Paula R. Stiles has sold a heap and a peck of stories in speculative fiction, as well as a horror novel, The Mighty Quinn (due out in 2012 from Dark Continents Publishing), and a cowritten urban fantasy novel, Fraterfamilas (from Innsmouth Free Press). She is also Editor-in-Chief of Innsmouth Free Press. You can find her at: http://thesnowleopard.net.
Perhaps it goes without saying (though I will, anyway) that as an editor of Innsmouth Free Press, writer and lifetime fan of the speculative genres, I’ve read a whole lot of science fiction, fantasy and horror. I’ve read it in published form, critique groups, fanfic, and slush. No surprise, then, that I’ve seen the good, the bad, the awful, and the ugly – not always in the order of published/critique/fanfic/slush, either.
Have I read everything? No. I’ve read a lot, but there are always writers out there that surprise me. They may be the minority of what I read, but they exist. They’re not even rare. As an editor, do I pick the best that I read from the slush? I’m going to be really honest here – I don’t. I pick what I enjoyed enough to want to read again and then still liked. Your story may be technically good. It may even be brilliant. But if it didn’t scare me, make me laugh, or at least buckle my swash, I’m not going to buy it.
I’m not one of those editors who think they’ve read it all and are arbiters of quality because they’ve read a lot of slush. I don’t act snobby about my huge slush pile and brag about it by putting down the unfortunates I reject. I’m just an editor of a small Lovecraft zine. I don’t try to pick the next Hugo. Our zine is far too small to be noticed by the awards committees. If that’s the fate you want for your story, don’t submit to us.
However, that does give me the freedom to pick what I like and then publish it. I try for a variety in what we publish, helped by the fact that I work with someone who has different tastes than mine. I like evocative language, different approaches, certain themes, quirkiness, and stories from non-Western literary traditions. Big themes that I enjoy are madness, noir, “Heart of Darkness”, angels, ghosts, sword and sorcery, and historical. Here’s a hint: We don’t get enough of the last four and I know Silvia likes at least the last two.
Big turn-offs include: body fluids and foul language on the very first page, rape (especially explicit, gratuitous, and/or “forced seduction” rape), abuse, pointless madness (especially in female protagonists), wimpy husbands with vicious wives, and White Man in Savage Cultures.
I don’t mind if you use foul language in your story and sure, I like gore as much as the next horror editor. But I’d like to get to know your story a little first before you take it all off and wave your willy at me. There is a difference between starting off with a bang and starting off with a squish. I don’t want you to give me a Titus Groan-style “I was born in the winter of 1806, during the Great New England Storm when the pigs ate my brother…” dull intro, but neither do I want to hear about snot or other such fluids on the first page. Dude, use a hanky when we first meet.
And yes, I know that rape and abuse happen in real life, but they happen a lot more in horror. They’re not usually done well, either with a feminist or a misogynist twist, so they’re going to be hard sells for me.
As far as madness, I love it when it’s necessary. Don’t love it when the portrayal is mean-spirited and/or it’s an excuse to portray women as weak or psycho bitches. In fact, dear husbands, every time you happily married guys send me something about milquetoast men persecuted by evil, praying-mantis wives who either are monsters or get eaten by monsters, it makes me wonder about you. Either your domestic fantasies are really creepy or you need to stop ripping off The Twilight Zone.
And if your Hero or Heroine goes nuts, it needs to be for a better reason than seeing Cthulhu naked in the bathtub. Even with seaweed-scented candles.
The White Man in Savage Cultures trope may sound like an odd squick, considering I like “Heart of Darkness”. Let me put it this way – what we don’t want, either Silvia or I, is the standard thing where a stereotypical upper-crust, stiff-upper-lip, snobby English gentleman goes to some stereotypically savage culture where the locals are just doing their thing when the protagonist (who is, it must be said, frequently up to no good and wants to steal something from them, or some such skullduggery) shows up and throws everything into chaos – whereupon, we’re supposed to sympathize with the protagonist. Those stories have been written; we don’t need any more of them. If you want to change up the protag to another culture/time period/gender/class and/or portray the locals with a little depth and sensitivity, however, that’s different. We do love cross-cultural stuff.
By the way, I’m a medieval historian with a classics degree. If you don’t do your historical research, I will probably notice and I won’t be amused.
What I want from your story structure is to be grabbed – or at least intrigued – by a first page that makes me want to read on. And I want you to give me a good ending, with a vivid image or last-line soundbite. The ending does not have to wrap everything up neatly, but it should definitely get a reaction out of me and stick in my head. The middle doesn’t need to be perfect, but it should interest me enough to lead me from that intro to the ending in a way that makes sense.
As a writer, I can understand the lure of the portentous, omniscient intro. There’s something just so “long view” and Robert E. Howard about it. But as an editor, I find any short story in the slush that begins with a global intro (the most notorious being of the “I was born in blahblahblah year…” variety) makes my attention waaaaaaannnnnderrrrr. And you do not want an editor’s attention to go romping off in the fields, a-murderin’ innocent field mice, when it should be on your story.
So, there you have it – the inside of a slushreader’s mind at Innsmouth Free Press. The exit sign is to your right beyond the squishy, marshy area. Mind the tentacles and please ignore the patches of blood. It’s the maid’s day off.