Friday, July 2, 2021

Don't Play Mind Games With the Editor When Submitting a Story


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I've edited two anthologies and a special science fiction and fantasy issue of a magazine. Maybe I'll get a chance to edit another anthology and put out an open call for writers to submit to my slush pile.

If that happens again, do yourself a favour and read the submission guidelines before you submit. I'm surprised by how many (usually unpublished) writers don't know standard manuscript format, use weird fonts, use weird formatting, or submit a story that is completely unrelated to the theme of the anthology. All these signal that working with the writer could be a problem. As an editor of one of the major science fiction magazines once told her audience at a convention, "I need to get through a big slush pile, so I'm looking for any reason to reject your story."

There is plenty of info online on how to submit your story. This article doesn't need to repeat that advice. Instead, this article will be about extra-stupid things that people have done when submitting a story to me. All involved what the military calls psyops or psychological operations, in other words, mind games.


I had put out an open call for short stories up to 6,000 words. One of the submissions came a cover letter (email) that read:

My story is 12,000 words, which I know is above your word limit. However, I hope you evaluate my story based on its storytelling merits instead of arbitrary word limits.

 Those two sentences made my job immensely easier; I simply didn't read the story at all and rejected it.

But wait – I can hear all the unpublished writers shouting at me to give that guy a chance. That story could've been gold. Certainly, I could've made room for a future Hugo Award-winning novelette?

No.  Anthologies are supposed to contain a selection of stories by different authors. The readers want variety. That's one of the reasons why story word limits exist.

Anthologies come with total word limits too. No publisher is going to give me an unlimited budget of advance on royalties to buy as many words, i.e., stories, as I want. If I buy a story that is twice as long as the individual story word limit, I have to reduce the number of stories in the anthology.

The writer was trying to manipulate me to buy his story; he wanted me to think that if I rejected his story for length, I am a bad editor who doesn't care about "storytelling merits." But I saw through the psyops and rejected his story. He played a game, and he lost.


I had an anthology call for the Speculative Fiction issue of a magazine. Speculative fiction is an umbrella term for science fiction, fantasy, horror, alternate history, and genres that do not take place in the "real world". The term has become an accepted and well-known term in the literary world. The Alberta Book Publishing Awards has a category for Speculative Fiction Book.

The submission guidelines clearly defined speculative fiction. Nonetheless, a writer submitted a story that didn't fall into any speculative fiction category. I rejected it on that basis. He replied:

I thought speculative fiction meant writing on spec, which is what I did. Your terminology is misleading and incorrect. You should read my story and consider it for publication.

I did not read his story a second time, but I had the pleasure of rejecting it twice, thanks to his reply. One story submission, two rejections from the same editor within 12 hours: now that's an achievement!

First, he obviously did not read the guidelines before submitting the story. Second, he should have just stayed quiet after I rejected the story. Instead, he had to go ballistic, thus ensuring that I always will remember him for all the wrong reasons.

Again, a writer played psychological warfare and lost. Using guilt and shame to force an editor to read a story does not work.

By the way, for a change, the writer was not a complete newbie. He self-published a series of detective novels and promotes himself as an exciting hot-shot author. That still didn't get his story into the magazine.


            One story was slightly overlong, by 300 words, but showed some promise. The plot was interesting, though it needed some work. I also wanted one scene rewritten so that the science as accurate (Hey, this was a science fiction anthology). I thought he could reduce the word count by 300 words if he tightened the plot, so I suggested some changes sent the story back to the writer with this email:

            "Your story shows some promise, but I'm going to ask you for some revisions before accepting it. Please look at the comments. Can you reduce it by 300 words? And in the scene where the main character launches fireworks in space, can you think of another way he can have a light show without fireworks? Fireworks depend on oxygen to light up their fires, and there is no oxygen in space."

His reply:

Your comments and requests are not what I expected, and I wish to withdraw my story from consideration.

Note that he did not explicitly withdraw his story from consideration. He "wished" to withdraw his story.

Reverse psychology in action! He knew I thought his story showed promise. And I knew he was trying to manipulate me to beg him to let me publish his story unrevised. However, instead of surrendering to him, I told him that I'm granting his wish and pulling his story out of consideration.

I'm not the only editor who will win this game. Every editor I know will not chase after a writer who says that he is withdrawing his story. There's always going to one other story that's better than yours and written by someone who cooperates with editors.

If he had shortened the story and rewritten that one scene, he would have made his very first professional fiction sale. Instead, got nothing published.

Most rejections come as a short email saying that the editor is going to pass on buying the story and rarely have any feedback or advice for the writer. If you get any reply that either gives specific feedback or asks for the story to be revised and resubmitted, do not treat it as an insult. Treat it as gold.


I saved the best for last. This incident did not happen on one of my anthology calls. It was something an acquaintance of mine did when submitting a story to a magazine.

After I made my first professional fiction sales, word spread amongst friends in sci-fi fandom. An acquaintance of mine, someone I knew but who wasn't close to me, phoned me and asked about my stories. She had been writing stories too but hadn't submitted them to magazines or anthologies.

This was back in the time when editors and publishers still received and sent paper through the mail, before most of them switched to using email and electronic submissions.

She subsequently submitted a story to a magazine, but she put her roommate's name on the byline. I asked her why she did that.

"So when the rejection letter comes, my roommate will get rejected, not me," she said.

"It's actually your story, not you, that's getting rejected," I said.

"But the rejection letter gets sent to the person who wrote it," she said. "If I say the story is by her, she'll receive the letter."

That was one way to avoid rejection; trick the editor into rejecting your roommate instead! The hilarious part of this plan is that it doesn't have any psyops to convince the editor to buy the story.

I didn't ask her what would happen if the story got sold. Whose name would the publisher put in the byline? Who would get the money? But those were hypothetical questions anyway. I knew she would never sell a story.


            I'm always amazed by how many writers think that they need to play mind games with the editor. All of these psychological operations fail. I've never heard of anyone selling a story by shaming the editor, making the editor feel guilty, or using reverse psychology. All these tactics will make people remember your name (assuming you didn't use your roommate's name), but they won't get your story published. 

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