WHY STORIES GET REJECTED (even good ones)

Barb Galler-Smith

Today I was thinking about why stories get rejected. I went online to see what other folks have said about the problem. As a writer I had hoped for something different, but as an editor none of the reasons I found surprised me because they are mostly the same reasons for every editor.

Let’s assume first that your story is practically perfect in every way. Mary Poppins perfect. Not just practically perfect because your mom said so, but anyone would agree it is a.m.a.z.i.n.g.

Why on earth would we reject such a masterpiece? Because:

1. We are not the right market. You sent us a great story that’s all romance, or mystery, or whatever. If it doesn’t have some elements of science fiction, or fantasy we will reject it every single time. And you can’t just change your characters into fairies or aliens. If the story works with regular people, it’s not “speculative” fiction.

2. We JUST bought two stories with a similar premise, setting, etc and we’re looking for some variety. Wait a while and resubmit, or submit it elsewhere.

3. Not our cuppa tea. Different editors have different tastes. Some like forest elves, some like aliens, some like secret labs deep underground. You might just end up with an editor who just doesn’t get excited about your sword and sorcery or military SF story. (See also Item #1) Fortunately for you, we have more than one editor, each with different likes and dislikes, so all you need to do is get it past the slush to have all of us take a look at it.

4. It’s the wrong length. We really mean it when we say 6,000 words maximum. If you think you can’t possibly shave off the extra verbiage you can do one of two things: submit it elsewhere, or try to shave it anyway. There are very few stories that can’t take a little shaving. If you REALLY think we are the right market but the tale IS a little long, please query us. It might also be too short. We like over 1000 words. There are some amazing flash fiction markets out there–we are not among them. Our guidelines even say we like 1000-6000 word stories. Please believe us. We aren’t lying.

5. We liked parts of it a lot, but the end didn’t work, or the beginning dragged and we just do not have time to ask for a re-do. This does not mean we won’t offer to buy and then ask you to tweak the end.

6. We don’t like you. You called us names in your blog or at a convention, maligned our characters, and generally went out of your way to get in our way. Or, you insulted our close friends and colleagues at a sister magazine and they mentioned your name in the bar the other night as someone we might want to stay away from because you were a jerk to them. Or we tried to work with you in the past, but you were intractable and difficult (in this case resubmit something else and we can try again but don’t be a pain twice. We’re supposed to be a team).

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So we are at the part wherein we talk about why we rejected your story, even if you and your writer’s group, or your beta reader friend, or your mom think it’s ready. You know at this point that your story may not be a masterpiece. It was the best you could do, and you love it, so why on earth would we reject it? You’re willing to work with us if we need to change something. You’re nice. You’re fun at parties. You spent SO much time on it and worked VERY hard. So whyyyy?

We rejected your story for one or more of these reasons:

  1. It’s not actually a fictional story.

  2. The pacing is off. Too slow or too fast can both ruin the effect of the story.

  3. It’s boring. Nothing happens.

  4. The Protagonist does nothing throughout.

  5. The actual story starts in the middle of the submission, i.e. that’s where it starts to get interesting.

  6. Extraneous details that don’t add anything to the actual story (background, history, tech explanations, etc). While these might be just what you need in a novella or longer work, in a 6,000 word short our editors want to be engaged a little sooner.

  7. Your characters are dull or one dimensional. They have no motivation to do anything.

  8. Characters are stereotypical. For a walk-on it might work, but not a main character.

  9. Your main character has no qualities the editor can relate to. If we can’t imagine our readers relating, chances are we will reject it not matter how well-written otherwise it is.

  10. Your character doesn’t do anything and the problem or conflict is solved by another. Luck is NOT a character.

  11. There is no plot. Nothing happens. Nothing and no one changes.

  12. Your command of basic rules of sentence structure is weak. Repeatedly.

  13. You didn’t spell check it.

  14. It was hard to read. Beautiful prose may obscure what’s actually happening. No editor wants to struggle through a piece only to come to the end and discover the story was all about the words and not anything else.

  15. It’s incomprehensible. It has to make sense.

  16. It reads like the first chapter of a novel. Your story needs to be complete, so when the editor gets to the end we feel all is resolved. For good or bad we don’t care, but we need to feel the whole story is over. (This does not mean there’s no future works for your characters… this is how series are born!)

  17. Too many characters. A short story can’t usually handle more than one or two main characters (allowing for the occasional minor one or two to crop up).

  18. Do I care about your characters? If an editor doesn’t, then it’s not likely we’ll finish reading.

  19. Your protagonist does stupid, stupid things no one would really do.

  20. It might be just too unrelentingly grim for us.

  21. Personally offensive to the editor(s).

  22. The science is utter shite and the story can’t hold up to scrutiny. When the science is so wrong the reader get thrown out of the story to wash dishes, if needs fixing at home, not in the magazine office.

  23. It’s old news. We’ve seen this plot or premise or theme before many times.

  24. There are holes in the plot I could drive a truck through. Remember Logic is your friend.

  25. Tomato surprise or deus ex machina endings.

  26. We already rejected this story last time. We DO remember many we’ve read.

  27. You forgot to proofread, spell check, etc. One or two will likely be missed on first read, but more than a few on the first page will get you rejected almost every time. Either way—it’s not a finished draft.

  28. Utterly inconsistent rules. Try to make your world’s rules internally consistent even if the entire thing is “implausible”. I love the scene in the film “Enchanted” in which the heroine sings to her forest friends to help do work. In the city, she does the same thing and summons city beasts—pigeons, rats, and cockroaches.

  29. Unbelievable. We ask WHY something is done in a story and it should make sense.

  30. Speaking of believability and singing to get animals to clean house: the story needs to SEEM true, even if it isn’t. That’s called verisimilitude.

  31. Someone else wrote it and even if don’t know it, it’s still wrong. It’s called plagiarism.

  32. Missing pages.

  33. You just caught us at a bad moment. Sorry. Life’s like that sometimes.

  34. You used real people still alive without asking them

  35. You used real historical people and had them do things out of character and contrary to historical records. (O.K., it might be an alternate history, but we still have to suspend our disbelief. )

  36. You wrote a media tie-in. We don’t buy tie-ins of any kind ever. We will not support copyright infringement. If you have a fabulous story with a character or series developed y someone other than you, put it out in fanfic.

  37. This goes for thinly disguised rewrites: No Larry Cotters in a boarding school for mages.

I’m sure there’s more, but that’s all I can think of right now. So, if your story is rejected it’s up to you to figure out why. Editors see dozens, or hundreds, of submissions and we haven’t the time for much feedback. We at On Spec do our best to offer something constructive back with each story submission we decline. And just because we decline one story doesn’t mean we don’t want more from you. If we ask you to fix something and resubmit we mean it. Honest. It makes our jobs easier.

We don’t just ruin people’s days and wound egos because we like it, or get the big bucks, ya know. We want you to succeed. We know what a sale feels like and wish that for everyone! And just keep writing.

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