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Three Stories Unlikely to Make it Beyond the Slush

This post is for fiction writers thinking about submitting their work to Indiana Review. We receive somewhere between 3,500 and 4,000 fiction submissions each year, and I spend a good deal of my time digging through those submissions to separate the bad stories from the good-and-potentially-great stories.  So I thought I’d offer some insight into how I decide which stories make it out of our slush pile and which are rejected quickly.

Some stories are easy to reject.  I’m always amazed by the number of stories we receive with typos, grammatical errors, incorrectly punctuated dialogue, and other glaring mistakes in the opening pages.  Those stories almost always get dumped right away.  Same goes for stories with blatantly racist, homophobic, or misogynistic language in the opening pages.  If, for instance, a female character is introduced on the first page and all we learn about her is the color of her hair and the size/shape of her breasts, I’m unlikely to read the second page.

I also reject certain stories from our slush pile not because they’re poorly written, but simply because I read the first three or four pages and say to myself, “I’ve read this story before.”  There are a few recurring subjects that come up in so many of our submissions that they verge on clichés, and it’s rare for stories that deal with these subjects to distinguish themselves from the crowd of stories in the slush pile.  That’s not to say that these subjects can’t make for fine stories; it’s just that I rarely come across unique takes on these subjects.

The three types of stories I most often reject because I feel like I’ve read them before:

1.  “The Sad Garage Sale”

These stories take place in the aftermath of a death or divorce and follow the main character(s) as he/she/they get rid of the dead or departed person’s things.  The most common variations of this story type involve a) parents selling the clothing and toys of a deceased child, b) siblings selling the furniture and personal effects of a deceased parent, or c) someone selling his/her ex’s albums, books, or whatever.  The major problem with “The Sad Garage Sale” stories is that they too often seem to assume that the situation alone is enough to evoke an emotional reaction in the reader.  As a result, these stories frequently suffer from a lack of character development and static narratives with little to no plot movement.  Sad people look at things on page one, and sad people are still looking at things on page twenty.  Also, Raymond Carver sort of nailed “The Sad Garage Sale” with “Why Don’t You Dance?”  So you’re competing with him as well as the other stories in the slush pile.

2.  “[Insert Character Name] is Sick”

These stories usually involve a middle-aged person visiting an elderly parent in a nursing home or hospital, though variations include parents visiting sick children and spouses visiting sick partners.  I would never reject a story simply because it’s set in a nursing home or hospital (both have so much potential for comedy, tragedy, and everything in between); however, “[Insert Character Name] is Sick” stories, much like “The Sad Garage Sale” stories, too often cede too much of their emotional appeal to the situation, at the expense of the characters and plot.  In fact, these stories are often virtually plotless, with the protagonist simply sitting beside the sickbed and reminiscing about good or bad times with [Character Name].

3.  “Scholars Misbehaving”

These stories follow a) precarious graduate students or b) disillusioned professors as they indulge in various intoxicants and engage in ill-advised affairs with a) precarious undergraduates or b) precarious graduate students, respectively.  The prevalence of “Scholars Misbehaving” stories is perhaps an inevitable side effect of the number of contemporary writers who have been through the academy (and can’t seem to keep their pants on), but these stories tend to suffer from two major shortcomings.  First, they’re often packed with dense, sometimes esoteric, passages about the main character’s academic pursuits.  Reading Chaucer can make for a pleasant evening.  Reading about a character who’s reading (and hyper-analyzing) Chaucer…not so much.  Second, these stories frequently start with depression and go downhill from there.  Too often, the protagonists in “Scholars Misbehaving” stories simply aren’t sympathetic.  They’re characterized by little more than their status as misbehaving scholars, and so much of the space that could be devoted to what might make these characters unique and interesting is devoted instead to the aforementioned academic passages that clog up the story and slow down the narrative.

I hope this gives you a better sense of the kinds of stories that fail to catch my attention and fail to make it beyond the slush.  I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from sending us stories that deal with these subjects, but I do want you to be aware that these kinds of stories have to do a bit more than others to make it out of the slush.  So if your protagonist is an alcoholic professor selling her cheating husband’s golf clubs while awaiting the arrival of her precarious graduate student lover who’s returning from a depressing visit to a nursing home, well…actually, that could be awesome.

53 Responses to “Three Stories Unlikely to Make it Beyond the Slush”

  1. Phil Wingert

    I think I’m going to quickly file this bloggy short article thing under “bloggy story post rant things I’m unlikely to share with others because it will increase my chances of getting published if they don’t know why you reject stuff”.

    Also, way to write impressively about how you are not impressed. That made quite an impression. (sorry, lighthearted joke is all)

  2. paula

    From bad story number one-“The major problem with “The Sad Garage Sale” …As a result, these stories frequently suffer from a lack of character development and static narratives with little to no plot movement.” From story problem 2-“like “The Sad Garage Sale” stories, too often cede too much of their emotional appeal to the situation, at the expense of the characters and plot. In fact, these stories are often virtually plotless, with the protagonist simply sitting beside the sickbed and reminiscing about good or bad times”- From 3-“… passages that clog up the story and slow down the narrative”. You are redundant with what you don’t like. What you don’t like could have been summed up nicely, without the idea of three kinds of bad stories.

  3. Jeanne Gassman

    Ah, you forgot the dead baby/dead child stories. These are the stories where the parents or couple are trying to put their lives back together but then we learn one is “responsible” for the death of a child. For some reason, I read a lot of these when I was reading fiction slush for a different literary magazine.

  4. Joe Ferrigno

    This makes me want to write a story about a sad sexually misbehaving scholar whose elderly undergraduate student lover just died, and he’s having a garage sale to get rid of her stuff.

  5. Ann Rosen

    Thank you! Good to know. I’m going to get to work on that alcoholic professor selling her cheating husband’s golf clubs while awaiting the arrival of her precarious graduate student lover who’s returning from a depressing visit to a nursing home story. In the meantime, I’m going to review my other work bearing all of this in mind.

  6. William Derks

    As a fiction editor I must second, or third, or 1,053rd many of these notions. “Scholar’s Misbehaving” (funny term) is especially true for our magazine, and in that case, I must say authors should always remember those aspects which make situations and characters unique. Focusing on those aspects can direct the reader to more interesting places. However, if every one of these rules was followed directly, tales like Huckleberry Finn, and Cathedral by Carver, would have not been published, or their narrators given cause to have their ideas of racism and misogyny challenged. By its end this article does account for that. Nicely done. I would also add “The Acid Trip story,” “Surprise, Micheal has a boyfriend,” or anything with the word sunset in the title. Thank you. I’m sharing this.

  7. Ramesh Chandra Tiwari

    Good guidelines.

  8. Anthony Martin

    Thank you Mr. Joe Hiland — I find this kind of pithy writing advice extremely useful.

  9. Joshua

    I’m a stickler for spelling and grammar, but nearly all the writers I admire most are imperfect in both regards. Editors who think it’s not their job to so much as read through a story if it’s incorrectly punctuated should change their title to ‘print-form reblogger.’

    That said, oh my GOD are those story templates awful.

  10. Tony Acarasiddhi Press

    Thanks for these thoughts. And I’ll add a big yes to this line: “Also, Raymond Carver sort of nailed “The Sad Garage Sale” with “Why Don’t You Dance?” And there’s THE musical version, if you will, which Nick Low also “sort of nailed: “House for Sale.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8qREZRXvDqo

  11. Zach Powers

    I would add to that list “Stories About Running Over a Cyclist (usually on a deserted road at night).” This is the basic guilt story, and while plots can range from the practical (burying the body) to the supernatural (ghosts!), the theme always seems to be the same.

  12. Maria D'Alessandro

    While I agree that stories should not mimic Raymond Carver’s work and should certainly not rely on subject matter to produce emotional force I do have a bone to pick with this article. It concerns me that you use the word ‘sympathetic’ instead of ‘well dramatized’ when referring to how characters should come across. Characters have no obligation to be sympathetic but they should be well dramatized. It also worries me that you’ve spent an entire passage detailing popular plot lines that repeat but spend no time discussing language or voice. If you’re looking for a unique plot line you may be on a wild goose chase, if you’re looking for a story with a distinctive voice and language that draws the reader in and makes it possible to see truth even in the mundane then you might stand a chance of finding a great story. Good luck in your search!

  13. James

    I would trade “precarious” for “precocious,” at least where graduate students are concerned.

  14. Susan Rodgers

    I loved these. I’ve seen ’em all, over and over. Another popular one: The Magic Hobo story. In this story, the protagonist, usually a college student or twenty-something, meets a homeless person and experiences life-altering revelations as a result. See also Jerome Stern’s book, Making Shapely Fiction. He has a great and hilarious section called What Not to Do.

  15. MaryO

    What I feel you nailed with all three story types is the “Who cares?” element. Case #1 and #2 assume you will care and thus, “cheat.” Case #3, well, frankly, who DOES care? (Except maybe an esoteric group of readers.) Great writing should not have to use “cheats” nor should we have to be intimate with certain socio-economic groups to “get it.”

  16. Fred Mtf

    What’s wrong with female characters’ hair color and breast size/shape? Those things turn my fiction on.

  17. Simon

    @James, or ‘promiscuous’, perhaps?

  18. Annie

    The “Scholars Misbehaving” story is definitely one of my pet peeves. So glad I’m not alone here.

  19. Anne Da Vigo

    One more for your list: opening with a funeral. Weeping family members mourning loss or happy family members rejoicing the overbearing/unpleasant/evil/ person is dead.

  20. Mark Lewandowski

    Great! I will definitely share this with my cw students. It reminds me some of Stephen Minot’s “‘Seven Deadly Sins’ of Fiction.”

  21. JosephS

    I’ve helped edit two literary journals, one gone, the other still very much alive and highly regarded. At the time, I was unpublished but full of advice for would-be writers. My advice now: Fuck editors! Write what you feel like writing. Write what you need to write. The most worked-over situation comes newly alive in the hands of a talented writer.

  22. Maureen

    The “garage sale” is a new one for me, but Scholars Misbehaving? You nailed it. Thanks. Feel validated and vindicated.

  23. logotrix

    I felt in the clear until I scanned through the comments. I’ve written the “magic hobo” story AND the plot line involving a cyclist being run over by a truck. Weird. I have tapped into the collective unconscious. Fortunately, neither of these “works” made it out the door.

  24. Anna

    I agree about all three types of story, especially the third type. What is mysterious to me though is why ‘campus’ novels keep on getting published. Many of them are quite annoying to read. My favourite pet hates include: On Beauty took place on a campus and involved a horny art history professor who engaged in an affair, all this linked to an interracial marriage etc; The Secret History is another campus novel featuring college characters with implausible dialogue, e.g. American students on an American campus speaking in stereotypical Oxbridge accents from a bygone era (yet the author had a ‘supporter’ in the form of Bret Easton Ellis, who showed her work to a lit agent and the rest, they say is history).
    So even though, you may comment about the types of stories you reject, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll be rejected by literary agents, especially if a lot of commercial publication these days is about ‘who you know’ rather than how many stories you shouldn’t write.

  25. Colleen Stinchcombe

    Ha! I have seen the first two in workshops and from friends before (I think we all get lured in by overwrought emotional scenes as writers) but have yet to deal with the third. Maybe I need to wait for post-BA? Now I have something to look forward to!

  26. Chris

    “Scholars Misbehaving” is spot on. That exact story line is why I found it so hard to stick with The Corrections — the first character Franzen introduces is a whiny academic having an ill-advised affair with a precarious student, all the while debating Marxist principles as applied to American consumerism. What a self-indulgent puke-fest.

    Miraculously, I forced myself through the first part of the book and ended up loving the novel overall. But I feel better knowing I’m not the only who is put off by that worn out story line.

  27. James Comins

    Goshdrat it, I have a terrific #1 and a pretty great #2 sitting on my hard drive. Oh well, back to the Originality Dungeon with the tweezers . . .

  28. awstrouse

    So many of Chaucer’s own poems are about misbehaving scholars who read and hyper-analyze other literature. But Chaucer wrote in rhyme royal—that’s what makes his tedious academic pursuits and his scholarly misbehaving so exciting…

  29. Cat Vincent

    But isn’t Scholars Misbehaving something like 80% of so-called Literary Fiction?

    It’s such a common cliche in well-regarded books by self-regarded authors that I actually use it as the prime example of why genre writers are intrinsically more creative than litfic writers: because really, how much imagination does it take for a middle-aged college professor to write about the erotic imaginings of a middle-aged college professor?

  30. Hannah

    @Anna I hated On Beauty too! Ugh!!! And I feel like everyone looved it. That being said, I just enjoyed The Art of Fielding, which totally had people behaving badly on a college campus. But that’s probably the exception that proves a rule.

  31. Jessica A. Kent

    Stories most likely to get rejected: Apparently anything I’ve written. (Haha!)

  32. Laura Salamy

    You forgot coming of age stories. That’s what I see most reading the slush pile for Fifth Wednesday. Thanks for the article, though.

  33. Annabel Smith

    I think you just nailed why the close of Cindy’s story in The Privileges felt so … Lame.

  34. Kevin Bashaw

    So glad to see “The Sad Garage Sale” mentioned. Dead baby stories are such a turn off for me. How about kidnapped child? I can’t read a book or even watch a movie with this as the main plot. Thank you so much for this article.

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  36. Jane Andrews

    Richard Russo’s Straight Man is the best, final word so far in Scholars Misbehaving fiction.