Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

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Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

Postby Brad R. Torgersen » Tue Jun 19, 2012 10:25 am

Not everyone will have seen this, but everyone should. For those not in the know, Dave Wolverton is not only a friend of mine, and a mentor, he's also resumed his (former) role as the first reader and Coordinating Judge for the Writers of the Future Contest. This means all stories submitted from here on out have to pass muster with Dave, before they can go to the four quarterly judges for evaluation as Finalists. Please take a look.

Dave Wolverton wrote:David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants—Ten Reasons Why I’ll Quickly Reject Your Story

This past week I finished judging the first quarter of Writers of the Future, and now I’m working on the second quarter. Most of the stories come to us electronically, so much of my day is spent opening files, taking a look at them, and then putting in a review--usually one that says “Rejected.”

I hate that “Reject” button, and I may ask our programmers to give it a title that is a little less offensive, something like, “I’m afraid that this doesn’t meet our needs at the current time.”

Seriously, though, I sometimes wish that I could explain to a young writer why I’m passing on a story. So I’m going to talk about it here.

Here are ten reasons why I reject stories quickly—usually within the first page:

1) The story is unintelligible. Very often I’ll get submissions that just don’t make sense. Often, these seem to be non-English speakers who are way off in both the meaning of words, their context, or in their syntax, but more often it’s just clumsiness. I’ve seen college presidents who couldn’t write. But this lack of care is on a gradient scale, from “I can’t figure out what this is about” to “I don’t want to bother trying to figure this out” to “there are minor problems in this story.” For example, yesterday a promising story called a dungeon the “tombs.” Was it a mistake, or a metaphor? I don’t think it was a metaphor. The author had made too many other errors where the “almost correct” word was used.

2) The story is unbelievable. “Johnny Verve was the smartest kid on earth, and he was only six. He was the strongest one, and the most handsome, too. But the coolest part was when he found out he had magical powers!” At that point, I’m gone, and not just because there were four uses of “was” in three sentences.

3) The author leaves no noun or verb unmodified. Sometimes when an author is struggling to start a story, he try to infuse too much information into a sentence: “John rubbed his chapped, dry, sand-covered hands together grimly, and gazed thirstily over the harsh, red, crusty deserts of a deserted Mars.” I may put up with one sentence like that in an otherwise well-written story. You put two of those sentences together on the first page, and it really bogs a story down. Unfortunately, if you’re in a modifying mood, you might just start looking for reasons to add unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, and that will kill your pacing. People who do this on the first page of a manuscript will do it throughout. Very often these modifications turn into “purple prose.”

4) Nothing’s happening. This morning I read one where a girl, Marcy, gets out of bed, puts on her clothes (after carefully selecting each item), eats breakfast, and goes to the school bus. It was written well enough, but at the end of a couple of pages I start wondering when the story is going to begin. It really didn’t matter. It hadn’t begun yet, and the author had wasted too much space. I call these the “Never Beginning” stories. Often the inciting incident does occur, but I literally see stories that go on like this for 20 pages, as if the author is merely chronicling a day in the life of their protagonist. It really doesn’t matter if something happens or not. If nothing significant occurs in two pages and I don’t have any reason to go further, I have to reject the story.

5) A major element is left out. An “element” of your story includes your character, setting, conflict, theme, and treatment. Yesterday I read a promising story about a young woman who sings magical crystals out of the ground. The author had good penetration, good voice and inner conflicts. Unfortunately, after five pages I still didn’t know where the story was set. Originally I thought the protagonist was mining in a cave, but then found that she glanced up at the sun. Were there trees in the story, mountains, clouds? I’m not sure. The author never mentioned them. Very often, I think that new authors neglect to put in elements like a setting just because they’re unsure how to weave that information in. But that kind of information needs to be there. Here’s a hint—if you don’t tell me your protagonist’s name in the first two paragraphs, I’ll probably reject the story. Why? Because long experience has taught me that if you make that mistake, you’ll probably leave out other vital information, too.

6) The author is unable to “imply” information. Consider the following sentences. Which one do you think the author should use to convey the intended information?

a- She shook.
b - She shook his hand.
c - She reached out and shook his hand.
d - She reached out her hand and shook his hand.
e - She reached out her hand and shook his hand with her hand that she was reaching out with.

You’d be surprised by what people write. Yesterday I had a woman who “shook,” and it wasn’t obvious that she was shaking someone’s hand until three sentences later. That’s a case where the author thought that his sentence implied more than it did. A few stories later, I got option number five, which was vastly over-written. Here’s a tip: since we typically have to reach out to shake someone’s hand, the words “reached out” in each of the above sentences are already implied, and probably are unnecessary. In the same way, when we stand, we don’t need to add the word “up.” If we sit, we don’t need to add the word “down.” If someone “nods,” we don’t have to add the words “his head.” No one ever nods his knee. Authors who are unaware of how to imply information will almost always overwrite their stories, adding entire scenes that don’t need to be there. Either that, or they’ll leave out a great deal of vital description. Rarely will they do both.

7) There simply isn’t a story. You would be surprised at how many pieces come in that are philosophical diatribes, or letters, or reminiscences. Those are rejected instantly.

8) Oily tales. Some authors think that readers like to be shocked, so they struggle to be as bloody, violent, disgusting, or perverse as possible. One must remember that if you’re submitting to a major contest, the winning stories will be published. Any story that you submit that is not fit to be read by a high school student is, in my opinion, fatally flawed and will be rejected. Profanity may be edited out, but if vile content is what the story is about, then you need to be submitting to someone else.

9) Non-formed stories. A lot of people are submitting flash fiction, a few paragraphs that might be interesting but which usually don’t have much to offer. I can imagine a rare circumstance where a flash fiction piece might win, but when placed beside a long, formed story, flash pieces almost always suffer by comparison because the conflicts in the piece never get properly developed and resolved. The same is true with japes (stories that start as stories and end as jokes).

10) The tale is out of chronological order on the micro-level. Some authors love this construction: “John raced out the door, after brushing his teeth.” So I as the reader am forced to imagine John rushing out the door, then back up and imagine the tooth-bushing scene. If I see two of these in a short story, I’ll forgive them. But if I get two on the first page of a story, I’ll show no mercy. The reason is simple: the author almost always makes a lot of other errors, too, which will show up as unneeded flashbacks and as unnecessary point-of-view shifts.

But what if you’re not the kind of author who makes simple, careless mistakes? What if you’re conscientious, hard-working, and have a decent idea for what it takes to tell a story? I’ll go over some other problems tomorrow—the kinds of things that might not get your story rejected, but won’t let it climb above “Honorable Mention.”
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Re: Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

Postby s_c_baker » Tue Jun 19, 2012 10:42 am

Great advice in general, I think--definitely amazing insight for the contest.

Thanks for sharing, Brad! wotf007


9) Non-formed stories. A lot of people are submitting flash fiction, a few paragraphs that might be interesting but which usually don’t have much to offer. I can imagine a rare circumstance where a flash fiction piece might win, but when placed beside a long, formed story, flash pieces almost always suffer by comparison because the conflicts in the piece never get properly developed and resolved.


"Non-formed"? Pah. What's with this anti-flash kick? Bummer... wotf014
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Re: Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

Postby Travesty » Tue Jun 19, 2012 10:44 am

Good to know! Thanks Brad (and Dave Wolverton for the initial post)
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Re: Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

Postby Brad R. Torgersen » Tue Jun 19, 2012 10:46 am

Once upon a time, many people considered the "vignette" to be the hardest of all the lengths, because you had to tell a whole, complete story in a very, very few words. These days "flash" seems to be an entry-level mode, for writers just getting started out. As practice, I suppose it's useful. But for the Contest's purposes, I agree with Dave. (says the guy who won with a novelette, and who still writes and sells primarily at novelette length...)
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Re: Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

Postby Dustin Adams » Tue Jun 19, 2012 10:47 am

Cut. Paste. Print.

Thanks Brad. I hadn't seen it wherever else it might have been. (Daily kick, I assume?)

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Re: Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

Postby Brad R. Torgersen » Tue Jun 19, 2012 10:53 am

This article is also up at Dave's web site. I think someone already linked to it in the Writing section?

http://davidfarland.net/writing_tips/?a=89
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Re: Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

Postby Strycher » Tue Jun 19, 2012 10:58 am

Dave Farland wrote:Here’s a hint—if you don’t tell me your protagonist’s name in the first two paragraphs, I’ll probably reject the story. Why? Because long experience has taught me that if you make that mistake, you’ll probably leave out other vital information, too.


wotf005

Sometimes the characters aren't named.


Don't look at me like that. There are plenty of totally valid stories that fall under that . . . Oh nevermind.


Also, while this is amazingly helpful, and I'm happy to hear that Q2 is under way, and I in no way want to stop receiving advice on the Coordinating Judge about what makes him reject a manuscript--the little details about stories he's rejected have my heart thumping out of my chest. If I read one of these and see a detail from my story that he says made him stop reading I will die. I don't care if it's anonymous--I'll know--and that's enough humiliation to slay me.
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Re: Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

Postby morshana » Tue Jun 19, 2012 11:02 am

Thank you so much, Brad! (And Dave, of course.)
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Re: Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

Postby Imagination Vortex » Tue Jun 19, 2012 11:06 am

This is very helpful information. But I'm a little confused about number 6. Is B the right way to word that sentence? I'm writing a story and realized that I had used the example in C, so I'm assuming that is the wrong way to say it. I also use another example which I'm not sure fits any of those sentences...so now I'm unsure what I should do.
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Re: Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

Postby Strycher » Tue Jun 19, 2012 11:10 am

Imagination Vortex wrote:This is very helpful information. But I'm a little confused about number 6. Is B the right way to word that sentence? I'm writing a story and realized that I had used the example in C, so I'm assuming that is the wrong way to say it. I also use another example which I'm not sure fits any of those sentences...so now I'm unsure what I should do.
wotf017


Yes, I think B was correct. It tells you what she was shaking. C is wrong, according to Farland, because it's implied that you would have to reach out to shake someone's hand.
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Re: Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

Postby morshana » Tue Jun 19, 2012 11:13 am

Strycher wrote:
Imagination Vortex wrote:This is very helpful information. But I'm a little confused about number 6. Is B the right way to word that sentence? I'm writing a story and realized that I had used the example in C, so I'm assuming that is the wrong way to say it. I also use another example which I'm not sure fits any of those sentences...so now I'm unsure what I should do.
wotf017


Yes, I think B was correct. It tells you what she was shaking. C is wrong, according to Farland, because it's implied that you would have to reach out to shake someone's hand.


Yep, that's how I read it. As B being correct.
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Re: Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

Postby Imagination Vortex » Tue Jun 19, 2012 11:17 am

Ok thanks for clearing that up for me. I'm still not sure about my other sentence, and I'm afraid to post it here incase I use the story one day in the contest. Writing is a lot more difficult than I thought it would be! Oh well, at least I'm learning.
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Re: Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

Postby francisbruno » Tue Jun 19, 2012 11:35 am

morshana wrote:
Strycher wrote:
Imagination Vortex wrote:This is very helpful information. But I'm a little confused about number 6. Is B the right way to word that sentence? I'm writing a story and realized that I had used the example in C, so I'm assuming that is the wrong way to say it. I also use another example which I'm not sure fits any of those sentences...so now I'm unsure what I should do.
wotf017


Yes, I think B was correct. It tells you what she was shaking. C is wrong, according to Farland, because it's implied that you would have to reach out to shake someone's hand.


Yep, that's how I read it. As B being correct.

B is correct unless the extra wording conveys something important to the story.
Off the top of my head, for example. If one of the characters was a burly marine type with a soft spot, the way he reaches out may convey this fact by showing the reader some of his character. Or maybe she's got a grip that's like a vice which would be important later in the story when she has to catch and hold something crucial to the story.

If it doesn't convey information, then it should go.

All IMHO.
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Re: Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

Postby Dustin Adams » Tue Jun 19, 2012 11:38 am

I just changed a line in my MS that's been bothering me.
I knew I didn't like it, but no one said anything, so I figured it was ok.

Not so.

Old: John extended his hand toward Phil. They shook.

This just bugged me, but I couldn't put my finger on it.

New: John shook Phil's hand.

This probably seems like the most logical thing in the world. Does to me. Now. But when you're writing a first draft, this is what comes out, and when no one corrects you, you see it for what it is and understand it. Therefore, it's correct.

Not so!

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Re: Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

Postby aryus » Tue Jun 19, 2012 11:50 am

Imagination Vortex wrote:Oh well, at least I'm learning.


Me too. I think there are a few of us neophytes on these forums.
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Re: Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

Postby Martin L. Shoemaker » Tue Jun 19, 2012 12:00 pm

Always learning. Always. Whether you're Mike Resnick or Dean Wesley Smith or Brad Freakin' Torgersen or someone just beginning a career: always learning.
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Re: Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

Postby vanaaron » Tue Jun 19, 2012 12:37 pm

Dave Wolverton wrote:Here’s a hint—if you don’t tell me your protagonist’s name in the first two paragraphs, I’ll probably reject the story. Why? Because long experience has taught me that if you make that mistake, you’ll probably leave out other vital information, too.

I just read Mike Resnick's Hugo nominee for this year, "The Homecoming," which doesn't tell us the protagonist's name until three pages in.
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Re: Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

Postby Jess » Tue Jun 19, 2012 1:13 pm

francisbruno wrote:
morshana wrote:Yep, that's how I read it. As B being correct.

B is correct unless the extra wording conveys something important to the story.
Off the top of my head, for example. If one of the characters was a burly marine type with a soft spot, the way he reaches out may convey this fact by showing the reader some of his character. Or maybe she's got a grip that's like a vice which would be important later in the story when she has to catch and hold something crucial to the story.

If it doesn't convey information, then it should go.

All IMHO.

Or maybe who's doing the reaching matters. For instance, the handshake could signify peace between two feuding sides, neither of whom wanted to back down.
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Re: Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

Postby s_c_baker » Tue Jun 19, 2012 1:28 pm

Brad R. Torgersen wrote:Once upon a time, many people considered the "vignette" to be the hardest of all the lengths, because you had to tell a whole, complete story in a very, very few words. These days "flash" seems to be an entry-level mode, for writers just getting started out. As practice, I suppose it's useful. But for the Contest's purposes, I agree with Dave. (says the guy who won with a novelette, and who still writes and sells primarily at novelette length...)

Hmm, I guess that's one way to look at it.

(warning: soapbox.)

I come at it from the opposite (or, judging from your post, perhaps just the older) perspective. I started out writing long (novel-length) and worked my way down to shorts and flash. I don't look at flash as "practice" for longer works, but as a different art form with its own constraints and its own benefits and drawbacks.

I'd also disagree that you can't adequately and memorably characterize someone in as few as 100 words, even--although I will agree that it's damn hard.

One of my favourite quotes on writing is from Faulkner:
I'm a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can't and then tries the short story which is the most demanding form after poetry. And failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.

(Now obviously he was speaking very tongue in cheek, but... wotf001 )

Then again, I've always known flash-length stuff isn't a good fit for the contest. So... nothing new here (though it doesn't give me much hope for my Q2 entry, which wasn't very long).

Seeing the form disparaged as "a few paragraphs that might be interesting but which usually don’t have much to offer" kind of rubs me the wrong way, though. That's like saying haiku are just "a sentence describing nature" or "five syllables, then seven, then five." There's so much more to the form--in both cases.

Ah well. Different strokes, &c. I'll just be over here playing with my 150-word stories and 17-syllable poems... wotf007
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Re: Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

Postby francisbruno » Tue Jun 19, 2012 1:54 pm

Jess wrote:
francisbruno wrote:
morshana wrote:Yep, that's how I read it. As B being correct.

B is correct unless the extra wording conveys something important to the story.
Off the top of my head, for example. If one of the characters was a burly marine type with a soft spot, the way he reaches out may convey this fact by showing the reader some of his character. Or maybe she's got a grip that's like a vice which would be important later in the story when she has to catch and hold something crucial to the story.

If it doesn't convey information, then it should go.

All IMHO.

Or maybe who's doing the reaching matters. For instance, the handshake could signify peace between two feuding sides, neither of whom wanted to back down.

True. You are conveying information so it makes sense.
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Re: Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

Postby gower21 » Tue Jun 19, 2012 2:07 pm

Imagination Vortex wrote:This is very helpful information. But I'm a little confused about number 6. Is B the right way to word that sentence? I'm writing a story and realized that I had used the example in C, so I'm assuming that is the wrong way to say it. I also use another example which I'm not sure fits any of those sentences...so now I'm unsure what I should do.
wotf017


This question ***almost*** make me break my 1K silence rule.

IT"S B!!

But then everyone already came on and answered, but I still had to scream it out ;) I almost did a Martin and wanted so badly to post the answer on Facebook, but I refrained. I'm pretty random but "The answer is B" would have been too vague for most of my friends and family to get what I was talking about.
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Re: Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

Postby s_c_baker » Tue Jun 19, 2012 2:10 pm

gower21 wrote:
Imagination Vortex wrote:This is very helpful information. But I'm a little confused about number 6. Is B the right way to word that sentence? I'm writing a story and realized that I had used the example in C, so I'm assuming that is the wrong way to say it. I also use another example which I'm not sure fits any of those sentences...so now I'm unsure what I should do.
wotf017


This question ***almost*** make me break my 1K silence rule.

IT"S B!!

But then everyone already came on and answered, but I still had to scream it out ;) I almost did a Martin and wanted so badly to post the answer on Facebook, but I refrained. I'm pretty random but "The answer is B" would have been too vague for most of my friends and family to get what I was talking about.

You could have made it into an experiment! wotf001
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Re: Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

Postby Jess » Tue Jun 19, 2012 2:24 pm

francisbruno wrote:
Jess wrote:
francisbruno wrote:B is correct unless the extra wording conveys something important to the story.
Off the top of my head, for example. If one of the characters was a burly marine type with a soft spot, the way he reaches out may convey this fact by showing the reader some of his character. Or maybe she's got a grip that's like a vice which would be important later in the story when she has to catch and hold something crucial to the story.

If it doesn't convey information, then it should go.

All IMHO.

Or maybe who's doing the reaching matters. For instance, the handshake could signify peace between two feuding sides, neither of whom wanted to back down.

True. You are conveying information so it makes sense.

Hooray! I'm conveying information!

Given how much I've been struggling with my Q3 this week, that feels like quite an achievement.
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Re: Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

Postby s_c_baker » Tue Jun 19, 2012 2:30 pm

Jess wrote:Hooray! I'm conveying information!

Given how much I've been struggling with my Q3 this week, that feels like quite an achievement.

wotf019

(Note: I'm laughing with you, not laughing at you. Working in academia, and attempting to be a creative writer myself, I can relate. I can definitely relate...)
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Re: Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

Postby Strycher » Tue Jun 19, 2012 4:32 pm

s_c_baker wrote:(warning: soapbox.)


I don't write flash often. Because it's hard. I think you can fit a significant amount of character and emotion in that space and when you've done it--it's very rewarding.

As a reader, I like (good) flash. I'm busy, I can't invest in 100K. And you know what? Some ideas are worthy of being passed around, but don't necessarily merit a seven book series. So, I say, long live flash.
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Re: Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

Postby Rebecca Birch » Tue Jun 19, 2012 4:54 pm

I must say, I am eagerly anticipating tomorrow's post. As one who hasn't yet made it past HM, I'm very interested to see what he has to say.
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Re: Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

Postby J. Scott Marlatt » Tue Jun 19, 2012 7:33 pm

Dave Wolverton wrote:Here’s a hint—if you don’t tell me your protagonist’s name in the first two paragraphs, I’ll probably reject the story. Why? Because long experience has taught me that if you make that mistake, you’ll probably leave out other vital information, too.


Ugh... I hope that doesn't mean he stops reading after two paragraphs. This kind of formulaic rule gives me concerns...
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Re: Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

Postby Martin L. Shoemaker » Tue Jun 19, 2012 8:03 pm

J. Scott Marlatt wrote:
Dave Wolverton wrote:Here’s a hint—if you don’t tell me your protagonist’s name in the first two paragraphs, I’ll probably reject the story. Why? Because long experience has taught me that if you make that mistake, you’ll probably leave out other vital information, too.


Ugh... I hope that doesn't mean he stops reading after two paragraphs. This kind of formulaic rule gives me concerns...


Unfortunately, when you have three months and thousands of stories, you need the rules as a filter. Otherwise you'll be overwhelmed.

I doubt Dave applies the rules as a strict formula. With his experience, he really doesn't have to. But he reads only as far as he needs to to reject -- because with that many stories, his primary job IS to reject. My bet is these 10 reasons are his attempt to put into concrete words what are really more gut judgments as he reads.

And in my opinion, the fact that he puts these ten reasons online where we all can read them is HUGELY generous guidance. He's letting us know in advance what to avoid; and so we know if we MUST violate these, we'd better be even more awesome in our openings and the rest of our stories. I am tremendously grateful for this post.
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Re: Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

Postby s_c_baker » Tue Jun 19, 2012 8:27 pm

Martin L. Shoemaker wrote:
J. Scott Marlatt wrote:
Dave Wolverton wrote:Here’s a hint—if you don’t tell me your protagonist’s name in the first two paragraphs, I’ll probably reject the story. Why? Because long experience has taught me that if you make that mistake, you’ll probably leave out other vital information, too.


Ugh... I hope that doesn't mean he stops reading after two paragraphs. This kind of formulaic rule gives me concerns...


Unfortunately, when you have three months and thousands of stories, you need the rules as a filter. Otherwise you'll be overwhelmed.

I doubt Dave applies the rules as a strict formula. With his experience, he really doesn't have to. But he reads only as far as he needs to to reject -- because with that many stories, his primary job IS to reject

Just to add to that, it's been my experience as a judge of half-a-dozen small fiction contests elsewhere that if a work's a form-rejection, you usually only need to read a few sentences to tell. Two paragraphs is certainly enough for form-rejection stories--and with judging several thousand of the things every three months... I think we should be thankful it's enough!

For anything that makes it past that first round, I'm sure Dave gives/will give them more attention.

KD, for what it's worth, presumably operated under a similar principle. I seem to recall seeing somewhere that "HM" meant "I read this story all the way to the end."
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Re: Dave Wolverton's 10 reasons why he rejects a story

Postby Imagination Vortex » Tue Jun 19, 2012 10:37 pm

J. Scott Marlatt wrote:
Dave Wolverton wrote:Here’s a hint—if you don’t tell me your protagonist’s name in the first two paragraphs, I’ll probably reject the story. Why? Because long experience has taught me that if you make that mistake, you’ll probably leave out other vital information, too.


Ugh... I hope that doesn't mean he stops reading after two paragraphs. This kind of formulaic rule gives me concerns...


Yeah I too wonder how greatly he follows this rule. In my Q1 the protaganist's name wasn't mentioned because she had lost her memories. It wasn't until the end that she remembers her past and who she was. I'd hate to think he would stop reading just because of that rule, without taking into consideration that the author may have a reason for not mentioning the name. Still, I'll be sure to tread carefully from now on when deciding what stories to write, at least for this contest.
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