Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

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I HAVE had a messy career as a short story writer. I’ve been scattered all over the place, writing mysteries, SF, fantasies, horror, literary fiction and oddball pieces that are hard to categorize. I’ve even dabbled in short westerns and romance stories.

There are disadvantages to heading off in all directions at once, but there’s one clear benefit: on the way to selling stories in all of these categories, I have developed a broad sense of the marketplace. I’ve been published in the places where you expect to see a SFWAn (or, member of the Science Fiction Writers of America): theme anthologies, tie-in anthologies and the SF and fantasy magazines. But my work has also appeared in publications ranging from Woman’s World to The Quarterly, from Ellery Queen to Metro Singles Lifestyles (really!), from Australian literary magazines to newspaper Sunday supplements.

Sometimes I’ve ended up sending my work to markets most SFWAns never consider. A recent fairy tale that didn’t work for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction ended up on the pages of Illinois Review.

Keeping my eyes open for unexpected markets has also helped me to spot some unusual awards. In the last couple of years I’ve won the Jonny Cat Litter-ary Award ($500 and a nifty etched-glass trophy), the Cat Writers’ Association Muse Medallion (a stainless steel medallion that, from a very great distance in bad weather looks almost exactly like a Nobel Prize) and first prize ($100) in the Best of Soft SF Contest.

It’s true that not everyone envies my publication in The Paper Bag or covets my Jonny Cat. But I know that there are SF and fantasy writers who look wistfully at The New Yorker and wonder if it’s completely crazy to send some of their work there.

What follows is a rough guide to out-of-genre alternatives, a how-to for identifying publications and awards that might be open to your work. In a nutshell, it’s what I know about selling to literary magazines, general audience publications and topical publications, along with a few tips on digging up unusual awards.

Something I must say right up front is that these markets will be a lot more open to some writers than to others. For SF generally and hard science fiction in particular, there are very few venues available outside the genre. A couple reasons for this:

First, hard science fiction is attractive mostly to readers who are already science literate, so its appeal to a broader audience is limited. (Yes, I know that the ideal of some writers is to use SF to teach science, but how often is someone who isn’t already attracted to science attracted to hard SF?)

Second, perhaps more to the point, many editors and readers are strongly prejudiced against SF. The only chance an SF story has with these readers is in convincing them that what they’re reading isn’t really science fiction. At the last WorldCon, Martha Soukup read a wonderful SF story that she had tried to sell to The New Yorker. The editors had written her a rejection letter that praised the story, but noted that it “failed to transcend its genre.” What I think they really meant was “failed to disguise its genre.” If Martha had figured out a way to convert the one SF element into contemporary fantasy, I bet she’d have had a sale.

For the most part the information that follows is going to be most useful to writers of contemporary fantasy and horror. The more you write in the “slipstream,” the better your chances of reaching non-genre audiences.

Literary Magazines
Lit mags are a huge and varied market. There are at least 400 regular publications that deserve the name, and they range from the equivalent of fanzines produced in some guy’s garage to high-paying, high-circulation glossies.

Generalizations about markets this varied are bound to be distorted. Keeping in mind that there are exceptions, here is how the fiction that appears in literary magazines differs from the work in genre publications.

First, literary magazines aren’t likely to be interested in a story for its cool idea.

Orson Scott Card coined an acronym, MICE, to stand for the four concerns around which stories are usually built. We read to be immersed in a Milieu, to explore a nifty Idea, to get to know an interesting Character, or to watch how an Event unfolds. These are usually combined, but one stands in the foreground.

Speculative fiction’s aesthetic is focused most often on Idea, and that’s the MICE concern that is least likely to be addressed in a lit mag story. The MICE concern most likely to be emphasized is Character.

But aesthetic difference is often even broader than that. MICE is a way of categorizing story content, but literary stories are often appreciated for their manner as much as for their content. Distinctive voice, interesting and compressed language, surprising narrative technique and unusual story structure are just as important as what happens, and sometimes more important.

In one of my Quarterly West stories, “The Last Unseen Window in the Last Unseen Car,” the narrator is trying to “take back” the story. From the first word, he’s saying that none of the things he is describing happened, that he is uncomfortable with lies, that he should never have claimed that any of this happened. What happens in the story is also interesting, but the character’s need to deny it and the unusual technique of telling a story by trying to retract it is what sold the story and made it memorable.

Another of my Quarterly West stories, “Something Like the Sound of Wind in the Trees,” is really a compendium of little stories—mostly fantasies. The story is like a ten-page anthology of theme-related tales with prelude and postlude essays written in first and second person. It’s all designed to dance around the theme of white noise, examining and playing with the concept. The structure of this sequence of tales is part of what makes the work interesting. In genre fiction, the goal is usually to make the manner of the tale transparent, but in literary work the manner often calls attention to itself.

Another difference is in plot.

Genre fiction is almost always plotted, and the “problem” plot is taught in workshops as if it were the only way to tell a story. It is a reliable structure for sustaining the interest of readers who read mainly for plot. But the problem plot is rare in lit mag fiction. Much more common is the deflection plot, which works like this:

Character is living a life that has a certain momentum. It’s clear from the first part of the story that Character’s life, now at point A, is going to progress to point B and point C. The Character’s situation and destiny seem to be fairly predictable.

But when we get to point B, there’s an unexpected encounter. Character gets deflected from his course, though we may not see the change right away. As we keep reading, though, we see Character arrive at X, a point he’d have never come to if not for the event at B. Character’s momentum has changed, and things will not be as they were.

But even that gentle a plot is absent from a lot of literary fiction. Since manner is in the foreground, plot sometimes fades out of existence entirely. Even where plot is important, the emphasis differs.

Consider this plot from Brian Evenson’s “A Hanging” from StoryQuarterly. A passerby comes upon some men on horseback who are getting ready to hang another man if the reprieve doesn’t come in time. At first they think he may be the messenger with the condemned man’s reprieve. The passerby gets maneuvered into keeping time, then into taking charge of the prisoner, and finally to expediting the execution. He is blamed for the grotesque way in which the execution is botched, so he makes sure that the condemned man dies anyway. The executioners are unhappy with his actions and order him at gunpoint to put the noose around his own neck.

This could be standard fare for genre horror. Three things make it a lit mag story. The first is the language, which is compressed and idiosyncratic:

He came up through dust and scrub to see a gang of men gathered around a lone tree, one with his neck noosed, the others horsed. They saw him come up, and took off their hats and halooed him, waving their hats. He departed the path, came forward.

He was nearly of them when the one noosed said, “Haen’t the man!”

One of the horsed, a squint-eye, said, “Bills, are ye?”

“No,” said Kline. “I haen’t Bills. Kline.”

“Bills sent ye?”

“Don’t know Bills,” said Kline.

“Carry a message for Bills?” said a man astraddle a dark-throated piebald.

Kline shook his head. “I just come out,” he said. “You waved the hats.”

“We waved them to Bills,” said the squint-eye.

The second lit-mag characteristic is the story’s understatement. The first sign that things might go seriously wrong in “A Hanging” is the Twilight-Zonish assertion by the squint eye that the mistaken identity is somehow Kline’s fault. (“We waved them to Bills.”) But nothing is made of this. Kline doesn’t react in a way that will signal the moment to the reader, and if the reader misses it, that’s just too bad—maybe she’ll catch it the second time through.

The third lit-mag characteristic is the story’s ambiguity on exactly the right level. What happens in the story is abundantly clear, but there’s an intriguing mystery in the way Kline lets himself get caught up in the proceedings. He seems to be an innocent man maneuvered into a nightmare, but he also embraces the role he is given—including his role at the end as the new condemned man. Is he a victim, now, or a criminal who deserves what he gets, and knows it? “A Hanging” is a spare little story, but its signals are balanced in a way that leaves the reader both satisfied with its completeness and vacillating about what to conclude from it.

I hope that a few of you are saying, “Literary, schmiterary. You’ve just described what I try to do in my genre stories!”

At which point I get to say, “Right! My point exactly!”

There are quite a few genre stories that could, by foregrounding the manner in which they are told, be perfectly at home in a lit mag.

Well, in some lit mags. Some of the magazines are locked into publishing only mimetic stories of such subdued emotion that Evenson’s excellent story would earn a pre-printed rejection with the speed of elves and unicorns sent to Analog. Out of 400-plus publications, how do you know which ones are worth a shot with a genre story of literary leanings?

You know the answer already: you study the markets. You look not only at the fiction in a few issues, but at the whole editorial content. Fantasy illustrator James C. Christensen’s work was featured on a 1988 Quarterly West cover. That was my first clue that I could try QW with work that was partly fantasy.

Okay, but how do you find them to study them? The New Yorker and its ilk are easy to locate in any large bookstore, but many of the others are distributed mostly by subscription.

The best source for lit mag market research is university libraries. There you’ll find most of the “important” lit mags, and you’ll be able to browse through several issues so that the influence, say, of a “guest editor” or particular theme issue won’t distort your impressions.

If this is beginning to sound like a lot of trouble to go is. But there are rewards for such work. One, of course, is the usual. Money. Some of these markets pay very well, and the top 100 or so all pay something. Rates vary from about two cents a word to a dollar a word (at The Atlantic and The New Yorker).

Then there’s the prestige attached to some of these magazines, especially the high-circulation ones that have readerships of half a million or more. Stories in the prestige markets have the best shot at publication in the most prestigious reprint anthologies. Together, The Atlantic, The New Yorker and Story account for over a third of the stories appearing in recent editions of Best American Short Stories and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards.

Other magazines offer no money. Their circulations may be 300, and the only prestige attached to them comes from the highbrow-sounding name. You’ll be able to say, “Well, yes, I have published fiction in the Journal of Quarterly Reviews.”

But published in a small lit mag has a fair chance of getting noticed by other editors. You know the come-on line by vanity poetry publishers about how their anthologies are “read by editors looking for new talent”? In the literary markets, this actually happens! I’ve had two of my lit-mag stories reprinted in anthologies from W.W. Norton. In one case, the original publication was the modest New Mexico Humanities Review.

Not just anthology editors, but other magazine editors may see your work. One of my Quarterly West stories also brought me a phone call from the managing editor of Story, soliciting a submission.

Even if work in the lesser publications gets some notice, there are a handful of literary magazines that are the most respected and most widely read by editors. (As a part of their annual Fiction 50 issue, Writer’s Digest publishes the results of a survey among literary editors identifying the most respected lit mags. It’s not a bad list with which to start your market research. Or look at where the stories in Best American and Prize Stories first appeared.)

But the best reason to pursue publication in lit mags is that it’s bound to stretch your horizons. Even if you don’t crack the markets, reading fiction that emphasizes a different aesthetic is liable to teach you a trick or two. Even literary fiction that you don’t much like can help to clarify your ideas about what good writing ought to accomplish.

Submitting to these publications is no different to submitting to genre magazines, with one exception: It’s probably a bad idea to mention your genre credits, especially your SF credits, in your cover letter. After the editor has already committed himself to publishing your work and is asking for a bio-blurb, that’s the time to identify yourself as a contributor to Asimov’s.

General Audience Publications
These are publications, newspapers mostly, that once in a great while feature a small dose of fiction. The only regular outlet that I know of is the Tampa Tribune’s Fiction Quarterly, edited by SFWA’s own Rick Wilber. But there are quite a few irregular outlets for short stories of broad appeal. Most of these are newspapers—dailies or arts weeklies—that will sometimes buy occasional fiction. By occasional, I mean fiction that is written to celebrate a particular occasion. It’s not too unusual to see a Halloween story featured, or a Christmas story.

Submitting to the Fiction Quarterly works the same way as submitting to a genre publication, and when you write to Rick, you can even cite your genre credits. Even though he’s an SF writer himself, however, he probably won’t buy, for his general audience, a story that has “FTL,” “parsec” and “nanobots” in the first paragraph.

Submitting to the irregular outlets is trickier, because they sometimes don’t yet know that they are interested in fiction. From what I’ve seen, when a newspaper decides to publish some occasional fiction, the features editor usually solicits work from a local writer—someone locally famous, or at least already known to the editor. Features editors do not want to be in the business of reading fiction slush. If they decide to use fiction at all, they want to assign it.

So one way to “submit” to an area paper is to wait until you’re famous enough that a random thought about what to put in the Christmas issue crosses paths with a random thought about Local Famous Writer, and your phone rings.

If you’re not that patient, you can try to urge the process along by planting both the idea of running a seasonal story and the thought of asking you to write it. This is a little tricky. You have to break a couple of the rules you’ve learned about dealing with editors, without making yourself an irritant.

Here’s the plan: About six weeks before the holiday, write a brief letter—100 words max—that introduces you and your credits to the features editor and indicates your willingness to write, on spec, a story for the upcoming occasion. Time your letter to arrive on a Monday, and say in the letter that you’ll call on Wednesday to discuss the idea. Then call.

Make the call brief. Remind the editor of your letter and one or two of your credits. Ask if he’d be interested in having you write a story. If he likes the idea and is impressed by your credits, he may ask you to go ahead and write the story.

Probably he’ll say no. There are lots of good reasons for him to reject the notion. He really doesn’t know you or what you can produce, and he doesn’t have time to read sample stories. Even if he were to publish your story, the week after he did so dozens of full-time letters-to-the-editor writers might turn to fiction and flood his mailbox. He doesn’t need that.

Even getting turned down, though, doesn’t make the attempt a wasted effort. Letting the features editor know that you exist is a good move. Next time you have an award nomination or publish a novel, you can let him know about it. Since he’s already heard of you, you improve the chances that he’ll assign someone to write a feature about you.

When the next suitable holiday approaches, you send him another letter and make another brief phone call. If he says no three times in a row, it’s probably time for you to cool it. At least he knows about you now, and if he does decide next year that a Halloween story would be fun after all, your phone may ring.

Broad distribution of your short story is gratifying, but keep in mind that newspapers are “family” publications. Keep it clean. A Halloween story doesn’t have to be entirely wholesome, but the monster eating the characters should remember that he’s dining in polite society, and the characters had better not swear as they are eaten. Fiction for religious holidays requires a deft touch. My Christmas story about aliens who appear at the crucifixion and are mistaken for angels, written in my teens for a newspaper contest, did not win.

Topical Publications
I wrote a funny short-short story about failed romance. Two men are talking in a bar, and their conversation is played out twice. In the first version, the broken-hearted one is playing it cool—his heart isn’t that broken. The main props are a cigar and a cigarette lighter. In the second, expressionistic version, he doesn’t play it cool at all. The main props are a cigar and a flame thrower.

The story went over wonderfully at readings, but it got bounced whenever I mailed it. It wasn’t substantial enough for the lit mags. Expressionism was the wrong technique for fantasy mags. I was beginning to think that it was just a “performance piece.”

Then, browsing in Writer’s Market, I found a listing for Metro Singles Lifestyles in Kansas City. This is not one of my more prestigious credits, but “Love Is Strange” was distributed free to 25,000 broken-hearted readers and I was paid enough to take my new girlfriend out to dinner.

I think it’s worth your time to now and then go through the Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market and make a list of all the paying publications that sometimes publish topical fiction. You may already have a story that, by chance, fits their needs.

More likely, you may find that a magazine devoted to one of your passions is open to fiction. Bike Report will consider bicycling fiction, and they say they’ll consider appropriate fantasy. Juggler’s World is open to SF about juggling. If you’re a golfer, the technological changes in golfing equipment might be fodder for a funny if-this-goes-on story for Golf Journal. Thrasher pays 15 cents a word for hip skate-boarding fiction—skate-boarding in an O’Neill space colony? Regional magazines look for fiction that strongly establishes a sense of place—how about a well-researched ghost story for Rhode Islander?

Unusual Awards
There are only two steps to being eligible for fun-but-minor awards. One step is being aware of them. I first read about the Cat Writers’ Association Communication Awards in Writer’s Digest, and The Best of Soft SF award was announced in The Gila Queen’s Guide to the Markets. The Writer and Poets & Writers also list awards.

Beyond those obvious sources, you can keep your eyes open for hints of other organizations, writing festivals, conferences or magazines that may be sponsoring awards. After I won the Jonny Cat Litter-ary Award, I read in one of the CWA newsletters that they got the idea for their awards from the Dog Writers’ Association.

Dog Writers’ Association?

I looked up the DWA in my library’s Encyclopedia of Associations, and their listing indicates that they give annual awards for dog-related writing. I don’t know if that includes categories for fiction, but I’ve written to them (no reply yet) for details. I’ve never written a dog story, but if there’s a Alpo Award, how can I resist?

The second step in pursuit of such awards is sending in your work. Most minor awards require that you enter your story. If no entry fee is required, then I enter automatically if I have suitable work. The Best of Soft SF is an open contest without a fee. The only requirements are that the work submitted be soft SF that was published or offered for publication during the previous year.

The call is a little harder to make when you have to pay something to enter. The CWA contests charge non-members $15.00 to enter. If you’re a cat journalist with work eligible in several categories, this may seem reasonable, but to a fiction writer with one story eligible for just the Jonny Cat and the fiction medallion, it looks a little steep.

I balanced the cost of entering with the benefits of winning. The Jonny Cat Litter-ary Award is memorable, prestigious or not. Winning it could certainly bring me some publicity, even if I had to write the press releases myself. (You may have seen the picture of me in Locus, holding the award in one hand and a litter scoop in the other.) And the story I planned on submitting had already been nominated for an Edgar, so I knew it was strong work.

Most of the time, though, I decide not to enter contests that charge a fee. There are many that confer no useful publicity because there’s no prestige or newsworthiness attached to them—writing conference contests are a good example, or the almost-weekly contests sponsored by Byline magazine. And the for-a-fee contests that do confer some real prestige, like the Katherine Anne Porter Prize, see stiff competition that I know my own work isn’t up to yet.

In spite of what I said early on about hard SF having to settle almost entirely for the markets devoted to hard SF, any writer who broadens his sense of the marketplace is bound to find a few unexpected outlets for his work, especially if he’s willing to make some adjustments for audience.

I hope to see some of your bylines in unexpected places. --BHR

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