When reviewing manuscripts and short stories I ask myself some questions. One of those questions has to do with impact.
Is it memorable?
If I set a book, manuscript, or short story aside for a few weeks and can’t remember what it’s about, chances are it either hasn’t gotten to the point where it has that punch for me, or it never will. This is best illustrated with my review process for short stories, because I can read them completely in one sitting. Once I do that I put it aside for 10 to 20 days. When I return to it, I ask myself what I remember.
I’ve already looked at a number of key components that contribute to great stories: compelling characters, original concepts, and great writing. Some of those categories could be broken down into different elements, such as voice, tone, technical execution. All matter, but the more I’ve read over the years, the more I realize that I will forgive B+ technical writing in a heartbeat if the story has A+ character connection or an amazing concept that captivates me and keeps me thinking for days on end after I’ve finished the last page.
Ultimately, that’s what I’m looking for. I want a story to sink its claws into me and not let go. I want it to make me think and ponder. I want to wonder what the character is doing now, or imagine how this invention or that law would change society today.
I want to be haunted by your words.
Editors use a lot of subjective terms. I do too. I catch myself writing rejection letters that say a story just didn’t grab me the way I needed it to in order for me to publish it.
What does that mean?
It Can Be About Taste
I (ahem) am not the biggest fan of vampire stories, for example. Zombies are a wee bit overdone at this point. However, there are always exceptions; the more you deviate from the tropes, the more likely I am to be interested. There are also few writers I know of who I’ll follow no matter what they write.
It Can Be Bad Timing
We had a curiously high number of stories that came in that involved scenes in graveyards, just to cite one example. When you’re reviewing short stories and see that, you begin to wonder if there was something in the water. Whatever the reason for it, we receive about 155-160 short story submissions a month and typically publish 2 stories. In order to rise to the top your story must stand out … and unfortunately, when it has strong commonalities to other stories it’s harder for your story to do that.
On The Nose
When a story has something about the character or their circumstances that we identify with, for that reason we will empathize on a deeper level, champion their rebellion, or celebrate their arc.
A friend of mine with a background in film used to tell me that you have to hit the audience on the nose in the opening. You’re reaching out and getting their attention. And then, every so often, the story has to repeat that. Reach out and give them a little tap to make sure they’re paying complete attention to the story.
Short stories have to do that, too. They must get your attention early on. Then they must give you a reason to keep reading. Sometimes, the reason I’m saying a story didn’t grab me the way I needed it to is because it failed to bop me on the nose.
And your mileage may vary. For someone else, the story may resonate immediately, even if it didn’t for me.
Ultimately, I want a story to surprise me. I want it to have that moment where I laugh out loud, or where I gasp with horror. I want it to stick with me after I’ve read the last words.
That, more than anything else, sells the story. It got to me. It hooked me. It stayed with me.
It was memorable.
And what is memorable is worth being read.
There are stories that I’ve rejected that have stayed with me. That alone may still not be enough, especially with our current numbers. While I’m looking at the possibility of increasing our fiction publication, I’m keenly aware of the fact that there will still be stories I really like that I have to reject, simply because of budget and schedule.
Advice to Apply
Since it’s been acknowledged that some of this is subjective, you might be wondering what you can take from this to improve your chances of success. My advice:
- Think outside the box. The more original it is, the more memorable
- Watch the info dumping. Too much backstory and setting and not enough character and action is almost always a recipe for rejection. Yes, some stories need backstory and need setting details, and they should be sprinkled in, but the more you put this at the beginning, the more risky it is.
- Characters matter. Introspective pieces that are largely narration work best when they stay in a POV character’s perspective and that character has a clear, strong voice.
- Endings can make or break you. I’ve been ready to advance a story right until the last line and then rejected it. You don’t want your story to fizzle, or your focus to shift from the main themes or events from the story. It should tie things up or contain a reveal that makes a reader’s eyes open a little bit wider or makes them smile or gasp with shock.
- And remember, what wows one editor may bore another. This is why the best way to gauge what an editor wants is to read what they publish. There are editors who only publish names or people who are popular in their circles, and I can’t help you with that. What I can say is that so far, every single person published at Bronzeville Bee has been new to our editorial staff. I personally find it thrilling to discover incredible new voices. I also find it inspiring to be the first to publish a promising writer. So, whether you have 200 publication credits or 20 or none, we’re going to give your story equal consideration to the work of everyone else. Write. Polish. Submit.
Show us what you’ve got.
Want to read a story that has stayed with me for more than 9 years since I first had the privilege of publishing it? There are others, but the one I always go to first is W.D. County’s My Name is Priscilla.