Warning! This article contains swearing and mild sexual references so it’s probably not safe for work.
After hours of something similar to effort, I am pleased to announce that I have assembled the official universal list of all problems that have ever gotten stories kicked out of a submissions slush pile. Zara Baxter and Simon Petrie helped some. These are also kind of in order. In the 95% of every slush pile that gets rejected, Problem 1 is at least ten times more common than Problem 24. Actually, if you will forgive me for stepping out of character and behaving like a serious human being for a moment, I have to admit that in the course of reading slush for Andromeda Spaceways Magazine, I have been amazed at how often I have offered the same handful of criticisms when I said no to a story. As a tolerably mediocre author who has seen more form-letter rejections than penis-related spams, I want to know how the internet people found out that I need a larger penis. I may never figure that one out, but as an author I do know how difficult it is to get any kind of hint at why stories get crapped on, so I thought I would offer a few insights from Dante’s eleventh level of hell, also known as the submissions slush pile. There has been a bit of discussion on this, and Ian Nichols was kind/evil enough to point out that every single entry on this totally official list was contravened by at least one great story. However, I would point out that all of those very naughty writers knew that they were flirting with, seducing, or making a web-cam porn flick with one of the problems on the official list. There’s probably some pithy comment I should put here about knowing the rules before you break them and having a reason for breaking them, but then we would have to have rules. I hate rules. I hate meetings and paperwork more, but I hate rules. – Douglas A Van Belle
PS. All the good stuff is mine. Blame Zara and Simon for the stuff you don’t like.
1. Wrong starting place:
Most good fiction doesn’t start in the beginning, it starts in the middle. This is particularly true for short fiction. Readers should feel like they have been dumped in the middle of a car chase. Even as they cling to the dashboard and frantically stomp their foot on the imaginary brake that has been installed on the passenger side of every vehicle built in the Post-Starsky and Hutch era, readers should be looking for clues to explain why in the hell the idiot writer in the driver’s seat is racing through town at breakneck speed. This doesn’t mean you should always start with a punch in the face, a kick to the testicles also works, but at least half of all not-ready-to-publish stories start in the wrong place. See also Problem 10.
2. Telling instead of showing:
Telling me that little Johnny is bored is extraordinarily boring. It’s even more boring when I have to suffer through him thinking about how bored he is. Mentioning the distant and distracted look on his face as he methodically tears a gum wrapper into a pile of tinier and tinier bits of silver and green confetti, that’s way less boring.
3. Dead dialogue:
Most corpses don’t do anything, at least not anything that is all that interesting. They rot and decompose and stuff, but they don’t act. Live people do things, they try to accomplish things, they act and fiction is all about action, about pursuing a goal, doing something. Similarly, dialogue is much more interesting if it is alive. It should do things beyond bloating and floating about the bay. It should imply action, hint at motives, betray prejudices, push others to react and it should do several of those kinds of things at once. Most of the sentences you put between quotes should equal at least three sentences outside of them. If you can take the dialogue out without adding three sentences of narrative, you probably don’t need either the dialogue or the narrative. The variety of things that dialogue can do is as vast as the variety of things that a pre-deceased person can do, but the specifics are nowhere near as important as the fact that good dialogue has to do something.
Corollary 3.1: Dialogue is inherently superior to prose. If you can replace three sentences of narrative with a single line of dialogue, you are morally obligated to do so. In fact, if you don’t you will go to hell, directly to hell without passing go, and it will be one of those really bad levels of hell where all the fiction is written by accountants.
4. Undead dialogue:
In certain circumstances, some corpses actually do things, but even when they shuffle about the town, dialogue really isn’t a strength of the reanimated and writers should always be vigilant patriots in our struggle against the armies of darkness, and the French. Just because Zombies (and the French) are constantly mumbling “Brains, Brains, Brains” it doesn’t mean that their every single utterance needs to be quoted. There are lots of mundane things a character would say that a reader really doesn’t need to hear. Stories are supposed to capture the exceptional moments, not the mundane, and dialogue should reflect that. See also Problem 11: Mistaking motion for movement.
5. Impersonal dialogue:
Speech is the reflection of a person’s soul. Souls are kind of pink and squishy and full of crap. Therefore dialogue should be pink and squishy and full of crap. Or maybe that’s the large intestine. Whatever. The point is that dialogue should be eviscerating, but in a good way. It should expose the guts of your character. In addition to the content of what is said, word choice, use of contractions, and phrasing should combine to make it obvious who is speaking even before the reader hits the he said/she said part.
6. Impersonal narrative:
The narrative prose should be just as personal as the dialogue. Is it a little girl’s frilly bedroom or did someone puke sugar and spice all over everything? The narrative must have a personality. It doesn’t have to be a personified narrator. In fact, it should almost never be a personified narrator. Narrators that are characters in and of themselves should probably only be used if your target audience is people who can’t wait for their next colonoscopy. Still, no matter what POV choices you have made, even the most distant of third-person narrators must represent the story by choosing the details that are perceived and those choices embody a personality. That should carry forward into hints of a personality in the way things are described, particularly the choices of descriptive words. See also Problem 7 and Problem 8
7. Point of view is like a box of condoms:
There is no such thing as a small one. I could have used Starbucks’ coffee sizes for that analogy but Grande, Venti and Exxon Valdes just don’t quite work as well as Snug Fit and Magnum. As fair warning, even though bodily fluids are not explicitly mentioned here, they are clearly implied by pointing out that the whole purpose of a condom is to keep everything contained so that both the naughty nurse and the kind-hearted gladiator can focus on what really counts. Point of view keeps the story contained so both the writer and the reader can focus on what really counts, getting the story across. However, no matter whether your story needs a Magnum (third person) or a Snug Fit (first person) point of view, how you use your point of view is far more important than how big it is. Point of view failures are usually some kind of loss of containment, such as when the narrative voice is first person but the narrative perception starts slipping off to places where the narrative character could not carry the reader or a third person POV that usually stays outside on the shoulder of characters but sometimes jumps inside the head for a first-person peek.
8. Fairydancing the point of view:
Contrary to popular belief, there are as many types of point of view as there are marketing schemes for Disney merchandise. First person should restrict your narrative to the POV character’s head but that still leaves 1768 variations of narrative and voice to play with. Are perceptions described with the character’s voice, or a neutral voice? Can the reader’s attention be brought to the things the character sees, but doesn’t notice? Second person isn’t a point of view. It is a form of intellectual masturbation. Third person can sit on a character’s shoulder; it can sit above or outside the scene; it can see the thoughts in a person’s head; it can be kept out of the skull altogether and limited to interpretations of expression, voice and other clues; it can be nailed to the moment of the narrative; it can reach back into the past for things that inform that moment. Third person is big and versatile, totally Magnum, but it is not a fairydance. No matter how you decide to use point of view, you must pick a set of rules to write by, make those rules clear to your reader and stick with them. Short of a total point of view failure, the most common problem that is inconsistencies within a point of view or vague shifts that disrupt a reader’s immersion.
9. Second person point of view:
You know you shouldn’t. You want to do it but you know you will go blind.
If I wanted to plod through something step by step by step by step, I’d go to work once in a while. Authors get to fuck with time, so do it. Skip the boring bits. Skip the bits that aren’t important and just hit the high points. If his choice between walking, driving or riding the bus isn’t critical to the story, why in the hell am I reading about it? Connecting this back to Problem 1, do you really need to start with the pizza order and march us through the thirty minutes or less to the knock on the door? Or can you just jump to the naughty part, give us a glimpse of the delivery uniform tossed on the pizza box and end it with a very very big tip for the tussled pizza delivery girl/boy/donkey?
11. Mistaking motion for movement:
I call this the Jean-Claude van Damme problem. Physical motion (including all the detail in the fight or the sex) only matters in the way it serves to move a story forward.
12. Filling the negative space:
In many ways, writing is like a bowel obstruction: less is better than more. Negative space is key here and it does two things. First, negative space is an absence of distractions that, by its emptiness, focuses the reader’s attention on the details provided. This enables the reader to imagine all of the unspoken, or I guess unwritten, parts that are implied. You can offer a thousand details about the fat police officer, but simply noting how much of his belly has erupted up and over the top of his belt says everything that needs to be said. Leaving the negative space unfilled also allows the reader to personalise the story in ways that you could never manage with details. The image that the reader projects into the negative space will be intimate. For the reader, the minimalist description of the fat cop will be fleshed out with the insidious characteristics of the Nazi asshole who wrote him/her/it a ticket for doing 58 in a 55.
13. Skinny story stuck in a fat story’s body:
Sometimes, especially when it comes to the neighboring passengers in the testicle-strangling seat configuration that QANTAS calls economy class, too much is just too much. Granted, we all want a bit of fat on our stories. After all, boobs are something like 90% fat and you can’t walk past a newsstand without noticing just how incredibly important boobs are, but for fiction, particularly short fiction, it can be extremely hard to find the beauty in the Rubenesque. Starving a story of detail can sometimes be a problem, but Annortextia is far less common than Obestiality and it is almost always better to err on the side of an extra bit of liposuction to make sure the fat you choose to keep is creating sexy curves exactly where you want them.
14. Characters ain’t people:
Characters are the shoes that readers want to slip on for a vicarious stroll through the clusterfucks of life that no real person would actually want to step into. Characters are relationships. They are the focal points of the push and pull of all the things that drive a story but they aren’t actually people. If you think of your character as a real person, it will be far more and far less than a character should be. If your character comes across as a whole person it will be too much. It will be too full and there will be no empty spaces left for the reader to imagine what it would be like to be the person the character is supposed to represent. If your character comes across as a real person, it will also be too small. If the reader is going to slip inside the character’s skin, that skin needs to be at least a bit oversized. The character needs to have that little extra that allows it to break from the ties that bind real people.
15. Exclamation points are for soft-porn only!
This should be obvious! They even look like little penises! This is related to Problem 16!
16. PLEASE, NO MORE HIGH SCHOOL SHAKESPEARE:
There ought to be a law against high-school productions of Shakespeare. Seriously, starvation and war and such are problems, but can we get our priorities in order and get the UN to do something about 17-year-old King Lears? It boils down to the fundamental teenage definition of drama as equivalent to volume. If you shout, it must be really dramatic, and even without exclamation points you can turn the volume of your prose up well beyond what that punk with the bleeding ears can manage with his iPod. A general rule of thumb is that writers should offer a rude gesture in response to anything offered as a general rule of thumb, but authors might also want to consider the general rule of thumb that the form of presentation can only enhance the nature of what is being presented. Therefore, if the what behind the prose isn’t inherently dramatic, screaming it will only serve to make it even more not dramatic.
17. Are you sure you know how to use a semicolon?
Seriously; are you sure? Most writers who use them wouldn’t use them if they knew how to use them. I use them all the time, but I’ve got issues; wearing a red shirt when we beam down to the planet kinds of issues.
18. It’s not a yarn:
Some asshole once called a fictional tale a yarn. Bastard. Yarn is singular, one dimensional and fiction should be macramé. Fiction should weave, tangle, knot and twist multiple stories together into a whole that is greater than the parts. If you have a story in what you’ve written, it probably isn’t enough to carry even a thousand words. Two stories woven together, layered on top of each other and pulling the characters in different directions can carry a reader much farther. Even in the context of short fiction complexity is important and it usually takes two or three stories and a couple of interesting ideas stirred together to really get it done.
19. Used clones, cheap:
Exactly how many times do you think we need to suffer through another pale and flatulent imitation of that really cool story/novel/dodecadology? Some stories have been told and retold a thousand times. Unless you’ve got a really cool twist to add, no one wants to read about alien invaders being defeated by the common cold, or a waif becoming the wizard’s apprentice, or someone agonising over computers/zombies/clones/replicants and the nature of humanity. Surprisingly, finding lame echoes of old stories in the slush pile isn’t nearly as common as finding a neat, twisty and subversive little idea that is buried under a shedload-and-a-half of the other problems on the official list.
20. Horrible people die:
Great. So what? Other than the fact that “He needed killin’” is legally defined as pre-emptive self-defense in Texas, killing the evil bastard really doesn’t make for very good storytelling unless it provides a tweaky kind of solution to Problem 19 or Problem 21.
21. Man of Teflon-Coated Titanium:
A lot of stories fail because they either offer up the wrong lead character or the characters exit the story as copy-protection-be-damned digitally-perfect replications of how they entered. This is a particularly big problem for the graphic-novel collectors turned writers who want to do Superman but better. I don’t have a good superhero example, but there is a reason Glenn Close’s character wasn’t the lead character in The Devil Wears Prada. Partly because it was Meryl Streep and not Glenn Close in the movie, but most of the reason that the evil bitch running the magazine couldn’t be the lead character was because she doesn’t evolve during the story. That other girl does. Not the one who was already working at the magazine, she does change a little but the other girl who shows up and gets that new haircut and then did the Get Smart movie. That girl changes the most, she does the most (see dead/alive problems 3 and 4) and that’s what makes her the right lead character.
22. Burning epiphanies:
When the protesters are burning epiphanies in the streets it probably means that you put just a bit too much faith in your spell checker.
23. Totally crap spelling:
24. The Geppetto Syndrome:
Most writers who have found the fortitude needed to throw their beloved work into the whirling knives of the rejection-go-round of doom have usually also managed to stumble their way past cardboard characters. In some ways, however, little wooden puppet characters who desperately wish they could be a real boy are worse. The rule of thumb (see Problem 16 with regard to rules of thumb) for characters is that something about what makes them unique should also be what puts them in the situation, conflict, dilemma that they must engage within the story. Usually, intentionally imposing that condition upon characters makes it impossible for them to be bland containers for dialogue and actions, and it makes it really, really hard to write them as little wooden effigies (see Problem 22) that mimic a real character. Again, like Problem 21, this is surprisingly less common in the slush pile than might be expected.
This isn’t really a problem, but I had to put this category in here just to guarantee I didn’t get sued for claiming it was a comprehensive list and then having some asshole find something I didn’t cover. Other does exist. Every once in a while a perfectly good story just doesn’t do it for an editor, but that’s not a fixable thing. There just isn’t much you can do about getting stomped on because of something in the other category, except for sending it somewhere else.