I’ve been sifting through submissions pretty quickly lately, trying to figure out why I can have such an immediate reaction to a story.
Here are the things I had sorted out before:
1) Starting with backstory.
2) Highly dramatic first sentence followed by something boring, like backstory.
3) General cheesiness, spelling errors, writing in stereotypes…
But those are all don’t-do things.
Here’s what I’m noticing now:
1) Lots of surprising details. If you say, “We’re in a winter forest” and follow up with lots of details proving that it’s a winter forest, meh. But if you follow up with a) a perceptive detail about winter forests that I would not have known unless I was in one, like the sound of rain that comes when heavy frost melts at sunrise or b) something out of place, then I’m interested. And fake details like “The grocery store was big” are a red flag for boooooring.
2) Voice. If I get the sense that the story has a strong personality, that’s good. But it must be a surprising personality. Scientists that are hopeful about some bright future–meh. Scientists that are maaaaaad–meh. But mad scientists who act out of hope, well. I don’t see that too often. (Although I do feel like printing the story out so I can fling it across the room when I read a story with interesting voice and all they do is kill themselves.)
Make things real, moody, and surprising–from the first sentence. Then, don’t go back to vague and predictable. I’ll at least make it through the story to the end. Not many people do this AT ALL. Maybe one in twenty, one in fifty.