At Reflection’s Edge, we read hundreds of pages of submissions every month in the search for excellent writing. Surprisingly, a large number of the rejection slips we send out are due to the author making one of a few basic mistakes. A few writers have unique writing problems, but most of the problems we see involve one of a few key principles that every author should know, regardless of genre. On rare occasions, we’re willing to nurse an exceptionally promising writer through those problems, but usually we just move on to someone else who already has these concepts down. We don’t have time to do otherwise – especially if “otherwise” forces us to spend more time editing a story than the author spent writing it.
The good news? We’re giving you a cheat sheet.
Nine out of ten rejections we make wouldn’t be rejections if they followed the subsequent rules. Abiding by every one of these rules won’t make you Shakespeare (would that it could!), but if you learn these concepts and get them down pat, chances are, you’ll make it on to RE’s pages – and will find yourself having a lot more publishing success elsewhere, too.
1. Be professional.
It’s not exactly a writing problem, but a failure to act professionally can keep you from even getting read, much less published.
Most publications, including ours, will provide you with a very thorough set of guidelines which inform you of their professional expectations – we even include examples in ours. The most important thing you can do before submitting is to read the writers’ guidelines for the publication to which you are applying. Editors are only human – and a letter that misspells the editor’s name and fails to provide the needed information will put a serious mark against it from the start, if it’s even read at all. The publication you’re submitting to has gone out of its way to provide you with information; don’t insult your prospective publishers by failing to read up first.
In general, follow the rules – they were made to make things easier on everyone, after all. Write a professional cover letter if required (it usually is), and maintain a professional tone in all your communications. (We have a whole section in Resources devoted just to that.) If a resume and/or writing sample is required, send it in – even if you consider yourself well known (unless you’re Stephen King famous, in which case you have an agent to do this sort of thing for you anyway). Otherwise, chances are you’ll be forcing the editor to scrounge around on Google to find examples of your work, and creating more work for a likely already-overburdened editor is not the way to begin a professional relationship.
2. Know your punctuation, spelling and grammar.
We were tempted to put this first – it’s that important. Think of it as a subsection of professionalism. Maybe you’re thinking, But why do I have to worry about that? That’s the editor’s job! There are several reasons – the first of which is that grammar, spelling and punctuation exist because they are systems to help you, the writer, communicate more effectively. If you don’t properly understand the code, you’re not going to write a good program.
Second, proofreading shouldn’t be the primary focus of any literary editor – that should already be in place, excepting the occasional tweak (the odd grammar problem, or making sure a piece conforms to house style). A fiction editor’s main concern is editing for content and readability.
If nothing else, grammar, spelling and punctuation should be an author’s concern simply because badly spelled and punctuated stories with constant grammar errors are painful to read and hard to take seriously. They are unlikely to receive the best possible review, no matter how hard editors may try to be objective – in which case you’ll never have the chance to receive a proper edit. In large publications, your manuscript is unlikely to get past even the first round of reviews if you don’t bother to present it professionally.
Spellcheck is a must, and having a friend look over a manuscript before sending it off for publication is the absolute bare minimum. If you haven’t already invested in a grammar book (and studied it seriously), do so – it’s one of the first and most important steps to being a serious writer. Put the time in, and allow editors to take you seriously.
3. Show, don’t tell.
There’s a reason writing teachers have been chanting this since writing classes began. Readers want to see the action. Blatant exposition – “And then this happened, and then this happened, and this happened, don’t you remember, Johnny?” summary scenes – are boring. You have deprived the reader of the experience of seeing the action as it happened, and it’s also static as a scene. Nothing’s happening except some uninvolving narration (or dialogue, the slightly superior but still lazy way out). All of the interesting things have already taken place, and a POV character talking about the complicated and interesting past is almost cruel – “You shoulda been there, reader. Sorry, though, I’m too lazy to go back and show you.”
Does this mean you can’t start later in the story, and refer back to key events? Well, no. But you need to keep your reader involved with the present action as you slowly begin to fill your audience in on what has already happened – make sure you’re really ready to carry that double load.
4. Don’t try to make the audience feel emotions you haven’t created.
Starting a story with action or an intriguing problem is always a wonderful way to go – but immediately diving into a character’s emotional life without giving the reader a clue why they should be interested in it isn’t. We aren’t talking about all high-emotion situations – starting with a murder or in the middle of a battle is classic. Starting in the middle of a character’s pain, however, isn’t. Orson Scott Card puts it bluntly: “When you reach for emotions the story has not earned, we call it ’sentimental’ or ‘melodramatic.’” Ouch. How, then, to avoid it?
One of the best ways to deal with writing high emotion is simply to allow the reader time to get to know the character(s) enough to be emotionally involved. This doesn’t have to be terribly long – even a few paragraphs can do wonders, so long as the reader has enough information to involve him or her in the story.
Too much backstory can be a waste of time – never let it be said we’re against starting with plot movement or action – but don’t waste your high emotion by putting it in a place where your reader can’t appreciate it. If, despite all that, you must start with emotion, the key is not to wallow in the emotion itself – but rather in the circumstances and details surrounding it (show, don’t tell). Otherwise, your high emotion will be in danger of falling flat – and ruining your story.
5. Let your characters tell the story.
Deliberately choosing third person omniscient perspective is one thing – but lazy third person limited is another. There’s a certain kind of story that can benefit from, or even demands, an omniscient perspective – social commentaries among them. A more action-based story, however, tends to require limited third person, and most of us will naturally write it that way. The problem comes when an established third person limited narrative is suddenly broken by the author dropping in to inform the reader of something the characters could have told us. Not only does it seem clumsy, but it also interferes with suspension of disbelief. Remember to build a world through your characters, not despite them.
Even worse, some new authors alternate POVs in the same paragraph, or even the same sentence – leaving the story virtually incomprehensible. This doesn’t mean you must always be limited to one POV; plenty of great works alternate through several characters’ viewpoints. But remember, in a short story, time is limited. You must be extremely careful not confuse your readers by switching perspective too often or too quickly, as well as create and maintain a style for your story.
6. Address the whole story – but nothing more.
One of the most frustrating situations an editor is faced with is the author who tries too much. (S)he has created a new, fascinating world/series of ideas, and (s)he wants you to know all about it, without taking the time to actually flesh out all of those details. Stories like this are easy to spot, usually rife with exposition and summaries of the world told from the author’s point of view, rather than the characters’. These authors are aiming for a quantity of information, rather than in-depth quality, too eager to pass on all the things they’ve thought up.
For a story to work on a basic level, very few things have to be right: tense, perspective, grammar and punctuation, among them. But most importantly, the story must completely address the question it raises. That question could be epic – Will Ulysses ever cease to be prideful in his grand adventures? – but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, one of my favorite short pieces, “Magnetic Sheep” by James Lyn, is a single, gently written scene about a computer feeling rejected. With a few careful descriptions, the world the computer exists in is deftly illustrated, and though the plot might be limited, it accomplishes exactly what it set out to do: illustrate the perspective of a lonely little machine.
Most of us can’t help ourselves – we have grand epics to tell, worlds to save! – but there isn’t always time for that in a short story. Many authors are surprised when we tell them they either need to cut out most of the story or extend it into a novel, because it reads as rushed; how, they wonder, did they rush the story in 10,000 words, when we say that little old Jane Doe wrote a perfectly good story in 900? Didn’t they do a much better job than one-note author Jane Doe?
The difference between Jane Doe and, let’s say, QuickEpicStory Doe, is that Jane Doe dealt with one specific idea, and dealt with it completely.
7. Know what makes your genre work.
Horror is about dread and universal fears, not gore; erotica involves ideas as much or more than sex; mystery requires pacing and delicate hint dropping; and any period piece requires actual knowledge of the past. To a certain extent, all it takes is research – just make sure you do it. RE provides a number of resources on the subject.
8. Shocks, revelations, and tacked-on endings don’t make a story.
Kurt Vonnegut said that the reader should be able to guess the end of the story in case cockroaches eat the last page before (s)he gets there. We’re inclined to agree with him. Does this mean your story needs to be clichéd and overly predictable? No. But it does mean that a story, unlike a vignette, is made up of a sequence of events that form a cohesive whole. In other words, a series of great scenes does not necessarily make for a great story, especially when they’re only tenuously related.
A surprise twist ending is usually the lazy way out. Often it’s a sad case of a writer shooting himself in the foot – stopping the story just as things get interesting, ending on a note that should have been a beginning. If you have a shock and want to focus your story on it, consider starting with it instead – make the result of the shock as much the focus as the shock itself. Otherwise, you’ll have to spend most of your story – everything up until the shock – hiding things from the reader. Why waste time hiding everything that makes the story interesting?
Shock endings are a particular problem with horror writers, who have a tendency to pull out literal and metaphorical chainsaws when the plot’s wearing thin. In that case, remember this golden rule: dread (waiting fear, one might say) and horror are one and the same. Shock value does very little if it doesn’t actually increase the dread factor on a deeper level than a short shock.
9. Don’t overload the reader with facts, unusual names or words, or complex technical explanations – especially at the start of a story.
Although you may feel you’re just being up front with your reader and giving them the basic information necessary (which is always a good idea), too much information is almost worse than no information at all – making it virtually impossible for the reader to take it all in, much less enjoy it. While the reader counts on you to distribute necessary information, (s)he also trusts you to act as a kind of filter – to dispense only the facts which are important to the story. This means you need to parcel out the information when necessary, with enough clues to make it comprehensible.
For instance, it can sometimes be very important to know what a character is wearing, down to the last detail. It might be a clue that the character is not who she says she is, or that she comes from another world, or another time period. You might be writing a story based during the French Revolution, and class differences emphasized by clothing might be a source of bitterness and conflict. A character’s clothing may even act as a kind of prison or limit on movement, as with corsets and foot-binding. But most of the time, descriptions of what a character is wearing are inessential to the plot. Instead of an exhaustive catalog of every stitch on a character’s body (which can unintentionally “date” a story as written in a particular decade), leave the description simple; keep it to what is unusual or notable about the outfit: “She wore dozens of cheap bracelets, which jangled as she walked.” Often the clearest description is the one that tells the least. (And remember: your readers are interested in what you have to say as a storyteller, not a costume designer.)
The same is true of scientific information. What you, as an author, need to know about the world in which your story takes place is not the same as what your reader needs to know. Perhaps the gravity on this planet is 2.14 times Earth normal; all we need to know is that everyone and everything feels notably heavier. And we may not even need to know that, if the characters have never been off-world and noticed the difference – although you might tell us about their thick muscles, if you ever give a physical description. It’s another manifestation of “show, don’t tell” – instead of just throwing facts at us, tell us what they mean, and why they’re important. When possible, do this through description. Think of yourself as a tour guide, gently drawing your readers’ attention to important details so they don’t get lost in the big picture.
Remember to give your unusual names or words a system, or base them on a language you know; otherwise, they’ll just sound like gibberish. Make sure they’re pronounceable too, or you’ll jar your reader out of the flow of the story – and never, ever use a newly-created word when a regular one would work.
Bad Example: the confusing sci-fi adventure: Bkandarfxgyn grabbed his glurkby, petting its shiny surface once before he pulled it up to blow off the spledimen’s nasty felkem.
Good Example: the comprehensible sci-fi adventure: Ban grabbed his gun, petting its shiny surface once before he pulled it up to blow off the rat’s nasty legs.
You could even get away with a relatively exotic (but pronounceable) hero’s name, or the rat’s alien name, so long as you were careful to explain that this spledimen is surprisingly similar to the earth rat, only, say, scaled. Just don’t overload your readers. Star Wars’ “whomp rats” are a classic example of a simple, comprehensible name – a whomp rat does sound a little more impressive than a plain old rat, but at the same time, a general picture is created.
10. Don’t mislead the reader.
This can be done intentionally or unintentionally. The first drives us, and most readers, absolutely crazy – the reader should be able to trust the author, yet some authors insist on retaining all the power and drop false clues and manipulate conversations just so that the reader can’t figure the story out, creating nothing but false suspense. Even unreliable narrators should drop hints as to their unreliability. Reaching the end of the story only to have it revealed that all along the POV character was crazy (or that the butler has been impersonating the master all along and uses time travel, or that the heroine’s cousin was the father of her baby) without having had any clues leading up to it takes all the fun out of the story, and makes the reader lose all trust in the author.
This doesn’t mean information can’t be withheld – particularly when your POV character is just as clueless as the reader – but it does mean that some clues should be distributed, and that your POV character shouldn’t keep information from the reader. As a rule of thumb, ask yourself: am I having a hard time not giving away the ending? Have I had to bend over backward to not mention something? Am I devoting more energy to avoiding the story than telling the story? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” you’re withholding too much. Remember: your first and only job as a writer is to tell your reader a story. So tell your reader. If you really want to keep everything a secret, do it by not writing the story down; then you’ll fool everybody, forever. It’ll just be kinda lonely.
The second case of misinformed readers is more forgivable, but nevertheless problematic. This situation is created by authors delivering a series of ambivalent descriptions, or contradictory facts – the author having forgotten that the readers don’t know as much as (s)he does. This can be as simple as calling a character by three different names, without warning the reader that they’re all the same person. It can be setting a story on a desert planet but never remembering to tell the reader, so that (s)he wonders why sand always seems to get into the equipment. Usually, correcting this is just a matter of setting the story aside for a little while after you’ve written it, and then trying to look at it again through fresh eyes.
However, there are a few difficulties unique to speculative fiction. Primary among these is the danger of metaphor. In a work of literature, metaphor is charming and poetic. In a work of science fiction, metaphor is horribly confusing. The first thing to remember is that the reader is exercising his or her suspension of disbelief when reading your story. So if you say that a corpse walks into a room – a corpse just walked into the room! And bam, we’re reading horror. If you actually meant a man who looked like a corpse, though…whoops. Your reader doesn’t know that. Be careful to say what you mean – particularly as a speculative fiction writer.
In the end, the most important thing is to simply put in the time it takes to make your story as polished as possible. Make sure that you have addressed all the information that editors and readers need covered, that you have carefully thought out the logic of your story, and that you’ve done the research. If you have, chances are you’ll have on your hands a complete story – a piece that’s as publishable as it is wonderful to read.