(For a comprehensive listing of what not to do in fiction, you should check out Douglas Van Belle’s inimitable words of wisdom on the subject)
The story is too long:
It’s amazing how often a story needs to be trimmed before it’s acceptable. A short story has to be tight – every sentence, every word, needs to carry its weight. It’s not a novel where you have a hundred pages to develop each character and develop hundreds of subplots. My most common advice (to nine out of ten submissions:) Trim 10-20 percent from the word count, the story almost always benefits from it. Even if you trim too much and need to put stuff back in, the exercise will improve the story.
This story has no plot:
As far as we here at Andromeda Spaceways are concerned, a story should have a plot. A story should, in short, be about something! It is surprising how often we see marvellously detailed atmospheric pieces during which nothing happens!
The Siamese twin of the “This story is too long” problem. The reader is 10 pages into the story, and we are still wondering when something is going to happen. Something has to be keeping the reader interested, or they will stop reading and pick up something else.
It’s a cliché:
There’s no getting around it – our submission reviewers see a lot of variations on certain types of stories. There’s not much point in providing a list of speculative fiction clichés here when there are so many other good ones around, but any writer should develop a feel for their genre and a knowledge of what’s gone before. People have been writing robot stories since the early twentieth century, fairy-tales-with-a-twist since the days of the French salons, and gods-walk-the-earth tales since before the dawn of recorded history. On the other hand, we understand there’s nothing new under the sun – at some level, all stories are variations on something that has gone before. The difference between good story and cliché is not necessarily the plot, but the treatment.
Why should we care?
Again, surprisingly common. Really nasty things are happening to the main character, and the reader thinks: “So? Kill him off already, let me get on with the next story!” We should care what happens to the characters. They should engage us in some way. They don’t have to be likeable, but we should care what happens to them.
And then he/she woke up…
Please, no “It was all just a dream” stories – they elicit nothing but groans. Trust me, your story is unlikely to get through the first round of readers if it’s one of these.