First, before diving into tips and advice on helping your work stand out, I want to address the term “slush pile.” Because a lot of writers aren’t big fans of it. They say it makes them feel like editors don’t take their work seriously, so I’ll use the word “queue” for the majority of this piece. However, let me explain why we use the term “slush pile” because it’s one of the biggest lessons submitting writers need to learn.
First and foremost, your story is unique. You worked hard to get it to the point where you felt confident enough to submit it. But that’s the case for every other story in the queue, like individual, beautiful snowflakes in a white slush of narrative.
Unlike writing, submitting isn’t an isolated event where you’re the only one there experiencing the story. Your story gets read by a team of editors who have read hundreds or even thousands of other stories where a writer has put their all into the story. Snagging an acceptance takes more than writing an incredible story well. Your story needs to rise to the top and touch the editor so it can stand out in a slush of other well-crafted stories.
Now, let’s get into common issues possibly holding your stories back from capturing the editors’ attention and how to fix them.
1. Long-winded openings
If you have a 5,000-word story and the first 500 words or two pages are all exposition, backstory, and scene-setting, you’ve hidden your story’s meat and exciting bits. I see this a lot where an author wants to set up a particular scene that happens later in the story, so they provide a long opening about the story’s setting, character relationships, and various other events that lead to the main scene of the story. Instead, writers should simply start with the scene they’re building up to and then weave in world, plot, and character details as the scene unfolds.
Identify what’s going on in your story between the first paragraph and the first crucial scene. What is happening on the page here? If your answers are all about exposition and setup, you need to focus on trimming your draft to liven your opening.
Suppose long openings are your jam: No worries! Instead, focus your descriptive writing and world-building on a scene or moment that is important to your character. Let’s say, for example, your first 500 words show the history of your setting through a description of its marketplace. So have one of your characters move through and interact with the market as you work in all this lush scene-setting and backstory. Pair story action with description, and your readers won’t mind your exposition.
2. Disconnected endings
Disconnected endings often happen when the writer makes promises at the beginning or middle of their story and then don’t follow through on any of them, such as when a writer simply follows one cool idea or moment with the next throughout their story without connecting any of the previous events or characters to what happens at the end. You can identify this in your work if you read through your draft’s opening and highlight all the times you give the reader a chunk of character, world, or story information. Does that information ever come up again in the story or have a bearing on the plot?
While the unexpected is something many editors love to see in submissions, the disconnected is not. Examine your story’s elements and how they connect to the ending you created. Does the story present unexpected turns that still work within the logic of your story and characters? Or are cool things just happening because you like them? Connect the events and moments in your story into a logical world by asking yourself how each deepens and expands toward the ending.
Some writers enjoy coincidence in their stories and endings that don’t connect with the rest of the tale. To make these types of stories work, however, writers need to give the reader some sort of thread to hold onto throughout the story, so the ending impacts either the reader or the story. A thread can be something as simple as giving the reader solid, unique descriptions or a strong character or narrative voice.
3. Lack of emotional beats
When editors read through the queue, they want to find a story that will make them feel something because they know it’ll make their readers feel, too. However, many stories focus more on the idea or events of the story and less on how those events affect the character – or how they should affect the reader. Give the reader something to cling to, hope for, or fear, and you’ll have them forever. They’ll eat up every word you write if you can only make them believe in it with their whole being.
Dig into what you want your characters to feel throughout the story at various moments. Then figure out how these moments are supposed to make readers feel as well. When you have identified your emotions, rewrite those scenes and lines using the tricks of subtext: indirectly evoking feelings instead of directly stating them. Try employing figurative language, metaphor, simile, sensory details, and more to capture the specific moment and emotions you want your reader and characters to feel. The trick is finding a middle ground between showing and telling your reader these emotional beats.
Even if you don’t write emotion-heavy stories, you still need to cause a reaction in your readers and characters. Pinpoint precisely what those reactions are and look for ways to actively create them on the page with content the reader can connect with.
4. Unclear main character(s)
A main character gives the reader an idea of who the story is about. An unclear main character is one who isn’t an active participant in the story, either through direct action, characterization, or emotion. They are simply a window into the story. Granted, blurring the lines between character and reader can heighten your story’s tone and atmosphere when done right. But if your story lacks any main character, or characters in general, and only describes an event or setting, it’s not a complete story – no matter how beautiful the prose. Allow the reader to see how your world and events affect someone, so they know the weight and gravity of the events in your story.
To fix muggy or foggy characters, figure out who you want the story to follow or focus on. Often, main characters are the ones the most exciting events happen to, but they don’t have to be. Figure out what your story is about. What character from your cast could give readers the desired atmosphere, telling, and tone you want to present in your story? Ideally, introduce this character to the readers on the first page.
If the effect you want to create a sense of an untrustworthy main character, readers still need to know who that person is and how they fit in the world. Otherwise, how are readers supposed to experience that jilted feeling of being led by the hand by someone you can’t trust? Or, if you’re hoping for a blurred effect between reader and character, this can also easily be achieved using the second-person POV.
5. Wrong story for a market
You’ve probably heard editors, publishers, and professionally published writers labor on and on about how writers wishing to publish somewhere should read the magazine or publication. This is because many writers submitting don’t do this simple step and end up getting auto-rejected. So simply by familiarizing yourself with a magazine’s stories, you’ve already put yourself in a better position than most stories in the queue.
When I’ve asked writers why they submit stories to places they are unfamiliar with, I get the answer that it’s a numbers game. Someone is bound to say yes; it doesn’t matter who or where. All that matters is publishing and getting accepted. They don’t stop to think that they have to learn what outlets publish what they write to get that yes. Another thought that rarely crosses their minds is genre specificity and editorial lean. Consider, for example, The New Yorker and The Sun. Both are publishers of poetry and fiction. Yet each has different editorial leans relating to which subject matters, perspectives, voice, etc., are more suited to their respective editors and readers. What is right for one may not be right for the other.
If you write in a particular genre (literary fiction, science fiction, horror, romance, etc.) or a specific form (hybrid, short fiction, flash, etc.), become familiar with the magazines that publish this type of writing. But don’t just stop there. Go further and do what the professionals do. Truly learn the editorial lean and focus of the magazines you want to publish in.
If you don’t want to know the current publishing landscape or care about editorial lean, consider self-publishing or submitting to publications with lower admission hurdles. There is more leeway for writers not to worry about monitoring editorial practices or preferences. And you’ll still get readers and a nice jolt of electricity by being accepted!
6. Cliché or overdone topics
Writers just starting out tend to explore overused tropes and themes without exploring new ground or offering a fresh take for the reader. Often, they do this because they are basing their idea of the current publishing landscape on stories published more than a decade ago, such as the stories they read in high school or college. Editors tend to read a lot of the same stories repeatedly and are also fans of the genres and forms they read within. That makes them subject matter experts. So if you’re writing a classic slasher story where everyone gets killed except for one person who ends up defeating the killer, you’re just rehashing well-worn territory (unless, of course, you put a twist on this well-known trope).
This is another reason why reading within the magazines you want to publish with will help you. Find out what topics are often covered, and then don’t write about them. Or, if you do, try to offer something original to the conversation.
Identify what conventions or tropes you are using. Learn what traditionally is done with them and how you may remix or reinvent those conventions to bring something new to readers. If you’re writing about a topic or theme that is frequently used, ask yourself what you are doing differently: Does your story say or do anything new or exciting that would interest readers of that type of topic? If not, then write a new story, or find a fresh angle. Aim to use genre conventions and form in intelligent and surprising ways to make your story stand out.
7. Nothing happens
If nothing happens in your story, nothing is going to move it out of the queue, no matter how beautiful or well-written it is. Stories show the reader an aspect of the world in a new light with interesting characters in a well-developed world. If your story only shows the world or the characters in the world without exploring change and effects, then the story lacks a charge and a driving force.
Now, this isn’t to say you need to write a hero’s journey or that your character needs to change significantly. No, plenty of stories and story structures aren’t built around a great deal of conflict and character-shattering change. What I am urging is that you take your readers on a journey with your characters through a world and events that change and offer new insights for either the characters in the story, the world, or the reader.
If you realize you are describing a moment doing nothing but “existing,” figure out what is there for the reader. Are you offering them an experience they can feel and remember? Try and see your story from the position of the reader. What are you presenting to them on the page? What do you have to offer them in exchange for their time and attention?
For stories that don’t have a lot of change and or conflict, determine what you are trying to present to your audience. Do you just want to show them a lovely countryside where a battle once took place? Or do you want to show a particular exchange of blows during that battle? Understand what you are trying to do with your story and how you specifically plan on making that connection with your reader.
Getting out of the queue
All writers start in the queue. It’s where we build our hard exteriors against rejection and blow up great giant balloons of hope that some editor or reader will see our story and think it’s the one they’ve been waiting for their whole careers. And if you keep practicing and learning, one day, it will happen.
But if the writer’s life were all easy acceptances, many of us wouldn’t do it. It’s that fight, that drive to perform something so complex and magical that keeps many of us churning out story after story, rejection after rejection. For some writers, the queue is where they find their voice. They write a story, edit it up a bit, and send it out to unending rejections.
Then they try again, tweaking their writing and trying something new, until they start getting more personalized rejections and making it to the final round. They keep plugging at the queue like a plot problem they know they can solve if they only keep writing. Instead of submitting with knowledge and confidence, they submit based on luck. This isn’t a bad method, but it can lead to years of feeling lost and unsure.
Getting rejected doesn’t mean you’re a good or bad writer. But while there’s nothing wrong with the queue, you don’t have to stay there. Working on these elements within your story will help make your story stand out just a little more in your potential editor’s head. And isn’t that what we all want as writers: Not just to tell a fantastic story, but to tell it well enough to stick with our readers long after they’ve left our worlds and characters?
Aigner Loren Wilson is a senior fiction editor for Strange Horizons and an associate editor for the horror podcast NIGHTLIGHT. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in WIRED, Lightspeed Magazine, FIYAH, The Writer, and many more. To check out her books, games, and other writing, visit her website (aignerlwilson.com).