Since we order our guidelines -- as eleven by seventeen inch sheets each folded into four pages of small type -- in five-thousand-copy lots from our local printer (we just reordered a batch), it's obvious that more people are trying to write for Weird Tales ® than subscribe or buy copies from the newsstands.
Perhaps it's time to give a few extra hints to those of you who both read the magazine and send in stories. At the same time, we can tell all of our faithful readers a little bit about how we handle manuscripts that pop into our (oversized, of course) mailbox here at 123 Crooked Lane.
The first thing we do is to open the envelopes, one by one. We put a Post-it® note on the first page (or cover letter, if there is one) of each manuscript, after checking to see if there is either a return envelope, with postage affixed, or a return envelope along with an international postal response coupon. We also check to see if the writer had sense enough to put a complete return address on the first page AND on the cover letter, if there is one.
Reasons for all this: it's standard practice in the publishing business to expect writers to bear the expense of returning either the manuscripts and comments, or the comments alone. The relative costs of postage and photocopying are such that it's almost always cheaper for writers to send just a business-letter-sized envelope for the editor's comments, expecting that the editor will discard the manuscript if it's rejected. As for the return address on cover letter AND manuscript: do make it easy for the editor to send you money!
This is all very basic -- but we occasionally get a manuscript with no return envelope and no return address on the manuscript or the cover letter. The time we spend looking for the incoming envelope would better be spent reading the manuscript. And if the incoming envelope doesn't have a return address either, well . . .
And as for why we don't simply throw away manuscripts with no return envelope, the reason isn't that we're terribly sweet and lovable -- or softheaded -- but that we figure we'd otherwise spend entirely too much time responding to what-ever-happened-to-my-manuscript letters from writers.
In-processing also includes removing staples from manuscripts whose pages have been stapled rather than paper-clipped; the reason? It's easier to handle unstapled manuscripts when reading them. And again -- time spent unstapling takes away from the time we should spend reading.
Next, we check to see that the manuscript is in proper form. Why do we make an issue over this? Because we get so many manuscripts, those that are too hard to read won't be read at all -- by us or by any other professional editor.
We bounce, without reading, anything printed in ridiculously small type, and anything with the lines of type spaced too close together.
The standard in this business is 12-point type,
on 24-point spacing. Some editors, including the
Weird Tales ® horde, prefer monospaced type, in which
each letter takes the same amount of horizontal space.
But we don't insist on monospacing; 12-point Times
Roman or 12-point Century Schoolbook are also
acceptable. We all do insist on twenty-four point line
spacing -- what is loosely called "double spacing" and
is more accurately called "double-LINE-spacing." (And
yes, we get a few manuscripts from befuddled
writers who have put two spaces between words, instead
of between lines.)
Entirely too many people have discovered that computer-&- printer equipment can put out an astonishing variety of type sizes, line spacing, and type faces. But what editors want to see, without being distracted by the writers' typesetting, is the writers' choice of words and punctuation, and the order in which they have been put on paper. To that end, the more standard the writers' format, the less distraction -- and the more we editors can concentrate on the all-important story.
And even more people have discovered that the Very Latest Thing in word-processors will print out italics as italics, rather than the old-fashioned underlining. But underlining is lots easier to see on the page, especially in those type fonts that indicate italics by tilting the letters just a little. Again: the standard in this business is to underline in manuscripts to call for italics in the final, typeset copy. (No, using the e-mail convention, _underlining_, is NOT acceptable in an on-paper manuscript.)
Our editorial horde refuse even to read manuscripts prepared with type that is too small, with line-spacing that is too tight, that have been printed on both sides of the pages, or which have been prepared hard-to-read fonts (such as all italics or ALL CAPITAL LETTERS) or with defective printers or typewriters. We also refuse to read manuscripts that lack adequate indentation of each paragraph -- so we can easily see where one paragraph ends and the next one begins.
Why, you may reasonably ask, do we insist that manuscripts be printed or typed on one side of the paper only? Basically, that is because what we're used to. We could accept manuscripts that were all printed double-sided. What we can't cope with is a mix -- some single-sided, some double-sided. So, until frugal authors persuade most editors to change this standard, single-sided manuscripts, please.
Other errors in format aren't enough to get a manuscript bounced unread -- but a writer really should not put an editor in a grumpy mood by distracting the editor from the content of the manuscript.
Now, the overwhelming proportion of manuscripts do get past the initial check-in procedure. From there, they go into a stack of unread manuscripts. In theory, the stack should be no more than a week deep. In practice, we fall behind -- partly because one of us is, at this very moment, typing the Eyrie, and partly because one of us spends the summer in Vermont, another is currently living in Italy, and so on. At worst, it may take two months to turn a manuscript around. If your manuscript hasn't been replied to in that length of time, do ask us what happened.
One of us reads a manuscript; if it doesn't get the reader's attention by the second page, it's probably a loser; but our usual procedure is -- at the very least -- to glance at the last page or two before turning the manuscript down. Most manuscripts, however, get a complete reading, from beginning to end. (There is, by the way, no designated "first reader." Whoever is handy grabs some off the top of the pile, which is stacked with the newest on the bottom.)
If the initial reader likes the story, it'll be passed around to others of the horde; and the resulting arguments can get fairly heated. For that reason, it can easily take us three months to accept a story.
If the initial reader doesn't like the story but thinks someone else might like it, the story goes into the "maybe" basket for others to read. But if that initial reader doesn't like a story and if that reader is pretty sure no one else will either, it goes to the "reject" pile, awaiting someone (not necessarily the one who read it) to type up a rejection letter, based on the initial reader's Post-it® note.
Typing an individual letter for each rejection (except for those we couldn't comfortably read at all) actually takes no more time than proofreading the rejection letter, adding guidelines if this is the first time we've heard from this writer, putting appropriate things into the return envelope, and the rest of the rejection process. All of this takes time from the really important part of editing the magazine: reading the submissions. And the more standard each submission's format is, the easier it is to reject -- or to buy! -- your story.
People ask if we accept submissions by e-mail; the answer is a firm "No." Most people are too polite to ask why we don't. The reason, basically, is that we have a system that works for on-paper submissions. Having two systems, one for e-mail, the other for snail-mail, would complicate matters too much. Also, it takes a lot more time to handle an e-mail submission -- just printing out the thing on paper would take more time -- and cost more -- than the whole processing time, including the all-important reading, for a snail-mailed submission.
People also write (or phone, or e-mail) us to ask permission to send in a story. Our answer: no, you don't need permission. Read our guidelines, adjust if you need to, and send the story in.
At worst, we may reject some pieces of paper that have been typed on; at best, we may send you a contract and, eventually, money! Remember: the object of the submission process, from the writers' point of view, is not to minimize rejections, but to maximize income.
Enough on the mechanics of submitting and rejecting manuscripts; what about content?
We very seldom buy stories that lack any trace of a supernatural element. We do buy stories -- though not very often -- in which the apparently supernatural event isn't supernatural at all, as in the story "The Renfields," in our issue number 313.
We simply don't have room for stories over 8,000 words long unless they are extraordinarily good. Short-short stories are hard to write, but they are correspondingly easy to sell.
Basically, the three most frequent reasons for rejection are that the story doesn't catch the readers' interest in the first few lines and then hold that interest for the duration of that story, that the story begins with a wallow in woe and ends with the protagonist never having protagged, or that the story is based on an over-familiar approach to an over-familiar problem. (We expect we'll see a flood of stories about kids being abducted from their bedrooms in the middle of the night, but we don't expect we'll buy any of them.)
The first of these reasons is the most serious. It may be caused by story characters with whom readers feel so little empathy that those readers don't care if the characters are eaten alive on stage (or worse); it may be caused by taking too long to introduce the setting and the characters so that readers give up before anything interesting happens on stage; it may be caused because it's too hard to figure out what's going on.
The second reason for rejection, wallowing in woe, overlooks the whole point of fiction: to take the reader away from the routine frustrations of everyday life, and to show that a person's actions and decisions can make a difference.
And the third reason comes from forgetting that the latest real-life horror reported on TV or the morning newspaper is already all too familiar to editors and to readers, or from forgetting that an old idea, unless dressed up with an unexpected, therefore interesting outcome, is all too obvious to readers too soon.
And yet . . . and yet . . .
One can start out with the hoariest line in all fiction; one can go on to one of the most over-worked setups in fantasy and horror -- and then gradually build sympathy with the very Embodiment of Evil, and reach a perfectly legitimate, yet unexpected ending. (But note that the surprises along the way are surprises to the people in the story as well.)
One can -- and Greig O'Brien has done so, in the first story of Weird Tales® number 329, "Evil Then Became My Good."