Monday, 7 May 2018

The Top Ten Reasons I Reject Stories For Digital SFF

The topic of why stories get rejected is one I've been thinking about for an awfully long time, first as I tried to figure out what I was doing wrong to earn me endless rejections in the early days and then, over the last couple of years, as I found myself being the one behind those rejections in my role as Acquisitions Editor of fantasy and sometimes science-fiction short stories at Digital Fiction Publishing.  In the early days I tried to write a brief note explaining all of my 'no' votes, and I rapidly found that I was hunting for permutations of the same handful of explanations time and again; steadily it became apparent that, with a few rare exceptions, I was bouncing stories for a very limited number of reasons.

Now before I go further, I should say that the general standard of submissions we get is reliably high, and that we end up rejecting very many solid stories.  There's a definite advantage to only considering work that's been previously published in at least a semi-pro market.  (Of course, not everyone follows the guidelines, and that can be a reason for rejection in itself, though rarely on its own.)  My aim here certainly isn't to denigrate the work we turn away; it's simply to offer a little behind-the-scenes insight.  And to that I'll add that I've made every single mistake here at one point or another, so I'm certainly not one to judge!  In fact, I suspect I still make some of them.  Like this first, for example...

- No Sympathetic Characters
It's tough going to read about a protagonist who's totally obnoxious for however-many pages; then again, it's perfectly possible to make the most colossal asshat sympathetic so long as they're interesting.  The everyman characters tend to be the worst for this one: those who are just like all those boring people you know, only something wildly fantastical is happening to them.  That's fine and all, but I don't especially want to read about boring people, especially if there's nothing to give them a spark of inner life and I start to suspect that maybe their author isn't terribly attached to them either.
- Seen It Before
This is probably the hardest to pre-empt; what's overly familiar to me might be the freshest damn thing to another editor.  With that said, it's definitely the case that a writer's unfamiliarity with the genre they're working in tends to show itself quickly.  Often, however, it's not even the content necessarily, but rather a question of style and tone.  To put it another way, the stories that tend to spark my interest early are the ones that do at least something to surprise me: a turn of phrase here or an idea there.  When you boil it right down, there aren't a lot of truly innovative concepts left to be written, but any really good writer will bring a voice to their material that will make it feel fresh.
- No, Literally Seen It Before
Oh, and then there are the folks who actually just keep sending in the same story.  Pro tip: for this to stand a hope of working, you really need to make sure that the person who read your story the last time is out of the picture.  Try murder.  Or bribery.
Wait, no, definitely that second one.
- More Than a Couple of Typos
We're a reprint market, so we're not much for copy-editing, because that should have been done already.  So if I'm spotting obvious mistakes in a piece that's already been published then that's a major red flag.  Also file under this category leaving track changes on with an editor's comments visible in the margins.  Especially when you've ignored those comments, despite their being obviously correct.  (This has become so common that it's actually kind of weird.)
- Too Long
Actually, this arguably affects the majority of submissions we get.  And I'd urge any writer of short fiction to make trimming their story to its briefest reasonable length a priority.  I'll always look more kindly on a good four-thousand word story than a good six-thousand word short story, because the former makes less demands on my time and so allows me to get more work done.  And in the latter case, I'll likely be noting the points where cuts could have been made.  Generally they're not hard to find; often these are the tales that start a couple of pages before they should have, with a lengthy character-establishing preamble or a blob of direct exposition that really should have been worked in more subtly later.
- Fairies And / Or Blacksmiths
This is probably a subcategory of "Seen It Before" - in fact, it definitely is - but there always seems to be someone who assumes that everybody else out there has forgotten the roots of the genre and that it will be terribly daring to write something in which a random blacksmith's apprentice kills a dragon or gets tricked by fairies or whatever.  I don't know if there's an obvious sci-fi equivalent, but as a general rule, if you think you've rediscovered the long-lost wellspring of a genre, you probably haven't.  In fact, you'll be lucky if your 'blacksmith's apprentice vs fairies' story is alone in that batch of submissions.
- Not As Funny As It Thinks It Is
These tend to be the most likely to make me want to stop reading within a paragraph: the stories that scream their intention to be humorous from their opening lines and just aren't.  Which, in fact, is most of the ones that take a stab at being funny, because humour is perhaps the hardest thing to get right as a fiction author, and also because I'm a miserable git.  Unless you have cast-iron proof that you're a comedy genius, I'd argue for not taking the risk.
On the other hand, any story that really makes me laugh is almost a surefire recommendation, so make of that what you will.
- Not Actually a Story
A tricksy one this, but awfully common; these are the tales where five or six or a dozen pages in, I'm still not getting any sense of an actual narrative.  Twist-ending stories tend to fall into this category, at least the ones where the author has assumed that someone will endure a few thousand words of mundanity just to have the rug pulled from under them in the last paragraph.  Whatever the case, a story needs to be doing something awfully right elsewhere to get me to overlook the fact that I'm nearing the halfway point and still don't have a clue as to why what I'm reading about should matter.
- Not Enough Style
These are the stories that tend to get farthest along, only to be rejected at the last minute, or scrape their way to a hesitant 'maybe'.  They're fine, they're engaging, there's enough originality in the tale itself to make them stand out from the crowd, but there's nothing to differentiate them stylistically.  On the narrative level they're interesting, but on the level of sentences and words they're a bit flat.  Honestly, this is a really, really hard one to nail, but it's often what makes all the difference, and a sign that a further draft was needed to introduce that elusive spark.
- An Overabundance of Style
Then there are the stories that just don't know when to back off with their style.  It's there from the first line and never relents, even when it's getting in the way of such basic necessities as moving the plot forward or setting up characters.  After the stories that try to be funny and don't land it, these tend to be the most wearisome, and often its because they're the work of obviously talented writers - ones who are maybe just a little too aware of that fact.  Style is undoubtedly a way to catch an editor's eye, and I've recommended stories that wowed me that way, but it can also become exhausting really quickly; basically it's a tool like any other, that needs to be put away sometimes.
And there we have it: the top reasons I'm most likely to turn down a submission, or at least the ten that I could remember off the top of my head.  So what do people think?  Is anything here unreasonable?  Does the world need more stories about fairies and blacksmiths?  Is style overrated?  Or underrated?  Set me right in the comments!

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