2016 Year In Review: Top Five Reasons Your Story Was Rejected

As we review 2016 here at Bards and Sages Publishing, I thought it might be of interest to our fellow writers if we share some of the most common problems we see. But first, some random trivia!

Average score for a story submitted to Bards and Sages (all projects): 3.07

Percentage of stories submitted that were accepted for publication: 19%

With that out of the way, I went through all of the reviewer scorecards and identified the most common reasons that stories were ultimately rejected. Even if you prefer to self-publish your stories instead of submitting to publishers, you may find this list helpful for your craft.

#5: Inappropriate Market

Writers owe it to themselves to make sure that they understand a market before submitting to it. A huge reason good stories get rejected is that they are sent to the wrong publishers. Most publishers today are very explicit about what they do, and don’t want. Read the submission guidelines to make sure that your story is the type of story the publisher is looking for.

Particularly for small presses, publishers are often serving niche markets that like a specific type of story. And it doesn’t matter how great your story is if it isn’t the type of story the publisher’s market is interested in. You may have written the quintessential family saga or the greatest romance ever written. But it doesn’t matter if the publisher only deals in thrillers and suspense.

Think of publishers as potential customers. The customers tell you they want to order a steak. You wouldn’t try to serve them lobster instead, would you?

“I know you ordered steak and I realize you said that you were allergic to shellfish, but seriously I spent hours preparing this dish and I insist you eat it anyway. Otherwise, I will whine on Facebook about what a rotten customer you are.”

#4: Rehashing an Old Story

If you are going to retell an old legend, myth, or classic piece of fiction, you need to do more than just update the characters to the modern era. You need to bring something new to the table. Too often, writers take an old tale and just give it a cosmetic makeover. Retelling a classic story is more than just updating the fashion sense of the characters and adding some modern-sounding dialogue. You need to bring a fresh perspective that makes the story relevant to modern readers.

If I pay an interior decorator to remodel my house, I expect them to do more than just paint the walls the same color they already are and install replacement carpet that is identical to what I already have. It is the same thing with retelling a classic narrative.

“I applied a fresh coat of paint to your personal quarters. It’s the same color, only fresher.”
(Award yourself 1000 XP if you get the joke.)

#3: Incomplete Narratives

A short story needs to have a fully developed beginning, middle, and conclusion. This should be common sense. But far too often, writers submit stories that lack this most basic requirement. Often, this is because a story is part of the writer’s own universe of shared stories. For readers that are familiar with the author’s world, the short story probably makes perfect sense.

But more often than not, publishers and their readers will not be familiar with your world. Imagine dropping a hapless viewer midway through Season Four of Game of Thrones and expecting them to understand what is going on.

If you don’t get the joke, then you just proved my point.

We are happy to publish stories that are in your own shared universe. We do so quite often. But keep in mind that the story needs to be able to stand in its own without any previous knowledge of the setting. Your plot shouldn’t be dependent on the reader already knowing that Prince Carlos from the Eastern Reaches killed Duke Hudson in book two of your Lords of the Reach series unless you can artfully make sure that the readers know enough in the story to follow this plot device.

#2: But…But…It’s fantasy!

At least once a week, I am requoting the late Gary Gygax to a writer. He once noted that readers will always be willing to swallow a whale, but will choke on a minnow. I’ve discussed this point in detail before. But to summarize, readers will suspend belief for just about anything, assuming you have structured your story in a way that supports the suspension of belief. Speculative fiction is about conjuring possibilities and exploring the imagination. But that exploration requires a road map, and you, as the writer, are the person who must supply it.

Speculative fiction doesn’t give you a license to just pull powers out of your butt or make things up as you go along with no context. Context is essential for speculative fiction to work. When I went to see Doctor Strange in the theater, I was not caught off guard by the notion of…

You have been warned

…Strange using the Eye of Agamotto to roll back time in an effort to stop Dormammu. The entire film was set up in a way that established the rules of time manipulation early so that the use was not an out-of-left-field surprise.

In contrast, it would have been a stretch for a similarly-powered relic to suddenly appear at the end of a movie like Warcraft. Yes, WOW geeks, I KNOW that there is actually some lore justification from the game for time manipulation (and I have been in the Caverns of Time). But in the movie it would have been out of place because there was no structure in place to support it. And that is the entire point

#1: Your Characters Suck

Character development is an essential component of a story. As a reader, I need to care one way or the other about your characters. I either need to like them enough that I worry about what will happen to them, or I need to hate them for all the right reasons so I can look forward to them getting what is coming to them.

One of the most satisfying moments in television history.

Too often, characters are either stock archetypes (jock, dumb blonde, nerd, etc) or simply bland. They all sound alike in dialogue and feel like they are just going through the motions to get to the conclusion of the story. Weak characters can kill an otherwise strong story. And Strong characters can save a story that is weak in other areas. Because if your characters can truly engage the reader, the reader will forgive a lot of other problems. I am even willing to tolerate a Mary Sue if she is sufficiently entertaining or likable.

Daisy: Do you think she’s talking about me?
May: She knows better than to say that about me.

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