I just sent out sixty five rejection letters. My eyes are beginning to feel heavy, and I’ve literally rewritten this sentence five times. While I am dying to turn off my laptop and jump into bed, I am also feeling a bit like a dick. In the past three weeks, I have read sixty seven short stories, and out of those sixty seven, I sent two on to my editor as “maybes.”
In order to absolve myself, I wanted to share a little bit about what I learned in these past three weeks.
1. Beginnings matter when it comes to short stories.
Really, this is true for all stories, but with novels, the length makes a so-so beginning more forgivable. The opposite is true for short stories. I have hundreds of stories to read through. If the writing is good and compelling, it will be recognizable within the first page or two. After that, an editor isn’t willing to waste more of their time reading it.
2. There’s a limit to how many grammatical errors are acceptable.
When I’m reading through a short story, a few grammatical mistakes are okay. After all, even when I read through some of my own work several times, a few errors still slip through the cracks. It’s hard to be objective about your own work, and after a certain point, your brain just sort of shuts off your ability to detect mistakes. However, there is a point when the editor reading your work will start to feel frustrated and more than likely move on to the next story in their pile. Too many errors makes the writer seem lazy, like they didn’t care enough about their submission to have another pair of eyes read through their work or to set it aside for a few days and come back to it themselves.
3. Realistic dialogue will set you apart.
It’s hard to write dialogue well. After a recent reading, I went up to the author Paul Collins and asked him what advice he had for writers who struggled to write conversations realistically. Paul also happens to be a professor (like many writers), and he told me that he recommends writers enroll in a screenwriting course. The more I think about some of my favorite movies and TV shows I realize that the best ones have great, witty, and concise dialogue. While I haven’t taken that screenwriting course yet, I recommend giving it a shot. As I read through those sixty seven short stories, there were many whose dialogue fell short. It seemed forced, and that hindered my ability to really delve into the story.
4. A short story shouldn’t mean an abrupt ending.
Endings are hard to figure out for any story–short or book length. I suggest plotting your story before you sit down to write, but not every writer works that way. Not every conflict has to be resolved, but in general, you want your readers to feel a sense of closure. I read a story about a couple that finds a cooler on the side of the road. There is a pair of severed hands (yeah–i’m reading dark stories–did I not mention that?) and a large amount of cash inside. It was suspenseful and I kept wondering what would happen next. But then it just ended. The couple pulled into a gas station to fill up; the woman worried that the black truck behind their car was following them. And then nothing. A cliffhanger can be a great way to end a story, but they are generally used in stories that come in a series, so that the reader will want to buy the next book. If you are submitting your short story as an individual piece, then it’s best to stay away from cliffhangers.