Quality Control for the Short Story

pen on a writing journalI am familiar with the rejection machine, so I’ve blogged about it from time to time, mostly in terms of how to handle it (read: don’t take it personally) and what to do in its wake (submit again). Stories, however, need to be as polished as possible without reaching into the universe of pedantry. If writers throw semi-finished work into the publishing machine, they’re not going to get very far. While I don’t subscribe to the idea that agents and editors need to “fall in love” with my writing—because I have issues with the dating model—I do agree that pieces need to be as good as possible. Milquetoast stories are not going to be published while well thought out, crafted words wait for the next opportunity. Also, our work is our reputation. I acknowledge that this is a high bar, but it’s also the only fair standard upon which to measure.

Fortunately, there are lots of things we writers can do to get our work where it needs to be. Here are but a few of them:

  1. Do some housecleaning—Are there repeated phrases or annoying quirks in the prose? I’m not only talking about a word that shows up too often, although that is important. I once read a story that used “twin” 9 times in 3 pages. So the protagonist had a twin, I get it. Find another way to show the relationship, or refocus on what’s important to explain for the readers. Quirks can also be jarring; things like continuing a thought too long or spelling out a description in such a way that even the obvious is laid out for the reader. Pretend that words come at a premium—only use the ones that push the story forward.
  2. Ask yourself, “Who cares?”—Enough needs to transpire that by the time the reader finishes the story, they are invested in the characters and the ideas in the tale. And the sooner this commitment occurs, the better. This is also a good way to ensure that the characters have some internal consistency. It’s easy to piss off an experienced audience with some late-game twist that doesn’t make sense for the characters. Have a clear image of the action and the who of the story, and make sure those concepts shine through, or people won’t stick with the story.
  3. Assess the beginning, middle, and end—Remembering the efficacy of those words in #1, you need to be able to defend why the story starts and finishes where it does. The protagonist needs to change in some significant way by the end of the work, otherwise it’s just a vignette, which will largely be rejected by editors looking for whole stories. Can you cut 1,000 words from the beginning and still have an interesting, intact story? Do it. Most magazines are pressed for space, so make it easier on them.
  4. Avoid cliche—Magazine and book editors have their own pet peeves for what counts as a vignette or a staid story; Strange Horizon’s list for the horror genre is a good example. If you’ve seen the plot on television, chances are it’s trite by now (I am not talking about Treme or Damages, of course.)
  5. Comb for cheap shots—Connie Willis is known for handing out this advice: never kill the dog. I can of course think of at least five authors who have killed the dog, including Stephen King and Dean Koontz, but as bestselling authors, they can do whatever the hell they want. Don’t do it, and don’t let laziness creep into the work; why tell a story about loss through something as viscerally easy as a death of an innocent? Find an untouched angle instead.
  6. Remove all of the jarring moments—I admit that I like the word, “dinanderie,” but I probably won’t use it in a short story, because people will stop what they’re reading to figure out what that word means. I could describe ecclesiastical brass ware in more accessible language, so why drive my readers out of the world I’ve created. Vocabulary is great, and people who like to read, by definition, have read a lot of words, but every word needs to fit into the universe, needs to make sense for those characters or narrator, and appropriately convey the mood and tone. Pushing the reader away will lead to an automatic rejection.

As always, beta reading helps, if you can find a critique group or a trusted writer with whom you can swap stories. But remember that when attempting to sell a story, you’re producing a product, hoping that your interest as a writer and the editor’s interest in keeping up the quality of their journal has a mile of overlap. Comprehensive attention to improving the craft of the piece is really the only way to succeed.

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2 Comments on “Quality Control for the Short Story”

  1. May 6, 2011 at 3:41 am #

    Followed you over from twitter. Love this line in your blog post: “Pretend that words come at a premium—only use the ones that push the story forward.”

    A photographer (can’t remember which one) who later became famous said that he learned to take amazing shots because growing up, he rarely could afford film. He only gave himself one chance to get the perfect photograph. Something to remember in the overindulgence of the electronic age.

    • evmaroon
      May 6, 2011 at 7:59 am #

      Thanks, Heather, glad to see you over here! Yes, I’m a fan of tight writing, though I don’t always (often) meet my own standard. And was that photographer Ansel Adams? I have some vague memory of that connection, but I’m more than willing to agree I’ve got the wrong photographer…

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