Hello writer! You take your writing as seriously as we take reading it. The editorial team at Five South has the added benefit of seeing a massive swath of short fiction. I'd like to share some of the common things we see that separate the wheat from the chaff.
As we all know, rules are meant to be broken. I hope you’ll use these guidelines as a barometer to measure your work. Peruse these thoughts and see if any apply to a certain piece or two of yours. See if there are ways to improve, go deeper, make more concise or weird—and ultimately, increase your chances of publication, not just with Five South, but hopefully elsewhere as well!
Consider the first sentence. “John woke up and rubbed his eyes” is not very compelling. “John woke up and rubbed cat puke out of his eyes” on the other hand, has us from the get-go.
On the first page of your story, we want to know in whose point of view we are in: first, second, or third person character, or omniscient narrator. Do not stray from this POV.
Is your story in past, present, or future tense? Pick one and stay with it.
Set your story at an infrequently written about time. How’s 2 am, or 4 pm, or the middle of the workday?
It’s easy to forget that stories need to be entertaining, even if they are about love, loss, grief, or death. Or heavy metal. Ensure you have a central conflict; the bigger, the better, and the earlier on in the story, the better. Conflicts in the backstory of the narrative don’t count! There must be a conflict in the current, front story of the narrative.
Draw on your conflict through the story to keep your readers on their toes. Conflict shouldn’t be lurid. Don’t add a gun when a letter will do. Don’t add a murder when a dog will do.
Add layers of nuanced psychological depth. Without it, your readers will not be interested in your characters.
Check the balance of in-scene versus summary/exposition. The best stories have both. The whole story should be in-scene with a few summary lines in between for transitions and to convey past action or backstory details.
All stories have a backstory. Too much of it takes away from the current action, which is where readers want to be. Keep it to 1-2 interspersed sentences.
Try to avoid saying, “Character Name shuddered in the wind/cold/rain/sunlight.” No one shudders that much. Make sure your word choice is fresh! Give us those SAT words that we have to look up. We’re nerds and we LOVE looking stuff up.
Beware the navel gaze. We love a story about thinking and writing as much as the next reader. Before you submit, ask yourself: Does this story have action? Does it have a dialogue with another character? Does it have tension? Is there anything at stake for my main character? Does anything grow or change by the end?
Keep it weird. We receive many stories about COVID, aging parents, bad parents, heartbreak, and the death of a loved one. We love to read stories about these topics, but since we receive so many, they must have a hot take. How about writing from the perspective from the COVID patient who recovers only to realize they lost something else, or the sibling who believes it’s a hoax? How about a story from the POV of the bad dad or sad mom? How about a heartbreak that shouldn’t have happened?
A few final tips:
· Aim for 3,000 words or less for short fiction and 1000 or less for flash fiction.
· Avoid using a line of dialogue as your first sentence.
· We get a lot of third-person POV. Maybe try first?
· Try to avoid rhetorical questions.
· Cut out all the unnecessary “that’s.”
· “Like” should be as if or as though.
· “Had been” = was.
· “Had taken” = took.
· Perhaps most important, get somebody to proofread or beta read your work before you submit it!
Mina Manchester is an MFA candidate at Sewanee. Before coming to Five South she was an assistant editor for Narrative Magazine for six years. Mina’s work has been published in HuffPost, Columbia Journal, The Normal School, and Inscape. Her short story “Opening Day” was a Finalist for the 2020 Pinch Literary Award, and her short story “Fight or Flight” was a Finalist for Cutthroat’s Rick DiMarinis Short Story Award. She was nominated for the UCLA James Kirkwood Award in Creative Writing. Mina has attended the Kenyon Review Writing Workshop, The Writer’s Hotel, where she was also a TA in 2020, and Narrative’s Art of the Story Workshop. She lives in Los Angeles with her family.