Unwritten Rules

Martin’s OPINION on the Unwritten Rules of the Writers of the Future

On the Writers and Illustrators of the Future Forum, we brought up the topic of the Unwritten Rules of the Contest. I decided to put these in one place. These are my opinions on some principles (I hate the word “rules” when it comes to writing) that I have gleaned from the Forum, the late Dave Wolverton’s tips, Coordinating Judge Jody Lynn Nyes’s tips, first reader Kary English’s live slush sessions, and discussions with Dave, Jody, Kary, and various judges.

Keep in mind that slush readers seldom have time to read the whole story. They may only have time for the first page or two. That’s the only way to manage the thousands of submissions the Contest gets every quarter. Is it unfair? No, it’s realistic. All of the major markets get more submissions than they can keep up with any other way. You have a page or two to hook the reader and not lose them. Most stories submitted lose the slush reader within two pages. Or less.

Note that these principles aren’t “How to Write Good Science Fiction and Fantasy.” Every market is different, and “good” is a judgment call. Some excellent stories go against these principles. These are only guidelines to improve your chances in this Contest. Stories that won’t work here can be great elsewhere.

Principles of Content

  1. Make sure the story is speculative fiction (science fiction or fantasy). Make sure it clearly is speculative fiction within a page or two. At the very least, hint or foreshadow. Even a speculative title can be enough hint to the slush reader.
  2. Please note that “It was all a dream” isn’t speculative in itself. (It’s also a tired old trope that almost no market will publish.) “It was all Virtual Reality” might have been speculative a decade or two back; but Virtual Reality is here today. By itself, it’s a yawn. “My dream turned out to be real” is probably speculative. “I only thought it was Virtual” can be speculative. (See Ender’s Game.) Characters can dream, and characters can play Virtual Reality games, as long as those don’t make up the whole story.
  3. No horror. Yes, horror is sometimes considered speculative fiction, but not for this Contest. Yes, there’s a fine line between horror and dark fantasy. Try to stay firmly on the dark fantasy side. You might get away with dancing on that line, but be prepared for a rejection if Jody or the slush readers think you crossed it.
  4. Entries must be primarily in English. The anthology is aimed at English-speaking markets. Words, phrases, and sentences in other languages (real or fictional) are OK, better if the reader can figure out the meaning from context. Paragraphs and conversations in another language are more trouble. Again, can the reader figure out the meaning from context? You’re not Tolkien, you don’t get to add a glossary at the end. (I hear rumors of stories with a few footnotes to explain unfamiliar words, and those stories weren’t rejected for that. But still, a definition in context is probably better.)
  5. Stories should be PG-13. If you’re not familiar with American movie ratings, that means aimed at an audience 13 years and older. No cursing. A single F-bomb gets an auto-boot. Racial slurs and other derogatory slurs are also auto-boots. Other cursing might be tolerated so the slush readers can decide if the story is salvageable, but they’ll have to be edited out if you win. And more than a handful will get your story rejected. This is science fiction or fantasy. Get inventive and make up your own insults and curses. (Or borrow from another culture. The TV series Firefly famously snuck Chinese cursing past American television censors. Keep in mind, though, that slush readers are smarter than television censors.)
  6. PG-13 also means no children’s books. Fables and fairy tales and funny animal stories can work if they have more depth, more complexity than a simple kids’ tale.
  7. No devotional or political content. It’s fine if you have a point of view, but the Contest isn’t in the business of promoting specific contemporary agendas.
  8. No sex on the page. Sexual content may be acceptable if it advances the story, but it can’t happen on the page. Fade to black, keep it between scenes. Especially no nonconsensual sex. You might (MIGHT) get away with that in the background, but don’t be surprised if you don’t. No sex also means no pleasuring or touching oneself. No pedophilia, no 17-year-olds in a brothel, no consensual underage sex, and no characters fantasizing about a minor.
  9. No gratuitous graphic violence. If the story needs violence, show violence, but temper it.
  10. No story that in any way shows suicide as a solution to a problem. Contemplating suicide may be OK as long as the option is definitely discarded. Note: Noble sacrifice to save others is not suicide, but it must be shown to be necessary.
  11. No explicit use of real-world narcotics or other controlled substances. Off-screen use may be OK, but not endorsing the use of these. (You may consider it unfair, but alcohol and tobacco are acceptable. This is just the way the legal system works in the USA at this time. It’s still not a good idea to glamorize them.) Magical drugs or future drugs or addiction to cybertechnology or any other speculative addiction are acceptable. These make great metaphors, and we have had some winners based on these, but real-world addictive substances are off-limits.
  12. Bad guys winning is a hard sell, but not impossible. My opinion: If the bad guys win, there should be a lesson in it for the good guys.
  13. No song lyrics that you did not personally write. Not even a single line. Song titles are OK, but they’re a gray area, because titles are often lyrics as well. A character can listen to AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” but a character cannot sing AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” if the words appear on the page.
  14. Nothing that violates someone else’s copyright. You can’t use someone else’s world, TV show, movie, or fiction. Allusions, references, and jokes are fine. I won the Contest with a story set in the Pournelle Settlements, a direct reference to the late judge Jerry Pournelle, who inspired the characters who created the settlements. But if characters or settings from an established universe appear in your story, it’s a copyright violation, and your story will be rejected.
  15. No AI-generated stories. Period. Really, they’re bad stories that will never win anyway. You might use an AI story as a prompt and write your own story from it. But the text straight from the AI is a lousy story. All you’ll do is annoy the slush readers.
  16. Nothing that has been previously professionally published. Not on Amazon, not on Smashwords, not on Audible, not in any professional market (defined by the Contest as paying pro rates and with an audience of 5,000 or more). You might get away with submitting a story that has appeared on WattPad, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Substack, or your blog if these didn’t reach the pro level, but I advise against it. That has the potential to violate anonymity. (Sharing with your critique group or reading to an audience at a convention doesn’t count as publishing, but be aware of who might be in your audience.)
  17. No poetry. No book reports. No essays. No polemics. No academic papers. No journalism. No diaries. No stage plays or screenplays. It has to be a story of 17,000 words or less. There’s no lower limit, but it’s difficult to win with something under 2,000 words. Extremely difficult under 1,000. Don’t go over the word limit of 17,000 words. Stories that get close to that get extra scrutiny. Note: A story might include poetry. It might be written to look like a book report, an essay, a polemic, an academic paper, or journalism. They call these epistolary tales, and I love them when they’re done well. But you have to take steps to let the reader know very early (two pages, remember) that this is fiction. Include a date in the future, or an alien name or location, or a title that references magic or advanced technology. Give the slush reader a hint that you’re playing with the format.
  18. Be wary of novel excerpts. If you really want to submit a novel excerpt, make sure it also has all the elements of a stand-alone story, as discussed below: Beginning, Inciting Incident, Middle, Climax, Changes, and Ending that tie together.

Principles of Structure

For many of the items below, be aware that false tension doesn’t work. False tension is when you withhold information solely so you can surprise the reader with it later. False tension can be a judgment call. Some stories (like many Twilight Zone episodes) only work by surprising the audience. So you can take the chance. But remember, slush readers may never get to your brilliant surprise on page 40 that explains everything that happened on page 4. False tension is especially difficult with a first-person narrator. When the reader is inside the narrator’s head, they’ll feel cheated if the narrator hides things from them. Yeah, yeah, yeah, unreliable narrators are trendy; but they’re difficult to do well. My opinion is that a first-person narrator can get away with keeping a secret from the reader for approximately one scene. (“OK, now I know where the vampires are hiding, I have a plan…” Then cut to the execution of the plan, without bothering to tell it.)

  1. A story has a Beginning, an Inciting Incident that takes us to a Middle, and a Climax that brings Changes to something vital and takes us to an Ending. And all of these elements should tie together. Random elements should be rare (though a random Inciting Incident is common). You might try to artistically eliminate some of these pieces, but you’re raising the odds against your story. (This is where most AI-generated fiction fails. The elements are missing or inconsequential, or they don’t really connect.)You don’t have to follow this structure (see the discussion of experimental stories below), but this structure makes your story more accessible.
  2. A story can have jokes, but a joke is not a story (generally). It’s probably only an Incident. Rare is the joke that has a Beginning, Middle, Climax, and Changes.
  3. The same applies to shocking revelations: By itself, a shocking revelation is not a story. (Flash fiction markets might accept a shocking revelation as a story, but this isn’t a flash fiction market.)
  4. Know basic spelling, grammar, and punctuation. You might intentionally violate them for effect, but try not to violate them due to not knowing them. You don’t have to be a master grammarian, but you should recognize a well-constructed sentence. Spell checkers can be your friend, though they take extra effort with exotic names. Grammar checkers can be your… Well, not your friend. They have a tendency to erase your unique voice and make you sound like a nameless corporate drone. If you use them, try to UNDERSTAND what they tell you and decide for yourself, not just blindly follow them.
  5. Polish the first two pages. Everybody makes mistakes, so typos and missing words and misspelled words and grammatical errors happen to everybody (slush readers and editors included). But if you have too many early on, you lose the reader’s confidence, and they’ll give up. How many is too many? My guess is five or so.
  6. Point of view shifts and tense shifts are especially troublesome grammar errors. While you might get away with five general errors, three POV/tense shifts can be enough to make the slush reader cringe.
  7. I’m sorry to tell you that second-person POV is a hard sell. You’re welcome to try. Jody and Kary have admired good second-person stories, but they have lamented a lot of bad. Tell your story your way, but don’t be surprised if it’s rejected.
  8. This applies to experimental stories in general: they’re a hard sell. Good experimental stories have won, such as Scott Parkin’s “Purposes Built for Alien Minds” in Volume 31. But experiments have to be done well and they have to be a good story as well as an experiment. If you think you’re up to it, give it a shot!
  9. Concentrate on “natural” paragraph lengths. Long paragraphs can serve a purpose, but too many paragraphs that are too long will convince slush readers that you don’t know where to break a paragraph. Short paragraphs—even single sentences—can serve a purpose; but too many one-line paragraphs in a row begin to look choppy.
  10. In virtually all cases, if you change speakers in a conversation, you need a new paragraph. If character A speaks, a short action happens, and character A speaks again, that’s usually a single paragraph. You can break it up, but it will look to the reader like someone else is speaking unless you add an extra dialogue tag.
  11. Typically you should avoid long paragraphs of action or description in the middle of a conversation when the conversation takes place over a short time. If you stop in the middle of an argument to explain the history of the argument, your reader may lose track of what has been said. Sometimes you’ll get away with this, but use caution.
  12. Don’t use too many dialogue tags. Don’t use too few dialogue tags. (Gee, ain’t I helpful?) How many to use is a judgment call, especially in the days of audiobooks. (Audio listeners can identify who’s speaking from the narrator’s voice—sometimes.) Keep in mind that short actions can substitute for dialogue tags, especially when they advance the action or reveal character. And “said” is a perfectly good dialogue tag. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
  13. Don’t begin too slowly. If nothing consequential happens for pages, the slush reader may move on. A little setting, a little character to set things up can work, but this is a short story. Something should happen soon.
  14. Have a good opening narrative hook. Note: Prologues are seldom good opening narrative hooks. They’re more often infodumps. (See below.)
  15. Establish your setting: time, space, and dimension. Remember the note about false tension.
  16. Introduce an interesting character (the protagonist is probably best, but you can go another way) right in the beginning. The rule of thumb is to start with a character in a setting with a problem. The problem and setting should both help us see how the character sees the world. It might not be the problem on which the story hinges, but it should be part of the main problem or logically lead us to the problem.
  17. Don’t send stories that begin with the character waking up. Most editors hate that trope. Amnesia is also a very weak opening. Both suggest to the slush reader that you don’t really know where the story is yet. (I’m a pantser. I understand discovering your story. But once you discover it, don’t be afraid to cut the wandering that leads up to it.)
  18. Stories that start with a dream are tricky—especially stories where the dream is a way to fool the reader into thinking it’s a different sort of story. You can get away with it, but it’s an old, tired trope. And any dream anywhere in the story that’s used to fool the reader is difficult to pull off.
  19. Be sparing with dialect and accents. A little goes a long way.
  20. Make friends with your dynamic verbs. Don’t “was” us to death. Passive “to be” verbs set you one step further from the reader and slow down the narrative.
  21. Make your pacing fit your story and your scenes. There’s no one right pacing: action should be fast (usually), contemplation should be slow (usually), and travel should be summarized (usually). Description can make a world more vivid, but even Tolkien didn’t stop to describe a leaf in the middle of an Orc battle. Change the pace now and then if it fits the story.
  22. Be wary of infodumps, especially up front. An infodump is a big chunk of explanation of the history, politics, science, magic, or other elements that make your story world unique. You may think your reader needs to know all this up front, but you’re likely wrong. Sprinkle in little bits of world-building as you tell the story, with bigger chunks less common. (These bigger chunks can sometimes be a way to vary pacing. After a fast, complex space battle, maybe you break for a few paragraphs of background of the war.) “As You Know, Bob…,” also known as Maid and Butler Dialogue, is NOT a way to “sprinkle in” world-building. These are when one character explains to another something that they both ought to know, solely so that you the author can explain it to the reader. Sherlock Holmes might explain to Dr. Watson how the different varieties of tobacco ash helped him identify the killer, but he won’t explain how London cabs work. Watson should already know. You probably wouldn’t explain to your friend how to play DVDs. So be wary of having one character explain how magic or technology works if both characters should know that.

Principles of Format

  1. The Contest is anonymous. Do not include your name ANYWHERE in your file or your submission. Not in the file name. Not in your story title. Not on your title page. Not in your headers or footers. Not in your comments and tracked changes. Not anywhere. Anonymity now has a small loophole. Ultimately your story has to be anonymous to Jody. If Kary or another slush reader recognizes you from your story, their instructions are to pass it to another slush reader or to Jody with a note that they cannot comment upon the story because they know the author. So use caution to avoid exposing your story to a slush reader, but it does not automatically disqualify your story.
  2. Try to remember to delete all comments and tracked changes before sending. These can reveal your name, and they can subconsciously bias the slush reader. They make the story look unfinished.
  3. Don’t format your manuscript in a clever way so as to attract attention. Your prose should stand alone. If it’s not in a black serif typeface, double-spaced, on a white background, without illustrations or fancy capitals, then change it. (And not double-double spaced, please. Check the small box in your paragraph menu.) Twelve-point type, preferably Courier, Times New Roman, or something similar, is best.
  4. One-inch margins all around. Indent the first line of each paragraph. (Use your word processor’s indent feature if you can, tabs if you must. Spaces only as a last resort.) Don’t insert an extra space between paragraphs. Left justified (i.e., ragged right). Stories won’t be rejected for other formats, but slush readers will be more suspicious if the format is unorthodox.
  5. Keep your formatting consistent (unless you deliberately change it for effect). Polish your manuscript to make sure the format doesn’t change randomly in places. Random format changes make your manuscript look unfinished.
  6. Don’t include illustrations. The Contest isn’t going to use them. Period. (If you’re proud of your art, consider the Illustrators of the Future Contest.)
  7. The Contest strongly prefers Microsoft Word files (.DOCX or .DOC. RTF files are almost as good.) They can work with PDF files, but these can create extra work for the slush readers in some cases.
  8. You are allowed to submit on paper. It won’t be held against your story, but paper submissions may be among the last read.

You can find winning stories that broke many of these principles. That’s why they’re principles, not rules. But your odds are better if you don’t give the slush reader an excuse to move on to the next story.

Note that you don’t have to agree with a market’s rules, written or unwritten, but arguing with them is fruitless. I once saw someone argue that Dave was wrong about what he wanted for the Contest. That’s … foolish. These aren’t “Rules for What Makes a Good Story.” They’re “Principles of What We Want.” It’s arrogant to say, “No, you’re wrong, this is what you want!” You might possibly engage in a discussion about changing a market’s policies, but you’re better off just finding another market for that story that doesn’t fit this one. There are plenty of markets.




Martin L. Shoemaker

Martin L. Shoemaker (Writers of the Future Volume 31), is a programmer who writes on the side … or maybe it’s the other way around. He told stories to imaginary friends and learned to type on his brother’s manual typewriter even though he couldn’t reach the keys. (He types with the keyboard in his lap still today.) He couldn’t imagine any career but writing fiction … until his algebra teacher said, “This is a program. You should write one of these.”

Fast forward 30 years of programming, writing, and teaching. He was named an MVP by Microsoft for his work with the developer community. He wrote fiction, but he gave up on submitting until his brother-in-law read a chapter and said, “That’s not a chapter. That’s a story. Send it in.” It won second place in the Baen Memorial Writing Contest and earned him lunch with Buzz Aldrin. Programming never did that!

Martin hasn’t stopped writing (or programming) since. His Nebula-nominated short story “Today I Am Paul” explores the logical consequences of a medical care android with empathy, able to understand how its actions affect its patient’s emotional state. He expanded that story into his debut novel, Today I Am Carey (Baen Books), in which the android learns more about humanity through life with its human family. His novels The Last Dance and The Last Campaign (47North) are mysteries set on Earth, on Mars, and in the space in between.

Learn more at http://Shoemaker.Space.

4 replies
  1. Douglas Hamilton
    Douglas Hamilton says:

    I have had many stories get into honorary mention or above, one finalist, but also had what I thought were very good stories not make anything. Until now I was frustrated, but your write-up tells me why. I had some of the automatic rejection words and drug use, maybe too much graphic violence. Thank you.


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