Yesterday I did a post about a filter words, which I’ve labelled as the Worst Offender in my slush pile. This is true at the prose/sentence level, but what about some of the other issues that I’m seeing that pertain more to story structure, etc?
To make this post a little more fun, I’ve tried to order each entry as how I would notice it as I read the story with my editor’s hat on. These are probably the first 3 things that will, (at least with me, but also with many other editors), result in your short story being rejected. I’m writing about these issues in the context of short stories, but these are pertinent issues for longer form work such as novels and novellas, too.
1- Pre-Incident waffle:
In the Pre-Incident Waffle scenario, the the author doesn’t start the story close enough to the start of the actual story/inciting incident/action. This results in two pages of waffle before the story starts going somewhere. Much of it is beautiful description and exposition; much of it is lovely waffle-but waffles are for breakfast, they’re not a tool for writing short stories.
2- No Inciting Incident:
The inciting incident is point where your story takes off. It’s a figurative door that your character steps 0ut from and through which they cannot return. It is an event, early on the in story, that upsets the equilibrium in the character’s life, posits them a question and/or forces them to take action. The protagonist tries to find a resolution, or answer to this question. The antagonist seeks to prevent this. This is the catalyst for conflict and the crucible within which the action that makes your story really go places.
I cannot begin to express how many stories come through in slush piles that have no real inciting incident. I suppose, these could be considered some kind of “slice of life” fiction, which frankly bores the hell out of me. I don’t want to be bored. I want read to a story about someone—Someone real. I want conflict. I want to be taken on some kind of journey. I want tragedy and triumph.
A good piece of fiction has an inciting incident. Arguably, any piece of fiction has one, but so many stories that end up in the slush pile and end up with form rejections have no real inciting incident. They’re just a bunch of words on a page where a person does things. There is no conflict. There is no resolution. There is no real antagonist. A reader, and definitely any editor, will lose patience and interest with this story extremely quickly.
Some truly clever writers have mastered the art of disguising the inciting incident. The net result is a story that seemingly just unfolds for us as readers, and yet captures our attention and imagination from the beginning because the conflict is there but it’s just so damn subtle. The antagonist may be hidden or may not be another person/character in the traditional sense. The problem is, the vast majority of stories that come through slush are not this story. They’re just poorly written and would benefit from rewriting with a view to find and accentuate the inciting incident.
As a general rule, the closer to the start of your short story that your inciting incident occurs, the better. Many of the best short stories have the inciting incident occur or referenced within the opening line or paragraph of the story. If it hasn’t occurred by the end of the first page, you haven’t started at the start of the story. It is often said that anything that occurs before the inciting incident is, in fact, back story.
As discussed in the intro, this is as important for the novel as it is for the short story, the difference being that the novelist has more leeway as to how long they can take before the Inciting Incident occurs.
3- Post-incident waffles:
In the Post-Incident Waffle scenario, the the author starts at the inciting incident (II) in the first line or paragraph (Yay!), but after the first paragraph, or short scene in which the II occurs, goes into a waffling parenthetical explanation of scene/characters/history/etc. that drags on for 1-2 pages before they bring the reader back to the action and the story recommences moving forward. Once again, folks, repeat after me: WAFFLES ARE FOR BREAKFAST – THEY’RE NOT A TOOL FOR WRITING SHORT STORIES.
At this point, I’ve read circa 6 pages of your story and if you have all of the above 3 issues I’m going to reject it. Often I’ll know by the time I’ve got through your Pre-Incident Waffle that the story isn’t for me. If it’s good waffle, I’ll probably read a bit further. If the author dishes me waffles straight up and that is the story’s only major structural flaw, it’s probably not hard to edit it down so that the story starts near the inciting incident. If this is the case, I’ll keep reading.
I’m definitely going to be looking for the true start of the story (inciting incident) and when the action to really kick off. If I can’t find those and you put me through MOAR WAFFLES, I’m gonna reject your story.
Here’s the rub: I’ve got 14-20 other stories I need to select and edit, probably anywhere from 40-100 slush stories I need to read, author correspondence to make, proofing, etc. etc. I’m not going to make a rod for my own back by taking on a story that requires so much work to correct—I simply don’t have the time. Many editors wouldn’t even be this lenient and would’ve rejected your story after the first two pages. I know of only a couple who would bother to keep reading or would read the entire story.
To quote E.B White, speaking of Professor William Strunk, author of The Elements of Style:
“Will (Strunk) felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, a man floundering in a swamp, and it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get this man up on dry ground, or at least throw him a rope.”
Your reader is a drowning man. Throw him a rope so he can climb out of the swamp. The longer you delay, the further he slips into the mud. Drowning people don’t care you have an awesome ending in 8 pages. Your reader just wants to live! If you’ve taken 4-6 pages to throw your reader a rope, you’re probably too late. You’ve just drowned your reader. DON’T DROWN YOUR READER. Especially not the fiction editor you’re submitting to.
I’ll address some other things in Pt 2, but this has addressed some of the major issues that will cause problems for an editor in the first few pages of your short story.