How Publishers Keep Aspiring Fiction Writers from Driving Them Bonkers

The number of aspiring fiction writers is stupendously greater than the number of available publishing outlets. As a result, publishers are deluged with stories from aspiring writers, a great many of whom rank fairly low on the evolutionary scale.

So how do publishers cope? By requiring that writers submit their work through a well-defined submissions process. Submission guidelines, typically, are not onerous at all. (In fact, if you know what “onerous” means, you can probably submit a story successfully.) However, if your story does not meet the submissions criteria (which vary between publishers), then it’s rejected, period. This process helps block a huge amount of waste paper (often digitized) of incorrect format, length, genre, and style, allowing a few sprigs of palatable print to filter through.

In addition to complying with basic requirements, a story must also meet the publisher’s preferences for content. Therefore publishers will often provide a list of what they like to see, and — more importantly — what they don’t. Although intended for author guidance, these lists are often good for some laughs. For example, here are the first six of 51 boring plots listed by Strange Horizons in “Stories We’ve Seen Too Often“:

  1. Person is (metaphorically) at point A, wants to be at point B. Looks at point B, says “I want to be at point B.” Walks to point B, encountering no meaningful obstacles or difficulties. The end. (A.k.a. the linear plot.)
  2. Creative person is having trouble creating.
    1. Writer has writer’s block.
    2. Painter can’t seem to paint anything good.
    3. Sculptor can’t seem to sculpt anything good.
    4. Creative person’s work is reviled by critics who don’t understand how brilliant it is.
    5. Creative person meets a muse (either one of the nine classical Muses or a more individual muse) and interacts with them, usually by keeping them captive.
  3. Visitor to alien planet ignores information about local rules, inadvertently violates them, is punished.
    1. New diplomat arrives on alien planet, ignores anthropologist’s attempts to explain local rules, is punished.
  4. Weird things happen, but it turns out they’re not real.
    1. In the end, it turns out it was all a dream.
    2. In the end, it turns out it was all in virtual reality.
    3. In the end, it turns out the protagonist is insane.
    4. In the end, it turns out the protagonist is writing a novel and the events we’ve seen are part of the novel.
  5. An AI gets loose on the Net, but the author doesn’t have a clear concept of what it means for software to be “loose on the Net.” (For example, the computer it was on may not be connected to the Net.)
  6. Technology and/or modern life turn out to be soulless.
    1. Office life turns out to be soul-deadening, literally or metaphorically.
    2. All technology is shown to be soulless; in contrast, anything “natural” is by definition good. For example, living in a weather-controlled environment is bad, because it’s artificial, while dying of pneumonia is good, because it’s natural.
    3. The future is utopian and is considered by some or many to be perfect, but perfection turns out to be boring and stagnant and soul-deadening; it turns out that only through imperfection, pain, misery, and nature can life actually be good.
    4. In the future, all learning is soulless and electronic, until kid is exposed to ancient wisdom in the form of a book.
    5. In the future, everything is soulless and electronic, until protagonist (usually a kid) is exposed to ancient wisdom in the form of a wise old person who’s lived a non-electronic life.
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