For those that missed Melinda’s earlier tease regarding this post, let me take a paragraph or two to introduce myself. My name is Daniel Scott, and I’m the Executive Editor at The Colored Lens, an electronic format speculative fiction magazine.
As Executive Editor, I generally handle the back-office tasks of marketing and advertising, web and IT support, legal, accounting, and taxes. I also pitch in from time to time to help slush through our submissions we receive. Dawn Lloyd, our Editor in Chief, and myself, along with our slush readers Eliza, Henry, and Carrie, wade through hundreds of submissions every three months to find fewer than a dozen short stories and novellas we feel will work well together to create a zine that our readers will appreciate.
Choosing stories for publication is not an easy process.
I wish it was. There are many times where we get a great story that is rejected simply because we have one already selected that touches on a similar theme. Sometimes we just run out of room. Other times one or two editors will really want to keep a story, but during discussion they are persuaded by other editors who really don’t like that style of writing, the subject of the story, the plot, or what have you. It happens, and it’s nothing personal.
For an author, submitting their babies, their children, their creations which they have slaved over for hours on end tweaking and refining until it is perfect, is a very stressful experience as well. Naturally one thing that we are asked frequently by writers is “What makes a story stick out? Why do some stories make it out of the slush-pile and into the hands of the editors, while others are summarily rejected?”
There are a number of answers to this question, but to truly understand what happens behind the scenes you’ll need to crawl inside the mind of an editor for a while. Don’t worry. It’s a bit cluttered in there, but perfectly safe so long as you don’t spend too much time inside. At least I’m pretty sure it’s safe. You probably won’t go crazy. Not much at any rate.
My other job, the one that pays the bills better than The Colored Lens (we are still only a small semi-pro zine), is as an outdoor writer. I’m an avid fisherman, and the process of submitting a piece to a magazine, anthology, or major publishing house is, to me, very much akin to fishing. You need to know your target, you need a proper lure or bait, good presentation and, of course, a solid hook.
For The Colored Lens, the process starts when a story is uploaded to our Submission Database. Here it is categorized as a New Submission until an editor or slush reader selects it and changes the status to Pending Review.
At this point in the process every story is equal, and each story has the same chance of making it to publication or become relegated to the Reject pile.
You have three paragraphs to get my attention.
With the wrong presentation, a fish will not give your lure a second glance. There are thousands of bait fish that a nice largemouth bass will pass up every day simply because it isn’t interested. Perhaps the effort is too great, or the meal simply doesn’t seem appetizing. Whatever the reason, sometimes it takes something special and unique to garner a second glance.
Slush readers and editors in general are not very different from a fat and happy fish. They see a lot of literature, and not all of it is very good. During a busy stretch it’s possible to have a half dozen stories in the span of a few days that aren’t obviously horrible (with blatant misspellings, grammar problems, or overtly grotesque themes and imagery) and the average short story runs 3,500 to 6,000 words or more.
To rise above the rest, a good story needs to not only be free of errors but also to quickly draw the reader into an engaging story. If you haven’t grabbed the imagination of the reader within the first few paragraphs of the story you are now behind the curve and facing an uphill battle. That’s not to say that it’s impossible to have a slow-starting story that continues to build to an incredible finish: it just means that it’s more difficult.
It’s important to remember that editors and slushers are readers first. We want to be entertained and so look for things that will not only draw us in, but things which will also draw in our readers. Start off with a strong beginning and get the story moving quickly.
What’s my motivation?
This trope is stereotypical of D-list Hollywood actors, but it applies to readers as well. Sometimes a good story with a strong beginning can stall out and begin to stagnate. We want to feel motivated to read more, and because of this it’s important for the author to encourage the reader to care about the characters and the story as a whole.
This is where the details of the story come into play. It’s necessary to create a rich and vibrant world with deep and complex characters that the reader begins to feel intimate with. Be careful to keep things interesting while you fill in the necessary back-story and the details required to tell your tale. When presenting this additional information don’t simply tell the reader what they need to know: show them. Let the thoughts, actions, and dialogue of your characters reveal the minutia.
Probably the most important component of a story is the hook.
You’ve got the reader interested. They’re hungry for more. Now is the time to set the hook. Your hook can take many forms: it may be a dynamic conflict, a heart wrenching and emotional challenge, or simply a mythic setting that encourages the reader to surrender to a whim of fantasy.
Whatever form the hook takes it needs to be strong enough to intrigue your readers and challenge your characters. Not every story needs to be epic in its form, but the challenges presented, whether internal or external, should be enough for the reader to feel some emotion regarding the situation.
Every fisherman knows that hunger is not the only way to get a fish to strike. Emotions like anger or lust work just as efficiently. A skilled fisherman knows how to provoke that response from the fish, and an adept writer will similarly draw out emotion from readers and editors alike.
It is that emotional investment that truly begins to sell your work.
Your job is not over once the hook is set.
Reeling in the reader is important once you have them committed to the story. No matter how strong your story has been up to this point, it’s always possible to lose your target. A good soft lure will keep a hungry fish chewing; convinced that it is the real thing. In the same way your story should keep the reader fully engaged.
We often find stories that are humming along fantastically until, suddenly, something happens that just doesn’t make sense. Suspension of disbelief is critical for becoming totally immersed in a story. A minor slip-up by the author can bring that carefully crafted fantasy crashing down with a few poorly placed words or phrases. The editor will be reading a story and it is as if a beautiful symphony playing on a turntable screeches to a halt as the record needle is dragged across the surface. We find ourselves suddenly shaking our heads and wondering aloud “What just happened?”
Some extremely well written stories might survive such a cataclysmic mistake with a request for a rewrite, but more often than not the story is sadly rejected.
Authors usually know their characters as if they were their own children, but to a reader they are just another fictional person in a story. The extent of our knowledge of your character begins and ends with what is printed on the page. Unfortunately it seems that a writer will occasionally assume that a reader will have insights into the character when there is simply no way to infer those details from what has been written. A good first reader or copy editor can help you iron out these plot details.
Use a net to land your fish.
Many times an angler will haul in a monster catch only to have the fish break the line as it is brought above the surface, or shake off the hook and fall back into the water, simply because there was not a net to properly land the fish.
Begin with the end in mind.
I can’t tell you how many stories, fantastic stories that I absolutely fell in love with, that ended up in the reject pile because the ending was not well done. If it was done at all. In some cases it felt like the author just stopped, thinking to themselves “Well, I’ve got 5,000 words done. Time to call it a wrap!”
Tie up the loose ends of your story. Unless you are selling a serial work, there is no reason to leave your story with nothing more than an implied “To be continued…”
In addition to having a solid and satisfying conclusion, it often helps to have a bit of denouement. For the short story form denouement doesn’t have to take the form of a concluding chapter or epilogue. “And they lived happily ever after” is a fine denouement for a fairy tale. What is necessary for your story will be unique to the flow and tempo of your work, but even a little bit helps.
Don’t just wrap your piece up in a nice package. Put a bow on it.
What are some other tips to help get your work to the top of the pile?
- Proofread proofread proofread. Then get a friend to proofread your story. An odd typo, grammatical error, or misspelling here or there will not condemn your story to the Reject bin, but each and every one is distracting and makes it harder for an editor or slush reader to get into the story.
- 3rd person is the most common POV and by far the easiest to write. 1st person can be done well, but in our experience is more difficult to write well. 2nd person is right out. I have never seen a successful story written from a 2nd person POV.
- In the short story format, make every word count. Don’t use three words where two will suffice. Use small sentences. Nothing is more irritating to a slush reader than trudging through a 10,000 word story that easily could be cut in half. If we get bored while reading, we assume the readers will too.
- Plot: does your story have one? Can you identify a conflict, climax, and resolution? This is a big one for me personally. Your short story should not be the first chapter of the novella you’re working on, and it shouldn’t be a series of character profiles or vignettes. Even flash fiction should be complete with a beginning, middle, and end. Please don’t forget to include the ending.
- Watch your tone. Are you writing a story from the perspective of a small child? Your writing should reflect the mindset of a child of that age.
- Keep a good tempo. Proper pacing is critical to maintaining reader interest. While digressions are occasionally inevitable, keep them short, sparse, and as entertaining as possible.
Will all of these tips guarantee that your story will be accepted for publication? Of course not. As I mentioned above, sometimes it just comes down to bad timing or a publication that is already full up. It’s possible to even catch the wrong slush reader in a bad mood and have the piece that you slaved over for weeks rejected out of hand simply because they didn’t like it. It’s not a good thing, but it does happen.
Every point that we’ve gone over is one more piece to the puzzle. None of these rules are hard and fast. They are general guidelines that most writers already know but need to be reminded of from time to time. Each component you can bring to your story will not only get it noticed and help it to stand out, but it will make it more appealing to the Editor in Chief as well as the individual readers.
Good luck in all of your endeavors and I hope to see you with an acceptance letter of your own very soon.