6 Ingredients Editors Are Looking For in Your Short Stories
Even the most seasoned writers can find the submission process intimidating. You write out your heart and soul and then wait for the judge to weigh in on your words.
You might be waiting for months on end, fingers crossed, only to have your hopes dashed when you finally hear back. If the response is swift, that may be worse—did anyone even read it? And if so, weren’t they moved, challenged, amused, or impressed by your storytelling prowess?
If your short stories go out into the ether, and return without fanfare in an anticlimactic fizzle, can you change course?
As an editor of the literary journal, The Ekphrastic Review, I can honestly attest to the fact that we turn boatloads of amazing work away. Most journals simply receive far more submissions than we are able to use. Even the greatest writers in the world can be cut, due to simple space limitations.
On the other hand, lit journal editors have to publish some stories. That is, after all, what we do: publish literature. We are looking for stories.
Knowing what we are looking for can improve your chances of having a story accepted.
Here are six things every fiction editor wants to see.
1. Follow the rules
Your best chance of publication is based on something quite simple: follow the rules of the publication.
This sounds boring. After all, were writers not born to be rule breakers? To defy limits, to shirk convention?
Your wit and acumen will be more impressive if you bother to check the publishing guidelines, however. Don’t send out a work of microfiction to a journal that wants stories “between 3000 and 5000 words” with a note telling the editor how your brevity is brave. And don’t send the longform to a contest for six sentence stories.
If an anthology call is looking for a particular theme, say, stories about single women struggling with addiction, don’t send them your best science fiction short.
If it is a Catholic journal seeking faith-inspired fiction, don’t send your torrid tell all about rock 'n' roll hook-ups.
"Ekphrasis refers to the literary and rhetorical trope of summoning up—through words—an impression of a visual stimulus, object, or scene." (Oxford Classical Dictionary)
You would be amazed at how many submissions I get at The Ekphrastic Review that start out, “This story isn’t ekphrastic, but I think you will like it…” It hardly matters whether I like it, because we only publish ekphrastic stories.
2. Unfollow the rules
On the other hand, some rules are meant to be broken.
There are hard and fast criteria that won’t change. No matter how brilliant your how-he-quit-drinking story is, the editors of Sports Stories Anthology don’t care. Unless the triumphant teetotaler cleaned up for the big race, of course.
But there are other rules that are flexible. “Don’t use any unnecessary words,” is one possibility. “Don’t give away the ending,” could be upturned to great effect. “Write for the audience, not for yourself,” is debatable, depending what the story you want to tell is about.
Other rules that could occasionally be broken include:
“The main character should be likeable.”
“Never use more than two characters in a microfiction piece.”
“Write about what you know.”
“Make sure you use enough dialogue.”
A good writer knows what rules to break and when to break them.
Don’t break rules for the sake of breaking them, but do so when it means finding a better way to tell your story.
There is nothing new under the sun—and it is cliché even to say so. Every story has been told before. Boy meets girl. Girl meets God. Human alone in the wilderness (or the urban dystopia). And every variation thereof.
You’ll notice as a reader that common themes run through all the great feats of literature. In mythology, religion, and folklore, the stories from incredibly different cultures still overlap!
So stop looking for a new story to tell. There aren’t any.
A far more effective practice toward achieving originality is to find ways to make the tried and true fresh.
Think about the entire murder mystery genre. There are millions of stories, but almost all of them are a variation of “Who killed X and why?”
The originality must come from your personal touch, your flavour. Your point of view is what makes it unique. Your use of language. The more you write, the more your style will develop, and the more confidence you’ll have in your own voice. Then you will become an original, and your stories will reflect that fact effortlessly.
4. Something has to happen
Not every story is a high-octane car chase and crash, with villains leaping over rooftops and bodies and bullets flying.
But even if your story is a quiet pastoral or the riveting behind-the-scenes account of watching a kettle on its slow path to boiling, something needs to happen. Your editor wants to know how your narrator got to where she is, or how your character has changed in response to events or observations.
Many editors will talk about a plot diagram or a narrative arc. They will speak with distaste about “vignettes” or “poetry” while asking for “the full story.”
This is sound advice, although it may miss the mark in a couple of ways. Firstly, the “vignette” holds a robust role in the history of the short story. Just ask Anton Chekhov, Margaret Atwood, or Ernest Hemingway, all considered masters of short literature.
Secondly, poetry is our oldest form of literature—our earliest manifestation of written storytelling. You know, the Epic of Gilgamesh, or the Iliad.
Poetry does not preclude plot.
Finally, writing that reads like a plot graph is too often wooden and predictable. You may as well read the morning paper instead. Experimentation and innovation and style can all turn the graph on its head, or change the chronology of “beginning, middle, and end.” We want that.
A far more effective approach is to ask yourself, “what happens?” and then “what does the happening mean for the themes and characters?”
In other words, what is your story about?
If you can’t answer that, you’re not there yet.
You will often see poetry on an editor’s list of what NOT to do when submitting a short story. Many journals are vehemently clear: NO POETRY.
Other journals want both poetry and short stories, but draw a thick line of distinction between them.
All editors want poetry in your short story, whether they know it or not. An editor will always choose the story with poetry over the one without.
What editors mean when they say no poetry is they don’t want flowery, shmaltzy, maudlin, gooey, cringeworthy reads.
They don’t want you showing off without the substance to back up your words. They don’t want ostentatious displays of grandiosity.
They don’t want cheap sentimentality. They don’t want a bunch of words you found in a thesaurus that you are wielding to impress, to opposite effect. They don’t want elaborate, empty descriptions and an endless flood of adjectives.
They don’t want poetry with no story inside it.
In other words, they don’t want bad poetry.
Poetry explores language. Poetry is rhythm. Poetry is sound. Poetry is the meaning behind the meaning behind the meaning behind the words. Poetry is intensity, emotional depth, reverence and awe. Poetry is curiosity. Poetry is mystery.
Every writer should study poetry and take a few workshops, no matter what their preferred genre.
Try to imagine a Ray Bradbury story without poetry.
It would be a devastating blow to the genre.
6. A change of scenery
Stories with a strong sense of place transport us into the story, something tougher to pull off with generic settings.
Don’t go overboard to give a story an exotic setting that has nothing to do with what happens. There is no need to summon a rainforest or a Latin American barrio if they aren’t really the places where your story happens.
Nor do editors want long-winded descriptions that go on for pages.
What we do want is vivid, smart, succinct staging. Use key details and specific references to paint a picture of where in the world you are.
Close your eyes and think about where your narrator is.
Really visualize the alien landscape of Planet Zed or listen carefully for the noises you would hear in 17th century Amsterdam. Share a few salient features of that space or place with your readers.
Editors read hundreds of stories. We have been to the desert, to the future, and to medieval Europe a million times. Simply landing somewhere else isn’t going to impress us.
You can read twelve stories all set on the Scottish moors or in a small American factory town, but the one that stands apart is presented naturally and skillfully, as if it couldn’t happen anywhere else.
And there you have it! These six essential ingredients will make your story stand out. The best way—maybe the only way—to really master the craft is to practice. Read, read, read, and write, write, write. You’re almost there!
Want to write better short stories? Sign up for a 1-on-1 consultation with our short story expert, Author Tevis Shkodra.
About The Author
Lorette C. Luzajic is the founder and editor of The Ekphrastic Review, a journal devoted entirely to literature inspired by visual art. Her prose poetry and small fictions have been published widely in hundreds of journals and anthologies and nominated for several Best of Net and Pushcart prizes. Her most recent book, Pretty Time Machine, is a collection of ekphrases, and she is working to complete another this year. Her flash story recently won first place in a contest at Macqueen’s Quinterly. Lorette is also an award-winning visual artist with collectors in over 25 countries.