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Your Short Story is Rejected. Now What?
I get many short stories submitted each month. Sadly, most are not at a stage where I can publish them. For many authors, short stories appear to be the easiest form of writing; short, easy to finish. This is deceptive; a good short story is much harder to write than a novel.
A novel offers anywhere from 250-500 pages to develop characters, flesh out the details of scenes, include descriptive, yet non-essential narrative to fully flesh out the world in which the story takes place. You also have the luxury of slower pacing.
For a short story to work, the writing needs to be sharp, crisp, concise. Irrelevancies have no room. The reader must be pulled in from the start. The story must have a point in being told; it is not an excerpt. A short story is not a narrative; it requires action, dialogue that propels it along, marker points that the author sees, like mile-markers on a highway. The story will come to an end, and when it does, something must have been gained in the telling or it was a pointless time waste.
I know this sounds harsh; but writing is not for the weak-hearted. Writing is rejection. Writing is like that endurance event you just come close to; you want to cross the finish-line so badly.
Start at a place that will grab hold.
A vast majority of the short stories submitted to BNP Magazine are not, in fact, stories. They are, instead, snippets of a story kernel, ideas being explored through pages of dialog with little or no solidity. They may be well written, and many are; but that does not qualify it for publication.
In a short story you have a novel worth of ideas compressed tightly into around 2000 words. The story must not languish in its own adulation. Yes, you put the sentence together nicely. So? What’s the point? Why should I read it? What do I get out of it? Do I really care? All questions that you should ask before submitting a story anywhere.
Every story, like every novel, film, television show, has a start point, a mid-point, and an ending of one kind or another. That said, the starting point is not the start of the story. Your reader wants to be sucked in. Start at a place that will grab hold. You can always go back and flesh in the details you had originally started with.
Let’s use a film example everyone knows: The original STAR WARS (now Episode IV). The film opens with a star destroyer chasing, and firing upon an rebel ship carrying Princess Leia. Now, the whole story really starts when Luke Skywalker was born, raised on that nasty and barren Tatooine place with his uncle and aunt. Maybe he got up and had breakfast. They discuss crop harvests. YAWN!
So, instead of useless back-story, we start with action, grab the reader enough to make sure they linger long enough to get the back-story (Luke and his uncle and aunt discuss his going to the Academy, and how he is stuck there.)
A short story should begin at the point where the reason for the story begins. And that point should be strong, action oriented, gripping, or unusual enough to make the reader want to continue.
Quite often, even though a story is rejected, I will offer some thoughts on how to up the game. Sometimes this requires some juggling of where things are in the story. Sometimes this requires rewriting a stronger opening scene that leads forward, rather than just being presented. Make the reader work a bit. Do they want to know.
Here are some examples:
John arose from a heavy sleep and, after using the can, threw water across his face, stopping only to stare at his image in the mirror. His furrowed brow was…. YAWN!
It was the ear-splitting thunder of a bullet being fired that snapped John from a deep sleep. Upright, he froze, his mind desperately searching for clues. Where had it come from? Although it was loud, it had come from outside his cabin. Had he been the target?
Of the two examples, one grabs you while the other just presents itself.
Avoid clichés. Who cares if his brow was furrowed? Be accurate in action. Did he throw water across his face or splash it. Were his hands cupped or was it one handed?
Avoid boring descriptions; but don’t go all exotic on me. A bullet sounds a certain way, depending what type and how far you are from it. Have you ever fired a gun? Perhaps you should go to a shooting range so you can get a good idea. There is more than sound involved. Vibrations saturate your body. Holding the gun steady as it is being discharged takes a lot of practice, otherwise it’s like someone holding a barbell out for you and suddenly letting go, only in the other direction. With all the crime novels, bullets fire, pierce, shatter, thunder, crack, snap, pop, go BANG!, pinged, thwacked…. What they do not do is sound like a herd of buffalo hooves smacking the empty tundra!
Avoid writing styles that interrupt the reading style. If a reader has to stop and mutter, “Huh?” Then you have destroyed the wonder of a well-written short story.
Of all the stories sent my way, the rejections always come with suggestions.
So your story has been rejected. What do you do now? Have a drink? Curse the publisher while waving your fist holding the crinkled rejected letter? Or do you read your story again, this time in a different way. Perhaps you read it out loud so you can hear what it sounds like. Perhaps have your spouse/partner/friend read it to you.
If you were fortunate to receive comments in the rejection, examine their validity. Is there a way to adjust the story, amp it up, refine, fine-tune, adapt, add or subtract elements, reorganize, or totally rewrite?
So here is a question for you! Was your story worth writing…to you? If you do not say yes, then you already know what to do. Your story must be worth writing to yourself. If so, a rejection letter is merely an opinion, a tool, a suggestion or a hint at how to improve it. Are you going to give up?
Of all the stories sent my way, the rejections always come with suggestions. It is not a personal opinion of whether I liked your story theme or not; it is, hopefully, a tool to help you fix what is wrong, and then resubmit it.
I am happy when a story comes back. I will confess that it may get rejected again and again until it is just right. I have one author (no names) who submitted to me seven or eight revisions before we got where we needed to be. That author understood that I was looking for a good story, not just interested in rejecting those not ready for publication.
What you do now is up to you. From experience I will tell you that around 80 percent of rejection end right there. Do I feel bad for the author? Of course. Writing is tough to do. Good writing is extremely tough to do. But if it was easy, everyone would be writing…wait…looking at Amazon, everyone and their puppy has a book out there.
You just know when you read a great writer, even when they are fresh and young and naive. You feel their story. It’s innate. You just know.
Mike Wells (http://mikewellsblog.blogspot.com) began his career by having his first book self-printed. Thousands of copies. You can read his story on his Website, but the condensed version is that ultimately all the copies were thrown out. They wouldn’t sell. From there he went on to be a best-selling author. I won’t spoil the story—go read it. His career has exploded since then.
Another author, John Scalzi (https://whatever.scalzi.com), could not sell his first novel, so he gave it away free. After thousands of downloads and followers, a major publishing company snapped him up. Most sci-fi readers know him well. Read his story on his Blog site.
What do both have in common? Go to Amazon and read the samples and you will understand. They both get you from page one, line one, and they do not let go.
So, after all this, what are YOU going to do? To steal from Yoda, “Do, or do not; there is no try.”