What’s Wrong with My Story?

what's wrong with my story

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There are common mistakes I see in the slushpile that make me reject a story almost immediately.

It might sound harsh, but when you have hundreds of submissions waiting, a less than great story doesn’t make the cut. Dave Farland who judges the initial round of entires for the Writers of the Future Competition has a “Three Strike Rule.” Once an author makes three mistakes, Dave rejects that submission. Now, Dave has a very particular style of fiction that he likes, and I have mine, so our “rules” are different, but the example remains the same. An editor will give a story a bit of wiggle room but make too many mistakes, and you’re done even if the overarching storyline is fantastic.

For lack of a better term, let’s call these “strikes”:

  1. Nothing happens for a long time.
  2. Huge chunks of exposition get in the way of plot.
  3. Anyone sitting anywhere looking into the sunset/sunrise/scenery/at a leaf
  4. Grammatical errors
  5. Unnamed characters (He/she/we/it)
  6. Bizarre formatting that doesn’t make sense to the story
  7. Puns
  9. Mixed metaphors
  10. Crazy tenses
  11. Distancing (he felt/he saw/she thought)
  12. Saidisms (he commanded/she whimpered/he shouted)
  13. Naming emotions instead of showing (Anger balled in his chest)
  14. Point of view jumps in the final scene
  15. A cover letter longer than the actual story
  16. Names I can’t pronounce without hacking up a phlegm-ball
  17. Anything I have so look up in the dictionary
  18. Purple prose
  19. Anyone waking up from anything
  20. DOUBLE WHAMMY – sending to the reprint pile with the note “I previously published this on my blog” after the guidelines clearly say do not send this if it was previously published on your blog.
  21. All the sentences have the same or similar structure. (i.e., He went here. He went there. He did this. He did that. She did this. The end.)

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This has nothing to do with the story. But I’m going to drop it here because it is relevant. Editors are human. So take this with a grain of salt and then go re-read the section on Cover Letters.

At FFO, slush readers can’t see cover letters. But I can. Editors can. And even though we try not to read them until we read the story, it’s like a dead body lying there. I have to look.

This is my confession:

A bad, shoddy, tacky, poorly done cover letter leaves a bad taste in my mouth before I ever get to the story. If you don’t know how to write a cover letter, even when I tell you how in the submission guidelines, I make assumptions about your skill as a writer.

I’ve read thousands of stories. I’ve read thousands of cover letters. I can say there is a correlation between stupid cover letters and horrible stories.


Less really is more.

Now go re-read the section about cover letters.

Sometimes, I get to the end of a story, and I’m left unsatisfied. I’ll reject these stories as well.

Let’s call these “Broken Stories”

  1. I don’t care about your main character.
  2. Withholding makes me want to pull my hair out.
  3. I feel like you’re setting me up for a gag ending.
  4. The prose is dull and lifeless.
  5. Your literary ego is in the way of your writing. It’s beautiful, but there’s no point.
  6. Something so experimental that it’s unreadable (i.e., massive lists of forwarded email addresses)
  7. Genre conventions come in too late
  8. Stereotypes
  9. Passive and/or reactive main characters
  10. White room syndrome
  11. Clown-cars – characters popping out of nowhere
  12. Someone telling someone else’s story (Another form of distancing)
  13. An ending I can predict from a mile away
  14. No character arc
  16. So much narrative distance I could drive a semi through it

And then there are IMMEDIATE NO-WAY’S

  1. Racial slurs
  2. Rape
  3. Child abuse
  4. Misogyny
  5. Feces. Urine.
  6. Incest

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