What I Look for in a Story

Posted: April 12, 2017 in On Writing
Tags: , , , ,

This week’s challenge was to write a story about the end of the journey. 1500 words. Like rolling off a log, right?

Yeah, well my first draft ended up around 2800 and it’s still sitting there in the back of my head, a bad itch that won’t go away. I’m thinking “Am I clear what the stakes are?” and “Is there more I can do to build up atmosphere?” and “Is there enough tension to keep readers interesting?” and yeah, there’s a bit there I want to tease apart, insert a bit more into.

And none of it is going here, because 3,000 words or so is a nice little sweet spot of a story to try submitting to markets. As of right now, I’ve got all of four pieces submitted for the year. So instead of fiction, you get to hear what I like to see in a story. Please note this is what I’m looking for as an editor for my magazine and is solely my opinion. And as I have a co-editor, I am only speaking for myself, though I’m sure there’s a bit of overlap.

  1. Something has to be happening in your story. If you start out by giving me three paragraphs of description, well my eyes have already glazed over and you are going  to get a firm Pass.
  2. Make us like your characters, at least a little. Yeah, everyone likes a bad guy or girl, but you have to make us care about what happens to them. Give us an in, some personal detail. Humanize them,even if they are otherwise inhuman. Got to make us care, otherwise, why should we bother reading?
  3. Make your stakes meaningful. Not every story has to be life or death, but there need to be repercussions. What will happen if Ethel doesn’t figure out who stole Myrna’s porcelain cat collection? Will Ethel forever be banned from afternoon tea? The horror! Seriously, if there are no consequences for actions, then why do I care what happens if the character succeeds or fails?
  4. Understanding your market. Broadswords and Blasters is a pulp market. We’re pretty clear about that up front and we try to be clear with what we’re looking for. But if you submit a war story or a Edgar Allen Poe detective type story you are probably going to get a very nicely worded rejection. Why? Because those aren’t the kind of stories we are looking for. We want sword & sorcery stories in the vein of Robert Howard and Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock. We aren’t looking for epic quests but personal adventures. Your characters shouldn’t be on some epic quest to destroy a relic. We want grey, not black and white.
  5. Spelling and grammar. If your story makes me want to break out a red pen and start marking it up, it doesn’t bode well for your story. Know how dialogue tags work. Make sure you are using the word you mean to use. Edit your work. I’m not saying it has to be perfect, but it has to look like you didn’t just vomit out a first draft in one shot.
  6. Screwing up the details. There’s a trick to writing really good spec fic in my opinion, and that’s getting the details right. If you’ve got a character carrying a revolver, make it clear as to why they don’t prefer a semi-automatic. If they drive a certain kind of car, understand what that says about their character. If you don’t the details right, it will pull the reader out of the story. If you can sell the little truths, a reader is more likely to buy into the big lie.
  7. Formatting. Yeah, we ask for standard formatting. We’re two guys putting this together. We don’t want to deal with idiosyncratic formats as we go through stories. Don’t make us resent you before we’ve read three sentences.
  8. Copycatting. If you are going to try your take on an idea that is currently front and center in the pop culture mindset (say Old World Gods in a New World setting) make sure your approach is strong enough to stand out. Comparisons are going to be drawn, and there is a good chance you will be found wanting.
  9. Pastiche. As a rule: don’t. We want your original work, not your fanfiction. An easy way to avoid it is to steal from as many places as you can. Then its easier to look original (see for example Star Wars).
  10. Parody. Tougher to pull off than you would think, and it isn’t what we are generally looking for. And while we are looking for submissions that subvert common pulp tropes, that doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy pulp. We wouldn’t be putting out this magazine otherwise.

Anyway, those are my thoughts, and are geared for what I’m looking for as an editor. As a reader? Much of the same, though I do grant myself a bit more leeway.

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Comments
  1. Reblogged this on Mangled Latin and commented:
    Matt speaks the truth. Although this is his blog entry, when it comes to what we are looking for in submissions to Broadswords and Blasters, we are of one mind. With one exception, we have tagged the same stories as accepted or rejected before talking about those stories. And once we talked about the one exception, we were on the same page there, too.

  2. “What will happen if Ethel doesn’t figure out who stole Myrna’s porcelain cat collection? Will Ethel forever be banned from afternoon tea?”

    Well? Don’t leave me hanging here!

    • Turned out it was Carol Ann. And it was less “stealing” and more “forgot they belonged to someone else.” That didn’t stop Myrna from slamming Ethel’s cucumber sandwiches though.

  3. Allie says:

    Love it. I have read a lot of stories where there are too few consequences for the characters or the actions committed by characters. It kind of blows my mind that a story can go on without that sort of action/result relationship.

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