It’s important for editors to remain objective and give challenging stories a grain of salt. However, there are always personal preferences that turn a merely objectionable story into a slog.
Below are some story topics or themes that are a hard sell for our editors. A well crafted story can certainly change our mind but it’s an upward climb.
There’s nothing I hate more than the bimbo second wife or the abusive step-parent tropes. It’s an easy hole to fall into, especially when writing a child’s POV, but it’s overdone. I was surprised how many stories we received had a slutty younger wife. While I appreciate a good villain, I want characters to be able to flinch. There should always be something that grounds even the evilest step-parent.
It takes a lot for me to get past a writer as a protagonist. When I read stories where the narrator is a writer, there is generally a lot of throat clearing at the start, taking awhile to get to the meat of the piece. I’ve been in that seat, writing about writing just to get some writing juices flowing, and then it turns into a super cool story idea! The trick is to go back and edit out the writing about writing part. Sure you got some good stuff, but keep those gems in a folder somewhere to add to a blog, or even your non-fiction book about how to be a writer, In fiction I’d prefer the main person have any career other than writer. (Yes, I know Stephen King has huge successes doing this, but he’s got a little leeway the rest of us don’t enjoy.)
First person is super popular, but the voice has to be immediately unique for me. I’ll admit that I usually let one of the other editors read a story in first person before I’ll dive in, because I’m always afraid I’m going to judge it too harshly. I also have difficulty with any story with a sudden reveal at the end i.e. he was the murderer/monster all along. Unreliable narrators can be interesting, but I’m going to be annoyed if they’re keeping all of their cards to their chest.
Stories don’t have to be G-rated. I love dark stories and horror and monsters! And fiction can tackle serious issues like racism without perpetuating harmful stereotypes. Give me dread, give me the creeps, make me lose sleep, make me think, but please don’t hand me lazy tropes or shock-value nonsense. Hard sells or just plain deal-breakers include:
- graphic violence for no apparent reason
- the assault or humiliation of a woman as implied comeuppance for resisting the advances of the male protagonist or simply for being physically attractive to the protagonist (the woman, or sometimes girl, is often hyper-sexualized early in the story as if justification for later endangerment or harm)
- rape, especially rape of one character as plot device for another character to demonstrate chivalry or fulfill a savior role
- tiresome descriptions of cleavage or breasts (we get this a lot), especially if that’s the only description we get of the character
- violence against or abuse of children, people who are transgender or of non-binary gender, or any vulnerable population
- racism and tokenism; and
- fetishizing nurses or any traditionally female-dominated occupations.
If you think your story falls into any of the categories above, take a look at your prose and your plot. Is there something new you can add to the text? A new angle or theme that would battle our preconceptions? Hard sells don’t mean that ‘this is something the editor’s will never accept’. We want to be surprised, challenged, and inspired.
Tell us in the comments about your hard sells. What makes you put down a short story or book?
Featured image by Fernando Arcos