Table of Contents
The good news first. There’s an infinite range of narrative voices and characters and ideas and settings that make a story shine. There’s no checklist of things you need to plod through to make sure a story’s good, and that means the sky’s the limit. There are, however, some concrete things to avoid if you want your story to make it out of the slush pile and into FFO’s second round of consideration. Slush readers all have their own particular pet peeves and reasons for declining a story, but here’s some advice on how to avoid common problems we encounter.
1. Research your market. This is pretty basic, a threshold consideration. Familiarize yourself with the magazine’s stories. While FFO doesn’t limit itself to stories in a particular genre, you can get a sense of editorial preferences if you read previous issues. For example, we often get vignettes or slice-of-life pieces in which a first-person narrator goes about their life, talks to some people, does some things, and reflects on meaning and beauty in the everyday. While there are plenty of literary markets seeking such stories, FFO prefers stories with bold plots and character arcs that demonstrate transformation of some kind, whether small or big. When you submit to magazines whose stories feel similar to your own literary aesthetic in some way or another, you’re already ahead of the queue and increase your chance at publication.
2. De-purple your prose. I’ll be honest, this is the biggest of my pet peeves—probably because it’s uncomfortably familiar. When I first began writing stories, my prose also had unnaturally long and complex sentences, an excess of adjectives and adverbs, and florid descriptions that did nothing to further the story. Purple prose is a giveaway that you’re not confident in your craft. When your writing is self-conscious, it obscures other aspects of the story that might actually be interesting or unusual. Before sending a story out, take a microscope to your sentences. Ask yourself if time spent crafting flowery language is taking your attention away from key story elements like plot, character arcs, pacing, and setting. Ask whether and how each sentence moves the story along, or if a simpler word might suffice instead of a more complicated one.
3. Vary sentence length and style. Sometimes, I’ll read a story like this. It was cold and rainy. I was late for work. On the way to the bus stop, I saw a box. It was a mysterious box. I wondered whose it was. I opened it. It was Pandora. She was irritated that I hadn’t knocked so she snatched away my umbrella. She hit me over the head. Oh wow, it hurt. I took two Tylenol.
You get the point—it feels like a hungover robot wrote this (and the current onslaught of AI-generated stories makes me think that might actually be true). Follow short sentences with longer ones and vice versa; use transition words; be declarative and descriptive. Keep your prose varied. Keep it interesting.
4. Avoid tired tropes. Readers want unexpected stories but also have subconscious expectations they want met based on the type of story you’re telling. In walking the fine line between these two, many authors end up writing derivative, tropey stories with stock characters, plots, and settings we’ve all seen way too many times before. So if you’re writing in the fantasy genre, for example, don’t submit a story about elves, dwarves, and humans caught in a conflict—unless you’re doing something truly subversive with it. The same goes for stories about witches who live deep in the forest with only a cauldron and a talking animal for company, or stories set in bleak dystopian futures, or in taverns with lots of beer and quippy dialogue. Understand the conventions of the genre in which you’re writing and invigorate those conventions. Look at them sideways, ask yourself “what if,” do something unusual, subvert the reader’s expectations. In no particular order, here are some other tropey things that make my eyes glaze over immediately: the clever, jaunty thief with a good heart and sparkly eyes; the violent, alcoholic, and/or abusive man humanized because sad things happened to him; the woman whose story depends on her being sexually violated and/or saved by a man; the ghost who reminisces about a past life; the plot revealed entirely through dialogue between two characters.
5. Rewrite that long-winded introduction. Flash is ruthless. You’ve only got a thousand words to write a complete story, which means the reader needs to be hooked if not by the first line, then definitely by the end of the first paragraph. Don’t waste your words. We often see stories where the first five to six hundred words consist of ponderous exposition, scene-setting, and meandering reflections. Just as the story starts heating up, it’s over. If I don’t know what your story is about by the end of the first paragraph, I’m going to reject it.
6. Investigate whether your story is a thinly-veiled opinion piece. The world’s getting scarier and we all have strong opinions on who’s to blame and where solutions lie. But when your political opinions are the driving force behind your story, it shows. Slush readers can tell pretty quickly when story elements are simply being used in service of the belief that technology is all bad, or nature is all good, or the rich are evil, or the poor are noble, or humanity is doomed etc. Prioritize your character arcs and plot over your politics.
7. Consider what information you’re withholding and why. This one’s tricky. On the one hand, withholding information can be a great way to maintain your reader’s interest, especially in the mystery genre where the reader’s given hints and clues along the way, all of which eventually culminate in a larger truth that the reader and main character discover together. In the slush context though, most stories withhold with no purpose other than to be cryptic until the very last moment when boom, we find out the main character is a ghost, or the whole thing was a dream, or the death was actually just a simulation. This feels like a cheap trick, a “haha gotcha” moment more than anything else, and your story will be instantly rejected. Also, since the whole point of the “gotcha” story is to hide a key fact from the reader until the end, the rest of it is often frustratingly vague and lacking in stakes.
8. Speaking of stakes, what yours are and why the reader should care. It’s a harsh question but a good one. Ask yourself why anyone but you should care about your story. The answer usually comes down to stakes. Something of consequence must be at stake for your main character. In speculative genres, this can often be something external, dramatic, or life-altering. In the literary genre, stakes often come down to a character’s internal struggles or a moral dilemma of some kind. Whatever the stakes are, they should matter to your main character otherwise the reader won’t make the emotional connection necessary to be invested in the story. Another stakes-related problem that comes up frequently is with stories that start after an apocalyptic event, brutal invasion, or attack is over. The reader has no context for what the main character gained or lost, or why, or at what cost, so it’s difficult to care about their feelings in the aftermath—the action is all past.
A note to authors that these tips aren’t genre-specific and apply across the board to your stories. I hope this was helpful. Keep reading, keep writing, keep submitting!
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