10 Reasons Your Short Stories are Being Rejected
Updated: Oct 7
Two weeks ago, we explored what makes a good short story good. So to compliment that, today, I want to discuss what makes a bad short story bad.
Are you a short story writer who is still trying to break into the published author category? Well, if you are, hopefully, this post will shed some light on why magazines, serials, and other publishers might be passing up your work.
Let's hop right into it.
Reason #1: You're trying to pack too much into a small space.
Oh, the short story subplot. It is the craziest thing to attempt to fit into a short story. It is not common, but I have come across them enough to feel it needs saying.
Most often, subplots are not actually present, but superfluous things alluding to an absent subplot are. Like the love interest mentioned over and over for no reason. Childhood trauma that has no effect on the overall plot or character arc. Or the secondary conflict that has no resolution and is just forgotten about by the end.
If any small action and situation—really anything you choose to mention—does not help develop the plot, theme, or characters (preferably, everything should be doing all three simultaneously), then it just acts as a detractor from the story.
Is it possible that you have digressed from the plot enough to make your story boring? Are you concise in your wording and plotting?
I'm going to mention this a lot today, but a short story really needs to be one thing. A single idea with a small world of characters and events orbiting it. Your reader (or the editor at the magazine you have submitted to) should have a single impression after reading your story.
I think the single impression idea is essential. Def: an idea, feeling, or opinion about something or someone, especially one formed without conscious thought or based on little evidence.
Should a short story make readers think? Hell yes! But they should not have to in order to grasp what it is you were trying to say. They should feel it to their very core.
Reason # 2: It is just a snap shot of a plot.
Your story is being rejected because it has no beginning, middle, and end. Many, many, many stories living in the reject pile are of this type. I'd say most, actually. Remembering back, I think that every story I rejected for The Beginning & End of All Things was one of these.
I cannot reiterate this enough:
Your short story needs to be a WHOLE story!
It cannot be a snippet in time, a single event (or even a string of events), and it definitely can't be just a situation, regardless of how interesting that situation may be.
That is not to say a short story can't have those things. But even characters stuck in a shitty situation need to be there for a reason. They need to want something. They need to be presented with obstacles to getting that thing. They need to begin in one state and finish in another state.
A short story needs to say something, in my opinion. Remember the single impression note?
Well, you should. It was like a few paragraphs ago....
The single impression your reader gets from your story should not be the same they'd get from turning on an action movie halfway through, watching one scene, then shutting it off again.
Talk about unsatisfying!
Reason #3: The reader needs to read another story, or series of stories, to understand what is happening.
I love short stories that are based on worlds authors have created in full-length novels. I also like the idea of creating a series of stories with the same characters.
However, and this is a big however, your reader should not have to read any of that stuff to enjoy it (or understand what the hell is going on). Maybe in a collection of short stories, this is ok.
....thought about it...no, it's not.
But if you are trying to get published in any kind of serial or submitting your story for an anthology, this will get you tossed right into the rejection pile, my friend.
It really should be a no-brainer, unless you are already the world's most famous author writing a story about Jon Snow (or someone equally well-known character), don't assume that your reader will head over to the full-length novel or series after reading. The editor knows they won't.
2nd however, if your story is a self-contained masterpiece, readers will probably go check out the rest of your work. Imagine their surprise if they then find familiar characters to explore further....
Basically, what I am saying is yes! You should revisit characters, themes, and settings from previous or upcoming work, but it has to avoid the rest of the pitfalls on this list if it is to be successful.
Reason #4: It's practice for something else.
I've seen too many stories over the years that are clearly writing practice. Hell, I've written enough of these. The thing is, though, I would never have the courage to submit one for publication. Even if I think it is terrific!
In that case, I'll rewrite it.
Maybe you are doing writing prompts, journaling, or just freeform writing. The stories these activities produce are sometimes really cool and open your imagination. Sometimes a writer can get the best ideas this way. The issue is that these stories are often jumbled, clumsy, and almost always un-plotted. They usually involve static characters that need to be fleshed out, pushed into maybe interesting but often nonsensical settings. And they are riddled with situations that come out of nowhere.
These are short stories that are not great as they are but could inspire great novels.
Again, do some rewriting and replanning. If the idea is good, then put it to work, sit down, outline what you are trying to say, and write it anew.
You're not fooling anyone. Editors and publishers...oh we'll know.
Reason #5: No character to hang your hat on.
In the Fair post for this month, I told you that good stories are about people. People doing memorable, relatable, emotional things. How focused on character is your story?
If you are getting rejected repeatedly, is it possible you have pushed character to the side for something else? Is the concept really cool, but the MC lacking?
People, for the most part, need something to attach themselves to in a story. 9/10 this comes in the form of an appealing, exciting character. Someone they can understand and root for (even if they are the Devil incarnate).
I get that the short story format rewards pushing boundaries and doing the unexpected. Many writers try to do that by omitting character for some reason, sometimes it works, but most of the time, it does not.
Let's just leave it with if getting published is your goal, then write stories where character is your focus, and save the experimental stuff (in this one area, at least) for when you're established.
Reason #6: There is no hook.
I can attest that not all great short stories reel you in from the get-go. I have read some masterpieces that I had to force myself to get into. The first line does not dictate how good a story is.
However!!! There is a reality that you will need to accept in the publishing world. The good people tasked with rummaging through the slush pile don't have the time to give your story a fair shake (generally).
Here is an example. When I put out the initial submission call for The Beginning & End of All Things, I was inundated with hundreds of stories on the first day. By the end of the week, I had stopped counting. Also, at that time, I stopped reading them. I didn't have time. I was NEVER going to get through them all.
Instead, I read the first paragraph. If I wasn't hooked by then, I moved on.
FFF is small beans. I can't even imagine how many submissions most serials get on the regular.
This is one of the best pieces of advice you will get about short story writing for publication. Write a great story, then spend just as much time writing a killer first line. It is the most effective way to get you to the top of the "read" pile.
Though, no first line in the world can save you if the story is bad after that...
Reason #7: Not a fit.
But do you know who the publisher's audience is?
Hmmm...didn't think of that one, did you?
Sometimes the two match, and that's great. But sometimes, the reason you have been rejected is that the publisher knows it is not a fit for their audience. I cannot tell you how many times I have gotten a submission for a novel or short story written for an audience that BHP or FFF do not cater to.
The other day, I got a submission for a non-fiction self-help book...like...did you even look at our website before submitting it?
We get just as many YA submissions as adult submissions. It states clearly on the website that we only publish adult.
Those are extreme examples. You should know that you're not getting accepted if you send a cozy mystery story to a sci-fi mag.
But there are other things to consider about audience as well. Things that you may not find right away and need to do a little digging to discover.
Does your story make a strong political statement? Publishers may avoid it to not alienate their audience, who leans heavily the other way. Does your story come from a religious perspective that the mag's audience does not share? Is it written for a mature audience when the majority of readers are actually under 18?