Why We Reject Stories

At Realm Makers, we spent some time chatting with Robert Liparulo about the reasons why stories are rejected. His feeling was that many editors reject stories on the thinnest pretext, looking for the least mistake of grammar or spelling as an excuse to toss the story. This was confirmed for him by the fact that many of the same editors would tell him, as a famous author, not to worry so much about grammar and spelling.

While he's not wrong, I like to think that's not how we approach it. Many of the most prestigious magazines reject somewhere close to 99.9% of their submissions. When a story only has a one in a thousand chance of making it in, you really are looking for reasons to reject.

While we did reject 95% of our submissions, that's still an order of magnitude better chance of acceptance. We felt like we were looking not for reasons to reject stories, but for reasons to love them. So what are the reasons those stories didn't make it in?
  1. Weak prose. If there's a reason we stop reading after the first couple of paragraphs, it's probably this. We're not looking for perfection, but we are looking for clarity and flow--does your writing clearly communicate what you're saying, and is it painless and easy to read? Minor imperfections of grammar or spelling, or the occasional awkward phrase, we can handle, but if it's a slog to get through, we don't want to inflict it on our readers. Now this is harsh, and it's hard to fix. Grammar and spelling you can learn, but how do you make your writing good?  The best advice is to read more and write more, and over time, you'll get better.
  2. Unrelated to the theme. We're pretty broad in our interpretation of "Christian-themed". We'll publish stories that don't mention church, God, or the Christian faith, if they delve into concepts or ideas with special significance for Christians (like forgiveness, or the existence of the soul). But if your story is about fairies in a Celtic-inspired secondary world, and, hey, some of the Celts were Christians! ... don't send us that one. Also, having an angel in your story doesn't automatically make it Christian (see below, under "Unoriginal").
  3. Nothing happens. This is especially a problem for long stories. If we get ten pages in and we're still reading backstory, or an uninteresting debate between characters we have no reason to care about, or some character's moping about their feelings over some unspecified event in the past, we're going to lose interest.
  4. Shallow characterization. We want to care deeply about the characters. For Mysterion, we're especially interested in the faith of our characters, and how it moves them. We find that if we don't have any investment in the characters, and no insight into what ideals and desires drive them, we tend to lose interest. This is especially a problem for antagonists, who are often egotistical, amoral atheists or hypocritical, self-righteous believers, rather than real people who have an understandable reason for opposing the protagonist.
  5. Preachiness. Most sermons are less preachy than some of the stories we've received. People read stories to be entertained, and to encounter interesting questions. If your story presents easy answers, your questions aren't hard enough.
  6. Not compelling. A story that's compelling, where we care about the characters and their problems, where we want to keep reading to see what happens next, can keep us going through a lot of technical issues. We’re far more forgiving of problems with the writing if we're invested in the story. By the same token, technical excellence isn't enough to keep us reading an uncompelling story.
  7. Unoriginal. You may think your take on vampires/zombies/angels/demons is amazingly original. It probably isn't. And no matter how great your vampire story is, we're not going to publish more than one or two, and we receive a lot of them. So make sure there's more to your story than a vampire who wants to be saved, and then ask whether the vampire part is necessary at all.
  8. Doesn't deliver on its promises. If we reject your story for this reason, that means we were engaged enough to read all the way through, but ultimately didn't think you had written the ending the story deserved. Sometimes stories just trail off, and we wonder whether the writer forgot the last few pages. Sometimes there's a strong climax, but it doesn't address the conflict the author introduced in the beginning. When you write those first few paragraphs and show us the protagonist(s) and their problems, you're making promises to the reader. Not necessarily that the protagonist will solve their problems, but that they will address them in some way--whether they defeat the problem, are defeated by it, decide it's not really a problem, or turn away from it in favor of defeating a bigger problem. And we expect important characters and concepts from the beginning to play a part in that resolution. When they don't, we feel cheated.
  9. Not good enough to be so long. We'll consider stories up to 10,000 words long, but most of what we published was under 5000 words. Sometimes we get to the end of a 9000-word story with interesting characters, a compelling plot, and strong prose ... and we just don't like it enough to justify the amount of space it would take. This doesn't necessarily mean that the story would work better if it were shorter (although sometimes it does). It does mean that it wasn't special enough to have earned 10% of the anthology's total available word count.
  10. We don't have room. At the end of our submission period, we had winnowed the submission pool down to sixty stories that we would have loved to publish, and only had room for twenty. This is an issue with all publications, especially those paying pro rates. There are more good stories seeking publication than there are resources with which to publish them. We did try to make sure we published the handful of stories that we both ranked among our favorites; but we also needed to make sure we had enough from each genre, that we didn't have too many angel stories, that we had stories that spoke to each other, that we could trade off between Kristin's favorites and Donald's favorites. Some stories didn't make it in not because they didn't deserve to make it, but because there simply wasn’t room.
We hope this post has helped writers to see their antagonists (i.e., editors) as real people with believable motivations (i.e., getting a book or magazine out without having to spend hours on each story, even the rejected ones). Keep an eye on this blog for additional posts about the kinds of stories we're looking for (and not looking for)!

Also, our Kickstarter campaign is still ongoing. We're 34% funded, with 54 backers, and 13 days left to go. If you haven't pledged yet, and would like to see more of the sort of fiction we've been talking about, head on over and help us bring Volume 2 of Mysterion to life!

Donald and Kristin are the editors and publishers of Mysterion.


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