To you, your short story is unique and perfect. To editors, it's "the third steampunk time-travel story we've seen this week." But which trends should you try to avoid? To find out, we asked some of the top editors in the field which type of science fiction and fantasy stories they're tired of seeing. Here's what they told us.
Top image: Asimov's Science Fiction, December 2010, art by John Picacio
First, some caveats. Every one of the editors we spoke to said the same thing: a lot of these things go in waves, and just because they're drowning in mermaids this week doesn't mean that'll be true months from now. Also, no editor ever wants to say "I'm tired of unicorns," because right now someone is probably writing a unicorn story so good it'll make you weep to read it — and chances are, the editor who just swore off unicorn stories would buy that story in a heartbeat. So this mostly isn't a list of stories you shouldn't write — more a list of areas where you're going to have to work harder to stand out.
Also, full disclosure: I've submitted my fiction to most of these editors, and in a few lucky cases they've published my work.
So with that out of the way, here are 10 story types editors say they're over:
"Without hesitation: ZOMBIES! Zombie stories, just like zombies, just keep coming in, no matter how much you discourage them. I've been complaining about the relentless horde of zombie stories for years and have happily put rejection bullets in the heads of each and every one of them. [Zombies] bore me. Same old thing over and over. Even when someone thinks they have an original take on them, it's something I've seen in slush a million times. I'm sure there is an audience for these things, but it isn't me. Won't ever be."
Adds Brit Mandelo with Strange Horizons, "I'm still just as tired of zombie stories as I was last year, and probably the year before that. We don't often see a zombie story that has much freshness to it; even the ones that intend to have some kind of special clever thing end up reading a lot like the other handful we've seen recently."
2. Parallel Universes
Asimov's Science Fiction editor Sheila Williams says she's a bit tired of seeing parallel universes in her fiction. "The parallel universe/multiverse is overused as a plot device and underused as a scientific thought experiment," she says. "I'd like to see more extrapolation from current theory and less handwavium that operates as an excuse for alt history. Still, I always feel free to contradict myself because I enjoy well done alt history as much as the next editor."
3. Time Travel
This is one case where an editor is seeing a flood of stories on a particular topic right this minute — and that's probably just a temporary thing. Clarke with Clarkesworld says he's seeing a ton of time travel stories right now, to the point where he's kind of overloaded with them. Normally, you'd expect to see "this kind of theme-flood" after a bunch of people have had their stories rejected from a themed anthology, but Clarke hasn't been able to find any book that would explain a time-travel surge. In any case, when there's a surge of stories about a particular topic, "it's a short-term overdose," says Clarke. "A few months from now, I'll probably be happy to see the theme again."
4. Faux Steampunk
Ann VanderMeer has edited some bestselling anthologies of steampunk fiction. And she says she's really tired of seeing "stories that think they are steampunk, because a clock, goggles, airships or gears have been added to the story." Image by Erik Mann/Deviant Art via Steampunk for Kids
5. Getting Revenge
But VanderMeer, who also edits short fiction for Tor.com and other anthologies and was the editor of Weird Tales, also says she's tired of seeing "too many domestic, or high school, revenge stories." She adds: "You know what I mean: A put-upon husband (or wife) finally gets revenge on their spouse/partner for all the years of abuse. Or the high school bully/cheerleader/football star finally gets their due."
Adds Lynne Thomas, former editor at Apex Magazine:
"When I was editing Apex, the story tropes I was thoroughly tired of were the rather misogynistic revenge-against-the-ex stories, which I tended to refer to as "kill the bitch" stories. We saw a LOT of those, as it's a common horror trope. I swore I'd never buy one because I didn't think it was possible to produce one that I'd find remotely palatable... right up until Rachel Swirsky wrote "Abomination Rises on Filthy Wings" as a challenge, when she heard me grousing about those kinds of stories. I bought and published that story."
6. Fairytale Retellings
Julia Rios with Strange Horizons says they're seeing a lot of reimaginings of classic fairytales, and it's starting to get old. "These qualities aren't necessarily going to make us reject them — we just ran a Little Red Riding Hood story in March — but when we see well worn tropes like that, they have to work extra hard to show us something new."
Editor Sigrid Ellis with Apex Magazine chimes in that she's "a bit worn down by retellings of classic European fairy tales. Occasionally a brilliant one crosses my email. But you have to be really damn brilliant to get noticed in the fairy-tale arena. It's like Thunderdome down there."
Rios also mentions that she's seeing a LOT of Mermaid and Selkie stories, to the point where something really has to be special to win her over. Another short story editor, who asked not to be named, reports being inundated with mermaids: "FWIW, a lot of them have been GOOD mermaid stories, but seriously, SO MANY mermaid stories! I'm not even sure I'd say I'm tired of seeing them. It's just that I've been seeing so many of them that even if I wanted to publish all of the ones I liked I couldn't, since my magazine isn't called Mermaids Monthly."
8. "Edgy" stories
This is especially an issue in horror fiction. In general, VanderMeer sees a lot of "forced" stories where someone tries to "cash in on a popular subject." But stories feel especially forced when the author "adds in some extremely dramatic event in order to bring conflict and drama into the story, such as rape, incest, suicide, etc." When VanderMeer sees edgy stuff thrown in for no reason, she starts to suspect that the writer doesn't know how to hook the reader without using these tricks. VanderMeer sums it up: "false drama = bad story."
Adds Thomas, "My other pet peeve was a tendency to include massive amounts of rape, misogyny, racism, ableism, etc. in an attempt to shock in horror stories through a really obvious taboo that didn't actually serve a purpose in moving the story forward."
And Ellis, her successor at Apex, says even more succinctly: "If you ever tell someone your story is edgy, I probably won't publish it."
9. Pregnancy Horror
Says Ellis with Apex:
"When I was slushing for Apex under Lynne's editorship, I swore up one side and down the other that I never wanted to see another pregnancy-horror story again. I was sick of a woman's body being intrinsically horrifying. I was sick of a woman's body being a metaphor for illness and evil. And then I became editor. And the first story I bought was Lucy Snyder's "Antumbra," which is a graphic incest bisexual sister mind-control medical experimentation rape pregnancy story. I just don't EVEN. That said, I am still tired of horror pregnancy. Just, no."
Image: Inside, French pregnancy horror movie.
10. Pun/twist ending
A few editors have mentioned disliking this. Stories that rely on puns for their humor, or which are just leading up to a silly twist ending or punchline, are going to have a really, really hard time winning people over. Image: Alex Schomburg.