Confessions of a fiction editor

We started accepting short story submissions on Unsung Stories a couple of months back. It’s already been a great experience and we have already found things that have screamed out to be published. But we’ve also learned that we have to make hard decisions and stick to them. We’ve had to define criteria of what we want and don’t want. We’ve even had to start *shudder* scoring things.

You know what? Picking good stories is hard. I don’t mean that in a ‘Oh lord, how shall I ever recognise genius from dross?’ Genius makes that one easy for you. What I’m talking about is the mundane process, the inevitable reality of reading hundreds of stories in search of the few that have that alchemical something.

I’ve spent a lifetime reading, years learning critical skills and more years learning to write. You think it would be second nature to me by now. But it really isn’t. Worse, I am already aware at early stages how quickly your brain can start playing tricks on you. No 8-hour reading marathon will ever help.

So. Here are a couple of confessions from a guilty editor, cunningly disguised as tips for writers. Sure, they might look like pointers to you, but to me these are penitent words slapped onto a tear-soaked keyboard, offered in the hope you’ll all forgive me my hubris:

  1. Hooks – You’ve all been told a good hook is essential, admit it. We all know it. Except, when you’re writing an idea takes you by the hand, leads you off and says, ‘Just one frilly para at the start. What’s the harm in that…?’ Everything, is the answer. The first line is essential, be it short and dramatic or longer and miasmic. We always read past the first sentence, but the best stories we’ve read drag us into their world immediately.
  2. Creating characters – You have so few words to use that characterisation can be hard, but it’s critical. A story about Hero Unit #23 on an adventure isn’t much. Pepper that unit with caprice, quirks, foibles and little details and they will come to life. Don’t tell me what colour their hair is, tell me what they see just before they go to sleep.
  3. Only tell the interesting bits – Honestly, when you’re working to a strict word count why waste clauses establishing redundant details? We watch so many films it’s now normal to think visually, and for writers this means we picture the scene in our head. This is absolutely fine, just don’t write up the stage directions. If it’s not clear who is looking at/turning to/walking to/whatever, it doesn’t matter.

Also, typos aren’t a good look. You know who you are.

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