The Harrow: Original Works of Fantasy and Horror, Vol 8, No 4 (2005)

This Story Doesn't Stand Out

A man and a woman live in a house, and the woman's haunted by the ghost of her baby....

That plot showed up in The Harrow's submission queue three times last month. One of the stories stood out, and I asked the author for a minor revision. The other two didn't stand out, and I turned them down.

What do I, or other editors, mean by "stand out"?

Let's face it. Horror and fantasy have been around since the first stories of monsters and gods were told by our ancestors as they struggled to make sense of the confusing and scary world around them. It's hard to find a new twist within a tradition that's existed for some three million years.

As an editor and a voracious reader, I see an awful lot of similar storylines (e.g., see the list of horror and other fiction clichés from Strange Horizons). But if I confined myself to only accepting stories that shattered the boundaries of the genre, I'd publish one a year, if I were really lucky. Fortunately, you don't have to break brand-new ground to get published; however, you do have to make sure your story doesn't blend in with all the others an editor sees.

One of the easiest ways to differentiate your story is to give it a very solid, detailed sense of setting. Many new writers don't bother to conjure a vivid place or time in the reader's mind. But it's exactly that level of detail and care that is likely to catch the jaded editor's eye.

PLACE: Far too many stories are set in Generica, First World; in Anyyear, A.D. True, authors are taught, "write what you know," and for many who submit to The Harrow, that means writing about an urban or suburban area in the United States, Canada, or United Kingdom in the 20th to early 21st century.

But ... been there, done that. You want to grab my attention? Take me someplace I haven't been and involve me in things I haven't done.

For example, you could take me to a part of Los Angeles I don't know, despite my having lived there for many years—set your story behind the scenes at a Getty exhibition, or inside an illegal immigrant-labor garment factory, or down on the docks at San Pedro. Showing your readers an unusual side of the places they take for granted is a great way to grab their attention.

Alternatively, you could take me to a place I don't know at all—the streets of Morocco, a farm in the Urals region of Russia, a university in Zimbabwe. Let your story be colored by that country's lifestyle and culture as you write. The Harrow's readers already know a lot about Anglo-European mythology. Catch their attention by exposing them to the myths and horrors of another country.

Similarly, if you're writing fantasy, break away from the clichés established by Dungeons & Dragons, with its Anglo-European-inspired nonhuman races and medieval Europe setting. Either be wildly original or delve into some other culture's history and mythology for inspiration.

Yes, I realize this means doing extra research, and I'm aware that it's a little risky, because it's easy to fall into using stereotypes when writing about something you don't know well. But I guarantee that your story will be more interesting as a result of your added effort.

TIME: Another way to alter the setting is to take me to a time I don't know. Set your story during the Pax Romana, in the Edwardian age, in the Meiji era—some historical period different enough from the 20th and 21st century that I'll automatically be intrigued. And yes, setting your story in the future is fine, too, as long as it's still solidly within the horror or fantasy genres.

On the topic of fantasy, fantastic alternative worlds are too often medieval. Why not move the technological level of your fantasy story backward, forward, or sideways? Fantasy doesn't require castles and swords.

Again, shifting the temporal setting demands research to avoid anachronisms. I recommend the excellent A Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in... sourcebooks from Writer's Digest Books as good starting places for historical Anglo-American settings. Your local library probably has many more excellent resources cataloged under "social history" or "customs."


Whenever you move your story away from the generic, you automatically make it more interesting. Moreover, changing the setting is very likely to change your choice of monster or magic, too. Got a great idea for a lycanthrope story? Fine, but which do you think is going to pique an editor's interest more, a story about a werewolf in Chicago or a werekomodo in Rinca Island? Got a story about a ghost? Which is more likely to catch an editor's eye, a ghost haunting an orphanage in London or a ghost haunting an orphanage in Bosnia? Plan to write about a wizard? Which stands out more, a standard Anglo-European wizard who waves her hands and intones magical words each time she casts a spell, or a more "fantastic" wizard who sacrifices a few minutes of her childhood memories each time she casts a spell?

Sounds too easy, doesn't it? Maybe it even sounds a bit like cheating—a simple matter of pouring old wine into new wineskins. Look, I'm not saying that a really well-written story set in Generica won't sell, or that a really poorly written story set in Burma's Rangoon Gaol in 1900 won't be rejected. Nor am I suggesting that you should waste a lot of words on descriptive detail—absolutely not! Too much detail can ruin a story as quickly as too little. What I'm saying is, all things being equal, when editors must choose between accepting a story set in a faceless town with generic characters, and a story set in a very specific and well-described town with extremely idiosyncratic characters, they'll always choose the latter.

Editors want the story that stands out. Make sure yours does.

Want some advice from an editor about writing, submitting, or publishing? Send your question to Dru at Putting Question: in the subject header will help me sort it out from all the spam. Questions should be applicable to writers in general and not specific to any one case.

- Dru