Articles written by agents and publishers in magazines and year books constantly hark back to a familiar theme, one which also features frequently in the ‘submission guidelines’ of magazines. It cannot fail to be irritating for a magazine to receive material which is clearly hopelessly inappropriate for their publication, and it can be equally galling for agents and publishers to be sent fiction for which there is no obvious modern market or which bears no relation to what is currently happening in the literary world.
It isn’t very likely that people who never read contemporary fiction are going to persuade anyone to publish their attempts at contemporary fiction. Yes, fiction covers a wide range of genres, but unless the writer has some idea of what is being published in each of them, breaking through is improbable. The old masters are admirable, without a doubt, but they are of their time, and people in the twenty first century tend to think and read differently. ‘Classics’ typically take a long time to be considered as such; the rest of us have to address the problems of getting into print in the here and now, and one of the most elementary starting points is to look at who is in print in the here and now.
That’s not to say, of course, that all writing has to be set in the present, but even historical fiction has to be intelligible to the modern reader if anyone is actually going to read it. In common with all other genre writing, stories which are totally unrelated to what is currently happening in science fiction, romantic fiction, crime writing, travel writing etc. is unlikely to find a ready outlet. It is true that new ground can and is broken by writers with exceptional talent and imagination from time to time, though even in their cases, a good deal of scepticism may well need to be overcome. And, while a powerful publisher might be prepared to risk breaking the rules now and then, most small press magazines, struggling to establish a reputation or hold on to the one they already have, are not likely to go out on a limb for an unknown writer. However much someone may want to break the rules of the game, they have to be playing it and know what the rules are first.
Finding a way into publication for most forms of specialist writing requires background work and research, and fiction does not radically differ in this respect, however much some people might like it to. New writers might consider, on the basis of family and friends’ encouraging remarks, that their material is fresh and original enough to break through editors’ reservations about it. The editors themselves, unfortunately, are unlikely to agree, and while everyone deplores plagiarism, an awareness of the ‘current state of play’ in the novice writer’s chosen sphere of fiction should be seen as essential rather than just desirable.