I’m still chugging away submitting flash and short stories to magazines and I’ve noticed I’ve gotten into a realm of more personal rejection, a small handful of acceptances, but also that nifty 20/20 hindsight, which I can now tongue-in-cheek share with you! My first few months of flash stories were landing me in the form-rejection pile for a very simple reason. I was using the same plot stories every one else in the world uses when they think they have a great idea.
There are a lot of elements and tropes that are just done and if you want to target literary magazines, you’d be mindful to avoid them. Let’s look into some of the pet peeves of popular literary magazines.
Be mindful that any of these are just peeves, and if you have some amazingly unique twist, awesome character building, or killer prose that just makes the story fly above it, it’s still in spite of your story being something the editors are just tired of seeing. We need to give ourselves the best chance, so why make it difficult?
Here we go:
1. Zombies – Vampires – Werewolves – Witches – Demons
This is not just for flash, but for any story. Dark paranormal lore is just trodden ground to the point of boredom. And really, any element associated with death is overridden territory when it comes to flash. If you turn to death to make your story dramatic, you’re not digging deep enough.
What makes a story great is not that the character has some mystical paranormal power, but that they themselves are interesting even without having some nifty (well-known) curse to work through. Don’t use this as a crutch to make your characters interesting.
2. A political party takes over the world and ruins it
Magazines have a variety of readers and they’re not going to be amused to hear how their affiliated party is being demonized. You’re bigger than that.
3. Any story in which “thou” or “thine” appear
Stories are meant to be read and not deciphered. That’s all I’m going to say about that one.
4. Kids playing in a field and discovering something (ANYTHING)
I totally wrote a story just like this a few months back. And it also is very specifically described as a no-no in Clarkesworld Magazine. Oops.
5. The main character has amnesia
I know you’re probably trying to make the story mysterious and get that elusive twist ending, which is oh-so-much-easier if the main character doesn’t know anything! Then the reader can learn things as the main character discovers them, sounds great! Except, it’s not.
6. Nothing happens
Seriously, did you just have the character thinking about their life for 3,000 words? Make sure something is actually happening.
7. … And then they woke up! It was all a dream!
When a reader goes into a story, they tend to take things literal. When you make the ending prove it was all a dream and none of it actually happened, the reader feels gypped. The same goes for stories that turn out to be a character stuck in a video game. These endings are cheap and annoying.
8. Don’t be obscene, especially for no reason
Excessive sexuality, gore, and violence are generally distasteful. Are you trying to make the story shocking and dramatic? Is it really necessary for the plot? You’ll demonstrate your writing skill if you’re able to create drama and shock without falling back on these cheats, which don’t really make the story more dramatic anyway, just something nobody wants to read.
9. It’s a good story, but isn’t relevant to the magazine
Read at least one story from any magazine you’re submitting to and read their submission guidelines, including what they are looking for. If you’re writing a dark sci-fi and trying to submit to a kid’s fairy fantasy mag, that’s a problem.
10. Stories you know stink but you submit anyway
Otherwise known as your “trunk” stories. Don’t waste the editor’s time. They’ll just send you a form rejection and you still won’t know what’s wrong with your story other than you already know it’s probably not good enough for publication. Don’t expect them to fix it for you, because they won’t. And if it’s salvageable, join a critique group and get some advice on how to fix it yourself. If it’s just too far gone, write it off as a learning experience. Learn to let go.
The above tips aren’t just from what I’ve learned, but compiled from the below literary magazine submission pages. I encourage you to submit to them, but just be aware that these are some of the best of the best and mostly have 1% or less acceptance rates. But now that you know what to avoid, give it a shot!
(These links will take you to their submission pages where they say what they’re not looking for, handy!):