With a poem and two stories of my own under review at three publications, now’s the perfect time to list eight reasons I reject stories at our online, speculative, short fiction publication.
These reasons aren’t one size fits all; every story is different. There will always be several unique reasons and several typical reasons that don’t fall into this list below. If you’ve ever received a form rejection letter from a publication and wondered why your story didn’t make the cut, this list definitely won’t have the precise answer. Only the publication that rejected your story knows that.
However, it will give you some valuable insights into what can often play a role in rejections, and what to avoid in your next submission.
I wanted to be carried away by the sea of writing, the plot, the characters. Instead the story was so shallow I could taste sand.
The characters’ actions, reactions, and inactions weren’t believable. Things occurred simply because the plot required they happen, not because they had any logical or reasonable cause underpinning them.
The lack of that foundational depth reverberates through every other element of the story, creating a ripple effect that reveals transparent constructs, not the engaging story you’d meant to write.
The story lacked challenge, conflict (not necessarily physical) and robbed the characters of an opportunity to grow or at least overcome some odds. The author handed them victory, rewards, and the apple of their eye on a silver platter.
This isn’t limited to easy but favorable outcomes for characters. Any major element (or minor, if glaring and obtrusive enough) that runs on the energy of convenience undercuts the story as a whole.
This includes, but is not limited to:
- Convenient backstories that explain away rather than enrich.
- Unearned and inexplicable, but very handy skills and know-how that grant an easy victory.
- Throwaway tragedies that don’t examine the human condition, reflect, or dive into grief to some degree, but all the same attempt to garner reader sympathy or justification for character actions.
- Convenient stupidity and laziness that facilitates an outcome a character should have otherwise foreseen.
- A convenient romance that lacks any depth to the relationship, wraps itself in an over-saccharine blanket, defies any in-story logic and happens simply because a man met a woman (or any combination of that and with any gender). This is a pretty common trapping for writers.
The editorial team was left scratching their heads in collective confusion as to what, exactly, the author was going for. The story went through a number of identity crises in search of itself and still wound up lost.
I love to be surprised, for conventions to be turned inside out and upside down, but it has to work. Experimentation, surprises, convention and trope busting all require an attention to detail, internal consistency, depth and reasoning that should be visible (overtly or covertly) when reading the story.
If an author’s attempt doesn’t work, it’s not because I just didn’t get it (though I’ll readily admit if I just don’t get it!), but because the story itself is still quite confused. Further still, making sure readers get it is our job as authors. If they don’t, that’s our fault.
Oftentimes, a story is jammed with too many themes, plots and subplots. On their own, each of them would be brilliant, but together they’re a directionless and conflicting mess, each one competing unsuccessfully for my attention.
Another component of this is endings that come out of left field. Poorly foreshadowed plot twists and endings, if they’re foreshadowed at all, leave a bad taste in my mouth.
This requires a list of ways authors often indulge. To the bullet points!
- Characters with runaway–and admittedly entertaining–dialogue and interactions that drowned out the entire plot of the story. I love my scene-stealers, too, but editorial control dictates I rein them in when they’re having too much fun at the story’s expense.
- A sex scene that got down and dirty without a clear purpose and without adding any meaning to the character’s lives or the story’s progression.
- A meaningless, over-the-top action scene, battle, fight, or otherwise violent episode that added nothing to the story and required me to take two showers to get all the blood out.
- The prose reveled in its own grandiose purpleness. I love well-written literary, speculative fiction. The writing is rich, consistent, knowingly bends or breaks traditional techniques and rules, and often digs deeper into the characters, their motivations, and the story’s theme(s)–it also always has a firm, grounded plot.
Sporadic, inconsistent, and overwritten purple passages that disregard the fundamentals (without understanding them) are not literary fiction. Doing it poorly is the problem. Oftentimes this manifests as style and abstractness over substance, tangibility, and an actual plot.
If a writer has to choose between entertaining, educating and preaching, always choose the first two or at least the first one. Never choose the third. I don’t normally speak in absolutes when I give writing advice, but I’m firm on this one. It doesn’t matter whether the writer’s gospel is anarchy, climate change, a religious belief, capitalism, moral relativism, or free-hamburger Wednesdays: if their story’s theme and message come across as preaching I’m more than likely going to reject it.
Here are a few telltale signs that a story is preaching:
- Two-dimensional characters.
- Demonization of one or more sides of the debate, argument, or conflict.
- Physical caricatures which belittle an opposing worldview. Often this telltale sign acts in concert with the two above–especially when juxtaposed with the physical description of the characters who hold the dominant and often correct worldview.
- The dominant and correct worldview (in the author or story’s eyes) goes unchallenged, as does the character who holds said view.
Sometimes the story just needs more revision and editing to either lose 500 – 2000 words, or gain 200 – 500 words in order to improve the piece as a whole.
Adding words often means giving the piece the proper denouement it deserves. It’s good to leave readers with some unanswered questions, to leave them wanting more, but leaving off a real ending is not the way to achieve that.
I can’t stress how many stories I’ve rejected for being incomplete or simply ending without any resolution. It’s one of the most unsatisfying things to read.
Nothing happened. The story wasn’t really about anything. No characters grew or learned. Not every character has to grow or learn, indeed. But those that don’t ought to drive the plot, move readers, or keenly observe other actors in their world who are doing something worth reading about. Setting a wonderful scene, creating a fantastic world or system, and crafting memorable characters for their own sake–simply to have them exist–does not a story make.
This ties into the point about overindulgence. I love character study, but in my field–speculative and genre fiction–and at our publication in particular, the story still needs a decent plot structure.
Stories come to life when something happens in that scene, when the world or system collapses or must survive internal and external forces, when those characters act, react, learn and grow, chase dreams and run from fears or face them. Stories are about living, breathing people, and what they do when challenged; stories are about what happens next.
Wooden characters with stilted dialogue, plot holes, rushed endings, dropped subplots, deus ex machina solutions, consistent grammatical and spelling errors, and incoherent or rambling prose, all fall under the umbrella term underdeveloped writing. It neatly covers some issues mentioned in this post and several not listed here.
It’s also much kinder than saying bad writing. There are no bad writers. There is only underdeveloped writing. When we look at it that way, there’s always room for us to improve if we’re willing to put the work in. The image above illustrates this perfectly. Parts of the wall are covered in beautiful tile, but the job is unfinished. The old tattered brick, the structure underneath the polish, is still visible.
Likewise, it can sometimes seem like too much of an author’s earlier draft, their original unpolished core concept, is still visible.
If a writer is truly called to the work, if they must tell stories, underdeveloped writing can be turned into a beautiful work of art and an appealing purchase through study, hard work, peer review, revision and editing, and persistence.
Great writers are not born; they’re made of blood, sweat, tears and sacrifice. Their works are the fruits of a marriage between a love of literature itself and a dedication to their craft, to improving how they tell their stories.
In summation, here are eight reasons I reject stories:
- Shallow story, lacked depth.
- Too easy: relied on convenience.
- Story tried to be too many things and failed at each of them.
- Overindulgent writing or gratuitous story elements. Called attention to itself (themselves) and away from the story.
- The story preached at me and potential readers.
- Length issues: ran too long or stopped too short.
- Bored me to tears.
- Underdeveloped writing.
I’m a firm believer that enriching a story with depth tackles the above list head on, teaches writers to preemptively look for weak spots and strengthen them, guides them toward natural solutions to problematic constructs, and puts them that much closer to their goals of publication, recognition, and payment for doing what they love.
If you’re an editor, what are common rejection reasons not listed here? What would you add?
If you’re an author, which of these are a weakness of yours? Which did you disagree with? What hallmarks of underdeveloped writing do you routinely seek and destroy in your own works?
Let me know in the comments!
Thank you for reading!
Catch me on Twitter at @WhetstoneEditor to continue the discussion there using all the apropos hashtags, and the Whetstone originals #FictionDepth, #DepthIsValue, #TimeIsValuable, #WhetstoneEditor, #GSFiction, and #DSFA (Dear Speculative Fiction Authors).