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Wednesday, September 04, 2013


SOME TIME AGO, A WRITER I KNOW bemoaned the fact that he had received yet another rejection letter from a publisher who shall remain unnamed. He wondered if he was up against editorial bias, or whether it was something harder to pinpoint – his way of telling a story, or his style. I hadn’t read the particular story in question, so I couldn’t comment. By reputation, he was a prolific writer and churned out the stories at an amazing rate. He kept meticulous records regarding where he sent every submission and how long the markets kept them before responding. If the story was rejected, he sent it out to a another market that same day.

His other work turned up in the On Spec slush pile occasionally. His stories were interesting enough to make it through the first pass, but they didn’t engage the editors enough for us to want to buy them. I thought back to what he’d sent us and tried to pinpoint what the stories were missing. Each work was reasonably good, well written, but it lacked a certain something. What exactly? Was there a common fault? It was then that I had an ‘ah hah!’ moment.

As an editor, the work I want to buy is always strong on theme and reflects the writer’s need to provide an emotional, moving (or entertaining) experience for me, the reader. The stories that appeal most are about well fleshed characters who want something intensely, who care deeply about something (or hate it), and who want to make a change. They are stories that are original, clever, beautiful, dark. They're either labours of love that have been written with passion, or they’re laugh-out-loud funny, written by a writer who knows how to entertain and charm.

Here's what I would ask that writer, actually any writer who wants to improve their work. If your main goal is to get a story out there and/or to circulate to as many publishers as possible until one of them picks up the piece, how involved are you with your work? I don't mean in a business sense, but in a deep, significant way, sense. How much of yourself have you invested into the piece? How much have you shared about what you think is important? Stories should challenge, entertain, touch, and/or make a difference. They should affect the reader. Because if they don’t, the sad fact is, you’re wasting both your and the reader’s time. 


  1. I think this point is well-taken. It may be difficult to articulate a theme in a short story as compared to a longer work, but it certainly adds to the lasting impact the story has. I suspect that's as true for the casual reader who moves on to other short stories and then struggles to remember "that one, what was it about?" as well as for editors wading through the slush pile who have to remember what a given story had going for it -- if something in it didn't provoke or engage a person's deep-set beliefs, it falls out of memory.
    That said, I've found that when focusing on the business-side of writing, and if I don't ask those questions, like "What is this story really about?" or "What am I saying here?" then when I come back to it later, I too, can't quite remember why I thought that story was so awesome at first. But the ones where I stumbled onto a theme, and let it come out and flower, I'm still proud of.

  2. Thanks, David. I especially agree with what you said in your last sentence - where you're proudest of those stories where you've let the theme 'come out'. That's been my personal experience, too. As for the stories I've submitted in the past that lacked a theme (or were just plain fluff) - rejected. The ones with themes made it into magazines and/or anthologies. I've come to the point now, that if I want to submit short work somewhere (because it would be nice to have another publishing credit), I don't do it if a theme doesn't develop. There's no point. It just isn't my best work.

  3. Yes! I started getting acceptances when I had a similar "Aha!" moment.

    The emotional connection that the writer has to the characters he or she is creating is the first and most important connection.

    If the writer is not confronting, engaging in, or emotional about something in the character, then there is no draw for anyone else.

    As a writer of mostly dark work, I am most successful when I am touching something emotionally loaded in myself first - fear, loss, pain.

    Even then, it can take a dozen attempts before you get an acceptance for other reasons not in your control (such as what the editor is looking for at that particular time). But you always have to reflect, after each rejection, whether the emotional connection with yourself is honest, truthful, and expressed openly in your writing.

  4. Well said! I wish everyone approached their work the way you do!

  5. Well said, Susan! I really like the Three E's- especially Engage.

  6. Thanks, Diane. I think I speak for all of us at On Spec.