A question from one of the folks who submitted to the cliche issue of Subterranean, but whose work I passed on:
So having our work regretfully rejected, we dust it off and re-submit to another market. The problem is that these are pieces written with a specific theme for a specific market, i.e. the Big Honkin’ SF Cliché Issue of Subterranean–and so they may be, well, a little more narrowly-focused than your generic SF story. Plus, SF editors not actually living in caves (even Caves of Steel), they know about the BHSCI.
From the writer’s perspective, the fear is that an editor of another SF venue will look at the story we’ve submitted and say "Aha, this is one that didn’t make the cut for that Subterranean special issue. As if I’d want Scalzi’s sloppy seconds." And then they would make the L-for-loser sign on their foreheads and giggle into their Chardonnay.
I don’t much care about being giggled at, but is there a point to submitting this work elsewhere? Yes, yes, it’s so brilliant that the Other Magazine Editor will be overcome and use it anyway, but they’re likely going to get at least dozens of BHSCI type stories. What is your advice, O Guru? Do we ruthlessly try to cut and edit so as to hide the stories’ origins? Brazenly submit to other SF magazines, daring them to have a problem with them? Wait for the excitement to die down and quietly submit them in a year or two?
The irony here is that one of the non-fiction pieces I have is from an editor of another magazine, discussing the issue of receiving submissions with cliches in them. So this is not an entirely inappropriate question.
First: Yes, there’s a risk that some of the stories submitted to me will not be otherwise salable. This is one of the genuine hazards of writing on a specialized subject, and particularly this subject. To some extent I think this was mitigated by the fact that we were giving folks a chance to try some things they might not have otherwise, and that really came through in the reading; as with any group of submissions, some were good, some were bad and some were inbetween, but with nearly all of them it seemed like the writers were having fun. "Ha! Finally I can write about brains in a jar!" they said, or words to that effect (depending on which cliche they chose to tackle). So at the very least I hope the forbidden enjoyment of playing with cliches helps to take the sting out of possibly having difficulty selling the work elsewhere.
Having said that, I do honestly believe that several of the stories I passed on are eminently salable elsewhere, because the writers did exactly what I asked for — took a cliche and did something unexpected with it. The problem with cliches is not that they’re cliches; the problem with cliches is that people use them exactly the way you expect them to. But when they give you a cliche, lead you down the path where you think you know what’s happening next, and then whack you upside the head with a surprise, well, then, that’s a good thing, and I think that other editors will appreciate that just as much as I did. As I’ve noted before, a lot of the stuff I passed on was really good, it’s just that the particular cliche in which the story trafficked was heavily subscribed (time travel, intelligent computers, etc) and I was trying to keep each cliche’s presence in the magazine to one appearance (I did that. I think).
As to whether other editors will think they’re getting sloppy seconds, well, I kind of doubt it. First, to be blunt about it, editors already get scads of cliched submissions already. Unless one goes out of one’s way to note in a cover letter that the story had been rejected by me (which, you know, you shouldn’t), the story’s cliche in itself won’t draw attention. What may draw attention is the somewhat more creative way in which the cliche is being used; unlike all the other cliched stories in the slush pile, the writers of these stories know they’re playing with cliches and are trying to get them to do something new. Perhaps this will make slush reading marginally more bearable for editors over the next several months. We’ll have to see.
Second, everyone in science fiction publishing gets everyone else’s sloppy seconds anyway, per Robert Heinlein’s famous dictum of getting the story out to publishers and keeping it out there until it gets sold. Heck, I know from reading people’s online journals that at least a few folks dusted off old stories and sent them along to me; I didn’t hold that against the stories (at least one of these made the first submission cut, but not the second), and I certainly don’t hold it against the writers. Any science fiction editor who demands that he or she must receive stories unthumbed by any other editor damn well better be paying $2 a word, otherwise they’re living in a nice little dreamworld. But I suspect most of the editors simply won’t care where a story has been before; they’ll just look to see if the story fits their market and tastes.
So, now, what should you do with your story? Well, if you think it reads well as it is, I say go ahead and send it out again. If you feel like it needs some retooling to make it less cliche-oriented for a more general market, then spend some time retooling it and then send it out again. If you want to wait until the Subterranean/Scalzi wave of cliche stories has subsided, that’s fine, too. But as long as you think it’s a good story, make sure you get it out there in the market sooner or later. I don’t think the market will penalize you for sending it out sooner than later. But ultimately the writer is the best judge of what he or she is comfortable with.
I will say this much: As I was reading, I put all the stories in a master document file and did a triage of the stories by changing their font color after I’d read them. Changing the font color to blue meant I definitely wanted it, green meant I wanted to think about it more and red meant, well, you can figure out what red meant. When I was done looking at the stories, there was a lot of red (this is to be expected), but there was a surprising amount of green and blue in there as well. A number of the "blue" stories I couldn’t take — those are ones I think will have no problem finding a home elsewhere. And I think the "green" stories could have a pretty good shot, too.
We’ll have to see. Like I said in the letters, I hope to see some of these pieces in other places, and I hope that once I see them again I think, "damn, I was a fool to let that one go." I want these stories to be published, even if I can’t be the one to publish them.