I’ve been working with a few new writers, a couple of whom are now submitting pieces to competitions and journals. There’s such satisfaction in helping people shape their words so they shine, especially when you see their writing get stronger as they work at their craft. (My advice to everyone: Step one – READ. Step two – read more! Never imagine you can write well if you don’t read.)
I thought it might be helpful to write a blog post on what makes an editor say no to your work. Of course, writing is subjective, what chimes with one person might not with another, but there is writing which transcends theme, subject etc – and demands to be read. That’s what all writers aim for but rarely achieve, I think. In the five years I’ve been the managing editor of The Forge I’ve read hundreds and hundreds (thousands?) of submissions. Every time I read, I do so with hope. I want to love the piece. I want to be moved in some way – maybe to feel a connection, or have something illuminated, understood, expressed. Sometimes, it’s enough to recognise a feeling. I’m equally happy to be absorbed in a story and believe in wherever it takes me – go along for the ride. I don’t want to notice the writing. It needs to be smooth, immersive. I loathe over-writing. I’m not a fan of punchlines and twists. I read so many stories that are similar that anything unique always gets my attention. There is a kind myth that the majority of submissions are good and to be published is a bit of a numbers game. Luck is required. We publish one story a week and the vast majority of submissions we receive are rejected. Duotrope lists our acceptance rate as 1.6% and we are a “challenging market”. The harsh truth is the vast majority of subs we receive aren’t good. We think it’s vital to offer free submissions so all writers can send us their words, but the downside to this is it opens us up to writers who have nothing to lose by flinging whatever at us. We say our only criteria is literary excellence but it’s super rare to read a story and think yes, this is bloody brilliant and I must publish it. It does happen, but not often. If less than 2% of stories we get sent are superb and about 80% aren’t great, that leaves 18% which are fab but still don’t get published. To those writers, sorry, there’s nothing more you could have done. Each editor of the month only gets two picks and the rejection was sincere when we said we’d like to see more of your work. We don’t keep work at our editorial table for longer than three months – by that time your piece will have usually been read by at least eight editors. I hate those rejections so much because, damn, writer, you are doing it all and still we said no. This writing malarkey is hard and unfair and you deserve better.
I asked some of my fellow editors to tell me why they say no to a piece:
I have SO MANY THOUGHTS. I’m sure they’re not unique but:
-A common storyline (divorce, death, love, etc.) that isn’t treated in a new and exciting way. I love all of these topics but if it’s done a lot you’ve got to figure out a way to do it in your own unique fashion. It’s got to be better than the 10,000 other stories I’ve already read about a character losing a parent, right?
-That goes for characters too. A fully fleshed out character with really intriguing details is very hard to turn down. Ditto setting.
-A piece that doesn’t feel fully resolved, that lacks a complete arc. I love ambiguous endings and I’m happy to push the envelope towards less plot-heavy and more character-driven, also I love flash, but it’s gotta have SOMETHING going on. Even just a minor turn can make it feel complete. Chekov! That man often has practically zero plot, but his short work feels complete because he’s figured out that subtle turn at the end.
-If you can manage to surprise me without being hokey, that’s a win. All editors read a TON of stuff – subs, books, other journals, etc. It has to rise above the general din, and if it genuinely surprises me, it usually will. Not just plot, but voice, setting, theme, title, etc.
-Usually it’s the language that gets me to pick a piece. Really exquisite sentences, not a single extra word. And that’s really hard to tell newer writers because there’s no way to get there other than just working your butt off for years. But it’s true. Like, if I pulled out the stuff I wrote in college, I know that it has plot and arc and character development, etc, but it’s pretty much crap because I hadn’t put in the work yet. The language wasn’t there. It was, generously speaking, adequate.
For me, I tend to reject if:
1.) The plot and language are too stereotypical–they show me nothing new. I’d rather read someone’s unpolished own voice, than a more polished voice that is not their own or is too stereotypical.
2.) I have a sense of the writer writing, and thus I’m not able to fully visualize and get lost in the story. How can you make the story as immersive as possible? Are you utilizing all your senses when crafting the story?
3.) I don’t have a strong sense of place. As the reader, put me precisely where your story occurs, and show me.
4.) The ending isn’t there yet: it feels as if it was rushed because the author just couldn’t figure out how to end the damn story, or it feels out of character with the rest of the story (because the author just couldn’t figure out how to end the damn story!). Take your time. Let a story sit for a while if the ending isn’t coming yet. It will. Conversely, if you have the ending first, write it first and craft the story from there.
I tend to say no if:
1. The writer is telling me what to think about the situation, rather than showing me something, some clues, from which I can then make a deduction for myself
2. The writer is using clichés to describe something, for example: ‘her eyes shone like diamonds’.
3. The characters are two dimensional, they have no emotional depth, or resonance.
4. The story ends, and nothing has changed, despite there being loads of action. What I mean by this is that there must be a difference, and it can be subtle, to how the protagonist feels. It doesn’t need to be spelled out, but I the reader will understand that something has been gained or lost, the world has moved and now this person’s reality has diverged from where it was before.
A story that I pick up usually has the following:
Layered, nuanced characters.
A setting that’s immersive, sensory.
A story with a great voice.
Something that grabs me, and won’t let me go, and stays with me after I’ve read it.
A story that is about something, and there’s a change in either the character or the circumstances, however minor.
That’s emotionally engaging, moving and with an ending that leaves me thinking.
I’ll reject a story if:
–reads pedestrian–no skill with language, this is an immediate no.
–feels tired, as if rehashing something that has been said before.
–a story that doesn’t know what it is about.
–reads very artificial, or pretentious.
–the beginning is not compelling.
–the ending does not satisfy.
I’ll possibly pass to the editorial table stories that I subjectively do not like, but have been crafted well. If a story is poorly crafted, at the language, character, or plot level, I let it go.
• If a piece reads like something out of someone’s diary (unless it’s meant to be part of the narrative!) Too often what’s meant to be a story is nothing more than just an account of something that happened and it makes me feel ‘so what?’.
• A piece can be simple, complicated, on pretty much any theme but as Sarah says the writer has to demonstrate their own take on it, they have to lift it above the mundane and what everyone has said in the same way before. There has to be a certain amount of uniqueness about it to make it stand out and grip me in some way.
• The writer has to invest something of themselves in their work, something that only they could say or write about in a particular way. Too often we see well-crafted pieces that are competently written but almost as if they’ve all come out of the same word factory and have nothing new to say.
• I applaud writers who take risks, they may not always succeed but if they’ve taken a piece somewhere different in the narrative, somewhere unexpected, as long as it has its own truth and isn’t just randomly plucked for sensation – it has to have emotional depth and honesty too.