Having just now been in the thick of reading submissions for The Forgotten and the Fantastical 5, I was once again struck by the fact that year on year the same issues crop up in the short stories I’m sent. So I thought it would be of use to run through the most common problems. Avoid them and you’ll greatly increase your chances of getting a ‘yes please’ rather than a ‘no thanks’ from an editor.
1) Changing tense
An author starts writing in the present tense, because this is the current vogue form, and then about halfway through they switch to the past tense for no apparent reason – most likely because it feels so much more natural to write a story in the past tense. Now, if in every other respect the story is strong, this isn’t a deal breaker, but from an editor’s point of view it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
2) Continuity errors
At the start of the story the protagonist has red hair and marries Tony. But then, later on, the protagonist has black hair and the husband is now Michael. The protagonist either changes husbands and hair colours frequently, or the author has made a continuity error (or two) and not noticed.
3) Hyper punctuation
O.M.G.!!!! This one is, er, like, totally distracting!!! Because the editor is thinking WHAAAAATTTTT am I going to do about all those bl@*dy exclamation marks????!!!! I mean, you KNOW WHAT I MEAN….??!!!
Sometimes this actually is an accurate reflection of the voice of a character, but often I’ve seen hyper punctuation come and go in a story at random times. And if the whole story is written in this voice, then the reader gets exhausted. It’s like being in the company of an overexcitable pre-teen, LIKE FOREVER!!!!
4) Avoidance of ‘said’
It really is okay to mostly use ‘he said/she said’. However, sometimes I’ve seen writers go out of their way to avoid using ‘said’. One of my particular bugbears is the use of ‘she smiled’ and ‘he grinned’ to indicate speech. You really can’t smile an answer or gurn a response. Go on, try it. Smile that last sentence out loud to the person next to you.
5) Stereotypical characters
In a fairy tale, characters don’t tend to have highly developed, rounded personalities. Traditional fairy tales deal in archetypes rather than conflicted or emotionally ambiguous characters. However, in a story that is aiming to rework a fairy tale, particularly one that is literary and contemporary in nature, it’s important to see a fully-rounded character rather than a stereotypical one. The reader should have a really good sense of what the character is like. But all too often I see sketchily drawn characters that are more like props than people. I’m not even sure the author herself really knows them.
6) No character development
This is another issue that I mainly see in the literary short fiction I’m sent (i.e. a story that is more character-driven than plot-driven). Once a skilled author has created a well-rounded, believable character (see above) and knows everything about them, then they’ll also know what drives them and how the character will develop as a result of the obstacles placed in front of them. But sometimes no internal turmoil troubles the character. They don’t change for the better or worse, or get rewarded with fresh insights or an epiphany; they simply go on as before. Of course, this often does happen in real life, but many readers will naturally be rooting for the protagonist. They’ll want to see them grow and develop and be able to empower and better themselves in some way. If not, then they may well give up on the character and story.
7) There is no plot
Ah, the old ‘nothing happens’ story. It’s just one great big slice of telling: so-and-so got up and then got dressed and then had breakfast and then brushed his teeth and then combed his hair and then did a poo. (Actually, I quite like that last bit – it’s at least refreshingly honest.) But really, if nothing happens soon, you’re going to lose the editor fast.
8) The inconsistent milieu
Setting a story in anything other than the contemporary world needs extra thought and care. Especially if your story is set in some magical past or science-fictional future. It’s good to get the reader picturing the milieu quickly and confidently, not by having a massive info. dump at the start, but by skilfully drip-feeding them interesting nuggets of information as the story continues to keep pace. There’s nothing more jarring than the reader fully believing that the story is set in the contemporary world when suddenly, there be dragons! Foreshadowing keeps the reader on the author’s side.
9) Too many ideas
Novels are large and spacious enough to cope with lots of interesting ideas, short stories not so much. On occasions I’ve had some stories sent to me that were compelling, beautifully written and image-rich. But too much has been going on. Different ideas have been pulling the author this way and that leaving the story simply too ‘busy’. With short stories, less is almost always more.
10) Getting your science wrong
As an ex-scientist with a natural curiosity about the world I want to know how stuff works, and I want to read intelligent science fiction that makes me think and stretches my brain (in a good way). If you’re sending a science fiction short story into the publishing world it’ll most likely be read by someone, like me, who really loves science and wants to see that the author has taken great care with their science. Make careless errors, or use sciencey words in an unthinking or dismissive way, and the editor may well see red.
None of the above issues are complete deal breakers if the story has some spark about it and there’s just some unqualifiable something about it that really speaks to the editor. If that editor has the time and inclination to work with the author on the story, then there’s a chance that a high-quality story will be the result of that co-working. But, and this is a very big but, there are so many excellent short story writers out there who really know their stuff and are able to deliver stories as near to perfection as it is possible to get. They know to avoid the above or, at least, to “break the rules” in such a stylish and refreshing manner that you want to doff your (metaphorical) cap to them. If you’re not quite at that level yet, keep going and keep reading in the short story form. Continued, regular practise will be your greatest ally. That, as well as a handy checklist of things to avoid.