08 February 2021

Writing to the Don'ts

In an era when short crime fiction has far fewer and more specialized markets than in the great days when writers could actually make a living writing it, oldtimers give aspiring authors some wise but contradictory advice: "Don't write to the market," and "Don't ignore the guidelines of the market you're submitting to."

If you can't do six impossible things before breakfast, you have no business writing fiction in the 21st century. But lately, the directives of journals and e-zines have become so demanding and exclude so much that one begins to wonder how the struggling authors can find anywhere to place their stories.

Here are excerpts from a few of my favorite sets of guidelines.

Needs: cutting edge, hardboiled, horror, literary, noir, psychological/horror. No fanfiction, romance, or swords & sorcery, no fantasy and no erotica. We no longer publish erotica, but if your story contains graphic sex that is essential to the story, that's fine. Absolutely nothing glorifying Satanism!
*No stories involving abuse of children, animals or dead people.
*Seriously folks, animal abuse is our number one no-no! It will get your story kicked back quicker than anything else. Nothing so sick or perverted that even I can’t read it. Nothing racist or bigoted, anti-religion, nothing blasphemous or sacrilegious. Nothing strongly Conservative or blatantly Liberal or so politically correct the ACLU would love it. Seriously, keep your politics to yourself or at least low-key. There’s a happy medium somewhere: Write straight from the heart; call it like you see it, but show some control. Also, no published song lyrics or poetry or quotes from other stories. Material from texts or academic books may be quoted, but must be properly footnoted.
Yellow Mama

We do appreciate clever and poetic turns of phrase, but first and foremost we want a story readers can sink into late at night before they go to bed. We want to stretch people’s minds, but not give them a headache.
*We receive so many brilliant but depressing stories that we must pass on all but the best gems. We strive for emotional balance in each of our issues, and want our readers to leave feeling challenged yet refreshed.
*We love to publish works featuring fiery feminism, a rainbow of LGBTQIA+, skin colours that don’t begin with the letter ‘W’, indigenous and immigrant experiences alike, and people of varying shapes, sizes, ages, and abilities.
*We like some action along with those intriguing personalities, and we want to see characters that grow and change throughout the story arc.
Pulp Literature

We go for stories that are dark, literary; we are looking for the creepy, the weird and the unsettling.
*We do not accept stories with the following: vampires, zombies, werewolves, serial killers, hitmen, excessive gore or sex, excessive abuse against women, revenge fantasies, cannibals, high fantasy.

We don’t do cozies. We don’t do procedurals. We’re not a literary magazine, and we don’t do other genres. We like strong characters, and good story telling, and we will not reject anyone based on mainstream morality. Amoral protagonists are encouraged. As the world's only no-limit criminal culture digest magazine, we will consider any twisted/taboo storyline, or deplorable protagonist.
*We want stories featuring the criminal as a protagonist. Legbreakers, hookers, drug pushers, porn stars, junkies, and pimps welcomed. We do mob stories. Keep them original. Write what you know.

It's a rare journal that doesn't lose its sense of humor in such a thicket of stipulations, so I want to give a shout-out to Crimeucopia, a UK quarterly whose submission guidelines are generous and include the priceless one-liner, "We’re usually pretty relaxed in regard to manuscript presentation, but please don’t take the piss." I wish the other zines quoted above were taking the piss.

I don't do the kind of story in which a PI who needs therapy and an ending that's a bummer are de rigueur. I don't do horror. Sometimes I do traditional murder mysteries, sometimes police or part-police procedurals, sometimes historicals. I mix them up. I weave in social issues. My standalones can be literary in tone and execution. Sometimes I write about theft instead of murder. A few of my crime stories qualify as urban fantasy, neither gore nor fairy dust involved. Twice, I've written a serial killer, one not quite human.

The net result is that I read these guidelines, throw my hands up in despair, and don't submit. Whenever I've risked going with the positive elements—"we like strong characters and good storytelling," "we want to see characters that grow and change"—I've been told my story is "not what we're looking for." I know the issue is not the quality of my work. Magazines that don't have a lot of restrictive guidelines, like EQMM, AHMM, and Black Cat, have accepted enough of my submissions to reassure me. It really is the don'ts.


  1. A timely blog. Reading editorial guidelines is now almost as entertaining as reading the personals in the New York Review of Books.

  2. I totally agree - I've read a lot of "guidelines" and am amazed at the list of things they're NOT looking for.

  3. Janice, if you're laughing and not crying, you're ahead of the game.

  4. Yes, Eve, and yet, as you and I were saying elsewhere, we aren't seeing guidelines refusing to consider stories that portray abuse, torture, or contempt for women. Being picky is one thing, hypocrisy is another.

  5. I agree, Liz. Some of the things in these guidelines can be frustrating, and--like you--I don't submit to places where they're too restrictive. I will point out, though, that I have occasionally (and carelessly) ignored some of the instructions in guidelines and still come out okay. Before sending my first story to Woman's World long ago, I'd heard they wouldn't take a mystery story set in an exotic location, one that doesn't have a lot of dialogue, or one where the bad guys win. My story happily violated all three of those commandments and they bought it anyway. That involved more luck than talent, but I sure cashed the check.

    I'm not saying we should intentionally break the rules--I usually don't--but apparently all of them aren't set in stone.

  6. Like you, Liz, I find a lot of the guidelines off-putting and rarely submit to magazines that have guidelines as long as a piece of flash fiction. I'm more confident when the editors simply ask for a good story.

  7. I hear of more and more markets, but when I read their guidelines, they're either too restrictive or silly. I still only submit to six or eight publishers, and only a few of them are open year-round. I especially dislike markets that want something other than a word document: RTF, for example, or weird formatting such as single spaced, skip a line between paragraphs, and no indentation. I'm writing a story, not a business letter.
    Like John, I often write stories where the bad guy wins, but it usually means justice is served. Doesn't matter.

  8. Very good. I can't resist linking to this: https://criminalbrief.com/?p=17140

  9. John, You meet the criteria for someone who's allowed to break the rules: you know what they are and can apply them with skill when you want to.

  10. Susan, "a good story" is what it's all about." Have I told you lately how much I like yours?

  11. Steve, I'll do the formatting thing you describe—which I believe means the formatting is going to appear as is in the published version if accepted—when I really want the market to take a particular story. Since almost everything I write is quirky in some way and almost none of it is harmless, I have to be flexible.

  12. Rob, thank you so much! Link away! :)

  13. Great read as always Liz. It can be so frustrating finding the right spot for a piece, especially if they have a long list of "don'ts". In the end, if the editors have a restrictive mindset it is often better to move on.

  14. Thanks, Bill. Easier, too, when you're prolific, a trait I lack, alas.

  15. Lizzie, thank you. All we can do is write the stories we write. (Or as somebody once said, the stories only WE can write.) The market will sort itself out. It would be nice of course to get paid, once in a while.

    1. A few of us, including our own John Floyd, can write anything on demand, but I'm with you. And it's the paying markets, in my experience, that simply ask for a good story.

  16. Liz, you don't merely make a point, you've built a case with wry indictment. I'm not sure how, but I'd love to see your article go viral.

  17. Thanks, Liz. I've been paying a lot more attention to the criteria too, but not enough.

    You don't mention the "warn us of anything triggering in your story"--for readers benefit. I can see they're a good idea, but for crime writers, someone is [hopefully] dead. I won't clog the comment box with a list, but if you check it out "warning--trigger--list" in any search engine, the results are lengthy.

    However, that's not the problem per se for me.

    My problem, for example, is figuring out whether I need to cut a reference [paragraph/sentence maybe] to the protagonist's father's death by suicide when the protagonist was a child? If it is stated as a brief fact, is it or is it not triggering? Is it more or less triggering than the dead body we're investigating?

    I think my problem is thinking to much.

  18. Maddy, my point is that they're asking too much—and unreasonably driving us crazier than we already are. ;)

  19. Maddy, I've never fully grasped triggering. When I write for adults, I expect readers to read as adults. Likewise, I want fellow authors to treat me as (almost) grown up.

    Yesterday, a friend shared with me that her parents had didn't express affection and never used the word 'love'. When she was a little girl, she reached up to take her daddy's hand and he roughly shook it off. I may look like a damn big, mean-ass guy, but that breaks my heart. I'm not going to be able to get it out of my head, and in a weird way, I don't want to, not wanting her to feel alone in her pain, I suppose.

    In Sunday's article, I warn readers they might not want to follow the link, because the precipitating event made me queasy. But in general, let's read and write as grownups for other grownups.


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