What we do not want in a story

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 (or how to earn a quick reject)

by Sue Babcock, Publisher
and Perry Mc Daid, Consulting Editor

Liquid Imagination
Last update: 2-1-2014

With special thanks to Bruce Bethke, Editor-in-Chief of STUPEFYING STORIES for permission to use his “What we are NOT buying now” as a touchstone.

After reading through thousands of submissions, we’ve developed a strong sense of what we’d just as soon never read again. Please heed the following.

1. No porn.

Seriously, no porn. We don’t publish it. Don’t send it to us.

2. No plagiarism.

I wish this didn’t need to be said, but it does. We check. The story must be your own.

3. No torture porn.

There seems to be a subset of writers who think we’ll make an exception to the “No porn” rule for horror stories that include gruesome torture along with the explicit sex. We won’t. There’s a market for that kind of stuff. We aren’t that market. Don’t send it to us.

Come to think of it, we’re not big fans of gruesome torture without explicit sex, either.

4. Watch the language.

We’re no prudes, but a few carefully chosen earthy Anglo-Saxon expressions go a long way. It’s a puzzlement that some writers seem to feel the need to prove that they can out-swear the bluest of blue-collar workers. If you just cannot resist this urge, do it elsewhere. Save it for your in-laws perhaps?

It’s not necessary. Really. If we like your story we may ask you to tone down the language or make some word substitutions, but if your story begins with dialog like this:

“F### YOU, YOU STUPID F###ING A######!”

“OH YEAH? WELL F### YOU, YOU F#####-UP MOTHERF###ING F###HEAD!”

We’ll stop right there, hit REJECT, and never read far enough to discover whether we would have liked your story.

5. No stories written to work out your personal psychological and/or sexual problems.

Your therapist may say your story is fascinating, but he’s being paid a lot of money to listen to you babble about your genitals … or others.

6. No stories written as catharsis to deal with your personal relationship problems.

That story you wrote to tell the whole world what a bitch or a$$hole your ex- is, which optionally includes the prolonged torture-porn scene you wrote to take vicarious revenge? Send it somewhere else.

7. No sermons.

That awesome philosophical and/or religious insight you had at 2 A.M. while sitting in your dorm room, listening to Nevermind? There’s a reason why “sophomoric” is not considered a term of praise.

This includes what we call “wrapper” stories, which are stories only in the sense that they introduce a fictional character who then proceeds to deliver a sermon on behalf of the author. A sermon delivered by a sock-puppet is still a sermon.

8. No more rewrites of old Twilight Zone scripts.

Does this really need to be said? Apparently so.

9. Be wary of any idea for a story you got while watching TV.

Chances are we’ve seen it before. Repeatedly. We have it on good authority that the last original idea in Hollywood was shot and killed in early 1971, and its head and hide now hang on a Warner Bros. producer’s office wall. You know what we mean: stuff like regurgitated ‘The Body Snatchers’ (Finney, 1955). Movie and TV worlds have disinterred this, ran over it with a humvee, thrown it through the wood-chipper and reburied it. They will probably dig it up again like overpossessive dogs. Please don’t jump on their bandwagon.

10. Don’t insult the natives.

Don’t offend, stereotype, or vilify native or aboriginal cultures. In fact, don’t offend, stereotype, or vilify any culture. It just doesn’t work.

11. Mind the pandering. 

Many great literary careers have begun with a reader throwing down a book or magazine in disgust and saying, “Geez, even I can write better than that!” Note that the operative term here is “better than,” not, “just as badly as.”

12. Gory horror is a tough sell.

It’s possible to sell us a really top-notch horror story, but you should be aware that there are a heck of a lot of other writers tilling these same fields and fresh ideas are scarce. If you do not have a deep personal attachment to writing gory and gut-churning horror stories, why not explore some of the other currently less-popular subgenres?

13. Remember to engage.

We don’t require that stories have heroes who emerge victorious, but your story should have at least one character who engages the reader.

14. Remember to include an ending.

As an editor, one of the most frustrating things in the world is to read a story that is just absolutely terrific for the first twenty pages and then collapses into meaningless goo in the final scene on page 21. We especially dislike what we’ve come to call The Dan O’Bannon Ending: “And then the jack-booted minions of a secret government agency stormed in and killed everyone. The End.”

To paraphrase Mickey Spillane: it may be the beginning of your story that gets us interested in reading it, but it’s the end of your story that convinces us to buy it. Make sure your story delivers an ending that justifies all the pages leading up to it.

This does not mean you cannot leave us in suspense, just be very very good at it.

15. So this guy wakes up in a strange place…

[optionally, lying in a puddle of some bodily fluid], and can’t move, so he struggles to remember where he is and how he got there, and this leads into a long and roundabout flashback in which he remembers this unbelievably hot nympho girl he met [optionally, in a bar] the night before, and how they went back to her place for some totally hot sex, but now he realizes he’s tied-up in her [basement, attic, garage, other location: choose one], and in comes the hot nympho girl and/or her freaky lesbo girlfriend [optionally, who is the man’s wife, who he’s been cheating on], and she/they proceed to [castrate, disembowel, dismember, otherwise torture: choose one] him, and he dies.

Yeah, yeah, yeah; we’ve seen this one about 300 times so far. There hasn’t been a good story that began with “guy wakes up in a strange place, unable to move and struggling to remember where he is and how he got there” since Roger Zelazny wrote Nine Princes in Amber forty-four years ago.

 

This list is by no means all-inclusive and we will no doubt be adding to it on a regular basis. However, this should at least serve as a good starting point for what to avoid. And if you’re one of those people who wants to write to tell me that this list puts too many restrictions on your artistic freedom, go read the STRANGE HORIZONS list of Stories We’ve Seen Too Often.

Kind regards,

Sue

P.S. Of course, the best way to get a good sense of what we publish is to READ OUR PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED STORIES! They’re free. Really.