During the submissions period for Ye Olde Magick Shoppe, my current anthology project, I received around a hundred submissions. Some were of beginner quality, which is not a bad thing per se, since it means that the authors can improve their work through feedback. Other works were of higher quality, but didn’t mesh well with my own particular aesthetic preferences; other editors may well accept such work, even if I didn’t. Unfortunately, between the sheer number of submissions and my own time constraints, I did not give individualized feedback to the submitters—which is not fair of me, since they did put in the work.
I think it’s worthwhile, therefore, to write up a post discussing some of the common patterns among work that was not accepted for the anthology. That way, authors considering submitting their work to me in the future will know more about my preferences, and whether their story fits with them.
(I should emphasize that not all stories that were turned down fall under one of these categories. If you submitted work, do check if anything in this discussion resonates with your experience; but there’s no need to jam your story into a category just because it’s here.)
With that, in no particular order:
Mark Twain once said words to the effect of, “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Some of the submitted stories had prose which lacked fluency and smoothness, or had frequent errors of meaning or grammar. This does not necessarily disqualify a story—in my previous anthology I accepted more than one story that needed extensive editing, because the plot and characters were strong enough to justify the work needed to fix them. But it took a lot of work on my part to fix these stories, and I’ll only accept a rough story if it has great merit otherwise. Often, inexperienced prose was accompanied with some of the plotting flaws discussed below, which is not surprising.
The solution here is simply to write, and write, and write, and study what good writing looks like so that you can improve your prose over time. As you develop your technical ability and prose style and it becomes instinctive, you will be able to transcend the need to labor on your prose as much—so you can spend more effort on plot, characterization, and so on.
Common in stories that were trying to introduce an entire elaborate setting or magical system, an infodump (also called “expository lump”) is an explanation or exposition that is not smoothly integrated into the scene action, “as if a page from an encyclopedia accidentally got shuffled in.” For example, a story might spend several paragraphs on the precise details of how to enchant magical rings, most details of which do not actually affect the present story.
Figuring out how to provide vivid detail or to introduce the rules of your setting to the reader without bringing the plot to a screeching halt is a difficult element of the craft; a good rule of thumb is to give background information one or two sentences at a time, interspersed with plot action or dialogue. This is not a hard and fast rule, of course. Another rough guideline is to introduce setting details only if they actually affect the plot (though some authors create powerful literary effects through their intricate ornamental details). In any event, the more sensitive you get to the flow and pacing of your scenes, the better you will become at this.
The “And” Plot
In this story, something happens, and something else happens, and something else happens… but each event seems disconnected. There is no progression from one episode to the next. A character might face several challenges, but they lack a connecting thread or any lasting consequences. (In D&D terms, it’s a series of wandering-monster encounters, rather than a coherent adventure.) Common examples were stories in which the proprietor interacted with several customers one after another, but without learning anything from each or being otherwise affected by them, and without each customer contributing to the plot progression. If you could shuffle the customers and rewrite in a different order without the story changing much, it’s an indication that you have an “And” plot.
Especially in a short story where you have very little space to work with, every word must build toward the conclusion. Every element of the story should build dramatic tension, should contribute to the theme, should drive us toward the climax. There are a few different techniques for how to do this; you might compare Deborah Chester’s “elemental story design” with the method of Holly Lisle to see which fits your style better.
The story has characters, and description, and a narrative—but there’s no drama. People have no goals, or else they accomplish their goals without real opposition. This showed up several times in stories that tried to introduce a larger setting; so much effort was spent discussing the setting that there was little actual plot drama.
One symptom of not having a real conflict is characters being nasty to each other for no reason, and with no consequences or story importance. This is a strong tell that the author realizes that the story isn’t dynamic enough and so tries to inject “conflict” without understanding the role that conflict is supposed to play in the story. Conflict is more than characters snapping at each other for no reason. It is about characters with fundamentally opposing goals, or interests, or desires. It is about one character striving to achieve something and another character trying to block him, or kill her, or get there first.
Conflict is what makes the story interesting, and not only because it creates story tension. Characters need conflict, need obstacles and opposition, in order to reveal what they are really made of—to give us someone to admire.
After a great deal of plot, the story ends with a thud. It might be someone ruminating on life and fate and belly buttons; it might be two people talking; it might be an exciting battle of some kind. But the ending does not actually resolve the conflict established earlier in the story.
A story begins by asking a sort of question. In its simplest form, the question could be: will the protagonists achieve their goals? In more ambitious works, the question could be: do the protagonists understand themselves better, and understand why they chose that goal to begin with? Other questions exist, of course. Whatever it is, the question is elaborated and complicated over the course of the story, and finally answered by the end. If the ending is not connected to the fundamental question of the story, it means that the author does not yet know what question the story is raising.
So far, so good. But most editors want capable prose and well-structured stories. What about my own idiosyncratic dislikes?
A protagonist ends the story in total defeat, despite doing everything right. Or she has victory handed to her on a silver platter, via deus ex machina or a sudden change of heart by the antagonist or intervention by a bystander. In short, the resolution of the story had nothing to do with the efforts of the protagonist (and therefore was not the culmination of the story’s theme, but that’s a more advanced point).
I like stories in which the protagonist succeeds because of her efforts, or fails because of her mistakes. Meaningless suffering leaves me annoyed, unless it is handled very skillfully indeed.
(Note that intervention by a third party can be justified if the intervention is inspired by the protagonist’s utmost attempts. For example, suppose Sir Haldric the Hapless attempts to vindicate an innocent man through trial by combat, and he suffers horribly at the hands of Sir Robard the Ruthless in the arena. Yet every time he takes a wound, he gets back up; his honor and commitment to the accused man require no less. Finally, when Haldric’s death is at hand, the magistrate suddenly rises from his seat and stops the combat. Though Haldric was the lesser fighter, he says, he is surely the greater knight. The innocent man is freed.
I would not consider this ending to be undeserved; Haldric earned his ending by his self-sacrifice and courage. Admittedly, the ending would have to be carefully set up or it would be implausible; but that’s a different issue.)
We need a reason to want the protagonist to win. Evil protagonists are not always unsympathetic (though that depends strongly on who the alternative is, in my view), but merely being the viewpoint character isn’t enough to justify them.
When I read William Gibson’s Neuromancer, despite all of the deft prose and imaginative prefigurings of the Internet, I was left cold by the protagonist. We are told early on that at his lowest point, he murdered innocent people for their pocket change; to me, that takes a hell of a lot of redemption for me to care about what you are doing—unless the stakes are high enough, like end-of-the-world high. In Neuromancer, they were not. So to me the whole book fell flat.
Good stories mean something, and they mean something worth the effort. To me, the world and its suffering has meaning. We can disagree on what that meaning is; but I dislike stories that assert the futility of struggle, of growth, of virtue. Other publishers like them better, and if such stories are your metier then submit to those other publishers.
So there you have it. This doesn’t cover everything—for one thing, I have my own unconscious biases, as does everyone—but if you want to submit a story to one of my future efforts, this list is a good place to start in deciding whether your piece will attract my attention.