On Writing, Posts On Writing

Shine in the Slush Pile: Five Pitfalls to Avoid

Ever feel submitting your work to agents and publishers is a bit like setting yourself up for failure? That you can’t seem to get your leg up on the competition and make your work shine?

For me, worrying that my work is going to blend in and get lost is the hardest part. It seems almost impossible to stand out! However, this year, I’ve realized it might be easier than it seems. I have gotten to sit on the other side of the desk as an intern for a small publisher and read the slush pile for our upcoming anthology, Mirror, Mirror: Modern Myths, and oh boy, did I learn a lot. 

Here are five of the biggest pitfalls that caused me to reject a story from the slush pile.

Uninteresting Hooks

Hooks are arguably one of the most important parts of a story. Those opening two lines can make or break your story. Out of all the reasons I had for rejecting a story, this one was the most common. I saw a huge range of terrible beginnings, enough that as I started writing this post, I realized I had enough material to do a separate post focusing on each of them and how to make them better (stay tuned for next week).

However, in a broad sense, most of the beginnings I rejected had hooks that did not begin with conflict. Sometimes that manifested in lackluster dialogue or in a lot of cases, idyllic descriptions of nature or scenery. While beginning with dialogue or scenery isn’t inherently bad, there needs to be a sense of tension in the way that it is described. This will hook in the reader and compel them to want to read more because they’ll want to know how that presented tension is resolved.

A great way you can solve either of these two problems is to ask a trusted friend or family member to read your work and give you some feedback on whether or not they found your opening paragraphs compelling enough to keep reading. Make sure to choose someone who is going to be frank with you because those who coddle you with your writing are doing you no favors.

Saggy, Draggy Exposition

Oh, the trap narrational exposition! I can’t count the number of stories that I came across that nailed their beginnings, but lost all momentum through exposition in the middle.  A lot of times, I saw this happen when writers did a great job of setting up their beginning, but felt the need to fast forward in order to build to the climax.

One example I saw was one story with a great initial conflict, but just as the first “inciting incident” was about to happen, the author felt like it was necessary to go back and talk in length about the character’s backstory and talk about every bad thing that happened to the narrator up until that point. All of the information in the flash back could have been easily summed in one line and would have set up the coming turning point and context for the characters actions. 

If this is a problem you face or are worried about facing, the best thing you can do would be to take a look at what you’ve written and cut it by 10%. Once you’ve done that, give your work to someone you trust and ask for their honest opinion. Find out when they got bored or put the story down for a break and take special care to revise the section where they paused. 

Copyediting Mistakes

Copyediting mistakes can make or break a story’s acceptance. When you are submitting to someone, whether it be an agent or directly to a publisher or publication, I can guarantee you they are looking to work with writers who have a solid understanding of grammar, punctuation, and spelling in the language they are publishing. If your work is riddled with mistakes, it doesn’t matter how smashing the work may be or how gripping your story is, it’s going to get passed on. Thankfully, I didn’t run into many of these in my group, but the publisher told us to auto-reject anything that went too far off the rails.

To avoid this situation, take time to run a spell check and carefully consider all the suggestions your software gives you, and then hand it off to someone you know for a quick copy edit. This won’t necessarily catch everything, but it will help you get your story clean enough that you won’t get rejected simply for sloppy work.

Unsatisfying Endings

Out of all the reasons I rejected a story, this one cut me to the core. We received so many stories that were good all the way up until the ending when either the writer realized they were at the word count, or at other times, couldn’t figure out how to end it. Every time I came across this, I died a inside because the author was so close, just right there on the cusp of having submitted something I wanted to accept, and it barely missed the mark.

I don’t have any super solid advice on how to fix this at the moment, as I’m still trying to learn to write fiction endings myself, but in most of the cases I saw, sending the story to a critique partner or a family member could have fixed the majority of the ending problems I encountered. I’m not going to lie; endings are tough, so be prepared to go through multiple iterations and revisions before you get something that is going to be satisfying for the reader. 

And last, but certainly not least,

Not Following the Submission Guidelines

Following the submission guidelines is HUGE. A great portion of the stories I rejected were because the writer did not read or follow the instructions listed in the submission guidelines. It did not matter how good the story was on the inside, stories that were not in manuscript format or were not on the subject matter listed in our guidelines were not read and automatically rejected.

Admittedly, I looked forward to opening documents to find that didn’t adhere to guidelines because that meant I didn’t have to waste time reading the story. That sounds really callous, but one thing that’s important to understand about slush pile submissions is that agents and publishers get hundreds of stories they have to read through within a short amount of time. By the time submissions for Mirror, Mirror closed, we had over 500 submissions. Then, to stay on deadline, all reading and rating had to be done within a week. Could you imagine being the editor that had to read 500+ submissions in a week? 

But it’s not just about limited reading time. Publishers and agents are looking for writers who are going to follow their instructions to the letter. With as many clients as they juggle, they don’t have time to hold everyone’s hand and continuously resend manuscripts back to writers who didn’t do what they were asked the first time.

However, that being said, the only time it got hard to auto reject a story that didn’t follow guidelines was when a story was really good, nailing the ending and everything, but it had absolutely nothing to do with what we asked for in the submission guidelines. This goes to show it is so important to read the instructions carefully for all the agents and publishers you are submitting to because if you don’t send them what they are looking for or what they represent, you aren’t going to get accepted no matter how well written your work is. 

Conclusion

Reading the slush pile for the Mirror, Mirror anthology has been extremely educational. I have gained so much respect for the publishers and agents who do this day in and day out to try to find the stories that really shine. But most of all, it has given me a good idea of the universal mistakes and pitfalls that can hamstring a fantastic story. While I can’t guarantee that you’ll get accepted everywhere you submit after you’ve buffed out these mistakes, I can guarantee you it will help you get a leg up on the competition at the very least. 

Do you find yourself falling into these mistakes in your own writing? I know I do! Let me know in the comments below which one is the most difficult for you to overcome? Are there any other mistakes you’ve seen that I didn’t mention in this week’s blog post? 

Mirror, Mirror: Modern Myths is a science fiction, fantasy, and horror anthology exploring the motif of mirrors, portals, and reflections releasing through WordFire Press in July 2022. Click here to subscribe to my newsletter for monthly updates!

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