What qualifies as great fiction is subjective. That doesn’t mean, however, that publishers shouldn’t at least try to give authors some sort of guidance regarding what they are looking for.
Bards and Sages Publishing uses a scoring system to make decisions regarding what we will publish. It isn’t a perfect system, but it is designed to be fair and impartial so that every author gets the same opportunity.
We specifically looks at eight categories when scoring stories.
Are the characters interesting and engaging? Do they behave in a consistent manner? Do they have distinct personalities? Or are the characters one-dimensional or generic? Note, your characters don’t need to be “likeable.” But they better be interesting. As I often tell authors, I either need to like the character enough that I care what happens to them, or hate them enough that I can’t wait to see them get what is coming to them. If your characters don’t make us feel anything, chances are we will pass on the story.
Is it clear who is speaking? Does the dialogue help move the story along or benefit the character development? Or does the dialogue merely feel like filler or serve as a means of conducting info-dumps?
Pay particular attention to excessive use of dialogue tags or using verbs other than said. In most cases, well-written dialogue doesn’t need you to constantly tell me the character is shouting, crying, smirking, sneering, joking, or that they are speaking quietly, loudly, quizzically, confused, snarkily, smugly, timidly, aggressively, etc. etc. etc.
Grammar and Punctuation
Does the author follow the accepted norms of grammar and punctuation? Note, we have NEVER rejected a story solely because of grammar and punctuation. These are the easiest things to fix. However, if the grammar and punctuation is so bad that it distracts from the story, then that will impact how we score it.
If a first-person narrative, is the narrator interesting? Does he/she remain focused on the storytelling, or ramble on about unrelated matters? Does the narrator tell the story, or simply present a longwinded soliloquy?
If third person narrative, is the narrative voice consistent throughout?
Is the story original? Does it take the norms of the genre and present them in a unique and entertaining way? Or does it simply rehash stories that have already been done?
When we speak of originality, we are not talking about cosmetic items. Deciding that your elves have four ears instead of two doesn’t isn’t what we mean by original. Too often, authors confuse arbitrary, cosmetic changes with originality.
Plot and Pacing
Does the plot present a credible chain of events, or jump around on a whim? Do the events in the story follow a clearly defined logic? Is the resolution of the story credible based on the information the reader has? Or does the author engage in a bit of deus ex machina to force a resolution?
Does the action move along at a consistent pace? Does the conclusion feel rushed, or come to a natural ending>
Is point of view clear and consistent? If multiple POVs are presented, do they help or hinder the flow of the story? Do changes of POV make sense, or serve as info-dumps?
Does the author present the setting in a way that allows the reader to suspend disbelief? When necessary, has the author done the needed fact checking to make sure certain events could occur? If presenting situations that could not occur in the real world, has the author provided adequate background for the reader so the reader can accept the situations? Does the setting feel organic or contrived?
Duplication: Sometimes, we need to turn down otherwise good stories because we have already published something too similar. This happens sometimes when writer workshops give theme assignments to participants, and then later those participants all send out their stories for possible publication. If something is simply too similar to a story we have already published, we may either decline the story or request that you resubmit at a later date.
Harmful Stereotypes: We do not shy away from stories that delve into social issues. And we recognize that, in some cases, such stories may need to include what could be considered offensive language or confront the roots of harmful stereotypes over the course of a story. That is not our concern. Our concern is when a story is built on a stereotypical premise and relies on such stereotypes as a simple plot device. Examples include:
*Stories where a handicapped person commits suicide so as not to be a burden to their loved ones, particularly when this is portrayed as a positive or heroic deed.
*A story in which all the criminals are African American and all the heroes are white.
*Stories in which members of the LGBTQIA+ community are all portrayed as dangerous deviants.
While we encourage authors to include traditionally marginalized groups in their stories, we ask that you be mindful of HOW you are including these groups and the message you are sending. Your story does not exist in a vacuum. It will be interpreted through the lens of everything that came before it.
Failure to Follow Guidelines: While we aren’t going to reject a story outright if it is five words over our word count, we do expect authors to make every effort to adhere to the guidelines. The guidelines exist to assist us with processing the high volume of submissions that we receive. Because we only accept a limited number of stories per issue, we may pass on a story that strays too far from our guidelines in favor of another.
Market Appropriateness: Our publication caters to a wide readership. Sometimes, we need to turn down otherwise good stories because they are not appropriate for our market.
Please note that Bards and Sages Publishing does not publish erotica, romances, young adult, or children’s fiction, regardless of whether or not there are speculative elements. We really don’t care how good you think your story is, if it falls clearly into those categories, we won’t publish it because those are not our markets.
Be particularly mindful of stories where the speculative element is cosmetic only. Your main character being a vampire may not automatically make the story speculative. If we can remove the vampire quality, for example, and it has no impact on the story, the story is not meaningfully speculative.