The Content Checklist

Congratulations!  You’ve just finished writing your story!  I assume that you’ve already done your first editing pass to get rid of all the grammar errors and get your word count down.  (You have done that, right?)  But you’re not done yet!

Before you submit that bad boy to a publication you need to re-read your piece and judge it like an editor might.  Here’s some basic things editors look for to get you started:

  • The Beginning: Does it take forever to get going?  Pretend the editor has 100 stories to read today and they can only accept 10 of them for publication.  If your story can’t grab their attention by the end of the first paragraph they will toss it.  (Note: not all editors do this, but be wary of anyone who has a super-short rate of return.  You probably have very few words to impress them.)
  • Pacing: On a related note, now that you’ve got their attention, don’t lose them!  Don’t over-pack your plot.  Don’t rush the ending, but wrap it up after that climax; don’t waste words by drawing it out into five different endings.  (*Cough*Return of the King*cough.*)
  • Conclusion: Is it a good ending?  Be objective.  If this editor stayed with you all the way to the end you want them to be glad they spent their time with you.
  • Completeness: Did you solve all your problems?  None of this “To Be Continued…” nonsense.  I have a personal pet peeve against anyone who ends a story with a cliffhanger.  If you read this story as a stand alone piece in a magazine would you be annoyed that that was all there was?
  • Real threats: Was it an important problem?  Don’t rely on paper tigers or deus ex machina to get you out of a jam.  (This is one reason why twist endings* are so hard to pull off: important stakes always beat consequence-free conflicts.)

“Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.” – Emma Coats

  • Characters: Are your characters easily identifiable & likable?  If not likable, are they at least relatable or entertaining?  Do you have too many?  Does everyone in the story have something meaningful to contribute? If not, cut it!
  • Interesting: Is the story engaging?  How about the characters?  If there’s something important you’re trying to say, make sure it comes across clearly and edit out anything that draws focus or contributes nothing to the narrative.
  • Dynamic:  Did anything happen or was this just an atmospheric piece?  (Seriously, no vignettes, I can’t say this enough.)
  • Market:  Read your competition (I don’t mean the other submissions; anything that’s been published is still competition.)  Make sure your idea is unique.  Last I checked publishers are really sick of zombie stories and paranormal romance.  If you wrote something too common you don’t necessarily need to toss it, but maybe hold off until the timing is right.
  • Offensiveness/too dark: This is going to depend on the publisher, but in general, don’t be gratuitously graphic with violence or erotic content.  And keep in mind that even mild content can be too depressing to print.  Check out this feedback from my personal rejection files:

“Superb writing, but the story is just too much of a downer for us. We don’t insist on happy endings, but we prefer to avoid stories that leave us contemplating suicide.”

Ouch.

Seriously reader, learn from my mistakes.  There’s a reason why I always revert back to this checklist before submitting.  If you find yourself breaking any of these “rules” make sure you know why and ask yourself if you’re talented enough to pull it off.

Otherwise, edit it!  You’ll be glad you did.

 

*I’ll do a separate post later on why twist endings are hard to pull off and why it’s better to avoid them.  For now, just know that if you have one it could become a problem.

No Vignettes: Plot in Flash Fiction

 

“At the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious, apart from the word length, the key factor with Flash Fiction is it has all the elements of a traditional self-contained short story, including a beginning, a middle and an end, even if some aspects may be implied.  Flash Fiction is NOT an extract or vignette from a longer story.” – Grievous Angel

Chances are, if you’ve ever scoured the internet for a Flash Fiction publisher, you’ve seen some variation on this in their submission guidelines.  Flash Fiction Online and Freeze Frame Fiction say much the same thing.

So what does it mean, and how can you avoid making this mistake?

Let’s start by talking about basic plot structure and then see how we can apply it to Flash.  Your basic plot has seven points:

I don’t know about you, but I’m already lost.  Hey, Pixar, can you break this down for us?

Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___. And ever since that day___.

Much better.

So now that we’ve got our outline, let’s talk about vignettes.  A vignette is a day-in-the-life scene that covers your first two plot points. Since we’re talking about Pixar I’m going to use WALL-E as my example.  A vignette would be telling a beautiful, evocative story about a lonely little robot on an abandoned wasteland cleaning up trash while the other robots rusted away.

Now, that’s an interesting idea, but if you’ve seen the rest of the movie, it’s not nearly as interesting as the day EVE lands – after which point you get your story.  And that’s the problem with vignettes: they have no conflict, no character arc.  Publishers aren’t interested in your thought-experiments, they want a story.

Now, as you’ve probably guessed, the seven point plot structure is redundant and better suited to novels than flash.  What you really need is to get back to basics:

The beginning sets up the story.  The middle complicates it.   The end resolves it.  Put your hero in a tree, throw rocks at him, and get him out. – David Trottier

Getting back to WALL-E, you don’t have room in a Flash Fiction piece to tell the whole movie.  But there are several stories within WALL-E that would make excellent Flash pieces.  You could tell the first act, where WALL-E and EVE meet and end up flying off to make contact with the humans.  Or you could tell the last act, if you flip it to the perspective of the Captain who must decide whether to help WALL-E get the humans home or continue letting them atrophy in perpetual comfort.  You could even tell the story of the little repair droid who spends the entire movie trying to fix a light on the ship, if you really want to get into those DVD extras.

See what I mean?

For more on plot structure check out: The Story Spine: Pixar’s 4th Rule of Storytelling.