Notes on Craft: 15 Reasons Why Your Story is Being Rejected
by Olakunle Ologunro
Here’s a story from my life
In 2016, a few months after I graduated from the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop, I decided to apply for a writing fellowship that was open at the time: the emerging writers’ fellowship by A Public Space magazine. I had no doubts that my piece would be accepted. I had just come from a workshop taught by the Chimamanda Adichie. Who/what could stand in my way?
So, I sent in my story. Three months later, I was slapped with a rejection. I thought, “Are these people okay? Do they not see the literary gold I sent in?” The next year when it opened, I applied again. I had been working on a ‘fantasy’ story I cooked up in my head and showed to a friend who told me it was the best thing since Lesley Arimah’s “Who Will Greet You At Home.” I had never written fantasy, but I was sure of that story’s creativity. I was sure that the readers would see my piece, read the first line and fall to their knees in awe. So, I sent it in. Again, another rejection. I looked at the email — polite, yet firm in its resolve to tell me that my piece was unwanted — and thought, “Nah, you people just don’t like me.”
In 2019, I was cleaning my tiny off-campus apartment when I found the manuscript for the fantasy story (I print out my stories to enable better editing). I thought, “My literary gold. Let me read this again and feel good.” Dear friend, I did not feel good at all. As I read, the only thing I could think of was, “Kunle, what exactly were you high on when you sent this thing? What level of idiotic courage made you think the judges would say yes to this?”
To start with, it was ridden with grammatical blunders: the syntax was in disarray, and in some places, I misspelled some words. What was worse, the characters felt absurd. Forget that it was meant to be fantasy — there was nothing fantastic about the characters. The entire story didn’t add up. And while there might have been a hint of creativity in some places (the hibiscus flowers that glowed in the dark, the character’s mother who stiffened to the point of immobility, the uncle who scrubbed fish scales from his face), it was misapplied creativity, almost like icing a cake with cement mix. I closed the manuscript and said, “No wonder they rejected you.”
Long story, but you get the idea: sometimes, rejection comes because you sent in a piece that has not been thoroughly worked on. You simply did not do your best.
Critiquing a piece to be accepted is done using objective criteria, and a bit of subjectivity. The objective criteria, finely broken down by David K. Slay who writes for Craft Magazine, is what I’ll share here. To make this easier, pick out a rejected piece of yours and as you read, try to identify areas you think your piece faults. Be honest.
Does this story have depth? Is it superficial? That is, does it simply scrape the surface of things when it ought to probe deeper? Do the characters have ‘interiority’: are they highly motivated to pursue something central to their development? Do they have agency or are they simply forgettable? Are they stereotypical?
Here, you look at the narration of the story. Is it unclear, inconsistent, lacking a definite structure (linear, circular where it ends at the same place it begins, etc)? Is the structure too apparent that it seems to drive the characters rather than have the characters move naturally? Are there inconsistencies in the story being told? Is the story itself illogical, wildly unreasonable?
The pace of a story tells you how to read it. I believe it is possible to know a fast-paced story and a story that takes its time. A balance must be achieved. Ask yourself: is this story too fast or too slow? Is the pacing irregular?
How does it begin? How does it end? I treat the opening of a story as a hook to sink into the reader’s mind, one that wouldn’t let them go until they get to the end. In a short story, you don’t have the liberty of time and space to dawdle or miss a proper first impression with your opening.
How does it end? Is the ending weak? Is it something you contrived to simply wrap up the story? Does it feel like you tried to summarise? Is the ending memorable enough?
This deals with confusing time and or tenses, or a story where the reader is not grounded in the time and place the story is set.
How engaging is the story? How remarkable is it? Here, David K. Slay points out things to look out for: Little at stake, lacks tension, impact is unearned, the writer attempts to use surprise endings, melodrama, gratuitous violence, sex, profanity.
How creative is the story? Is the theme too familiar? Is the plot or story simply unimaginative? Is there an overreliance on adverbs, adjectives, cliches and stereotypes? I wrote in one of my last letters about defamiliarisation where a seemingly familiar story is made new. You should read it here.
- LANGUAGE/ PROSE:
Does your story contain irregular or unnecessarily complicated syntax? Does it show a limited vocabulary? Is the rhythm disjointed? In Nigerian-speak, does the story flow?
Does the story tell more than it shows? Is it too explanatory? Does it use a fancy style when it should be lucid? Does the story suggest things it ought to make clear?
How does the story’s voice sound? Does it fit the kind of story being told? For example, I do not expect a story being told by a 5-year-old to read like something a 32-year-old would tell. I do not expect a story told from an illiterate’s point of view to sound boujee, like something a Harvard graduate would pen. How consistent is the voice? Does it carry to the end or constantly fluctuates between coherence and incoherence?
How long is the story? Yes, sometimes long can be too long and you need to cut down, especially if some words are superfluous and repeated to no consequence. More importantly, you do not want a story that rambles.
Are there signs of author contamination? Let me explain: imagine a homophobic writer writing a story with gay people in it. Imagine a misogynistic writer telling a story about women. Characters should be allowed the full range of their humanity, not you, the writer, forcing them to speak or act in ways that are unnatural, more suitable to your interest than to their story. So, check. Does your story consciously or unconsciously promote an agenda?
Do your characters speak like real people? Or, is the dialogue lifeless and unnatural, lacking human touch? Does it contain unnecessary details or convey information the speaker or character would already know?
How refined is the story? Here, you look at the edits. Does the story look rushed? Is it carelessly presented? You’ll probably find it funny, but some people send in stories without titling them. I once sent a story to a reputable magazine only to discover after that the pdf converter I used had a glitch that blanked one whole page of the entire story. Of course, I got a rejection.
Did you send them what they called for? Imagine sending fantasy to a magazine that needs realist fiction. Did you follow the submission instructions? Right font, formatting rules, titling, and others.
Now grade yourself. What did you score?
See you soon.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Olakunle Ologunro is a Nigerian writer. His work has been published in Brittle Paper, Agbowo, the Queer Africa anthology, and the Gerald Kraak anthology for work that provokes thought on the topics of gender, social justice and sexuality. He is an alumnus of the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop and a finalist for the 2020 Adina Talve-Goodman Fellowship from One Story Magazine. He won the inaugural Kreative Diadem Prize for short fiction.