Mistakes We Make and How to Deal with Declines

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Recently I published “No Never Forever Fever: Affairs with Rejection Slips”, a column about rejections in trampset , which was read widely and received enthusiastically. Writers reached out to share their experiences: how a piece declined 52 times finally found a home and was subsequently nominated, how an editor requested a piece back after having declined it, how they felt about the tone of rejection letters or the wait for a decision, and so on. I was flooded in my emails and DMs. I thought how the matter connects writers, and needs far more addressing than is currently done.

Being on both sides of literary magazines has helped me process rejections better. Some time back I had the wonderful opportunity to guest edit Full House Literary, and I also read for two editions of a popular flash fiction contest. I read and critique when requested. Some mistakes are fairly common, we all tend to make. Through this blogpost here’s sharing some of those, so we are better equipped the next time!

  1. Consider this opening: “I pull the curtain. The glare from the sun is exhausting. The windows are of glass, firmly latched. I try to open the door, but the wood is solid, perhaps mahogany.” Notice how the opening describes a scene, a situation in which the narrator finds themselves in, but in using their first four lines, the author throws up no tension or conflict or dilemma to keep reading: Is he trapped? Trying to escape? Or simply bored? Remember, it’s a flash and not a short story. As a Reader I’m prepared to read only under 1000 words and this opening doesn’t grab me. If I was mentally ready to read a short-story of 4000 words I wouldn’t be so impatient. That’s why openings are so important in flash writing and 85-90% of the times, there’s where it falters. In the context of that welcome mat to draw the reader in, flash fiction great Kathy Fish says: Regarding openings, the old adage of treating story writing as a party is so apt: “Arrive late and leave early.” In the fast-paced world of flash fiction this is particularly crucial.

2. At times, the writer has an unusual, interesting theme in mind (climate crisis or immigration for instance), but instead of endeavoring to spin a tale around it, they simply speak out the idea. Consider this start in a flash draft I happened to critique: “Errors are common. We all make mistakes. If you could, you would make none.” Now this same idea could be ‘put’ into a situation, a character involved, and eventually the reader could’ve been made to come to this very conclusion.

3. Notice another opening: “Mr and Mrs Roye, the doctor will see you now. The wide-eyed couple clutch each other’s arm as they enter the room. Instructed to sit, they do so clumsily and wait for the doctor to speak.” Because of the use of Mr. and Mrs. I immediately know they are a married couple waiting for the doctor’s opinion, and my interest is immediately piqued. This does better in providing a situation. However, again, it’s also important to build on a great opening because it has promised the reader something already!

4. Sloppy editing. Review this: “I still remember the day my father lost his job like it was yesterday.” and then again a paragraph later — “I lost the job” he exclaimed. Readers might overlook it but at the editor’s table this is sure to be noticed.

5. Too many similar narratives: marital woes, shopping mart stories, dark tales taking place in an abandoned cemetery/ house/forest.

6. Plotlines distinguish flash fiction from prose poems and vignettes which may explore a thought or emotion, hence it is important to end satisfactorily, though not necessarily by tying up all the loose ends. So it becomes necessary to shuffle, blend, cut, snip and glue-in the hackneyed plotlines editors and readers may have had an overdose of.

7. Taking the reader for granted — that is something best avoided. And, over-explaining. I find that stories too contrived are as much put-offs as are stories that try to simplify too much, as though they feel the need to illustrate what they want to tell. It’s often best to wait for the reader to place themselves into the narrative and make their own inroads!

So that’s how it goes. I do reading and critiquing as a one-off (I’m not reading for, or editing any journal on a regular basis), giving myself the time and energy to read every piece start to finish and post a comment on every story — what I liked or what didn’t work — and it’s tremendous fun. On the other hand, literary magazine Readers are mostly volunteers, often reading for multiple places. It’s a miracle what catches attention. They have deadlines to return scores, limited time. Maybe that’s a pointer to how normal a decline can be, how routine, how expected. Writers who are also readers know how the odds add up, and deal with the news of decline better. They seek other venues. If you trust your idea, and your storyline, take a deep breath, and submit again, that’s the only thing to do.

Some kind writers have compiled these helpful lists of places to send them to:

  1. Brecht De Poortere – Excel database with 800+ journals, including the following info: brief journal description, location of journal, website link, cost of submission, remuneration, word limits, and reading periods https://brechtdepoortere.com/rankings
  2. Anne O’Leary – https://anneolearyblog.wordpress.com/2022/02/13/flash-fiction-competitions-2022/
  3. Trish Hopkinson – https://trishhopkinson.com/category/call-for-submissions/

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