Some of you may know that I do slush pile reading for speculative short stories. I am the first set of eyes that reads your story, and determines whether the editors should bother reading it. Since I’m going to be doing this work for the foreseeable future, I thought it may be handy to post up some “DON’T SEND IN YOUR STORY LIKE THIS” warnings for authors, and perhaps give a few positive tips along the way.
First tip: I love my mom too, but make sure someone who’s not your best friend, mother, relative, lover, or any relation to you reads your work before you send it out. You WANT someone to tear your piece to shreds. That’s not to say you need to 100% take the advice of the person reading it, but having someone be nice about a piece does you no good. Someone else who has a different perspective than you will catch things that you don’t see in your own work. Different people look at different aspects of everything. You want all of your flaws pointed out, each ugly scar, blemish and mole highlighted. It’s honestly how you get better. If you don’t have a thick enough skin for that, your piece is probably not going to get to the point where it’s publishable.
Second tip: Don’t do anything cute with the formatting. I mean nothing. Don’t make your name frilly in some cursive font, don’t bold parts of the story, don’t make full paragraphs of italics and others not double spaced, don’t have your manuscript red text with a black background. Whatever you’re doing to mess with the formatting is not unique, it’s just annoying to editors. This is advice that I see time and time again, and most publishers will post guidelines that require formatting on their sites that are pretty stringent. Even if you think the story relies on the different formatting, and that’s what makes it unique, it’s not. I have to say that nearly 20% of the manuscripts I get have one of those formatting “tricks” above. It doesn’t make you stand out, but it does make me not want to read further. Let the story speak for itself.
Third Tip: Make sure your first couple paragraphs are so squeaky clean that no one can find any faults in them. This goes back to tip one in some ways, but there’s some other tricks I can recommend for this too. 1. Read the story aloud to yourself. You’ll catch a ton of awkward sounding phrases this way. 2. Watch out for comma missuses, run on sentences. I can’t tell you how many stories open with a sentence where an author’s trying to pack so much information into that opening line, that it ends up muddying what they’re trying to communicate. Brevity is the soul of wit. For real. 3. Reading aloud will help with this too, but watch out for your adjective and adverb use and overuse. If I read something along the lines of “I saw a huge giant with huger muscles” that doesn’t instill me with excitement about how large the said giant was. A giant by definition is huge, and huger muscles is redundant. If it was a dwarf giant, now that’s intriguing!
Fourth Tip: Don’t open an email going into length about what inspired you for the story or how it’s based on a real event or dream but you changed x,y and z about it. That’s nice, but the story should justify its own existence. It doesn’t help, but it does make a reader wary to know that someone feels the need to explain themselves.
This may sound harsh, but when an editor is reading a story, these are just the opening volleys to a long war of hundreds of manuscripts. I’ll try to post more tips and tricks as I go through these month after month and become a more experienced reader. For now, I really hope that helps! Even if a lot of these issues sound like your manuscript, the beauty of it is they’re fixable! Don’t lose confidence, but do understand what professional writing looks like.
Onto the next manuscript…