By Carla Spataro, Fiction Editor/Publisher
1) Lazy Writing: We reject most stories in the initial screening process for this reason. Not because the ideas in the stories aren’t wonderful, but because the writing is not as carefully thought out as it could be. This includes overly abstract language, overuse of similes and metaphors, adverbs, incorrect use of definite or indefinite articles, and passive voice.
For example: Wilbur’s arm was tugged at by the leash harshly in two different directions. He looked down amusedly and saw the two furry creatures performing a sequence of choreographed steps around each other like two fuzzy babies taking their first steps.
Instead of: Wilbur felt a sharp tug on the leash. He looked down and laughed to see his eight-pound Chihuahua nipping and dancing around Susan’s 80-pound Great Dane.
2) Under-fictionalized or under-developed characters: It’s never a good idea to start a cover letter by saying, “This story is based on an actual event that really happened to me.” As an editor I cringe every time I read something like this. I don’t want to know the inspiration for a story; I want to find myself immersed completely in the fictional world that is contained on the page. All of us draw from events that happen in our lives, or get ideas from television programs or news headlines. What counts is that the story or plot is generated by the characters that you, as a writer, are creating to tell this story. The plot must be organic to the characters; the characters should never service the plot alone.
3) Too long or too similar to another story in either subject matter or style. These are two reasons over which an author doesn’t have much control:
Length: Hopefully you’ve revised and polished your story so that it is the length it needs to be. Not every journal has the room to print stories over 5,000 words but there are some out there, so be sure to check the guidelines and see if you’re in range. We will not include stories over 5,000 words in the print journal even if we really, really like your story. We will consider it for the web, but bear in mind that many web-only journals will not take longer stories because web readers tend to tire easily and are looking for short-shorts or flash fiction.
Subject Matter: It is surprising how often we read stories that have a similar subject. I’ve experienced this in workshops, and the same thing seems to happen with submissions. I was once in a workshop where, on the same week, another writer and I both submitted stories that not only featured bears, but violent bear attacks! If we happen to get two such stories that we really like, we most likely choose just one. We have held over stories with similar subject matter (My Life as an Abomination and Dream Girl, for example, both feature first-person lesbian narrators; we loved both of these stories, so ran them in two separate issues). This is rare, however. If your subject matter is one that has been written about many times (cancer stories, bad breakups, alcoholic or abusive parents, college age characters “coming of age”), you may want to consider more original material for your story.
What to Expect When Submitting
The Orchid Literary Journal website states in their guidelines that it takes at least twenty submissions to place a story with a publisher. I’d have to say that’s probably true — and that’s if the story is really polished and ready to submit. A story full of sloppy mistakes and lazy writing will probably never find a home, but there are thousands of journals eager to read the next great short story, essay, or poem. A wonderful database of over 1,200 current markets for short fiction and poetry is www.duotrope.com.