From the Fiction Desk: What Makes a Story Stand Out

Our editor soaking up your submissions in his favorite spot.

Our editor soaking up your submissions in his favorite spot.

Each year Indiana Review receives thousands of story submissions, including hundreds to our annual fiction prize (now open!).  And while there is a range of quality, what surprises me most is the high volume of finely crafted prose. To me, this is evidence of hard work. It is proof that writers are rolling up their sleeves, reading great writing, studying craft, and putting ink to the page. In this field of highly competent entries, what differentiates the stories that make it from submission to publication?

​            In “Three Stories Unlikely to Make it Beyond the Slush,” former Indiana Review Fiction Editor Joe Hiland outlines several attributes that earn stories easy rejections, and he goes on to offer three “types” of stories that often feel too familiar to transcend the slush pile. In “What Editors Want; A Must-Read for Writers Submitting to Literary Magazines” from the The Review Review, Lynne Barrett provides an insider breakdown for anyone interested in submitting to literary journals. Yet even though both articles should be considered essential reading for any fiction writer submitting to Indiana Review, they do little to address what makes a story stand out.

Read more after the jump!

​            As writers, many of us spend so much time considering language that we forget words are a conductive medium, the imperfect conduits of thought and feeling. I may admire the artistry of your syntax, but ultimately it’s the shock of the experience I’m after. Light my house or burn the fucker down, but leave me changed.


​            I wish there was time to read every page of every submission, but the truth is, if there isn’t something uniquely compelling by the top of the second page, I’m already side-eyeing the story. Next, I look for the story’s ability to both maintain the initial momentum and introduce dynamic shifts—turns of plot, revelations of character, the parkour of high-impact language—that shut down the part of my brain that wants to make sure the internet hasn’t discovered a back-alley tryst between Grumpy Cat and Lil’ Bub (spoiler: it has).


​            Then I look to the payoff. When a story delivers on its promise and I’m on my feet shadow-boxing my own excitement, I forward it to a folder and let it sit with the other stories I love at first read. And then I wait. I wait to discover the stories that linger, the stories too brave and too brash to remain unheard and unpublished.

​            The submissions that grab my attention are the ones that aren’t afraid to ask uncomfortable questions, evoke complex emotions, and demand a reader’s full attention. I read to escape, but I also read to return with new ideas and a deeper understanding of just how transformative a story can be. Send me the throat-punching shift of David Vann’s “Sukkwan Island” and the grotesque social commentary of George Saunders’ “The Semplica-Girl Diaries.” Send me the work that inspires and haunts and exhausts and expands our relationship to the world.  Send me the work that won’t wait.

3 Responses to “From the Fiction Desk: What Makes a Story Stand Out”

  1. Anthony Martin

    …it’s just that you might have to write a number of stories that are polished–that are sound–but DON’T burn someones fucking house down in order to get to a place in your craft where you feel confident writing a story that ultimately DOES burn someone’s fucking house down. Phew. Excuse me.

    Thanks again for this post, Trevor. It got me going right when I needs to be gettin’ the ting goin’.

  2. Kaitlin J.

    I love the advice! Especially the advice about the stories that “aren’t afraid to ask uncomfortable questions.” It’s nice to know what editors are looking for and what not to do.

  3. Mati

    All very true, but in the end literature is subjective, maybe it burns houses for me and it doesn’t for you. The important thing, I think, is to find an editor who loves the same things you do, and if you’re good, they’ll love you. I wear the last line in Mansfield’s The doll’s house “…I seen the lamp”, on my breast like a locket. I’ve re-read the story numerous times, and every time I see something different, something that burns my house down. I have brilliant, talented friends who read the story to please me and judged it “nice”.
    We just have to keep looking for a soul mate who also happens to be an editor…or just keep writing for ourselves, because in the end when writing gives us the same emotions reading does,what difference does it make if we publish or not?