03
Apr
09

Rebel Tales

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)

Ouch.

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.

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13 Responses to “Rebel Tales”


  1. April 3, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    Sounds as though she’s trying to preempt some of the worst slush. The trouble is that the people who most need preempting won’t be the ones who read or understand the guidelines. The ones most likely to be intimidated away are the ones who probably have the best shot of actually meeting the guidelines.

    I’d submit, sure — if my story did the things she asks. In fact, I’ve got one I probably will submit. Restrictions don’t matter to me, except insofar as I take pains to adhere to them. They might give me some data points about the editor, but they don’t affect my interest in getting a story published in a venue that might get it some readers.

  2. April 3, 2009 at 1:22 pm

    I’ve heard of requirements this stringent in the romance novel field. The hero must show up by chapter two, the heroine can’t have slept with anybody else before, by the midpoint they must have done XYZ, yatta yatta yatta. But many romance publishers aren’t selling art, they’re selling a formula, and they’re pretty blatant about it.

    That kind of thing doesn’t bother me, though; it just gives me a nice clear sense of whether I’d ever want to submit to, or read, this magazine for myself. I might check it out; I have to admit I prefer old-fashioned didacticism to “experimental” prose myself. Though not if it’s formulaic. I guess we’ll just have to see.

  3. April 3, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    I agree with both the comments above. I suspect she’s tightening up her requirements to try and reduce the deluge of submissions that will lack characterisation and pacing from the get go.

    And re formula, yes I agree – and I would go on to say that in any writing sphere of influence there is always a preferred formula, including literary fiction. I make it my business to find the formula: once I do, I get more acceptances.

  4. 4 Rachel Aaron
    April 3, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    That all makes sense to me, but I guess I just hate being told what I can’t do. I get all puffed up like an angry chickadee about it.

    Still, I wonder how it will read… The whole thing seems angled towards writers, which makes sense considering writers are her primary audience. But does a magazine by writers with writers as the primary audience serve more as a showcase than a magazine of good stories? Can they be the same thing without ego getting in the way?

  5. 5 mentatjack
    April 3, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    I know nothing of this Holly Lisle, but I see this as more of a challenge. People set challenges for themselves all the time. Aspiring writers do NaNoWriMo, some spectacular writers restrict themselves to the mundane manifesto, PERL programmers compete to write the most obfuscated code. Working within a set of boundaries will teach you many things. I spent most of a sophomore level physics class looking at a particle caught between 2 walls. You don’t get much simpler in the way of boundaries, but that’s your foundation for learning about quantum mechanics.

    I’ve never written a story with Lisle’s restrictions in mind, but I’m pretty sure I’d get something out of trying to. I won’t write all (or even many of) my stories to those restrictions, but I don’t obfuscate my code on purpose anymore either. Still, I learned a ton about programing writing beautifully dense PERL code.

  6. April 4, 2009 at 2:51 pm

    I agree with Linda on every point. (Hi Linda!) It’s not going to circumvent the worst of the slush because the people sending it may not have read the submission guidelines. (I note you have to query first, though.) And, as always, when I have written a story that happens to fall within a market’s submission guidelines, I send it to that market. Otherwise, I don’t.

    There are lots of ways of telling a story, not just the way Holly Lisle specifies in her submission guidelines. However, it’s her zine. She gets to say that she’ll only publish stories told in a certain way. And frankly, if you want to write, as the magazine’s subtitle puts it, “Kick-Ass Fiction”, her guidelines are a great way to assess whether your story is up to par. I don’t see how it’s “A new take on fiction” though.

    Yes, she may miss out on wonderful stories because they were told in other equally valid ways. That’s the choice she’s made, and I’m going to assume she’s content with missing out. Also, Rebel Tales obviously isn’t the only market for short fiction. Those other equally wonderful stories we’ll submit to other markets.

    (In my case, I think I have a story that may fit her guidelines. I haven’t read the guidelines in its entirety yet. The one I’m working on now, however, probably will not. Right now, I think it’s a better story for not fitting within those guidelines. I will send that story somewhere else.)

    Would it be ironic though to point out that writing within stringent constraints is a hallmark of “experimental” fiction? (e.g. Oulipo)

  7. April 4, 2009 at 3:45 pm

    Guidelines aside, I’m still scratching my head over the payment system. Generally speaking, I avoid markets that offer no guarantee of payment.

  8. 8 rachelaaron
    April 6, 2009 at 1:15 am

    Wow, I also just read the bit about the back stage pass offering “sneak peaks at first drafts”.

    Maybe I’m alone in this, but I feel that writing and sausage making share a certain “don’t look too closely at how this was made” rule of thumb. Also, the idea of looking at a writer’s first draft 1) terrifies me, the writer, and 2) fails to interest me, the reader. What do I care about a first draft? Then again, I don’t even watch extras on DVDs, so don’t listen to me on that one.

  9. July 30, 2010 at 3:20 pm

    More specifically, the cake is a poor analogy. What you’re saying is tantamount to the notion that painting on canvas is a restricted format. What? How dare you say my sculpture is not eligible for this painting art show? I find sculptures FAR interesting than flat, boring paintings. You are restricting the creative process if you say I cannot submit a sculpture! … This of course is ridiculous. Much great art has been made with simple paints and boring flat canvas. Rebel Tales is a painting showcase, and experimental fiction is as different from what they’re looking for as a sculpture is to a painting. Moreover, the existence of a painting showcase should be no offense to sculptors. The sentiment is absurd.

  10. November 18, 2010 at 10:38 am

    @jwd: I’ve read the guidelines (although I haven’t bothered to watch the videos, for reasons which will be apparent further down), including the 13 pages on how to write a synopsis, and I think a better analogy is that she considers the only artform deserving the label “painting” to be those with no shades of blue in them, and painted on 3′ by 5′ canvas. As a painter, I wouldn’t be so much “offended” as “perplexed”.

    @rachel: I’ve got a couple of stories which are possibly good fits for RT. But honestly, the guidelines are so incredibly detailed and the query process so Byzantine that I can’t be cartain. I am, however, quite certain she can find a reason in there to reject very nearly anything.

    The main impression I get is that she doesn’t like fiction at all! So no, I’m not going to submit anything. Her apparent anger at writers and writing is enough to deter me.

    I’m reminded of a website I saw with a very different approach. Their submission guidelines, while detailed, and unusually long at 2 pages, ended with this:

    “Please ignore all and any of these guidelines rather than sending us a bad story.”

  11. February 7, 2011 at 8:48 pm

    When Holly mentioned not wanting “character studies, vignettes, slice of life, meta-fiction, deconstruction, and ‘experimental’ fiction” my first thought was that she must have been reading some of the winning entries in the annual Katherine Mansfield Short Story Awards. They are NEVER stories (plotless ramblings would be a better description) and therefore don’t comply with the title of the award so should be disqualified. The main thing you need to get anywhere in this award is pretentious writing, which by drawing attention to itself takes the reader right out of the story (should a story accidentally manage to to get into a winning entry). I don’t blame Holly for not wanting this sort of submission. Sadly, Holly had to shut down Rebel Tales before it even started, which is a shame. I’m sure critics here would have found themselves enjoying a much wider range of stories than they anticipated.

  12. 13 Dayna
    February 8, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    I have to be honest and say that when I first read her requirements I had the same “knee-jerk” response of WTF! I didn’t much like the fact that I would have to write something under such specific rules just to have it looked at. But then I thought about it some more and realized that it might not be such a bad idea to try and write something under those rules, if for no other reason than to see if I could and get something that I liked and was proud of. I was going to do just that actually, until RebelTales was shut down recently. I guess we’ll never know now if her rules would have produced an awesome assortment of “kick ass fiction” or just a whole lot of “I think I’ve read this before somewhere”.


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