A guest post by Kim Winternheimer, editor of The Masters Review
The Masters Review is a publication that focuses entirely on new and emerging writers, offering a quality platform for readers, agents, and editors to discover new voices. In addition to our printed anthology, we have submission opportunities year round including a short story award for new writers, workshops, and a fiction contest running throughout September and October. Nearly all the stories we publish are unsolicited, which means most of our work comes from the slush pile. So how do you make your story stand out? Here’s what we look for when reading stories.
Especially at the beginning of a piece. Assume any story you submit is being read by editors who are also reading many other stories that week, day, or even hour. A difficult beginning is disastrous because it informs the reader’s opinion on the rest of the story, making her less forgiving of small errors or lulls later. The start of your story should read clearly on the sentence level and avoid too much exposition or throat clearing. Our favorite pieces show intention, finesse, and clarity from the start, and introduce the story in a way that is easy to understand, even if the piece is experimenting with structure or other style.
2. A Good Hook
The opening line in this year’s anthology is: “Almost everyone agreed that the death of Rodrigo Bradley had been an accident.” This is a great example of a piece that begins in the action of the story. When reading a large number of submissions, it helps to begin with a plot element that immediately draws readers into the world and has them wondering: “What will happen next?”
3. Productive Ambiguity
Literary fiction isn’t always direct, and the genre as a whole avoids over simplification. Most of the stories we publish work on multiple levels, weaving a message within plot, characterization, and themes. However, too often the ambiguity in a story gives way to general confusion. This is especially true with stories that rely on withholding a piece of information or ask readers to suspend belief. Be sure the ambiguity in your story – at the beginning, middle, and end – is productive, or if it may be confusing your readers. Again: clarity!
4. Emotional Honesty
One of the issues we see with stories that aren’t working is a notion that the writer doesn’t understand the emotional landscape of her characters. We look for work that taps into an honest psyche; one that teaches us something new or reflects change in a character that is believable. I want to enjoy a character’s journey toward self-discovery, but I need to believe in their reactions, actions, and motivations along the way.
We look for stories that know what they are doing and understand their own plots and characters. Writing is often a tool for discovery, but occasionally we come across stories that don’t know their own message, or how to properly convey it. We publish work that is strange, odd, complicated, and satisfying because the writer is in full control. Spend time with your piece so that you understand it. If you’re not sure what your story is about, neither will your reader!