It seems like I’ve been turning down a lot of stories for Kaleidotrope lately. I think rejection fatigue is starting to kick in.
There are certainly benefits to looking at stories that don’t work. Examining them critically and figuring out why they don’t work can help make you a better writer, help you avoid making the same mistakes in your own writing, and help make you a better editor, one who’s better attuned to what does work and why.
The obvious drawback, however, is that you have to read a lot of stories that don’t work — and a lot of them don’t work in exactly the same ways as all the others. They play too fast and loose with basic spelling and grammar; they offer physical description as an ineffective shorthand for characterization; they’re all show and no tell, over-written with exposition. And eventually you just run out of things to say. This is why larger operations employ slush readers. This is why they don’t rely entirely on slush. This is why slush is called slush. Eventually, you just want to say, “Thank you kindly for your submission. It was very, very bad.”
But at the same time, even in those cases when it’s true, that doesn’t benefit anybody. The author doesn’t learn why the story is bad, why it doesn’t fit with what you publish, or why you just didn’t like it. A rejection letter cannot, and should not, be a full-on critique — an editor, after all, is not a writing instructor — but it also has to tell the writer something of value. Because there are basically two kinds of response to a rejection letter that doesn’t: the writer gets mad and never submits a better story, or the writer submits a different story that’s equally bad, and in all the same ways. And neither response is good for what everybody wants: fewer rejections and more, better stories.
As I said, a lot of the submissions I get share the same problems, and they’re often problems you can spot before even the second page. That doesn’t make the author a bad writer, necessarily, or even make the story irredeemable. But they’re common pitfalls that should be avoided. Here are a few quick ones I’ve noticed recently:
- A story may be true. That does not make it good. Mark Twain once said the only difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to be credible*. Your story may have happened exactly as you describe it — in which case, why are you writing fiction? — but you still have to make the reader believe that and give him a reason to care. Even nonfiction has to be written well.
- Telling the reader what a character looks like does not tell the reader who the character is. Describing a character’s surroundings isn’t half as effective as describing how your character reacts to them. Try this experiment: take all the descriptive adjectives out of your story. Is it better? Worse?
- “Show, don’t tell” is a clichÃ© for a reason.
- Your story might get really good three, four, or even fifteen pages in. But who’s going to read those first few pages that aren’t good?
- You could do worse that to read this. Obviously you have your own style and voice, and each story is different, but there are reasons why certain tried and tested methods work.
There are more, obviously, but these are the ones that come to mind right now.
Rejection isn’t fun on either side of the story. Whatever occasional, fleeting, and schadenfreude-like glee there might be in reading something truly awful, it’s much more fun to read something that truly works. And when it doesn’t, it’s much more constructive to tell the writer why — even if it’s not always easy to do so.
* I don’t know what it says that I heard this quote yesterday in the risible and not at all credible Robin Williams’ movie Man of the Year.