November 29th, 2007

spring

What I'm Looking For

I was just going through some slush as well as some stories that had been held for Sean and I to discuss, and thought maybe it would be helpful to post this list.

Some of the things that I look for in manuscripts:
  1. A sense within the first few paragraphs that the writer knows where the story is going and is going to deliver an entertaining reading experience that includes a satisfying ending.
  2. Similarly, a sense of place within the first few paragraphs, so the characters aren't just talking heads bobbing aimlessly in white space. Specific details help a lot in this -- so does sensory imagery. Build me a world out of a few perfect, evocative details.
  3. Sentences that do work, rather than just taking up space on the page. It's a short story - it doesn't have room for sentences that are just placeholders.
  4. Sentences that work efficiently and convey meaningful information in the minimum of words demanded by the story's style. I'm not saying everyone has to be Hemingway. If you're doing something in the Victorian mode, I'd expect ornate sentences -- but I'd still expect them to be clear and well constructed. More than anything else, I'm looking for writing of a professional caliber, and that means you -must- be looking at your writing at the sentence level in at least one rewrite pass. Personally, I read stuff aloud, and find that helps me smooth sentences -- your mileage may vary, but unless you are a whole lot better than most of the writers I've met, you will need a rewrite or two.
  5. Cool ideas or images.
  6. A sense that these are the right characters for this particular story, and that they are unique individuals, not generic fantasy concepts.
  7. An ending that lets me hear the gentle click of the door closing on the story -- in other words, one that wraps things up nicely and ties off all the loose ends.
Things that help:
  1. A good title.  Gimme something other than "The" and a noun, unless it's a REALLY interesting noun.
  2. Interesting language, including clever names and/or vocabulary.
  3. Well done humor -- which is one of the hardest forms to carry off, in my opinion. Written humor that I consider well done: John Bellair's THE FACE IN THE FROST, Terry Bisson's Billy stories, Douglas Adams, most anything by Esther Friesner, Cold Comfort Farm (the book), Jim Hines's Jig the Goblin series, Terry Pratchett. I like edgy, but it needs to be genuinely funny.  And generally, to work, humor needs some emotion underneath it.
  4. Not giving me the sense that you didn't care enough to check our guidelines by going over the word limit, sending to "Dear Sir or Madam", having typos in your query letter, or otherwise sending something unsuitable.
Unless your credentials are AMAZING, they're probably not going to help a lot. It's perfectly OK to say "Here's a story I hope you'll consider for publication" and leave it at that. Really.