Submissions are closed on Paper Tape‘s next issue “Hauntings,” and this is the best reading period we’ve ever had. And it isn’t because we got more submissions than ever before. No, I’m thrilled because we didn’t get a single bad story. Seriously. I’m not being precious. Every single story that landed in my inbox (spam aside) had something at its core that needed to be said, and that is extraordinary.

That’s not to say that everything will be accepted. Some stories had nothing to do with hauntings, really, and others just came at a bad time or covered territory that someone else covered better. Things like this can’t be helped, and I wish that every rejection happened for those reasons because the solution to the problem then would just be to send the stories out to more editors.

Unfortunately, though, many of the stories that won’t be appearing in “Hauntings” were rejected because they had craft problems, and, worse, I saw many of the same mistakes repeated over and over again.

So, I did what every good blogger does when there’s a problem: I made a list.

Verbs are action words, not descriptors. If you’re writing about a wedding, and you say that the bride lurched down the aisle, I’m going to immediately assume that she’s a zombie. If she isn’t a zombie, I’m going to be disappointed. Disappointment is a limited resource, and all of my disappointment is currently being used on dead Starks, so please don’t disappoint me with something as piddly as a verb. I know that the memo has gotten out that adverbs and adjectives are bad. The answer is not to make the verbs more colorful. (Which is why the only acceptable dialog verbs are “said” and “asked.”) Verbs are the invisible carriers of being. If you want to be more colorful, look to your nouns, or, better yet, your characters, settings, and plot.

If I can see it out my window, you probably don’t need to describe it to me. Just call it a sunflower and be done with it. There are exceptions to all of these rules, but the exceptions are especially important here. (Especially for poets who build their whole craft inside these exceptions, as anyone who has read Mark Doty knows.) Sometimes description is important. There is a chapter in Mr. Palomar by Italo Calvino in which waves are described in excruciating detail, but it works because the chapter is about seeing the ordinary through the eyes of an extraordinary character, not describing waves. Description is like a verb. It allows someone or something to do something, but instead of enabling characters and plot objects the way verbs do (like rocks falling on the heads of zombie brides lurching down the aisle), description helps the reader. It might help the reader to imagine a place they’ve never been before, and it might help the reader to see something common in a new way, and it might help the reader understand how the mind of a stranger works, but description should not exist for its own sake.

Unless it’s important that your character is fidgety, don’t describe all their gestures. It’s easy to point at extreme examples like the repeated lip biting in 50 Shades of Grey, but most problematic body-talk moments are isolated occurrences, the hand tucking hair behind a character’s ear. Most of the time, I think that the problem here is that the writer is trying to show with body language what a non-POV character is thinking, and the instinct that guides the decision is good. It implies that the writer knows that people know so much more than is actually said. The problem is that writing isn’t a visual medium. If you try to show with words the subtle movements and affectations of body language, the cute wave ends up reading like frantic flailing, which is a pretty bizarre way to say, “Hello.” In this case, it’s better to tell than to show.

Don’t summarize when the story needs a scene and visa versa. When someone tells you, “Show, don’t tell,” what they probably mean is that you’ve summarized when you should have scened. If you don’t know the difference between summaries and scenes, Purdue’s Online Writing Lab covers it well here . There are a few short stories sitting in my inbox that I hope will become excellent novels someday.

Avoid long strings of dialog. You know when a string of dialog is going on too long when you can’t bring yourself to write “said” one more time or when you squint at the text and it looks like a poem. Dropping “said” is one way to get around it, but it’s also a way to make the reader confused. It would be better to find a way to interrupt the dialog. (Veronica Roth does this particularly well in Divergent, if you’re looking for a model.) Just don’t break up dialog with body language.

Stories about important issues still need to be told well. One of the most difficult decisions I have to make as an editor is rejecting a story that is about something important and is badly told. The instinct to write stories instead of articles about Important Things ™ is good. Stories are like a candy coating. They can make the truth easier to swallow, but stories aren’t like medicine. When the candy coating tastes bad, no one is going to eat it. 

If a plot element is important enough that you need to explain it to me in an e-mail, make sure it shows up in the story. Maybe it’s just me, but I think this one is a no-brainer. If I say that something in your work is unclear, please don’t explain it to me. Revise your work. 

You may have noticed by now that many of the problems in this list happen when people take good advice and follow it at the wrong time or in the wrong way or not at all. So, before you follow anyone’s advice, make sure you know why that advice is important. For you. Today. With this story. Because when you die and the writing gods weigh your collected works against a feather, they aren’t going to care that you listened when Stephen King told you to kill your darlings, but they might care if any of us understood what you were trying to say. 

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