Last week I read some of the short stories submitted to the sci-fi magazine I’ve been helping with. It was my first time slushing fiction and I learned a lot. Not about what makes a good short story, mind you, but about what not to do when you want your story to knock people’s socks off (but not with its awfulness).
I was inspired to compile a few tips.
- Flat writing The main reason stories ended up rejected was flat writing. Like paper cup of cola left out in the summer sun for three days kind of flat. So, the top tip I have to give you is make your writing sing. These stories could have had the most thrilling plot in the world (although, Reader, they did not) and the world’s most compelling characters (ditto), and the flat writing would have still torpedoed their chances. So, liven it up. Use action verbs! Cut out irrelevant details yet slyly sprinkle in interesting description! Give your characters great voices. Because stories should hum with vibrancy and vitality.
- But don’t overdo it Unfortunately, how to make writing sing is more art than science and it’s easy to overdo. Don’t, for instance, write like a machine gun. That would exhaust the reader. Let your writing rise and fall, clip and stretch, and walk and run. And not merely haphazardly. Give it just a bit of rhythm. Also take care with adjectives and adverbs. I’m an unabashed fan, but even I couldn’t get past page three of the submission that modified every single noun and verb, often multiply. I was literally literally like ARGH! I CAN’T TAKE ANY MORE!
- Plot! Personally, my greatest failing as a short story writer is that I can’t plot my way out of a paper bag. Or so I thought until I hit the slush pile. Holy cow, were there tons of stories in there with no plot at all. As you’re reading them you do find yourself thinking, why am I reading this? Really, what is the point?? Please try to make your story about something and, optimally, make that something something that happens. Best yet, try to pick a something that happens that is actually interesting. No one wants to read ten pages about your astronaut’s epic struggle to align an antenna on a satellite, for instance, not even if we might eventually get to the turn of the screwdriver that might maybe save the world.
- Nail the landing! A second major failing of mine as a short story writer is nailing the landing (or, rather, not nailing it). The slush pile taught me I’m far from alone in this. So, NAIL THE LANDING! Don’t go out with a stupid twist, a whimper, a rushed tying up of all the loose ends, or with an ending that isn’t really an ending. The ending of your story should fit and it should satisfy (or make you cry or howl with rage). If you can’t manage it, put the story away for a while and maybe a few months down the line a great ending will worm its way out of the deepest, darkest depths of your creative subconscious. But do not submit a story with a stinking turkey of an ending, because no one is going to want to publish it, no matter how great the rest of the story is.
- Don’t submit what should be a novel The slush pile also taught me that my third and last (at least I hope) great personal failing as a short story writer also does not make me unique. Lots of people submitted stories that were so complicated and had so many characters in them, they were really just teaser trailers for or outlines of novels. The only solution to this one is go with that flow. Don’t send that story in, turn it into an entire book, even if it takes you years.
- Know your market The last thing I’d like to say is that if the magazine you’re submitting to has a theme or is niche in any way, don’t send them something that doesn’t fit. For instance, our magazine specializes in stories that help us imagine a future we’d actually like to live in, in the hopes that visualizing this future will inspire us to build that future. Otherwise we’re going to wait around in our underpants for the climate crisis to cause civilization to collapse before we haul ourselves up off the sofa to do something about it. But we received so many stories that had nothing to do with this or, downright dystopian, were exactly the opposite of what we we had clearly stated in our guidelines we were looking for. So, if it doesn’t fit the bill, don’t send it in. You’ll be wasting everybody’s time (including your own) and you will earn nothing for your trouble but one of the less than encouragingly worded rejections.
OK, I hope these help a bit! Now get back out there and write!! Because the final thing I learned from this whole episode is how excited editors get when they finally find a gem in the slush pile. We are all in this for the great stories and we’d really like the one that you write to be the next one.