Something Fishy at Strange Horizons?

Something Fishy 50

Long-term readers of this blog will know that I’ve been searching for the best SFF magazine to subscribe to.  That search (still in progress) led me to submit a couple of my own SFF stories to magazines.

I received a form rejection last weekend, from Strange Horizons.  Rejection isn’t surprising, as I’m not claiming that I’m the greatest living SFF author (not yet!).  The surprising events preceded the rejection.   I’ll lay out the facts, and then propose two alternative interpretations.

Strange Horizons has an unusual submission protocol.  They open submissions on Monday, and when they think they’ve received too many stories, they close the submissions system for the week.  I tried to submit my story on a couple of Tuesday nights, but found the system already closed.  I finally got home at a reasonable hour on a Monday night, and made my submission.

I was busy at work, and ignored writing-related stuff for a couple of days, but then I clicked on a link Strange Horizons had emailed me to see my position in the queue.  There were slightly more than 300 people ahead of me.  I checked back the next few days out of curiosity, and while I didn’t take notes, my memory tells me no more than 5-8 stories were being eliminated per day.

OK, so what’s fishy about that?  Nothing, yet.  However, I’ve been using The Submission Grinder as a resource during my magazine quest, and it currently reports an 18-day median response time for Strange Horizons.  My (limited) data had me guessing that a 27-day median was more likely (assuming I was one of the last in the queue), and this difference made me more curious.  I continued to check on my submission almost every day, although I didn’t record the queue’s numbers.

On day 12 after my submission, the queue took a nose-dive of around 150 submissions.  On day 13 (when I was rejected), at least another 100 were burned off.  Quite a difference from the preceding days.

I’ve come up with a negative interpretation and a positive interpretation of this set of facts:

Negative interpretation:  my story, along with hundreds of others, may have been rejected without ever being read.  In this scenario, the editors at Strange Horizons worked through the queue until they found enough acceptable stories to fill their next issue, then bulk-rejected the remaining stories.  If it were a pure auto-rejection, I’d have expected my rejection on day 12, so perhaps they briefly scanned the stories to look for the names of well-known authors, or maybe they read the first sentence of each story, in case there was some flash of literary genius.

If this is correct, then anyone submitting to Strange Horizons should fire off their submission early on Monday.  I’m not sure if it’s an automated opening where you could submit at 1AM, or if you have to wait until someone opens the site in the morning, but earlier would seem to be better under this interpretation.

Positive Interpretation:    my story may have survived at least two rounds of cuts before being rejected.  In this scenario, those 5-8 stories that were disappearing each day were submissions that were so atrocious, a first reader felt comfortable sending them to the wastebasket instead of the editing staff.  Then, on day 12, the editors got together for a powwow, and agreed to dump around 150 of the remaining stories.  My story didn’t survive a second powwow the next day, which may or may not have been the final cutting step.

If this is correct, then it’s evidence that my writing, while not worth publishing so far, at least has some merit.  The timing of another rejection made me believe that I had made it past the initial round of cuts, so maybe I should get back on the keyboard and pound out a few more stories.

Which scenario do you think played out?   Do you have another interpretation of the facts?   Leave a comment below.

OK, enough fishy business, on to some monkey business:

The rejection from Strange Horizons was the third for this story.  This is not the AI vs aliens story I’ve mentioned previously, it’s a shorter story in a different genre.  Here’s the story of the story:

I was writing an intro for one of my magazine reviews, but it had gotten too long, at around 1,000 words.  I looked at it and said, “It doesn’t have enough punch (literally or figuratively).  This is like something they’d print in Asimov’s.”  I spent the next few seconds swatting away a cartoon light bulb that appeared over my head, and then I said, “hey, why don’t I submit this to Asimov’s?”

After some editing and a pass by my beta-reading team, I did submit it to Asimov’s, and received a rejection 160 days later.  There aren’t many magazines that will look at such a short story, so I decided to make it longer.  I doubled its length by adding a second set of events, and in my opinion (and if I remember correctly, those of my beta readers), the story improved.  I wish I’d had the idea before sending it to Asimov’s.

Next, I submitted it to an anthology, Strange Beasties.  It was rejected 74 days later.  I’m buying a copy of the anthology when it comes out, to see if my story wasn’t weird enough (it’s a slipstream anthology) or wasn’t good enough.  I’m hoping my story wasn’t picked because the accepted authors kicked my butt.  I want to read something good.

Yesterday, I sent the story out again.  At 2,000 words, it’s a bit under the minimum requested length, but I made sure to mention this in my cover letter.  Perhaps I should have lengthened the story before submission, but there was a limited time window, and once again, I’m busy at work.  I did think of a couple ways to lengthen it, but this time, I don’t think they’d make it better, only longer.

Chime in below about submissions, rejections, story length, the markets I’ve submitted to, or any other writing topic that I’ve made you think about.


  1. I wouldn’t read too much into the pace of rejections at this place or that. We have no way of judging their readers’ schedules. It could be that two guys had the full day off of regular work and spent the day burning through a stack of submissions, whereas during the previous days they had an hour after a long day at a second job to do some reading. Also the statistics on submission sites like the Grinder only count those who report to the sites, so they aren’t likely to be very accurate either. And I think it highly unlikely that 150 stories would be in a second round. I imagine a second round would be like double the number being published. But I’m not an editor or reader for a mag, so what do I know?

    What I know is you need to shake it off and just keep sending your work out. Story judging is subjective, and part of the process is finding someone who likes your style. I’ve sent stories out to more than ten different pubs before finally getting them picked up. Form rejection after form rejection then a sudden “Wow, I thought this was great.” Funny, I did too, until I started losing faith. I think I might even have one with that many failed submissions that still hasn’t been accepted, despite my trust in its merits.

    Don’t get discouraged. Keep submitting and keep writing. Keep building your list of publishers to submit to. Don’t be stuck on one place or another. I think I have close to a hundred on my list, though those range between full short story publishers and flash fiction sites.

    Just keep working it!

    1. Thanks. I’m new at this, only 3 rejections on each story so far. I want to chronicle my efforts, to help out other new authors, or novel authors who might be thinking of getting into the short-story game.

      My current plan is to try a range of genres (sci-fi, traditional fantasy, urban fantasy) and a range of styles (humorous – serious – dark) and see if anything sticks.

      It’s been a slow process because I’ve submitted to some magazines, contests, and anthologies with long response times, but I don’t mind, because I’m not in a hurry.

      I’ll have more posts about my rejections and my writing experience in the future.

      1. I ended up with a range of genres just because that’s where my whims took me. But yes, that does open up more venues. I am definitely with you that novel authors should also be writing shorts. It’s a good way to build your brand, and your writing skills. Good luck. I hope your story finds a home. If you need any suggestions on publishing venues, just ask.

  2. I say shake it off and keep charging ahead. It would be nice if they told you why, so you could address that, but this is how the submission process works.

    1. I’ve been doing a pretty good job firing these 2 stories off at the next target as soon as they’re rejected.

      Unfortunately, I’ve been doing a poor job adding to my list of stories. At least I’ve been taking time to write my magazine review intros. I’ll be writing a minimum of two more installments of The Four Apes, and I also have a few unrelated intros that might be interesting.

  3. I’m going with the first theory on your rejection. That just sounds like what I’d be doing if I was running a magazine.

    1. I’d be afraid of throwing away the next “Ender’s Game”.

      1. Fear of missing out. You might want to see someone about that. It can be crippling for a serious reader…

  4. J. D. Brink · · Reply

    I agree that you don’t want to look too much into it. Rejection is a huge part of the writing life. You have to get rejected a whooooole lot before you start getting some acceptances. And you’re more likely to break thru the smaller mags than the bigger ones. The fact that they had 300 in queue for the week shows just how much they get, which means all of our chances are pretty slim. (I also failed to make the window for like a month and just last week got my story in—being in Japan makes the timing even harder!)

    As far as the blocks vs trickle, they might have gone thru a bunch on the weekend but only a few during the week days, so something to that effect. They might have had only one reader for a few days, then 5 more joined in. Who knows? I imagine they also don’t read more than the first page on most stories. When you have 300 to read, you find reasons to drop them early on. There’s no way they’re reading all the way thru 300 stories in a week. If it doesn’t grab them early on, it’s out so they can move on the other 299. Ya know?

    Hopefully I’ll get my rejection soon enough so I can move on to the next one. 🙂

    1. Yeah, it looks like I’ll have many more rejection posts on the blog in the future.

      Funny you should mention the first page. I’ve recently read several stories where the first page is written in an artsy/literary style which makes it a chore to read, then the rest of the story is written in what I’d call a conventional/commercial style.

  5. If the editors really did throw away the works that remained after their quota for the issue was reached, they risked ignoring good stories. Should not they keep a few on the side, for the next issue(s)?

    1. They, and a few other magazines I’ve seen, seem to be very concerned about providing a quick response to submitting authors.

  6. I agree with Bookstooge, the first is most likely. They may do an initial sort of stories that looked interesting, but that would be based upon the submission process (title, etc) and not reading the story. I haven’t run fiction publications, but I know that I have rejected stuff without reading it because I’ve already got enough material. I know science journals do that as well. I’ve heard of more than one recruitment process running in this manner (one job, 100 applicants, last 50 went in the bin unread).

    Gotta remember that most stuff that is submitted is of a similar level and quality. They aren’t panning for gold.

    1. I have to admit, the titles to my stories are dull as dirt. If catching an editor’s eye with the title is an important tactic, then I desperately need to get on re-titling. Your mention of titles is the second or third I’ve run across in the last week, so maybe I should pay attention.

      My experience with rejection at science journals was different. I got reviewer comments that made it clear they’d read my paper. (They also usually made it clear the reviewer was way outside his area of expertise and had no business reviewing my paper, but that’s a different issue.)

      Definitely agree with you on resumes going in the trash – I’m not sure how most people find jobs these days. I’m working in a less-urban area right now, so I was able to read all the resumes that came in for my recent hires. (Some of them were written like their expected destination was the trash, though.)

      I did envision the editorial process as panning for gold, but my recent magazine reading experiences may indicate that they’re just grabbing the first pieces that meet some minimum acceptable standard.

      1. With the science journals I’ve had both experiences. It is nice to actually get rejected with reviewer comments though. I find it refreshing compared to the form letters and deafening silence that appears to be the norm in the fiction publishing game.

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