5 Slip Ups to Avoid – January 24th, 2018

I read several hundred short stories by fledgling writers so that you don’t have to.

As part of the submission review process for Weird City No. 2, I sifted through a mountain of stories from writers looking to be part of Weird City’s “strange things in dense places” mantra and, as I did, I noticed certain flubs appear over and over again. Now I’m going to share the top 5 mistakes writers made so that you can avoid them when you write and/or submit your next short story.

Drumroll, please…

Mistake #5 – Glossing Over the Good Bits

Yes, it is possible to have too much detail. But part of good storytelling is knowing what details to include and which to leave out. In particular I noticed a lot of writers slipping into full “telling” mode, where they would spend paragraphs infodumping about their protagonist’s backstory or nuances in the world they had created, only to later gloss over the actual events of the story with thinly written lines that would be anemic even in a screenplay.

Don’t gloss over the good bits in your story. We readers want to experience the suspense and action and drama for ourselves–we want to feel it. Make us feel it. Admittedly this is hard to do, which is exactly why so many writers cop-out and vomit up a stale declaration of what’s occurring (or occurred).

On a similar note, it is blisteringly difficult to pull off an infodump in a short story. The real estate in a short story is limited and spending it on infodumps will make your story feel more like a Wikipedia article than a work of fiction. Instead try writing those infodumps for you–and just you. Use them to inform your characters’ actions and behaviors but please, for the love of god, don’t make the rest of us read them.

Mistake #4 – (Un)original Sin

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (and again, I’m sure): If you want to write fiction, you need to read fiction. There are many reasons for this but one of the less obvious reasons is that if you aren’t reading the genre of the work you’re writing, you’ll struggle to identify when you’re using cliches or tropes.

I read so many submissions that presented a cliched idea as if it was some masterfully-penned original. There were mysteries with trite conclusions, antiheroes with generic faults, and worlds with snooze-inducing grittiness. Sometimes I would start my reading by writing down my prediction on how these cliches would play out and it was startling how often I was right.

If you’re submitting a story to a literary magazine like Weird City, consider this: editors and slush pile readers are avid readers, both of traditionally published fiction and submitted material. They have seen countless ideas and will be able to sniff out your unoriginality before they’re done with the first paragraph. Which isn’t to say you can’t use cliches or tropes, but you need to be informed when you do and to do that you need to read.

Incidentally, if you’re interested in being a slush pile reader for Weird City–and honing your reading chops–drop me a line.

Mistake #3 – Tasting Purple

You had to know this one was coming–the big, bad monster that is purple prose. And boy, was it everywhere with this round of submissions. Sometimes it was only minor, such as bloated vocabulary and overwrought descriptions, and other times I had to pause after reading a paragraph to wonder what the hell I had just read.

The goal of writing is not to show off your thesaurus.com skills or to linguistically masturbate, and it certainly isn’t to leave your reader so confused they have to go back and reread entire passages.

Purple prose is a plague. Writers love to write it–the way big talkers like to hear themselves speak–but it is dry and exhausting to read. Don’t give into the temptation.

Mistake #2 – Where is Captain Hook?

I’m going to let you in on a secret. But you have to promise you’ll only use it for good. Can you do that? Can you make that promise? Okay… here goes.

When I read a submission I set a timer for 2 minutes and when that timer goes off, I write down either GREEN, YELLOW, or RED. REDs get rejected–no exceptions–and a huge number of stories earned a RED during this review round because there was no hook in sight.

You have to give your readers a reason to keep reading. You need a hook. Not in the first chapter, not in the first page, not even in the first paragraph but in the very first sentence of your story. Otherwise you’re asking the reader to trust you that the story is worth their time. That might work for friends and family reading your tale, but for a stranger? Not a chance.

Mistake #1 – Tech Specs

In a way this mistake feels anticlimactic compared to the ones that came before, but the truth needs to be said: the majority of rejections I sent out were because the submitter did not know how to follow the submission guidelines.

My submission guidelines are strict but not arcane. I request a manuscript in the style of William Shunn, and a visit to this site gives an easy-to-copy example of what I want: 12pt font in Courier New, double-spaced, italics underlined, all with a cover page that includes details relevant to the story. All pretty standard.

Yet people kept sending manuscripts with different formatting or–amazingly–with details missing… like their name. I’m not sure if those writers think theirs is the only story I’m receiving, but I (like many) will download dozens of submissions at a time and then read through them. It takes a tremendous amount of time. So, when a writer can’t even be bothered to follow my formatting, I can’t help but feel they don’t respect my time–and I toss their story.

Formatting aside, the other technical mistake I saw far too often were typos. A typo is not an automatic rejection–mistakes happen–but when there are numerous typos throughout or typos in the first few paragraphs (hell, or even in the first line), it is very, very hard for me not to judge the story for it. Writers, remember: you’re asking someone to buy your story. You want it to look as polished as possible and if you can’t even pluck out obvious and/or early typos, any self-respecting editor is going to think your story isn’t worth their time or money.

That’s a Wrap

Hopefully I’ve given all you writers something to think about the next time you go to submit a story to a lit mag, as well as something for you editors out there to commiserate over. And, if you’ve a writer who has made these mistakes in the past (or perhaps only now realize you have), don’t dismay. There’s always next time.

In the meantime, keep on writing.