We received the following email from one of our mailing list subscribers recently and it outlined a problem that we know will affect many writers out there.
‘From the feedback I've had, I know that my writing is of a good standard but often fails to stand out, or lacks 'an edge.'
I've been told a few times by editors/judges that I write competently, can show (not tell), and have the necessary skills to produce a good piece of work. However, I always seem to be missing that vital spark, or opening hook, or twist, or whatever it is that they are looking for in a winning piece. So, time and again, I'm applauded for my efforts but I never quite make the cut.’
If this applies to you, too, then read on and hopefully we can help.
Three reasons a story may be rejected based on its ability to stand out
- Sometimes there are too many good stories to publish and great pieces must be rejected if, for whatever reason, they are not quite as memorable as others.
- Sometimes the piece of fiction is middling. It is competent but fails to move the reader or make a lasting impression.
- Other times, the writer has good intentions but something is lacking within the writing which means that it doesn’t show the same skill as others.
#1 is often a question of luck, as you have written a very publishable piece and cannot control the quality of other stories that are received; #3 is a question of skill, which practice and hard word will likely improve; it is #2 that, if this applies to you, you have the power to focus on with the goal of standing out from the crowd.
When writing a piece of short fiction, it is difficult to walk the line between trying too hard (and ending up with a convoluted and inaccessible piece) and not trying hard enough (therefore your whole story seems too obvious). A balance needs to be struck to make your writing stand out from the hundreds of submissions an editor will receive.
A few suggestions to try
Use personal belief/knowledge
What a difference there is when people come from a place of personal belief and knowledge to carefully build and develop their characters, even though the story itself may be supernatural or fantastic! This means making a huge investment in your piece as it becomes even more of an emotional tie for you. However, your conviction will show itself to the reader and move them, too.
How this is done is going to be different depending on the author. It falls under the age-old recommendation to ‘write what you know’. Again, there may be times when the personal nature of your writing fails to hit the mark, but it will propel you towards a more convincing and profound narrative.
An unusual idea being written about in a believable way
The key point here is the ultimately believable nature of the unusual idea. You integrate it into your story and really bring the exceptional idea to life. When done well, you carry the reader along with you on a journey into the unknown. They accept the world you have created for their enjoyment and don't question the fantastical thing being written about.
This can be tricky to pull off successfully. By having a friend or family member reading your work, you can gauge how believable you are being and get feedback on ways to improve.
Introduce a twist
A twist in your story doesn't have to come at the end, may not be overly dramatic, and should not be over the top. Some of the most subtle twists read merely as little surprises, but they still give your story an important, developmental lift. It will give your piece an edge that it wouldn't otherwise have. Note that twists can be positive; quite often there is a dramatic, negative twist but this is not always the case! Also be careful, if you are using a twist, that your writing doesn't fall into the ‘trying too hard’ category.
Ignore advice and go with your gut
Many writers have fantastic ideas that are unique to them. They should write about these ideas, even if they haven’t appeared on a list (such as this one). Creativity and ingenuity are two of the most important skills for a writer to develop and it would crush these skills to use a purely formulaic approach to try to stand out. When you think of a great idea, let it sit for a while and see if it stands the test of time. Then, try to let someone else read it to give you feedback on how your writing affects them. While a friend may be more positive than an unknown reader, try to pick someone who will be honest if an idea you have just doesn't work at all. Yes, this last point is a broad suggestion, but necessarily so. It will be hard to get this right but harder to go through life as a writer without paying attention to your gut. Just try to analyse it a bit to make sure your gut reaction is a good one!
It is worth remembering that this ability is subtle. This is why it is suggested that you let others read your story – to act as testers for your piece. Whether you are adding a twist, an unusual element to an otherwise believable story, from personal experience, or purely from your gut, you are increasing the opportunity for your story to be recognised and your writing escalating from what is merely competent to something truly great. Let your imagination go and your creativity may well take you forward!
And if you do write a few stories that are ‘too much’? Look on it positively. It will be good practice before you do, finally, crack it.