What Publishers Look For When Buying Stories

If you’re a Flash Fiction Online reader, you might have an idea of what I buy.

And don’t buy.

Or you could look at my shoe collection.

But a publication is more than one person’s taste. Yes, some publications are staffed, slushed, edited, and published by one sole staffer, but I already feel extreme sadness for that person’s stress level. That’s a LOT of work.

At Flash Fiction Online, I have a staff of approximately thirty people: an Editor-in-Chief, three Managing Editors, an illustrator, a Facebook manager, a web designer, and a whole slew of slush readers.

There’s no possible way I can read every story that comes through slush. I’d be reading all day and all night.

So every member of my staff has some level of influence over what the magazine looks like in its finished form. Yes, I wield the power of the purse, and I hold the final control over what we put out, but Suzanne Vincent, my EIC, has an enormous amount of influence as well. Are our tastes similar? Not at all. We sometimes go toe-to-toe over stories. Which is why you’ll see stories in FFO that are so opposite.

And that’s okay.

Our readers don’t all like the same stories. I’m always interested in accessing the backside of the website and seeing which stories are garnering the most views. It’s not always the ones I expect. And then there are the perennial favorites like Beholder by Sarah Grey that are just as popular years after publication as they were the first week they were published.

To what do stories like Beholder owe their appeal?

Let’s take a look.

“Beholder”

by Sarah Grey

The girl behind the counter is a waif with mottled cheeks, swaddled in a blue barista’s apron. Her name tag, scratched half-bare, tells me only that she is a trainee. She offers me a timid smile, thin sparkle-glossed lips closed tight. She wears augmentation lenses, red plastic frames that glitter, a cheap pair that clash with her yellow blouse and leave her looking like a deflated circus tent. Through them, she squints at me, perhaps seeking common ground, but more likely gauging the level of customer service I’ll expect.

She can’t read my traits, though. I am a private person; I do not relish the nagging chime of new comments added to my cloud. I pay a generous sum to a restriction service each month. In return, my data is viciously guarded, bolted and buried like sacred gold. Beyond my physical appearance, all this girl can know is that my name is Maria, that I am fifty-six, that I am an equity partner in a local law firm. She will also see a blink to my charity, founded and named in my daughter’s memory.

My own lenses are Italian—brushed platinum frames with comfort-molded earbuds and a soft rose tint that cools the cafe’s bright fluorescent lights. I blink visuals on, hoping to learn the girl’s name, and an avalanche of words and images engulfs her.

Murmurs of impatience grow from the line behind me as I stand, wordless, struggling to absorb it all. Her name, in pink glittering script, is Hannah. She is a Cancer, she is sixteen, she has a dog named Christo. She saw a romantic comedy at the multiplex downtown last night and rated it four of five stars. Her latest blog post consists of clumsy poetry and dim lense-snapped photos of wilting trees. She has revealed every soft cranny of her being, her heart and hopes and passing minutes of her day, like a flock of bleeding prey, laid bare to the world’s sharpened teeth.

But Hannah herself, pets and poems and star charts, is a mere wisp behind by her trait cloud. It swarms with the judgment of her peers, settles on the seams of her blouse, gnaws at her round cheeks. Some call her shy, quiet, withdrawn. Most have agreed, in ragged fonts and misspellings, that she is ugly, stupid, disgusting. The consensus is that she is weird, and the word hovers like an imperious hive queen above her.

She is underage; her parents could shield her from this cruelty. Perhaps they are too absorbed in responsibilities, in vital imperatives, and have forgotten, momentarily, that they have a child. Perhaps she has succumbed to pressure-cooked youth and begged them not to interfere. Either way, old cracks in my heart open wide.

I blink visuals off and her cloud vanishes. Without it, she is just a girl, her lank hair framing a forced smile on a face paralyzed by hurt.

The line behind me hums, impatient. I offer her my warmest tone. “Large coffee, please. Cream, no sugar.”

She nods, silent, and reaches for a cup high atop a stack to her left. It sticks; she yanks with both hands. The tower leans, slows, and finally collapses. Cups shower the tile floor, bouncing toward polished tables and the feet of waiting customers. The hum swells to an irritated grumble.

A wiry man in a pressed shirt with rolled cuffs races out from behind cappuccino machines and boxes. His eyes are narrow and his jaw is clenched. “Hannah, come here immediately,” he says.

Hannah’s lips tremble. She follows him.

In moments I have my coffee, steaming and fresh and free of charge, with a shining gift card for a free sandwich. “To compensate for your inconvenience,” the wiry man says. His lenses have polished silver rims. I blink on visuals and learn that he’s Martin, age twenty-seven. His peers deem him thorough and efficient. I can blink a review of his performance if I’d like.

I don’t. Instead, I thank him and leave.

Outside, the sky is dank and chill. Hannah sits on a curb, nose red, eyes flooded beneath plastic lenses, green crocheted sweater pulled tight over her yellow blouse. Her apron is gone. She sees me step onto the sidewalk, flinches, and stands to leave. A new word, a jagged bite of faceless corporate font, has settled on the fringes of her cloud: incompetent.

She hurries up the street, away from me, adjectives trailing.

I blink up comments and whisper a word beneath my breath. It is one I have wished, so many times over so many cold years, that I had spoken to my little girl, when she was Hannah’s age when hearing it might have saved her life. I blink my choice of fonts and send it away.

I pay a premium for designer lenses. My comment data flies fast and anonymous. She will hear the chime in a space of heartbeat, but she will never know its source.

Hannah stops short beneath a wilting oak tree at the corner. She scans the intersection, squinting at tinted windshields and shop windows. She turns my way, but her eyes move past me, seeking a more likely source. Her expression is vexed, but her tears have stopped.

Several long moments pass before she gives up. As she to continue up the block, a smile peeks from the corners of her mouth, and she holds her chin a little higher.

Her cloud follows her, a long trail of patchworked fonts. At the tail is a single word, tiny but present, in shimmering pink script that matches her name: beautiful.

Copyright © 2013, Sarah Grey. All Rights Reserved.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Opening line:

The girl behind the counter is a waif with mottled cheeks, swaddled in a blue barista’s apron.

Can you immediately see the barista in your mind?

Of course. And what stands out about her? To me, she’s not traditionally beautiful. She doesn’t have violet eyes and long auburn hair. Instead, she has mottled cheeks. She’s childlike. Frail. Swaddled in her apron. She has a fragility that makes me want to scoop her up.

I already care.

That is GOLD in the world of publishing. Right there.

Let me say it again:

I ALREADY CARE.

Let’s keep going.

Her name tag, scratched half-bare, tells me only that she is a trainee. She offers me a timid smile, thin sparkle-glossed lips closed tight. 

She’s the new girl in a shoddy name tag. No one gives two figs about her. I CARE MORE. She’s insecure but she’s trying. Look at that lipgloss. That’s a girl who’s struggling to fit in. Who longs to be beautiful and accepted but we know from her name tag and acne-red cheeks that she’s not beautiful and she doesn’t fit in.

Which one of us hasn’t been here? Who hasn’t struggled for acceptance? This is called resonance. This girl’s longing is kicking a deep-seated emotional memory inside the reader and making the reader transfer their own real-life experience into a fictional setting. This is how you breathe life into a fictional world.

OHMYGAWD-I-CARE-I-CARE-I-CARE.

Here’s the next bit:

She wears augmentation lenses, red plastic frames that glitter, a cheap pair that clash with her yellow blouse and leave her looking like a deflated circus tent.

And here’s the setting, beautifully done in two words, people. TWO. WORDS. “Augmentation lenses.”

BOOM.

We’re in a science fiction, future world story. My genre expectations have been firmly grounded. I can relax because I know the rules of the game. This is a story about technology and how it affects us.

Game on.

Next line:

Through them, she squints at me, perhaps seeking common ground, but more likely gauging the level of customer service I’ll expect.

Now, the author turns the story back onto the main character. The main character is our gateway into this world. The use of first person, present tense is a terrific choice. It makes the action vibrant, immediate, NOW.

And with the last phrase of the sentence, the reader’s attention is shifted from the girl to the main character so subtly, so flawlessly, that you probably didn’t even see it happen. But it’s a setup. Because now there is tension. A beat has been set into motion. An action/reaction sequence is waiting to be completed.

A less skilled writer would stall here, perhaps have the main character order a coffee or fumble in her pockets. But no, Sarah Grey goes straight into the heart of the story, clawing resolutely into the reader’s vulnerable heart.

Here’s the next paragraph, a description of the main character worked in so cleverly the exposition doesn’t slow the plot:

She can’t read my traits, though. I am a private person; I do not relish the nagging chime of new comments added to my cloud. I pay a generous sum to a restriction service each month. In return, my data is viciously guarded, bolted and buried like sacred gold. Beyond my physical appearance, all this girl can know is that my name is Maria, that I am fifty-six, that I am an equity partner in a local law firm. She will also see a blink to my charity, founded and named in my daughter’s memory.

IF I CARE ANYMORE, I WILL CURL INTO A BALL AND EAT DORITOS AND SOB.

More setting/world-building is introduced. Note: we’re told what the glasses can’t do. Rules make worlds more interesting.

And here’s the emotional trump card: Maria’s daughter is dead. But if this card is played in a clumsy way, the reader feels manipulated. See how the author rather obliquely slides in the information about the daughter’s death? There’s a charity “named in my daughter’s memory.” If you’re not reading closely, you will miss it. But the story to this point has grabbed you and drawn you in so you ARE reading closely. Because you already care. So you won’t miss it. And now you care about Maria too.

Next:

My own lenses are Italian—brushed platinum frames with comfort-molded earbuds and a soft rose tint that cools the cafe’s bright fluorescent lights. I blink visuals on, hoping to learn the girl’s name, and an avalanche of words and images engulfs her.

What does this tell us about Maria? Her glasses (more world-building) speak of luxury, sophistication, money, ease, privilege, beauty, all the things the barista doesn’t have.

Rewind and look again at that earlier line where we see the barista seeing Maria.

Through them, she squints at me, perhaps seeking common ground, but more likely gauging the level of customer service I’ll expect.

A truly well-written story forces the reader to go back and add layer upon layer of meaning. It’s not peeling the onion. It’s realizing the onion has layers in the first place.

So here’s your assignment:

Read the rest of Beholder.

Break it down, sentence by sentence, section by section, and tell me WHY it works. Explain to me why even after four years, this little story is the most popular story in the history of Flash Fiction Online. Tell me what you can infer about the setting, the characters, their lives, their struggles, their pasts/presents/futures. Show me the phrases that make your breath catch in your throat.

And look at that ending.

That ending is a master class in how to end a story.

Tell me why.

Forum.

Go.

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