In the past six months I’ve been a first reader for two major writing competitions and a first reader for a lit mag. I also organise my own writing competition so believe me when I say I’ve read a lot of submitted stories.
This blog post isn’t intended to put you off or put you down, I’ve written it because I want you to do well, I want your story to get past the first reader and through to the next round. What happens next is out of my control, but I really hope that these tips will help you.
1. You ate a thesaurus for breakfast. This is my way of saying that I couldn’t see your story through the writing. Sentence upon sentence of beautifully crafted imagery that took you hours to perfect should be wonderful, but it can be exhausting to read over and over. Your language should be precise, your language should be unique and your language should be beautiful but not all in the same sentence for every single sentence. Use variety, not just in sentence length but in the content of your sentences. Give the reader a chance to be impressed, but also a chance to take a breath.
• For a great example of stark language in a stunning story, please see Final Girl Slumber Party by Meghan Phillips in Barrelhouse
2. You used a killer first line. I know, I know everyone tells you to do it, but hear me out. This is such common writing advice, that when you are reading dozens of entries all at once, these killer first lines are…well, very common. Yes you want to hook me with some drama so that I’ll carry on reading but guess what? I carry on reading after that first line too. So many stories make me sit up with the opening line and then droop down by the second paragraph. If you open with a really dramatic or action packed sentence then where are you going to go with the rest of the story? Aim for a balance of interesting, unique and intriguing without being overbearing. It’s not easy but worth practising.
• For a lovely opening line that lets the story unfold after it, please see Cuckoos by Steve Campbell in Spelk
3. You romanticised or glorified death by suicide. This could also apply to sexual assault, domestic violence or abuse of any kind but I have a particular difficulty with stories about death by suicide because there are ethical issues to consider about the impact of the story on readers. If you want to write about death by suicide, you can, and I do understand why it’s such a common subject but I – and I’m sure many others – won’t put a story through that deals with it in an inappropriate way.
• For a story that sensitively looks at the impact of death by suicide, see Dear Brother by Stephanie Hutton at Spelk
4. You wrote a soap opera, not a story. This is how I feel when I read a story where too many dramatic things have been crammed into a small space. That’s not too bad in itself, if you handle it deftly, but some writers like to have a cliffhanger at the end of every paragraph. I’m afraid it doesn’t make me want to read on, it makes me think your story isn’t plausible. No one has that many cliffhangers or dramatic moments in their life, or if they do, write them in a novel, not a short story that I have around 5 to 15 minutes to read before deciding its fate.
• For a story that successfully covers a wide range of characters and dramatic incidents in a short space please see The Less Said by Jolene Mcilwain in New Orleans Review.
5. You used the word ‘panties’. Do you know how difficult it was for me to write that? Can you imagine how difficult it is for me to read stories with grim, offensive or just yacky sex scenes in them? As a first reader, you don’t get a trigger warning or a heads up, you just dive right into the stories, and when they are filled with bad descriptions of sex or the female body (and yes it usually is the female body) it can be so offputting. Only include a sex scene if you’re certain you’ve pulled it off. It may help to have someone read it in front of you and watch their face for signs of utter cringe.
• For a story with a meaningful, unique and interesting sex scene please see The Dark is a Shadow Among Friends by Matt Paul in (b)OINK
And, just for the record, here are a few things that won’t stop me reading your story:
Typos – they are sneaky little buggers, I just read over them.
Similar themes – I’ve read so many stories about death, depression, infertility etc but I understand there are only so many things in the world to write about.
A niche subject – if baseball is your thing and you want to to write a whole story about that, go for it. If it’s a strong enough story I don’t need any background knowledge. I read the whole of The Martian in a day and that’s basically a book about how to grow potatoes in space.
P.S. I am a kind first reader, I actually read every single story I’m given right through to the end, but many others are not so kind as me, so think it over before you hit submit.