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Professional Writing, Editing, and Proofreading

Lessons Learned: Why good stories get rejected

Lessons Learned is a series of posts based on what editing has taught me about writing and the publishing business.

There are many reasons why I had to reject stories from the four anthologies I have edited. The most obvious is that the plot wasn’t very good. While this is somewhat subjective, there is no easy way to say that some stories didn’t do much for me.

Unfortunately, there were also good stories that got rejected. Some of the reasons are under the author’s control, and others aren’t, but it’s good to understand the process.  I’ll offer some suggestions on areas where you have the power to affect the decision. This list isn’t intended to be extensive or exhaustive, but it covers some of the most common reasons.

1. The story didn’t grab my attention in the first few pages, so I didn’t read enough to find out how wonderful it was. Editors simply do not have enough time to read every page of every story (making your synopsis even more important to the process). And to be honest, if a story doesn’t interest me in the first page or two, is it going to interest readers who buy the anthology? How many times have you skipped to the next story because one didn’t get your interest? Don’t be the writer who gets skipped over.

All those articles about hooking your reader with the first paragraph and getting them intrigued in the first page are all true, especially with a short story. As I writer I figured that the story could grow on the reader… Don’t count on anyone reading much of it if it doesn’t do something in the first page. You have a little more leeway with a novella or novel-length piece, but you still need to give us a big taste as early as you can.

Get into the story or atmosphere or characterization as soon as possible. In medias res remains a good starting point. If you don’t know what that means, look it up. You should have learned about it back in high school lit courses and never forgotten it as an author. Start off with the characters in hot water so the the reader has an immediate desire to know how the characters got there and how they’ll get out. Start off with a description of a sunset and you put me to sleep, unless of course the story is set on that sun or the sun is doing something extraordinary.

2. Poor writing. This was something I learned the hard way as an editor. I found a couple of stories I really liked that needed a lot of work on the writing (overuse of passive, speech tags, POV problems, etc.) and I decided that it didn’t matter. I’d start the edits and a couple of hours later I realized that they needed way too much work to get to the level of the other writing. I actually dropped one story completely for this reason even though I’d already offered a contract on it.

As a writer you can avoid this happening to you by tightening up your writing before you send the submission. Don’t send a first draft unless you are a very experienced writer who doesn’t have these type of issues with your work. Personally when I write, I have a whole list of my own writing problems that I go through and search for before I consider anything ready to submit. I’m not perfect when I write, but when I read other authors’ work, all those things jumped right out at me. They should have been fixed before they got to the acquisitions editor.

I’ll have a future lesson on how to address pre-submission revisions and to-do lists, but I’ll say now the hardest one to fix is shifting POV. Stay in one person’s head for the whole scene, and if you switch, do so for a good reason. A lot of books get published with major POV shift issues, so some people think it’s okay to write that way. It’s not. It weakens your story. By getting and staying in one character’s POV for a long stretch, we empathize or associate with him and his feelings. When we skip back and forth we don’t get the chance to build that emotional rapport and it weakens characterization. The reader never feels close to any of the characters because there isn’t time to build up a connection before we pop into someone else’s head.

In each scene, choose the character with the most to lose or the one whose emotions will be strongest. Make us feel everything along with that character and we’ll get sucked into the story. Put us in the wrong person’s head and we don’t care as much and therefore don’t get as immersed in the story.

3. Anthology-related reasons. Some stories simply fit a theme better than others. When you submit a story you have no way of knowing how the anthology will shape up. It all depends on the stories that come in and whether or not they work well together. Two editors may have entirely different interpretations of the same theme, and a story might fit into one and not the other. You cannot do anything about this except to realize it happens.

Length, tone, plot similarities. Good anthologies have a mix of story lengths and tones. Unless a story is the best thing ever it may just end up on the wrong end of the mix. I tried to mix up length and tone with story order, but I didn’t want too many really short or really long stories unless the story really rocked that length. Sometimes a long story is just a longer version of a shorter story. If you write longer, make sure each scene is vital and that the extra length is because you are layering the story and characterization and not just going into too much detail.

I also had several good stories with similar story lines. Again, as an author you have no way of knowing what else is going to be submitted, but you do have control over how well written your story is. Make sure yours doesn’t need much work on the editor’s part and you’ve got an advantage over a similar story. The closer to a finished product you send, the more likely the editor is going to grab it.

4. Sex scenes. Make sure they work for the story and that they are sexy. I selected one story specifically because I loved the sex scene. It was incredibly sensual and emotional. I felt like I was right there in the character’s head and body when I read it.

I also read a lot of very mechanical sex scenes that didn’t even get me warmed up. This was a bigger issue with writers who were less experienced with m/m writing. I could tell who hadn’t read much gay romance before trying to write it. The vocabulary used and the actions weren’t always realistic. If you are new to the genre, read a lot of it before trying to write it.

Emotion and senses. In sex scenes I like to feel some emotion along with the actions. Don’t forget to include how the sex makes the characters feel in their heads and not just their bodies. This is extremely important for erotic romance. The sex is about forwarding the relationship, so the characters have to feel something before, during and after, and unless the sex scene forwards the plot or relationship, it probably doesn’t belong. Make sure to have the right balance of sex scenes for erotic romance vs. erotica.

Remember to use all the senses, especially in sex scenes. Taste, smell and sound are important parts of sex and including them makes us feel like we are there in bed with the characters. Leaving them out and it puts us at a distance where we are just watching.

You’ll see some of this advice come back in other lessons, and it will become crystal clear why it’s important.

Feel free to ask questions or comment on anything. I probably missed out a few reasons and I’ll fill them in later in a future lesson.

I hope this was useful. I would appreciate feedback and comments.


  1. My question will be about pace. I’m currently writing a story, however I feel like I’m going really slow… could you perhaps give some advice about pace? I don’t want to rush what’s going on, but I don’t want to make it last forever… is that what pace is? Sorry if I used the wrong term…

    • Pacing is tricky and it’s not easy to answer without reading a piece and knowing how much time you are taking and what’s appropriate for the scene or story. But when you add lots of details, you slow the pace of the action. When you write just the action and not much detail, you speed it up. Some scenes should be slow, like two people meeting for the first time might take some time to get the courage to speak to each other, and other scenes should be fast like a chase or if something is very exciting.

      I’ll be doing a post on pacing later, but it’s very tricky. You can slow a fast scene down with more details, but it must fit. If your character is running from bad guys, he won’t notice what color someone’s eyes or hair is, but if he’s kissing someone for the first time he might notice many physical details and sensations. So it depends on so many factors, plus the effect you want. But at the end of the day, if writing the scene is boring, then reading it probably will be too, so you may need to quicken the pace and leave out something.

      Also, spend time on the most important scenes, and summarize or use narrative for the less important ones. Only you know what you want to focus on, but a good editor can tell you when to speed or slow things down–in context, but it’s tough at this abstract level. Hope that helps.

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