in a submission when the responsibility of redefining the art of putting words on paper is off your shoulders.

Sounds like sour grapes.

It does, doesn't it? But nah. I've been accepted to and rejected from my fair share of publications with this sort of call. And I've got a secret for you: the more generic shit I sent, the more likely it was to be accepted.

I once sent into one with something that's decidedly Me Having Fun: a mix of heavy-duty action, nightmare fuel, and a few jokes. I figured if they wanted innovation, I might as well pull from my weird corner.

The response I got back? It was too over-the-top.

I started toying around, sending more and more benign stories to the more effusive publishers. I wish I could say I'm surprised that the benign stories were more readily accepted than my actual attempts to get off-the-wall and creative... but I sort of had a feeling.

It's much more fun, and more productive, to work with publishers who either have a clear idea of what they want or admit that they're allowing leeway for style and subject matter. It feels a lot more... honest, I guess? Even when I'm rejected, I know that it's because the story wasn't a good fit, and not because I didn't achieve some magical unknown. Plus, on the off chance that I do get accepted, I know I'm working with someone who can express themselves clearly when it comes time for the editing phase.

Granted, it's already presumptuous of me — a jobbing writer with no major contracts, no awards, and name recognition in one corner of a box in the back of the industry — to give publishers a should. And I'm fairly certain that any publisher who's putting out calls like this is not going to be reading my blog, because they're tilting at literary windmills and blogs overall are frankly rather average.

So I guess this goes out to fellow writers, especially those just starting out: you aren't required to reinvent the wheel. A publisher who doesn't give clarity in their call for submissions probably has none to give. And if you can't meet their expectations (either in your own mind or during one of their calls), that doesn't make you a boring or average writer. They're asking for something you can't define; they pretty much admit it.

If you want to be innovative, and it's something you're trying, more power to you. But despite what these particular mags say, you are not obligated to bring something previously unimagined to the art form to be worth anyone's time.

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