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What not to submit to Sci Fi publishers

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Old 07-19-2007, 08:23 AM
gary_wagner
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Default What not to submit to Sci Fi publishers


Ran across this interesting and humorous page from www.strangehorizons.com. The page can be found at: http://www.strangehorizons.com/guide...n-common.shtml

This comes from "Strange Horizons" - an online speculative magazine. This is a set of sci fi plots that they have seen way too often and aren't really interested in seeing again.

Stories We've Seen Too Often

(List last updated 23 June 2007)
For information about what we're looking for and how to submit, see our main fiction guidelines page.

The following list is an attempt at classifying the kinds of non-horror plots and themes that we receive too frequently. We have a separate page for horror stories we've seen too often.

Main plot types are numbered; subspecies and variants receive letters.
This is not a canonical list of bad stories or story cliches. This is a list of types of stories that we at SH have seen too often; it's not intended to be a complete list of all types of bad stories, nor are all the items on the list necessarily bad.

We often receive stories that match items on this list but that have cover letters saying "This matches something on your list, but I've done something new and unique and different with it." Such stories almost always turn out to be very similar to other stories we've seen. If your story is a close match to one or more items on this list (especially if it's a close enough match that you feel the need to include a cover-letter disclaimer), you may want to consult some friends who are well-read in the genre before deciding that it's probably different from what we see all the time. (And by the way, we often don't read cover letters until after we've read the story.)

Here's the list:
  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, inadvertantly 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 A.I. gets loose on the Net despite the computer it was on not being connected to the Net.
    1. An A.I. 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." (Hint: the Net is currently a collection of individual computers, not some kind of big ubercomputer; software doesn't currently run in the wires between computers.)
  6. The future is soulless.
    1. In the future, all learning is electronic, until kid is exposed to ancient wisdom in the form of a book.
    2. In the future, everything is electronic, until kid is exposed to ancient wisdom in the form of a wise old person who's lived a non-electronic life.
  7. Protagonist is a bad person. (We don't object to this in a story; we merely object to it being the main point of the plot.)
    1. Bad person is told they'll get the reward that they deserve, which ends up being something bad.
    2. Terrorists (especially Osama bin Laden) discover that horrible things happen to them in the afterlife (or otherwise get their comeuppance).
    3. Protagonist is portrayed as really awful, but that portrayal is merely a setup for the ending, in which they see the error of their ways and are redeemed. (But reading about the awfulness is so awful that we never get to the end to see the redemption.)
  8. A place is described, with no plot or characters.
  9. A "surprise" twist ending occurs. (Note that we do like endings that we didn't expect, as long as they derive naturally from character action. But note, too, that we've seen a lot of twist endings, and we find most of them to be pretty predictable, even the ones not on this list.)
    1. The characters are described in a way meant to fool the reader into thinking they're humans, but in the end it turns out they're not humans, as would have been obvious to anyone looking at them.
    2. Creatures are described as "vermin" or "pests" or "monsters," but in the end it turns out they're humans.
    3. The author conceals some essential piece of information from the reader that would be obvious if the reader were present at the scene, and then suddenly reveals that information at the end of the story. (This can be done well, but rarely is.)
    4. Person is floating in a formless void; in the end, they're born.
    5. Person uses time travel to achieve some particular result, but in the end something unexpected happens that thwarts their plan.
    6. The main point of the story is for the author to metaphorically tell the reader, "Ha, ha, I tricked you! You thought one thing was going on, but it was really something else! You sure are dumb!"
    7. A mysteriously-named Event is about to happen ("Today was the day Jimmy would have to report for The Procedure"), but the nature of the Event isn't revealed until the end of the story, when it turns out to involve death or other unpleasantness. (Many classic sf stories use this technique, which is one reason we're tired of seeing it. Another reason is that we can usually guess the twist well ahead of time, which makes the mysteriousness annoying.)
  10. Someone calls technical support; wacky hijinx ensue.
    1. Someone calls technical support for a magical item.
    2. Someone calls technical support for a piece of advanced technology.
    3. The title of the story is 1-800-SOMETHING-CUTE.
  11. Scientist uses himself or herself as test subject.
  12. Evil unethical doctor performs medical experiments on unsuspecting patient.
  13. Office life turns out to be soul-deadening, literally or metaphorically.
  14. In the future, criminals are punished much more harshly than they are today.
    1. In the future, the punishment always fits the crime.
    2. The author is apparently unaware of the American constitutional amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment, and so postulates that in the future, American punishment will be extra-cruel in some unusual way.
  15. White protagonist is given wise and mystical advice by Holy Simple Native Folk.
  16. Story is based in whole or part on a D&D game or world.
    1. A party of D&D characters (usually including a fighter, a magic-user, and a thief, one of whom is a half-elf and one a dwarf) enters a dungeon (or the wilderness, or a town, or a tavern) and fights monsters (usually including orcs).
    2. Story is the origin story of a D&D character, culminating in their hooking up with a party of adventurers.
    3. A group of real-world humans who like roleplaying find themselves transported to D&D world.
  17. An alien observes and comments on the peculiar habits of humans, for allegedly comic effect.
    1. The alien is fluent in English and completely familiar with various English idioms, but is completely unfamiliar with human biology and/or with such concepts as sex or violence and/or with certain specific extremely common English words (such as "cat").
    2. The alien takes everything literally.
    3. Instead of an alien, it's people in the future commenting on the ridiculous things (usually including internal combustion engines) that people used to use in the unenlightened past.
  18. Space travel is wonderful and will solve all our problems. (We agree that space travel is pretty cool, but we'd rather that weren't the whole point of the story.)
  19. Man has an awful, shrewish wife; in the end he gets revenge on her, by (for example) killing her or leaving her.
    1. Man is entirely blameless, innocent, mild-mannered, and unobjectionable, and he kills his awful, shrewish wife entirely by accident, possibly in self-defense, so it's okay.
  20. Some characters are in favor of immersive VR, while others are opposed to it because it's not natural; they spend most of the story's length rehashing common arguments on both sides. (Full disclosure: one of our editors once wrote a story like this. It hasn't found a publisher yet, for some reason.)
  21. Person A tells a story to person B (or to a room full of people) about person C.
    1. In the end, it turns out that person B is really person C (or from the same organization).
    2. In the end, it turns out that person A is really person C (or has the same goals).
    3. In the end, there's some other ironic but predictable twist that would cast the whole story in a different light if the reader hadn't guessed the ending early on.
  22. People whose politics are different from the author's are shown to be stupid, insane, or evil, usually through satire, sarcasm, stereotyping, and wild exaggeration.
    1. In the future, the US or the world is ruled by politically correct liberals, leading to awful things.
    2. In the future, the US or the world is ruled by fascist conservatives, leading to awful things.
  23. Superpowered narrator claims that superhero stories never address the mundane problems that superheroes would run into in the real world.
  24. A princess has been raped or molested by her father (or stepfather), the king.
  25. Someone comes up with a great medical or technological breakthrough, but it turns out that it has unforeseen world-devastating consequences. (Again, this is a perfectly good plot element, but we're not thrilled when it's the whole point of the story.)
  26. It's immediately obvious to the reader that a mysterious character is from the future, but the other characters (usually including the protagonist) can't figure it out.
  27. Someone takes revenge for the wrongs done to them.
    1. Protagonist is put through heavy-handed humiliation after humiliation, and takes it meekly, until the end when he or she murders someone.
  28. The narrator and/or male characters in the story are bewildered about women, believing them to conform to any of the standard stereotypes about women: that they're mysterious, wacky, confusing, unpredictable, changeable, temptresses, etc.
  29. Strange and mysterious things keep happening. And keep happening. And keep happening. For over half the story. Relentlessly. Without even a hint of explanation.
    1. The protagonist is surrounded by people who know the explanation but refuse to give it.
  30. Hell and Heaven are run like businesses.

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Old 07-19-2007, 10:10 AM
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A really talented writer could use any of those cliched plots and turn it into a good story. There's nothing new under the sun. There's only good and bad writers.
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Old 07-19-2007, 09:10 PM
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Agreed. Though, there's no denying that sending in a story featuring a plot that is currently falling out of fashion does not help.

And since when is a good writer the only one who gets published?
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Old 07-20-2007, 01:13 AM
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Originally Posted by starrwriter View Post
A really talented writer could use any of those cliched plots and turn it into a good story.
True, but they make it harder on themselves. When you're reading sluch and you come across the same stories, over and over, and you scan to the end, and they end as predicted, it's real easy to hit the reject button.
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Old 07-20-2007, 01:15 AM
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Originally Posted by JBStone View Post
And since when is a good writer the only one who gets published?

You should try reading slush. It can be soul destroying! The only time a bad writer gets published is if everything else submitted was worse. And trust me, 90% of what gets submitted to lit mags is grim.
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Old 07-20-2007, 05:24 AM
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Originally Posted by Mike C View Post
You should try reading slush. It can be soul destroying! The only time a bad writer gets published is if everything else submitted was worse. And trust me, 90% of what gets submitted to lit mags is grim.
I feel for those poor magazine editors and their souls, but I can't reach them. If they don't want to read slush, they should get into a different business.
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Old 07-21-2007, 06:24 AM
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LOL - what a list! They've basically eliminated 90% of any possible sci-fi plots that any given writer can think of. They forgot to mention one sci-fi/fantasy problem that I keep seeing online: the use of 'Plot Coupons.'

Plot Coupons are the practice of writing a story plotted much like a video game, where the main characters are on a journey and must retrieve a series of items needed to destroy the main antagonist. Usually there's some underling or situation that they must 'conquer' before retrieving said item, creating a series of levels. Once the reader slogs through all of these, they're forced to read helplessly as the MC(s) utilize the items put together as a whole to defeat the antagonist (whom I refer to as the 'Big Boss'). In other words, as the characters move through the story, they can't progress until they've picked up or destroyed an object (the literal Plot Coupon, allowing them to move on to the next). This is why D&D adventures usually don't make for good stories - the characters are usually lifeless.

Done skillfully, the Plot Coupon method can actually be entertaining, but most attempts I've seen online fail miserably when the writer is so focused on the objects rather than the people involved that the story ends up just being boring. For an example of Plot Coupon style that actually worked, see the latest (and last) Harry Potter book, where Harry, Hermione & Co go out seeking 'horcruxes' - objects that Voldemort stores his soul pieces in. They must find them all and destroy them in order to keep him from coming back to life again and again. Another book that leaned heavily on Plot Coupons was Dan Brown's DaVinci Code. Though the plot and the puzzles within the story itself were entertaining, one of the main complaints about his book were that the characters came off as very 'wooden' and lifeless. They only served to move the plot forward and little else. The movie didn't help matters, either. Tom Hanks is a very good actor, IMO, but even he couldn't work miracles. A Chrysler Crash Test Dummy could have done just as well in the part Hanks played. It wasn't Hanks' fault, it was the plot.
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Old 07-21-2007, 07:04 AM
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You have to keep in mind that this is an online publisher who accepts online story submissions. The good thing about that is that it is very easy for someone to submit a story to them. The bad thing is that they are absolutely flooded with stories because it is to easy to submit one. When someone has to double space, single side print, mail flat, and include SASE to submit their story, they take much more time and care in the story before they spend the time and money to send it off. That's why so many magazines still require this.

Sure, I skilled writer would probably pick up any one of these overused plots and make a good story out of it. These plots are being overused because there are some terrific stories out there using them. They are like cliches, though. Someone is the first person to make up a phrase and it isn't until it's used over and over that it's a cliche.

Don't know if I should go into the DaVinci code here or not. I got the book and read it when the movie came out because I wanted to read it before I watched it. Disliked the book so much that I never watched the movie until it came to a cable premium channel on a free preview weekend. Disliked the movie just as much as the book. Biggest problem I had is thinking, oh come on! Just how many times can people get captured and then escape in the same book? He didn't really have a plot - just an interesting concept. You can't write a book or make a movie revolving around a single controversial statement.
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Old 07-22-2007, 10:56 PM
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Originally Posted by starrwriter View Post
I feel for those poor magazine editors and their souls, but I can't reach them. If they don't want to read slush, they should get into a different business.

I did!
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