From Slush Pile to Editor’s Desk: Build Urgency From the Beginning

While you can’t predict exactly what an editor will or will not like, there are a couple things you can do to ensure that your story has a fighting chance when you submit it to a literary magazine (and won’t cause anyone to scream and/or tear their hair out in frustration).

This is PART 2 of a multi-post series. For PART 1, click here.

Build Urgency From The Beginning

Lack of urgency is the number one reason why I turn down stories. The prose might be beautiful, but I can’t be sold on that alone. Your story needs to open with a bang and keep me hooked from sentence one.

If your story starts out with two characters discussing the weather, then I probably won’t read on (unless they’re talking about sharknados). Another pet peeve of mine: when a story starts off with a description of scenery. While this can sometimes work, it often doesn’t and leaves me yawning after the first couple of sentences. As a rule, start with some action, or an interesting scenario.

3D exploding bomb

No bomb required. Unless your story is actually about a bomb. Then I would highly suggest that you write about a bomb within the first two sentences. Image Credit:

Two very important things you should cover within the first 1-2 pages:

  • Who is the main character, what do they want, and why should I care about them?
  • What are the stakes? In other words, what does the main character have to lose if they don’t get what they want?

If I don’t care about your character, or if I can’t get a sense of what’s at stake from the beginning, then I will not keep reading.

Once you build urgency, you have to maintain it throughout your entire story. How can you do this? Here are a couple ideas:

  • Keep raising the stakes. How much can your main character stand to lose?
  • Prevent your character from getting what they want.

For a more complete list, check out this post on the Terrible Minds blog. Chuck Wendig really knows what he’s talking about with this one.

I recently read an excellent story from Family of Fallen Leaves called “Thirteen Harbors.” It begins like this:

“I took a new wife for my husband. Maybe the strangest thing ever to happen at Yen Ha village, I chose my good friend to be the bride, a woman who had passed the age for marriage but for a long time had desired a child and wanted a husband.” — Suong Nguyet Minh, “Thirteen Harbors”

Talk about a bang, right? And from there, the story doesn’t let up in its urgency as main character Sao suffers from devastating miscarriage after miscarriage.

If you have the opportunity, I highly suggest you read the rest of it. Not only is “Thirteen Harbors” a haunting story about the effects of Agent Orange, but it is also expertly crafted, which is really beneficial for us writers.

So, how do you build urgency in your own work? Have you read any particularly well done short stories lately?

— Manuela Williams



From Slush Pile to Editor’s Desk: Submit A Story That Stands Out

Let’s say you’re the editor of a literary magazine. You have ten submissions to review before lunch, a looming press deadline and, on top of everything else, a full time job. What kind of stories do you want to read? The ones with typos, poor formatting, and a nonexistent plot? Or the ones with a compelling beginning, memorable characters, and prose that shines?

Simply put, editors are busy people. From managing the business side of their magazines to reviewing submissions, they have a lot on their plates. As a writer, your job is to make the editor forget about everything but your story.

While you can’t predict exactly what an editor will or will not like, there are a couple things you can do to ensure that your story has a fighting chance when you submit to a literary magazine (and won’t cause anyone to scream and/or tear their hair out in frustration).

This is PART 1 of a multi-post series.

Submit A Unique Story

Obvious, right? Maybe not so much.

I’ve read way too many “boy-meets-girl” stories. All had similar premises: guy meets mysterious girl, they have quirky conversations, they may or may not break up by the end of the story, etc. etc. etc. After a while, these stories get boring and predictable. The same goes for stories about breakups, cheating spouses, manic pixie dream girls, and the like.

Young woman sitting in a cafe with her laptop, Stressful for wor

When I have to read yet another breakup story. Image Credit:

Sometimes, though, I stumble across a story that is truly unique.

What makes a story unique? That’s a harder question to answer.

We all have experiences that make us unique (if we didn’t, then we’d all be the same and that would be an awfully boring world to live in). Some of the best short stories I’ve read have dealt with situations that appear to be based off of deeply personal, life-changing events.

Check out this short story written by Carve Magazine contributor Eric Cipriani. It’s about a relationship, yes, but the relationship between father and son (and what happens when the child must become the parent). What makes this story unique? Perhaps it is the slightly humorous yet heartbreaking conversations between father and son. Perhaps it is the family dynamic within the story, which at times feels very familiar, yet also alien. What matters here is that each element combines to create an emotional, honest, and unique story.

Basing a story off a personal or life-changing experience doesn’t mean that you have to completely recreate an event from your life and write down every detail as you remember it. Instead, pick a specific emotion or moment and go from there. Did you work on a fishing boat during the summer of your senior year in high school? Set a story on that boat. Was your piano teacher a hoarder? Create a character based off of her. You’d be surprised at what kind of stories you can write based off of memories that are unique to you.

So, put a surprising twist on that classic breakup story you’re writing. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the person you were dating back in college wrote romance novels based off your relationship? Probably not the best idea but, hey, I would totally read that story.

— Manuela Williams