When I first started wading through the slush pile for a literary magazine, I thought I would easily find hidden gems. But in fact, I started seeing the same mistakes over and over again in submissions. These mistakes have become warning signs to decline a piece. If you avoid them, you could be well on your way to getting published.
1. Underdeveloped Characters
In every five submissions I read, one has underdeveloped characters, and two very common themes emerge. One: Writers focus so much on the imagery, twist, or punchline that they forget about their characters. Two: Writers begin by knowing so much about their characters that they forget to develop characters for their readers in the actual story (I think this mistake is often hard to spot by yourself.).
An example: The main character is running away from a monster. The prose is strong and competent. The imagery is vivid and unique. But why is she running from a monster again? Why is she out at night? Why is the monster chasing her? To eat her? To take her soul?
Your characters are essential to your piece. Ultimately, readers will keep reading your story because they care about your characters. I’ve read submissions where the writing is excellent, but the piece still lacks depth because I don’t care about or can’t connect to the characters.
Ask yourself these questions the next time you write:
• What is my character’s goal and what are they facing? Why?
• What happened in the past to make them the person they are today?
• What do they have to lose?
• Are the answers to these questions shown or hinted at in my story?
2. Recurring Ideas
Everyone has read stories about breakups, divorces, dead babies, scary ghosts, monsters appearing out of nowhere, dating. You’d be surprised at the number of stories in the slush pile that use these same ideas and characters.
Writing a familiar narrative won’t help your story advance in the reading process. In fact, some readers may not finish your piece before declining it.
Here are some tips to help make a story more unique:
• Write it from a different point of view. Example: If it’s about a scary ghost, try writing it from the ghost’s point of view. (That could even heighten the horror in your piece!)
• Write it in a different format. Example: Your protagonist is writing a letter addressed to her dead baby.
• Change your main character. Example: Lots of romantic stories are written from the point of view of a perfect protagonist who is obviously ‘the one’ for the guy she likes but he doesn’t know it. Try making your protagonist not perfect at all. Or maybe introduce an interesting problem that is stopping your protagonist from getting her guy. Instead of, ‘Oh, I’m too shy and nerdy’ or ‘I’ve been single for 10 years,’ it could be, ‘My parents would never approve of a cross-culture marriage’ or ‘I’m the ‘Break Up’ fairy, responsible for breaking people up.’
If you absolutely cannot change the course of your story, then make sure your story stands out in some way—due to a unique writing style or an interesting setting, for example. Imagine you are an editor who has just spent hours reading 30 submissions. Would your story stand out from the rest?
3. Disrupting the Tension
Description and figurative language can help develop your plot and characters; they can make your story come alive. However, lots of writers push too hard to include certain tools in with their writing. As a result, they come off as trying to be too eloquent or impressive.
That’s not the biggest problem though. Overuse (or misuse) of literary techniques can actually take readers out of the story, which is not what a writer wants. This is a big mistake when you want to add tension into your story.
Let’s say you’re writing about the protagonist running away from a killer. Readers don’t want to read how the main character is sliding down the well-built, metallic rails attached to the wooden stairs that creak like an old man. (This is actually something I’ve read in a sub). Sure, the imagery may be great, but it disrupts the tension. Does it matter if the rails are well-built? Does it matter if the stairs creak?
A good story doesn’t call attention to how it is written. Instead, it engages readers so thoroughly in the story that they don’t notice how the words are used. Undermining the suspense or disrupting the tension is the last thing you want to do.
Read through your story. Pay extra attention to any tension within the piece. Are there any unnecessary words or description in that section? Do they add to the story in any way? Can you include them earlier or later in the story, instead of now, when we really, really want to know whether Paul lives or dies?
It’s easy to make these mistakes without even realizing. With practice, you’ll begin to spot (and avoid!) them when you write.
Illustration by Josh Quick.