In the March/April 2017 Writer’s Digest 15 fiction editors at top publications answer our trio of questions to get to the heart of what they’re really looking for in short story submissions—and how yours can stand out. We received so many insightful responses, we didn’t have space to print them all. We’ve included the rest here.
By Baihley Grandison
What grabs your attention and makes you take notice of a short story?
“A story with real control of language will jump off the page—regardless of the subject matter, that always grabs my attention. If, in those opening paragraphs, every description and character and plot point is not only vivid but there for a specific reason, I’ll take note and proceed with real excitement.” —Emily Nemens, The Southern Review
“There are several key elements, but most important for us is a strong and unique narrative voice.” —Susan Burmeister-Brown, Glimmer Train
“In a word: language. I take notice of how the story handles, and is handled by, language. I look for prose that’s aware of its own precariousness; fiction that asserts itself, and to the point of rudeness if need be. I don’t care for being led gently as though by prelude: I very much want in. And the writer makes an in through language used with the scrupulous care of a curator and the mistrust of an injured lover. (Know that language will always let you down.) I admire stories where the English language is used in mindfulness of other languages. By this I mean stories that do not treat their words as received and easily companionable, but rather as something strange, all the stranger among a multitude of languages. And I care for stories that travel to AGNI in translation from other languages.” —Mary O’Donoghue, AGNI
“Barrelhouse has gotten to the point where a lot of stories come across our desks. Our assistant editors read and reject a large number of submissions, but they still kick about fifty stories (give or take) up to the fiction editors each go-round. In terms of our budget, we can only publish five, sometimes six, stories per issue. That means at least 44 of the stories the fiction editors see need to be rejected: that’s almost 90%. And the thing is, many of those 44 stories are good stories, or at least have good things going on in them. That means we need to make some tough decisions.
The thing that’s most likely to get my attention, the thing that sets off a story that drags me in as opposed to one that I read because I trust our assistant editors, is a story that establishes the characters and the situation as quickly as possible. For example, we published a fantastic story called “L’Homme De Ma Vie” by Jenny Shank in our last issue. Here are the first three sentences: “On my wedding day I realized I didn’t know my mother-in-law’s name. I’d never met her, and Etienne rarely spoke of her. Her name was—is—Veronique.” Nothing flashy, but those sentences tell us a lot. In fewer than thirty words, we learn that the narrator is on the cusp of a major life change (she’s getting married), that her finance is so estranged from his mother that the narrator’s first instinct is to speak about her in the past tense, and that this realization is something that affects the narrator so much that she thinks about it on a day when she must have hundreds of other things on her mind. Those three sentences told me so much that I wanted to keep reading to see what was going to happen with these people.” —Joe Killiany, Barrelhouse
What can (and should) the best writers aim to achieve in so few words?
“When I pass on a story to our editor, Carolyn Kuebler, I generally find myself saying one of two things: “This is a story that aims to do a small thing perfectly and succeeds” or “This story is tremendously ambitious and while I am not a hundred percent sure it succeeds, this is a writer we should encourage (and perhaps work with to edit the story for publication).” The former are often stories in the realm of realism, with quiet domestic settings and outwardly uneventful but emotionally powerful accomplishments. The latter often seek to construct an entirely new and odd world as a way of more closely examining and understanding this one.” —Jennifer Bates, New England Review
“A strong, sharp intensity of feeling on the part of the reader. The sense of truth conveyed—that is, a connection to a felt reality. And perhaps (since all stories involve at least one character) the sense that one mind other than one’s own has been perceived or penetrated or described.” —Wendy Lesser, The Threepenny Review
“We look for a sense of time and place and authenticity in character and dialog.” —David LaBounty, First Line
“Dream and sprawl your way through your first draft, but in later drafts, be merciless. What does the reader really need to know at every point in the story? You should be able to look at each sentence and articulate how that line moves the story forward in an essential way. A great short story can evoke the immersion of a novel and the compression of a poem, all at once.” —Caitlin Horrocks, The Kenyon Review
What makes a short story feel complete?
“This will sound cliched, but a beginning, a middle and an end are really helpful! The hardest submissions for me are the ones that hit all the marks from sentence to sentence and then page to page—where the writing is fluid and assured, where the characters have me engaged and something has been set in motion—and just when I feel that all the stakes have been established, and things are really about to unfold, the story stops. So yes, a story arc is needed. There should be a sense that the place where we are beginning is significant and germane to what is about to happen, and a sense of arrival and narrative resolution by the close—even if that narrative resolution serves to heighten a lack of emotional resolution for the characters.” —Jennifer Bates, New England Review
“When I know that I want to read another story by that author. Such is the case with contemporary authors like Edith Pearlman, Aimee Bender or David Means or recently deceased authors like James Purdy—all published in The Antioch Review. And, of course we have the greats; Melville, Kipling, Steveson, O’Connor, Munro.” —Robert Fogarty, The Antioch Review
“This is a really tough question because there are so many different types of stories. For instance, when a story largely revolves around a situation, I want, to some degree, a resolution to that situation—I think it’s hard to not provide that in certain stories and have it feel complete. That said, for stories that are perhaps more character driven, it’s often enough for the writer to show that the events of the story have somehow affected the protagonist, that they’re going to be a little different after enduring whatever it is they endured. I mean we don’t read to learn about static characters, right? We get enough of them in real life.” —Joe Killiany, Barrelhouse
“The appropriate ending. It sounds simple enough, but many new writers have a difficult time knowing how, or when, to end their stories. The type of ending should match the tone and style of the story, be it subtle or open-ended or even with a twist.” —David LaBounty, First Line
To read the full expert discussion from our roundup, don’t miss the full-length feature in the March/April 2017 Writer’s Digest.
Baihley Grandison is the assistant editor of Writer’s Digest and a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @baihleyg, where she mostly tweets about writing (Team Oxford Comma!), food (HUMMUS FOR PRESIDENT, PEOPLE), and Random Conversations With Her Mother.