So, back in the day when I was an aspiring writer who spent more time reading about writing than actually writing, one of my favorite places to lurk was Holly Lisle’s website (which is not to say that all lurkers there were writers who didn’t write, this was just my particular case). If you’re a writer on the internet who has any interest in the whole aspiring writers community side of things, chances are you’ve heard of Ms. Lisle and have your own opinions, but if you’ve never seen her site, go check it out, it’s certainly worth a look.
Moving on. Now, I will be the first to step up and say I admire what Holly has done for fledgling writers. While I don’t agree with her on a lot of stuff, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Holly if you’re a writer looking for some reliable guidance on publishing and writing life in general. Her website is a smorgasbord of information, all free, which is awesome considering you usually pay a lot more for a lot less buying a book on writing.
Recently, however, she’s started in new direction, one that, quite frankly, completely baffles me.
No stranger to ebooks and self promotion/publication, Holly Lisle is putting together an regular zine of fantasy short stories and serials called Rebel Tales, which she’ll be accepting submissions for and publishing online as a new paying market. That’s cool, more markets mean more stories, and I like stories. Curious, I started digging in to her proposed magazine, and that’s when I got confused, mostly by her submission guidelines for writers.
Most magazine have guidelines like no pornography or no unsolicited essays, general things like that. Lisle, however, is VERY specific about what she wants. For example, under her first set of rules for characters:
- Your protagonists (your heroes) must be people with whom the reader would like to spend time — people they would like to get to know, would want to hang out with, could care about.
- Your protagonists must have clear, specific needs — wants, hopes, loves, hatreds, and fears, and meeting these needs or wants, or conquering the source of these fears, must form the core of your story.
(All emphasis is hers) It goes on, but you get the idea. However, she doesn’t stop at character. Here are some of her rules for plot:
Your story must be a story. That is, it must be plot-driven…In order to meet the requirement of Plot, your story must have a clearly set-out beginning, middle, and end.
- In the beginning you must establish your main character, what compels him to act, the setting in which his actions take place, and the antagonist against which (or whom) he must struggle to achieve his goal.
- In the middle you must work out the actions the protagonist and antagonist take, and the escalating consequences of each action.
- In the ending, you must bring the results of these consequences and actions to a satisfying, logical, and unexpected conclusion that arises directly from the actions and consequences of the beginning and the middle.
Wow, those are some rules. And keep in mind, these are RULES. Not suggestions or guidelines or anything so nebulous. Rules, as in, “you will be summarily rejected and all future works of your will be given the extreme hairy eyeball if you don’t do this” type rules for sending her a story. This kind of fire and brimstone is usually reserved for authors who email attachments or mail CDs, things that show a lack of respect for the professional requirements of the magazine you’re submitting to. But to create rules that limit the very nature of what a story is? That just feels, well, awful to me.
For example, a story has to be plot driven? What? What about all those stories that get by just fine on the barest whiff of a plot? For example, I’ve mentioned multiple times my undying love for Sarah Monette and her Doctrine of Labyrinths books. Monette is often the first to point out that plot isn’t really her strong suit. I’ve read all the books except the last one (which just came out and as soon as it arrives, I’m going to read the whole thing in one marvelous sitting), and, honestly, I couldn’t actually tell you what the plot was about. However, that doesn’t matter in the least for the Melusine books, because plot is not story. They’re not the same thing. While the plot may be convoluted, Melusine has one of the best stories I’ve ever read.
Still, other than that gem, all of the guidelines seem to been pretty classic rules of thumb for writting fun, rolicking fiction until we get down to the bottom of her section on plot:
All character studies, vignettes, slice of life, meta-fiction, deconstruction, and “experimental” fiction will be rejected summarily and with prejudice. This means if you submit these, not only will you get a form rejection letter, but you will significantly decrease the chances that I or my editors will even look at your next submission, no matter how much better it might be. I don’t appreciate having my time wasted, nor the time of people I value. I value my editors.)
I’m not even going to get in to all the stories I think are brilliant that would be rejected from Rebel Tales because of this rule, because it’s just not important. What is important, and really, what set off this post, is that I simply can not understand why you would start a magazine with such narrow, harsh requirements. Why, with all the world out there, would you limit yourself so severely? I know people have certian tastes, but how can you be so certain that you 100% will not like anything from this category? Are you so inhumanly certian, you’ve surpassed possibility?
The way I see it, this is like starting up a cake tasting booth and announcing right off the bat that you’re only going to be eating yellow layer cakes with chocolate icing. Now, I love yellow layer cakes with chocolate icing, but surely there’s more out there. Maybe cakes you’ve never heard of, cakes you didn’t even know existed, there might even be PIES.
But no, yellow cakes only. It’s right up there in black and white, everything else will be turned away. So you’ll get yellow cake after yellow cake, and some will undoubtedly be heavenly, but at the end of the day, you’re still just eating one yellow cake after another, and that just sounds, well, dull.
Of course, it is her magazine. She can publish or not publish whatever she wants. The question I ask is why? Why do this? Why impose such vast creative limits?
Fortunately, Holly already had an answer for me labeled “Why so inflexible?”:
Very simple. My name is going on every issue we put out. I am promising readers who like my work and have been reading it for nearly two decades that they will like the stories by other writers my editors and I have selected.
In order for me to make that promise and know that I can keep it, I have to hold your writing to the same standards to which I hold my own.
What follows are those standards, clearly defined. I will no more make exceptions for you than I make exceptions for myself.
Fair enough. Though, of course, this means we’re basically just getting a magazine full of Holly Lisle pastiches, which is nice if you like Holly Lisle, I guess. But I can’t help but think that with requirements this narrow, Rebel Tales is going to be a fairly repetitive and uninspired magazine, and that just makes me sad. I hate wasted potential.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just being too kneejerk and defensive. It’s not even that I’m a huge fan of experimental fiction, but there’s a very fundamental part of me that sees these iron clad restrictions, these fences dividing what a story is and isn’t, and immediately wants to trample them down. Funny enough, it’s the same backwards part of me that wanted to be a writer in the first place.
In the end, though, I wish Holly nothing but luck on her venture. I won’t be submitting anything to Rebel Tales, but that has less to do with the restrictions and more with my inability to write a decent short story. But, for those of you who do write short stories, I ask you — would you consider submitting to a magazine with these kinds of restrictions? Would you read one? Do restrictions matter at all if your stories/tastes fit them? Please share, I’m dying to know.