Thursday, June 28, 2012

Top Ten Reasons Why I Reject Flash Fiction Stories

I've blogged about being a slush reader for Flash Fiction Online, but it's been a while since I've updated you on it. In an average month, my team will have about 80 stories to review. Only stories with two votes for publication are guaranteed to move into the next round. A story can still be sent on if someone likes it enough to fight for it. So, when you submit a story for consideration your first hurdle is to get the slush pile reader to like it.

So over the last six months I've complied my top ten reasons why I reject a story. Keep in mind that the items on the list are my reasons for saying "no," other slush readers may, and probably do, have different reasons for rejecting stories. When I started the list I thought I was going to have to work to fill it up. Sadly, I didn't.

10. The "Meh" Response. Sometimes there's nothing technically wrong with a story, but it still isn't working for me. Often this is because I can't find anything "special" in it. What do I mean by "special?" If you are using one of the tried and true tropes (girl meets vampire, they fall in love, she becomes a vampire to be with him forever, for example), you need a new take on the trope to set it apart from everything else out there. Stephanie Meyers had sparkly vampires - that was new. The more tried and true your base storyline, the more you'll need those "special" elements to make the story stand out for me. It could be your main character (MC) doesn't have any particular strong traits and doesn't make me hate him enough to love him, or there's no real setting (or a "usual suspect one"). In every story you write, something and usually several somethings have to be special. It has to draw me in and make me take notice. Stories that get the "Meh" response are often at the "close, but not quiet there" level because the don't hook me.

9. The Main Character Is Too Stupid To Live. Okay, we've all done it. I've done it. If an MC is making obviously dumb choices just to move your story along, the writer will have a problem convincing me to move that story to the next level. Often this problem is because the MC doesn't have enough of a personality to make the stupid choice. We've all pick a path that was obviously wrong even when we knew it was. Why'd we do it then? Because that's who we are. The same has to be true for characters. A teenager making a bad choice (like shoplifting) on impulse, I'll find plausible. I won't find the same action plausible if the person is a fifty-year old male who is successful, rich, and a pillar of the community if  I haven't seen in advance that he has poor impulse control, or  some other credible reason why he's suddenly willing to throw his life away to snatch a t-shirt. A character's actions must line up with her personality traits and motivations.

8. Overuse of a thesaurus, "denseness" or other forms of "purple prose".  In my definition, "purple prose" or "dense writing" happens when the writer is busy showing us her style and that style is getting in the way of the storytelling. Fifty cent words are great when the character, and not the writer, would actually use them. Yes, use all five senses, but not in the same sentence. Not every noun needs an adjective. Not every verb needs an adverb. This type of "dense" writing is hard to read. My attention wants to stray to something else.

I tend to be guilty of "sparse" writing. I don't get into interior thoughts or scene setting enough. My editor's comments are often - "add more X here." As a result, when someone else is laying it on thick, I notice. Pare your work to only use the descriptions that matter. While a 66 word sentence are fine on occasion, they shouldn't be the norm. If your sentences look like paragraphs, you might have a problem to address.

7. Numerous Grammatical Errors. Bet you thought this would be higher didn't you?

No matter how many times you go over a manuscript, there will be typos, dropped words and other errors. I can forgive some. If you have a lot, you're telling me you don't care enough about the story and don't respect my time enough for me to waste any more on the story.

By the way, knowing when to break a paragraph is essential. Knowing how to write dialog, including internal dialog, is essential. Sixty-six word sentences (no joke, I do count) almost always need to be broken down as they express more than one thought.

Check to make sure your pronouns link to the noun you wanted. After a 66 word sentence with numerous nouns the word "it" in the next sentence refers back to the last noun, which is probably not the one you wanted.

6. A Forgettable Main Character  Or One I Have No Sympathy For. I don't have to like your main character, but it helps. If you are writing an unlikable main character you have your job cut out for you. You need to make me care about John the Bastard if you expect me to read his story. The anti-hero story can be wonderful when done right. And I can reject a story about a perfectly nice main character. Whether your character is likable or not, I need to have some connection to her. Without a connection, you make it easy for me to reject the story.

5. Lack of Clarity. I'm not going to work too hard to figure out what's going on. If I can't do so in a paragraph or two, you've given me a reason to stop reading. I MIGHT go back and look at the story again to see if my confusion was because I was tired or preoccupied, but I might not. Don't risk your story on that chance. Stories that I end up saying, "hu?" or "what just happened?" get voted off the island.

4. Telling me the character's bored or it's just an ordinary day. If the character's bored why should I want to go on a journey, even the short one in flash, with her? The same issue exists with telling me that "the day started out like any other. . ." I groan a bit when I see that. While common wisdom says start your story before your MC's world gets blown to heck, common wisdom is also wrong. If you need an "establishing shot" of every day life, it needs to be short and absolutely required for me to understand what happens.  I'll give you a paragraph (which in flash is generous) to give me an issue or a character to get involved with.

3. Not submitting a complete story.  This is actually easier to do than you would think, especially in the flash (500 - 1,500 word) format. I've seen some wonderful character sketches and scenes, but that doesn't make them publishable. A complete story has a beginning, middle and end. If your story doesn't have all of these it will get the "NAS" (Not A Story) label and a reject vote. Check out my post on the Hollywood Formula for Flash Fiction for more on this one.

2. Withholding the main character's name.  You aren't creating mystery; you aren't making your main character "any man." You are annoying me as the reader. There are a precious few times when you should withhold the main character's name like when your story is told in the first person, but the MC doesn't interact with other characters right away. But as soon as the MC does run into someone else, you should tell me the MC's name.

1.  Withholding information the Point of View character knows as a means to create a mystery or a twist.  This is PET PEEVE #1 for me so be warned. I see many stories where the writer withholds a critical piece of information that the point of view character knows, like the ghost in the story is really the main character's little sister, to "create suspense" or a "twist." If your suspense is based on hiding information from your reader, you don't have suspense, you have a trick.

The Sixth Sense worked because the main character didn't know the twist, and early on in the story the viewer is told the critical piece of information that makes the main character's lack of knowledge credible. If you dissect The Sixth Sense, you'll see hints scattered throughout the movie leading up to the "twist." It's why we accepted it.

If you are going to withhold information you have to be very careful which point of view you use so that person doesn't know the truth and the reader figures it out with him. Otherwise it's a quick trip to the reject bin for the story.

Anyway, those are some of the reasons I'll turn a story down. They apply to whether you're writing flash or an epic fantasy. Hopefully knowing how this slush reader thinks will help you get published. Good luck and keep submitting.

If you want to critique my work to see if I violated my own guidelines,  you can find my two short story collections, Paths Less Traveled and Shots at Redemption, at Musa Publishing, Amazon, Barnes and Nobel and Smashwords.


Holley Trent said...

I tend to be a sparse writer, too. My college lit professors loved that when it was exam time, but it's not so great a habit for fiction.

I'd say at least 33% of my final word count comes from drafts two and three. :-|

Kate Richards said...

OMG you had me at "Too Stupid to Live" :)As a reader, when I sit down to enjoy a story...that is a throw the book across the room gaffe. Of course, now I read ereaders I can't do that. Sort of takes some of the joy out of it.

Margaret said...

I'm a sparse writer too. I like clean writing and dislike overuse of adverbs and purple prose. (Blech.)

This is a good list. And good advice for writers, Nancy!

Eleni Konstantine said...

Great roundup, Nancy.