Why You Might Not Have Placed That Brilliant Story (aka READ THE GUIDELINES)
By Karen Jones
Early in 2022 I wrote a long Twitter thread of advice on submitting flash fiction. At the time, I had just finished reading 700 flashes submitted to various competitions and journals, so had made notes as I went along, picking out common pitfalls. Here, I have put together all of those tweets into a single article. I hope some of the advice is useful. But do remember, it is just that – advice, rather than rigid rules. Except the bit about the guidelines. Pay heed to the bit about the guidelines.
READ THE GUIDELINES
Sorry for the caps. Yeah, this is basic stuff, but still being ignored. Even if you’ve subbed to a place on numerous occasions, even if you sub two days in a row, always, ALWAYS read the guidelines. They change. They change frequently. Imagine sending your absolute best, favourite story somewhere, only to have it rejected because you didn’t take that few seconds to check the guidelines. Now imagine you’re an editor who is reading anonymous subs, loving a story, getting ready to click ‘accept’ only to find the author has included all their personal details at the end of the story. That’s just one example. Check word counts. Check how many stories are allowed. Check everything.
‘Hmmm – that market says they don’t take genre fiction, but I’ve written this AMAZING cowboy vampire story, and I bet if they just…’
Nope. Stop right there. Guidelines are not a dare, not a challenge. They are there to help you, the writer, find the correct market. They are there so that we, the editors/readers don’t have to wade through stories that, however well written, are not what we’re interested in.
‘But, surely, they must get bored with the same old stuff, and this vampire cowboy story…’ NO! Stop it. Trust us.
Research – Always Do Your Research
Which brings us to research. Research your market. Read what they’re publishing. If it’s online, you have absolutely no excuses for not reading back and current issues to find out if your work fits. If it’s in print, okay, you might say, ‘I can’t afford to buy everything.’ But if it’s a print anthology, you can ask your library for a copy. Failing that, use the Twitter writing community – people will lend you things. Ask. And if you are in a position to lend, offer.
If a market says they don’t accept poetry, don’t send a poem. Not even a prose poem. What’s the difference between flash and prose poetry? The simplest (maybe too simple?) explanation I’ve ever heard is that, unlike flash fiction, in a prose poem, nothing actually has to happen. If you have beautiful language, but the character/situation remains unchanged at the end, you’ve probably just written a prose poem. Well done – now find the correct market for it.
Hermit crabs and List Stories. Everyone loved them at first, because they were fresh and new, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get a new slant on that form. Flash ages quickly, unfortunately. But, again, research your market – do the editors there like that kind of story? Is that what they’re publishing? If so, go for it.
Is Your Story Ready – Really Ready?
Make sure your story is as good as it can be before submitting. ‘Oh, this story starts two paragraphs down.’ You really don’t want readers thinking that – mainly because they may not actually give you those two paragraphs to engage them. Read your stories as though for the first time. Does that first line, first paragraph take you straight into the story? No? Then it’s probably not your first paragraph. The paragraph you think is your first is probably better switched to third – you know, that third paragraph, where things actually start happening. Or maybe you don’t actually need those first two paragraphs at all. Cut them, switch them, be honest with yourself about where your story starts.
You know that sideways quick glance you give in the mirror when you know you’re wearing something that’s not quite right? Think about that with your stories. Be honest with yourself when you edit. Are you skimming some lines? Skimming some paragraphs? Giving them a quick sideways glance? Yeah, those lines/paragraphs could probably be cut, because they are the ones a reader/editor will home in on and say, ‘Why is this even here?’
Endings are hard, and there are two kinds that are deadly. #1 The, ‘I’ve done a great job of showing you this marvellous story, but I don’t trust myself as a writer/I think you might be a stupid reader, so now I will use the last paragraph to explain what just happened.’ Kills dead a great story. Believe in yourself, and more importantly, believe in your readers.
#2 ‘I’m getting perilously close to the word count and/or I have no idea how to end this, so I’ll just stop writing now.’ This will leave the reader/editor scrolling the page, wondering what the hell happened to the rest of the story. Don’t do that. Take the time to deliver an ending worthy of the story you’ve just spent time writing, editing, honing.
There are some stories we see all too often: Dementia/Alzheimer’s; cancer; break-up; domestic violence; grief; death of a child/still birth, and, increasingly, pandemic. These are universal themes, things we can all relate to, things we have all experienced or know someone who has had these experiences, so it’s very tempting to write about them. That’s the problem. Sure, we can all relate to them, but as editors we are bombarded with them. As well as being depressed by them, we also get immune to their power. And, in many cases, we only publish a limited number of stories per issue, so if we have 50 stories on any one of those subjects, we’re only going to choose one (at best) per issue.
If you choose one of these well-worn themes, you instantly reduce your chances of being published. That’s not to say you should never write about any of these subjects, but if you do, you have to take an original slant, and that is not easy.
If you’re writing to a theme, you have the same issues – everyone following the same train of thought. I’d suggest looking at the theme and writing down the first twenty words that come to mind. Then discard them because everyone else has thought of the same thing. Now start afresh. Give it your slant, something only you could write, from your unique perspective.
The same goes for exercises and prompts. It becomes clear when we’re receiving lots of stories from the same workshop/prompt group. I love workshops and prompts but do try to hide the words/themes. If you all sub to the same place – and that happens often – it screams I DID THIS IN A WORKSHOP and the power is diminished.
Overdoing and Underdoing
‘Flash is only good if it breaks your heart’. Eh, no. Sure, it’s great for that, but editors become increasingly aware of being manipulated, of that being the only point to the story, of a cynical ploy to make us cry. It has to be more than that. It always has to be more than that.
‘So what?’ stories. We get to the end of some beautiful language, but there has been no real story. You may beguile us on the first read, but we will dig deeper, so make sure there is actual depth.
Shock value. ‘Hey, I’ve written this shocking story about paedophilia or maybe animal cruelty.’ Have you?’ And was there any sort of censure there? Do I know that the character – or, indeed, you – is not actually a fan of these practices? If not, please do not send this. Also, if you find somewhere that wants that stuff, let me know so I can avoid it.
‘I’ve written a funny story. You’ll know it’s funny because all the characters have hilarious names.’ Hmm – Dickens got away with the whole funny name thing, but I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone else. It’s overkill and can ruin an otherwise genuinely funny story.
Information dumps. Research is a wonderful thing but, especially in flash, you don’t have to tell us everything you’ve learned. Drop info in as and when necessary but do it sparingly.
‘I know a lot of very big words and I’m going to use every single one of them in this story.’ This happens quite often in subs. If I’m reaching for the dictionary, I’m no longer lost in the story. Find a balance in your language choices.
Animal/inanimate object POV. Hmm, yeah, this is so old. So very old. I’m not saying never do it, but it’s another tough one to sell, especially if you’re going down the ‘the MC turned out to be a cat, spider, gnu’ path. I’m not saying never do it but accept that you’re giving yourself an extra mountain (strewn with the bodies of those who have tried before) to climb.
As is always the case, exceptional versions of all kinds of stories will sneak through. But is yours an exceptional version?
Simple Fixes and Fatal Errors
Spelling, punctuation, grammar. They are, obviously, important. But they’re also easily fixed, so if you’ve sent a great story, most editors wouldn’t reject it purely on SPaG grounds. Having said that, too many errors can take the reader out of the story. If you know you have problems with SPaG, get someone to help you before you submit.
Plagiarism, accidental or otherwise, will, generally, be discovered. It’s not worth the risk. In Microsoft Word, there’s a feature that allows you to check your text for similarities to other work online. Use it and avoid this fatal error.
What’s the Story with Submittable?
What happens when you submit via submittable? Your story is ‘received’. It will appear as ‘in-progress’ after at least one editor has read the story. Editors have three options: Yes, No, Maybe. They can also leave notes after reading, so they can discuss your submissions.
Your work is treated with respect. We want to love your stories. That’s really why I started this article, to help you send the right stories to the right places and get the best outcome. Oh, and so you’ll give us the hardest time possible choosing the best from the brilliance.
If you sim-sub, always let the editors know you’ve done this. If they read your story and love it, the fact you’ve sim-subbed may just be the spur they need to accept that story straight away. They don’t want to risk missing out on fabulous stories. Also, please do let the editors know immediately if you are withdrawing your story because it has been accepted elsewhere. It’s irritating to discover the writer has known for a while that their story is no longer available.
Editors, for the most part, are working for free, so please treat us with respect too. I know rejection hurts, but always remember we are rejecting an individual story, not an individual or their entire body of work.
So what the hell do you want?
I thought you might shout that, so I’ve asked each of our editors to choose a favourite story from our archives to give you examples of the things we love:
- Valerie’s choice — The Modern Man by Sean Lovelance
- Mary’s choice — Lonelihood by Todd Clay Stuart
- Al’s choice — The Difference Between Alligators and Crocodiles by Cathy Ulrich
- Connie’s choice — The Eelgrass is Dead by Gabrielle Griffis
- Karen’s choice — When the Pregnant Girls First Arrive at St. Eulalia’s Home for the Lost and Wayward by Audra Kerr Brown
And finally, just in case I forgot to mention it, please, please, please, I beg of you. READ THE GUIDELINES.
Karen Jones is a flash and short fiction writer from Glasgow, Scotland. Her flashes have been nominated for Best of the Net and The Pushcart Prize, and her story “Small Mercies” was included in Best Small Fictions 2019. She has won first prize in the Cambridge Flash Prize, Flash 500, and Reflex Fiction, and been shortlisted for To Hull and Back, Bath Flash Fiction, Bath Short Story Award and many others. Her novella-in-flash When It’s Not Called Making Love is published by Ad Hoc Fiction. She is an editor at New Flash Fiction Review and The National Flash Fiction Day anthology.