The Top 10 Reasons I May Have Rejected Your Short Story

You’re a good writer. That’s why you submitted your story to a journal with somewhat famous people on the masthead. It’s a good story—great, even—and you’ve worked the hell out of it, so perhaps you imagine these somewhat famous folks will read it, fall ass over kettle, and make you somewhat famous as well.

As much as I hate to burst your bubble, I’m going to burst your bubble. Chances are good—great, even—that no one even somewhat famous will ever see your story. Average acceptance rates for even second- or third-tier literary journals hover between 1 and 2 percent, and for a publication like Glimmer Train—well, let’s just say you have a better shot at getting into Harvard. With numbers like that, those who appear at the top of a journal’s masthead are rarely those who troll the slush.

That kind of work is accomplished by decidedly nonfamous people like me. If we appear in the journal’s credits at all, we’re way down on the bottom. Many of us have MFAs. Many of us are working for free. Many of us, like you, have been submitting to literary journals for years. The vast majority of us only signed on as general readers for that magic moment when we get to say yes. But in reality, we spend 99.9 percent of our time saying no

Naturally, you may be more interested in why stories get accepted than why they get rejected. But the former, as far as I can tell, is really no more than a function of avoiding the latter. So think of this as a Rogue’s Gallery of Nos—a hit list (or shit list) you might want to address before submitting your next masterpiece.

1. Slow start

Your reader has most likely worked a full eight hours at her regular job before settling down to the slush. She presumably also has some sort of life. Which is to say, no matter how generous she may be (or how much coffee she has ingested), you’ve generally only got two pages to get her on board. Few things are more detrimental to that prospect than an opening paragraph that treads water, characters who come off as bland or generic, or a whole lot of frontloaded exposition.

Ask yourself, does this story have enough bait to get the reader to swallow the hook? Is the situation intriguing? Are the characters the sort of people your reader might skip school to hang out with? And if your story really does need a moment or two to get its footing—is the voice enough to carry it?

Ask yourself, is it clear where the conflict is in this story? And does that conflict have real consequences?

2. Bombing the basics

There’s a danger in knowing your story so well that you fill in the gaps on the page with what’s in your head. That leads to the sort of story your reader will pick up and, within the first few paragraphs, wonder: a) Who the hell is telling me this?; b) Where the hell are we?; and c) Who the hell are these people? Reading a short story that does not bother to establish the basics on the first page is like having someone walk up to you at a party and start talking about...well, who the fuck knows, right? That’s what I’m saying.

3. Language overload

There’s plenty to be said for fresh language and unique images. But consider the following (which is, FYI, very close to an actual sentence I have encountered in the slush): “The ripples made the lake look as if it were shivering, as if it were disgusted by its own intractable innards, as if it were being grossed out by itself.” The language in this sentence calls so much attention to itself that it stops the story in its tracks.

Ask yourself, does the language serve the story? Am I in control of the mood, the metaphors, the diction? Is it consistent? Also: does what I’m saying here actually make sense?

4. Wordy

Good prose—that is, prose that holds the reader’s attention—generally has the property of being distilled. That means if you have a lot of words, you’re expressing a lot of interesting things, not using a lot of words to express one marginally interesting thing. One of the clearest indicators of rookie prose is an opening paragraph built like Alcatraz that could easily have been cooked down to a sentence or two. If it can be said with fewer words, it probably should be.

Ask yourself, have I distilled the language to its essence? Is there anything I’m saying here that is implied by something I’ve already said? Is the level of detail appropriate? And am I giving the reader enough credit? (Your reader is often smarter than you think.)

5. Nothing happens

This issue generally does not become obvious until your reader has invested some time in your story—presumably because it’s interesting, or well written, or it has an engaging voice, or what have you. But none of this will redeem a tale where nothing of significance really happens. And by nothing of significance, I mean nothing that really challenges your protagonist, or changes her, or at least increases her baseline level of self-awareness.

I have to assume that you, as a writer, are not just interested in narrating events, but doing so in a way that’s meaningful. And I’m not going to pretend that achieving this elusive quantity, meaning, is in any way easy or obvious. But hey, neither is dealing with your own personal shit. And dealing with your own personal shit (nine out of ten experts will agree) is the key to your continued health and happiness here on Earth.
Ask yourself, do all of these events and emotions and ruminations add up to some type of significant challenge, change, or choice? Is there a pattern, a kind of question the story is asking? Or is it just one thing after another?

6. Nonconflicted

You may have some great things going on in this story. A sense of place, an engaging protagonist, a wild mix of Victorian diction and hip hop slang, whatever. But If I’m six pages in and can’t locate the conflict with a metal detector, I’m not sure what I’m doing here.

When I was young, I resisted the idea that fiction had to be about trouble. I wanted fiction to be about life, and trouble, for me—as a passably Caucasian, higher-educated person living in a relatively stable country—forms a very small subset of life. But having tried and failed to write fiction devoid of conflict (and tried and failed to read it as well), I’ve come to accept that it’s true: as far as fiction goes, we’re only interested in drama.

Everyone wants to hear the story about how your two crazy uncles came to blows over a drunk watermelon at the family reunion. No one wants to hear about how your aunties volunteer at church and bake pies for charity and generally just get along like peaches and cream. Because that’s not even a story. See what I mean?

Ask yourself, is it clear where the conflict is in this story? And does that conflict have real consequences?

Ask yourself: Have I put the novel elements of my story together in such a way that it’s about something more than those novel elements?

7. You have mistaken novelty for story

A unique character or exotic setting, or even an interesting situation, can seem like a story. But these things are not stories. These things are the sort of ingredients good writers artfully combine to create stories.

Which is to say, I’m fond of avocados, but if you invite me over to dinner, I will expect you to have done something interesting and dinner-like with said avocado—and will not be pleased if you simply plop one down on a plate and invite me, with a grin, to dig in.

Ask yourself: Have I put the novel elements of my story together in such a way that it’s about something more than those novel elements? And have I combined those elements in a way that’s unexpected or unique?

8. This is not a short story

Maybe it’s a chapter in a novel that really could be a short story, or a bit of memoir with some really fiction-ish elements, or a piece of flash, or a prose poem, or some inexplicable hybrid thing you’re not even all that clear on yourself. Whatever this thing of yours is, it could no doubt hold its own against any other thing of its type (whatever the hell that may be). But you simply cannot accomplish the kind of effects a short story is capable of in any form other than a short story.

Ask yourself (honestly): Is this a short story? Is the length right? Does it have the kind of shape and heft characteristic of a short story? Or is this something else? Because if it’s something else, chances are, you’ve brought a whoopee cushion to a knife fight. An apple pie to a chili cook-off. You get the idea.

9. Too much

Too many characters with too many names; too many characters with names too similar to one another; too many scene changes; too many plot points and plot lines; too many different sources of motivation for each character; too many bulging, discursive sentences tacked together by the merest of semicolons. All told, it’s really all, just, too much.

Perhaps this is a short story that wants be a collection of stories. Perhaps it’s a novel in disguise. Whatever the diagnosis, it’s really just Ten Pounds of Shit in a Five-Pound Bag, and some of that shit has got to go.

10. Lost it at the end

Do you have any idea how painful this is for your reader? How heartbreaking? This is like dating a long string of losers, then finally making it to Date #3 with someone you really like, and can actually see a future with, only to hit some total deal-breaker over dessert.

I get it: endings are hard. Endings are often harder than beginnings, and beginnings are harder than cracking walnuts with your forehead. But let me reiterate how pissed your reader will be if you lose it at the end. Because clearly, you know how to write. You just didn’t know how to write the end of this story.

Ask yourself: Does the climax and ending honestly grapple with the most powerful emotions and ideas this story has brought up? Does this story know what it’s about?

Most importantly—do you, the author, know what it’s about? If not, do whatever it takes to figure that out, and write the ending this highly eligible story of yours deserves.

Then, please, by all means, send it my way. 

Susan DeFreitas

Column by Susan DeFreitas

Susan DeFreitas is the author of the novel Hot Season (Harvard Square Editions), which The Portland Mercury called "activist lit that gets it right." Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in The Utne Reader, The Nervous Breakdown, Story Magazine, Southwestern American Literature, and Weber—The Contemporary West, along with more than twenty other journals and anthologies. She holds an MFA in Writing from Pacific University and serves as a collaborative editor with Indigo Editing & Publications in Portland, Oregon.

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Comments

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies March 6, 2014 - 1:56pm

Nailed it. Great piece. SO TRUE.

Angel Colón's picture
Angel Colón from The Bronx now living in New Jersey is reading A Big Ol' Pile of Books March 6, 2014 - 2:08pm

Good stuff here.

I know one of my worst sins has been sending a piece that wasn't the right "fit" for the journal. Not sure if its a top ten kind of flub, but once I started to actually, you know, read the journals I wanted to get into; things turned around pretty fast.

JonathanC's picture
JonathanC from Ireland is reading a whole lot of stuff! always. March 7, 2014 - 2:29am

This was so informative. Thanks for the insight.

voodoo_em's picture
voodoo_em from England is reading The Fever by Megan Abbott March 7, 2014 - 7:49am

Excellent article, thanks for this.

Adding to favorites :)

Susan DeFreitas's picture
Susan DeFreitas from Portland, OR is reading My Last Continent by Midge Raymond March 7, 2014 - 2:41pm

Thanks, all! As for the submission fitting the journal, that's definitely a factor, and reading the actual publication is always a good idea. As a writer, I'm always frustrated when journals say they're just looking for excellence, but as a reader, I have to agree: good is good. However, among the submissions that rose to the top in the last round of stories I read, there was one that just very obviously fit the mag. That was the piece I passed on.  

Jeff's picture
Jeff from Florida is reading Another Side of Bob Dylan by Victor Maymudes March 8, 2014 - 8:10am

An exquisite list. You clarified something about conflict for me. 

 I like your butterfly. 

TheScrivener's picture
TheScrivener from Seattle is reading short stories March 8, 2014 - 1:01am

So you read for Tin House. Out of curiosity, how would you break down what you end up reading?  How much is actually competent---by which I mean you think might actually be publishable by someone, if not by a journal with the prestige of TIn House?

jlapier's picture
jlapier from Portland, OR is reading The Echo by James Smythe March 8, 2014 - 9:33am

Great list. I've definitely offended in one or three of these areas. This seems like an ideal list to consult after the first draft of any short story, and then again after the last draft, before hitting 'send'. Also a great list for helping each other find weaknesses during critiques.

Thank you for making this post specific to the short story form. Articles that cover all forms of writing can be helpful to a point, but focusing in on one form can be so much more useful!

Susan DeFreitas's picture
Susan DeFreitas from Portland, OR is reading My Last Continent by Midge Raymond March 13, 2014 - 3:11pm

Interesting question, Scrivener. I'd say TH definitely has some high-quality slush, as compared to other lit mags I've edited. Probably 60% of what we get is of publishable quality by someone, somewhere (as opposed to, say, 20% at most other places). 

Susan DeFreitas's picture
Susan DeFreitas from Portland, OR is reading My Last Continent by Midge Raymond March 13, 2014 - 3:12pm

Glad you found this helpful, Jason! And I love that LR reports you are now reading Wonderbook, since I practically foisted it upon you at the bus stop a month or so back. =)  

Jan Priddy's picture
Jan Priddy March 13, 2014 - 3:28pm

All of the above.