Posted by Tyler Waldriff, GD Fiction Reader for 7.1
While every story is enjoyable in its own right, it is inevitable that some submissions will be better than others. Potential and current submitters may be asking themselves, “How do I make my submission stand out?” or, “How can I improve my submission’s odds of acceptance?” Well, I don’t claim to be an expert here, but as a fiction reader for issue 7.1 of Gandy Dancer, I’ve spent a fair share of time digging through the slush pile analyzing each submission. From this, I’ve learned a few tricks of the trade to help discern what makes a strong submission stand out amongst the rest. With that being said, here are five things to keep in mind when writing and revising to strengthen your fiction submission.
- What is the conflict?
Great stories are built on great conflicts. Harry Potter versus Voldemort in the Harry Potter series. John Proctor versus his own hubris in The Crucible. Herman versus Sam-I-am in Green Eggs and Ham. A good, clear conflict will create stakes that draw the reader in, and challenge the protagonist to overcome them, usually resulting in some sort of change (more on that in a bit). Conversely, a less developed conflict (or the lack of any conflict at all) can cause a story to fall flat.
- Who are my characters?
Equally important to the conflict is the characters. Your protagonist should have clear motivations as to what he or she hopes to achieve, and these actions should be realistic and convincing. Let’s say you’re writing a piece about a person who goes to visit a once close friend who betrayed them, with the goal of making amends. It wouldn’t make sense for the protagonist to immediately forgive the friend as soon as he or she walks through the door — or maybe it would if your goal is to portray the protagonist as someone who forgives too easily. Regardless of the course of action you have your characters take, you want to make sure that they are consistently behaving in the way that you are attempting to characterize them. Furthermore, you should aim for your protagonist to evolve in some way from where they were in the beginning. If by the end of the story your protagonist has gained no new insight about themselves or others or has accomplished nothing, then what was the point of the conflict that they went through?
- Is the dialogue convincing and purposeful?
Details of gestures and behaviors only get your character so far. Dialogue is integral for characterization. I find that a good way to gauge this is by reading your dialogue out loud. Does it sound natural? Or is it static and choppy? You want to ensure that when your characters speak they sound like real people. You also want to make meaningful use of dialogue. Do not use it as an exposition dump, where characters drone about events outside of the story to explain why things are the way they are. Have a reason for every line of dialogue that you insert. Good dialogue will make your characters more real and human to the reader. Bad dialogue will make them seem like alien-robots unsuccessfully trying to integrate themselves into society.
- Are the details carrying their weight?
When you aren’t writing dialogue, you’re probably spending a lot of time describing things. Places, appearances, colors, shapes, scents, tastes, sounds, etcetera etcetera. Keep in mind that your writing should be showing not telling. The key in doing this is to stimulate the reader’s senses and immerse them in the environment you create. Employing the use of creative metaphors is a great way to do this. If you want to convey how poorly a trumpeter is playing, don’t just say “The musician sounded horrible.” Perhaps instead say, “The musician sounded like a sheep bleating after castration.” Not only does this give your reader a better sense of scene, but it also develops a unique voice in your writing that makes a submission stand out.
- What am I doing that’s different?
Even if your submission has an engaging conflict, developed characters, realistic dialogue, and stellar sensory details, acceptance is not guaranteed. You could write an amazing story about a young protagonist in a dystopian future that must enter a tournament of survival to save her family, but then people would just think you were writing Hunger Games fan-fiction. When looking at your story, ask yourself, “What is unique about my piece? What am I doing to subvert the reader’s expectations?” Maybe this is within the voice and tone of the piece. Maybe it’s in taking a perspective that isn’t often explored. This is, in my opinion, the most difficult aspect of the successful story, but if you can successfully pull it off, your story will be all the better for it. And Gandy Dancer would love to read it!