Strong writing, well-realised characters and story arcs really stand out.
Clean prose matters. A few typos is one thing and can be overlooked, but habitual bad use of grammar and punctuation can’t. It doesn’t matter how brilliant is the concept, or how deeply realised you think are your characters, if it’s unreadable, or looking sloppy, we’ll pass. There’s only so much time a small print can put into editing mistakes. Before you move onto submitting it elsewhere, check it over again – resubmitting a sub-par piece of work to another publication is going to bring you more disappointment than
the magazine or agent you subbed to.
It’s not just about whether your technique is right. You may write concise narrative with a clear well-structured plot, but if there’s no depth, no meaningful transition within your character(s), or to the world in which s/he explores, or flat world-building, or nothing new is revealed or learned by the end it’s likely to feel underwhelming.
Stories are an extremely subjective experience, not only for the writer but for the reader too. What works sublimely for one editor doesn’t work for another. If you get rejected at one publication, and your story has been meticulously polished, keep going and try again with another. Have a little faith in yourself!
Rising tension (you know, that real edge of your seat stuff) is one of the hardest areas to master. Attention to detail is key.
Syntax matters. Your hero’s quest may involve beating up the bad guys, crossing a dangerous ravine, fighting off wolves, but if the prose is dull — i.e. too many words that serve to make your sentences function grammatically and not inject them with life — it won’t make your story an interesting read. Excite your writing with rhythm, unusual words and turns of phrase (that make sense and don’t sound forced, of course). Make us feel we are seeing something new.
High concept fiction is a stronger publishing candidate than good writing that makes no point. Of course there is a requirement for strong writing skills and well-edited pieces, but if the concept is like no other we’ve read, yet has a few faults, it will likely score higher than something perfectly written with a stale premise. However, it’s heart-breaking to reject a fantastically strong concept because the writer didn’t polish his/her work, just as much as it is to reject a well-written piece because the idea is too worn and predictable. We read a lot of stories, and it’s bizarre how often similar ideas come in within the same submissions period – stories featuring mer-people, or cows, or magic cloaks, for example. It’s weird how they all cluster together. How can your story stand out from the rest? (And does this mean that subliminal messaging IS out there working on all of us?)
Selling your work is a highly competitive arena. Nobody owes a writer anything; your work has to stand on its own merits and beat the other contenders in the ring. There’s a limited amount of stories that can be published in any one edition and perfectly good stories sometimes just get pipped at the post by slightly better ones.
Humour pieces do not work when they are contrived. Write a convincing story first and foremost, and let your natural humour filter through.
It’s tricky to write about religion or politics without erring towards a hidden sermon. I think, though don’t hold me to it, with these types of stories it’s too easy to let the themes take over as the dominant force. So similarly with humour pieces, the story has to be the priority over the ‘message’. Again, let that message naturally filter through the actions and emotions of your characters and don't force it, no matter how passionate you are about the subject.
OK, call me a cheat. There's one more thing I need to add. Giving feedback in rejection letters takes a lot of time and care. At The Colored Lens we always try to give some feedback to our rejected authors, but we're obviously conscientious of being helpful and not detrimental to a writer's confidence. In some instances it can take a lot of effort to frame a response that carries the core reason while being respectful of the writer's sensibilities. I know the wall of silence can be frustrating, but next time you feel a grumble coming on about editors and agents never giving any morsels of insight, just try and bear this in mind.