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Five Reasons I Pass on a Story

Five Reasons I Pass on a Story

By Ryan Stromquist

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“I look down at my pencils. Those steadfast wooden soldiers. There is no judgement in them. “Go,” they say. “There shall be work tomorrow. Tonight you can sit in front of the fire, your lips grow dark from purple wine. Go.” It is a good day. A writer’s day.David Rakoff Half Empty

If pencils are the “wooden soldiers” reliably awaiting battle for writers, what then of the editors pen? Will Ferguson once said: editors plunge into the publishing business because they love writing and are looking for great stories to publish; however, over time, they develop cynicisms and start looking for reasons to not publish, (font size, word limit, grammatical errors). Initially, when I first started reading stories submitted to FreeFall, I would agonize over them. I would pour over the words and read each story painstakingly slow over several cappuccinos. While I like to think I’ve been able to sidestep cynicism by maintaining my love of narrative, I have developed skills to quickly recognize stories I know won’t be good fits. Below is a list of insights into one hand behind one pen.

  1. If you think your sexual orientation; gender; or race is superior to all other sexual orientations; genders; or races, please don’t submit your stories to small-press literary magazines

I almost immediately put down a story if I feel the writer is sexist, racist, or homophobic. Characters can be bigots (I’d prefer not, but I’m not going to reject a story because of an unsavoury character), but once I start to perceive the writer’s voice leak onto the page, I move on. I’ll offer an absurd example:

Georgina was a traditionally built woman. Unfortunately, she was born with blonde hair, which made it difficult for her to carry on a conversation of any intellectual degree. She’d try—of course—but the blondness would always catch up with her.

Here, we see the narrator making fun of blondes (un-ironically). While this isn’t a perfect indication of author bias, we’re detecting an authoritative voice coming through (notice the non-essential “of course”). These, and other didactic elements, are more overt (typically) the further a story goes on.

I’d like to think this is intuitive, but I’m consistently proven wrong. The rest of my list will delve into more subjective elements. I think anyone can find a top ten list of things to do before submitting to a literary magazine, so I’ll make mine a little more personal.

  1. Pop-culture references tend to be biased from editor to editor

I love baseball. I’m knowledgeable about the history and current events of the game. So, when I read a story where the central metaphor is a clichéd or topical baseball image, I’m annoyed. When the image doesn’t “fit” but was wedged in regardless, I’m more annoyed; yet, when a story seamlessly tidies up an ending with the perfect baseball metaphor, I’m brought to that wonderful and oh-so satisfying moment where nostalgia and catharsis meet.

Hockey is the opposite. I know nothing about the sport, and I’m disrupted from the story when I have to look up specific references to understand the plot.

Now, I’ve never stopped reading a story because of a pop-culture reference, but, if you’re going to make a reference, make sure it fits the story and it’s not just because you really like that song, or product, or quote.

  1. Avoid over-description

Over-description is unique on this list in that it’s usually more prevalent in the heavily edited and workshopped stories.

The thought of reading another story where the blue eyed, blonde haired, tall, skinny, handsome boy with a heart of gold who finally overcomes his obstacle of shyness makes me groan.

Are his eyes central to the story? Are they even incidental to the story? I hold onto these details (especially if it’s a unique image), and I’m irritated if I held onto a detail that didn’t matter to the larger framework of the story.

  1. Don’t be cliché

Can you imagine the above described boy? I can’t. I don’t think any writer intentionally wants to write a line that is so overused it’s banal, so let’s stop doing it. Writing is the pursuit for the right first word then the right first sentence then the right paragraph, and, finally, the right last word. Not only is a cliché unoriginal, but it shows a settling for unoriginality.

  1. No one’s perfect, so why are so many characters?

Insight is conveyed through character flaws. When a character is perfect; always makes the right choice; and overcomes obstacles easily, I don’t have an emotional investment into them. When a former drug-addict breaks her leg and is prescribed painkillers from her doctor and has to decide between the physical anguish or the risk of spiralling back into addiction I’m invested into the choice she makes.

Like most magazines will tell you, I encourage you to read the magazine you’re submitting to as this is the only way to distinguish each magazines’ individual aesthetic. I encourage reading about the craft of writing with works like Attack of the Copula Spiders by Douglas Glover, On Writing by Stephen King, The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, and Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin. Most editors are at least familiar with these works if not directly inspired by them.

I agree with Will Ferguson that editors’ fuses shorten over time, but I don’t think they ever stop looking for great stories to publish. I listen to podcasts while driving, I peruse digital short stories while walking (stopping only to quickly jaywalk), and I read submissions every chance I get—pen in hand.

Ryan Stromquist, as managing editor for FreeFall, has been editing fiction and non-fiction for the last five years.