The Main Reasons We Decline Stories
The amount of each reason, and the rankings, vary over time, but these are the primary reasons we decline stories:
Limited Ability to Publish - All editors will tell you they receive many more submissions than they can publish. Unfortunately, some pretty good manuscripts end up being turned down. Since Short-Story.Me! publishes multiple genres, that mathematical problem also occurs in each genre. We try to mix what we publish, so we cannot accept a large imbalance of genres within a period of time.
- Stories Not finished - Often, we find a good idea, a decent plot or an intriguing writing style that has potential, but the writer stopped too soon. There are two skills a successful author has that most who try writing don't have. One is rewriting. Great writing does not just flow; it is work that usually undergoes many versions before it is final. Most successful authors dislike editing and rewriting the most of all their tasks, but they do it.
The second skill is to willingly accept objective third party input before the manuscript is submitted for publishing. Major publishing houses have editors for even the most famous and respected authors for a reason. Someone has to look out for the reader. If the reader doesn't "get it" and like it, it matters not what you think, unless you are just writing for yourself. Having a writers' group or someone who reads your genre review your material can be helpful. This not not to say you have to make changes based on their opinions, but you should at least listen, and then decide. If you don't have an objective resource available to you, the best alternative is to put your "finished" story aside for a month, then come back and read it as if for the first time. You may be surprised what you see.
- Not Following Submission Guidelines - As noted in another Success Tip, editors don't have the spare time to try to "make" your story fit their needs. If your story is the wrong length, is not legitimately a genre requested or is formatted incorrectly, editors may read it, but they may not.
Punctuation and Grammar - Literature is not the same as an instant message, tweet or email. It has rules that make sense and work. Use them. The most common punctuation error in submissions is missing commas, with sentences as run-on collections of words instead of delineated, related phrases, as we normally read.
- Not Really a Writer Yet - Writing, like most talents, is a combination of art and skill. Some manuscripts are simply written by people who have not mastered one or both of those elements. That's not to say they could not; they just have not.
Same Old Same Old - Some basic concepts have been beaten to death over the years. "Selling your soul to the devil" is an example. You had better have a creative twist that shows up very early in the story for an editor to not view it as cliched. Readers like newness and a sense of surprise and wonder.
Choose a Killer Title
Readers give you only a few hundredths of a second to decide whether to read your story or flit on by. This is more true today than ever before, given our multitasking, scanning way of interacting with the ever-broadening world. The title is your first and most important hook. If it doesn't work, nothing else you wrote matters. Come up with at least a half dozen possible titles after you've finished the story. Then pick the one that both you and your readers will love.
Juicy First Sentences
The initial paragraph or first few sentences are the second decision point for a reader (and, I'm afraid, many editors). The story introduction has several duties.
- It needs to convey the style and tone of the story. -Elegant, musical prose can be a joy to read in itself. -Genre specific phrasing sets the reader's expectations. -Staccato words can tell the reader to get ready for action. This doesn't mean you should change your style - just be aware of it. Think of the first paragraph as the movie trailer; you are not giving a synopsis, but you are opening the toga.
- A plot point that grabs the reader's interest in "What's next?" is invaluable.
- Tell the reader this is going to be easy and fun. For most people, a short story is read for enjoyment. It is not wading through an analysis of the rise of China or going brain dead over Biology 410. If you're going to make the reader think (which most good short stories do), wait till the story gets going.
- Connect with the reader. This can be done a ton of ways, but generically, it is often by revealing a bit about a character or the world a character lives in. Stories are all, in one way or another, about people and their emotions.
You don't have to do all these things, but you need to consciously be aware of what you want the beginning paragraph to achieve and make sure it does. Remember, the reader has not read your story yet; all they have to evaluate so far is these few precious words.
Love Your Grammar
Grammar is on life support. Editors try to protect her, not to be old fogeys, but to preserve the power she gives writing. We can get used to "alright" instead of "all right" and other examples of the evolution of language. We cannot accept "it's" for "its" or "there" when "their" is intended, because those mistakes mislead the reader. Someone cannot write music like Bach without mastering the technique first.
Punctuation directs phraseology and pacing in reading. Learn to use commas, semicolons and the rest as if you were directing actors in a play on when to stop, pause, wait or whatever. This will help the reader stay involved in the content of the story and not the construct. (And, when an editor sees he will have to find 30 buts and place 30 commas before them, he starts thinking "Maybe I should just go on to the next story.")
Any writer who is willing to spend the enormous time and effort it takes to create a wonderful story out of nothing except imagination should also be willing to spend the time to learn the basics of language and grammar. You owe it to the reader and to your own odds of success to do your best.
Cliches are Like Stepping in Dog Doo at the Park
Snakes in the grass make me want to end it all. Those two examples were probably neat ways of getting across a point the first thousand times they were used. After a while, phrases become cliches and become cliched.
One of the wonderful aspects of some stories is the prose that flows like poetry (not rhyming poetry). In fact, the way feelings and facts are communicated can be more important than what is communicated. Call it style, voice, art, it is something that many stories lack. Most cliches were originally creative ways to convey a point. When they are borrowed and beaten to death, they are no longer creative, but actually downgrade your writing.
If, while reading a story that flows and has interesting use of language, an editor runs into a hackneyed phrase, it is like a pleasant trip through a park interrupted by an unfortunate misstep in dog doo left by an inconsiderate pet owner. The immediate thought is "couldn't the author come up with a creative way to say this?" Too many cliches can get a story rejected.
If a cliche is used by a character to shed light on the character speaking, cliches can be understandable, though still not preferable. If the cliche is used by the story narrator or the exposition it is simply a writer mistake and should be rectified.
Guidelines are Deadly
Many editors have a rule that they will not even read stories that are not formatted and presented as requested in their Submission Guidelines. Even if this policy is not stated, it affects their decision-making. This is not because they are power-hungry despots. There are legitimate reasons. Here are a few:
- A good editor likes to read all stories for the first time in the same format as the publication standard. A consistent format between manuscripts removes distractions like odd presentation and puts each manuscript on the same starting level, with the focus on content.
- Leading publications get thousand of submissions a year. Editor time is extremely valuable. Most editors enjoy finding gems among the manuscripts, but they reeeaaally dislike reformatting (don't you prefer eating an elegant meal to washing dishes?). When an editor sees he will have to spend an extra half hour of scarce time in reformatting, he subliminally marks that submission down compared to other submissions of equal quality.
- Publications need to have consistency in formatting for all their published stories: font, type size, spacing, paragraph structure, etc. This keeps the reader's focus on the words and not their structure. Since editors don't have a choice to just accept an oddly formatted story as is, they are forced to either reformat or decline the submission.
- Publications use different software and other tools in their operations. Editors know what makes their system go smoothly. Many invisible software formatting structures between types of documents create disasters.
Editors are not pedantic. Their job is to find great material and expose those works to appreciative readers. Differently formatted manuscripts steal time away from that responsibility to the detriment of everyone. Editors love nothing more than finishing a read and thinking "Wow. A great story - AND it's cut and paste!"