Submission tips from our short fiction guest reader

After Dave Wakely, our short fiction guest reader for The Phare Autumn 21 issue had finished his reading duties, he offered to send us a few words on his experience which included some do's and don'ts he'd picked up while reading submissions. If you're thinking of submitting to future issues this could well be worth a read.

Here are Dave's top tips:

1. The first tip, as anyone who has sat an exam should remember, is to read the question very carefully. Most people managed the formatting and maximum word counts without a problem, but the set theme – Coast – was sometimes hard to locate. In some cases, references to beaches or shorelines were shoe-horned in like an Ugly Sister’s toes in a glass slipper. In others, a coastal setting was reverse-engineered into a story that could as easily have been set in a desert or a housing estate, rather than being a vital and integral part of the whole. Theme cannot be an afterthought, especially when it’s a core part of the brief.

2. The second tip is to proof-read. There weren’t many typos in the entries – but they do act as an alarm signal. If a writer hasn’t checked their work carefully for obvious errors, how much energy have they invested in making the piece as strong as it could be? There were a lot of sentences that could have been tighter, stronger or simply shorter, and phrases that didn’t need to feel quite so awkward. More frustratingly for a reader, there were pieces that might have been real contenders if their authors had given them one final cold-eyed edit.

3. My third tip would be ‘don’t over-write’. Good prose should be effortless to digest. Larding sentences with qualifying adjectives, metaphors, and similes is no substitute for telling good stories or creating living, breathing three dimensional characters. Several pieces tried rather too hard to impress with florid, overblown language.

4. The fourth suggestion is a lesson I was offered by a Creative Non Fiction tutor while I was studying for my MA, and might be hard for some writers to read. “Just because it really happened and it means a lot to you doesn’t mean a reader is necessarily going to care.” That sounds harsh, but it’s your responsibility as a writer is to make the moment, emotion, or event that you’re writing about matter to the reader. Your job is not so much to be honest as it is to be compelling. ‘True’ and ‘interesting’ are not synonyms. For lit mag editors, the telling matters as much as – perhaps even more than - the tale. Even autobiography isn’t all about ‘me’.

5. My fifth point is related. Large numbers of writers are drawn to write about similar experiences, mostly what we might call 'life's big moments'. The percentage of entries that centred on the loss of a loved one was very noticeable. Readers and editors aren’t predisposed to being unsympathetic, but they are charged with identifying the most compelling pieces of writing. Bear in mind that if you’re writing about the most common human experiences, your work will be amongst fierce and plentiful competition.

6. A further tip, and a point that separated the best writing from the rest among the entries: the finest writing had an inescapable sense and grasp of narrative voice. These pieces were told by believable, complicated, nuanced human beings whose emotions and motivations were never entirely simple. Simply put, these characters had character. You don’t have to like a narrator to enjoy a story, but it helps if you don’t want to smother them.

7. Something else the best writing here shared was a willingness to leave space for the reader to do some of the work. When writers fail to trust their readers, they make their points too firmly or signpost plot developments too clearly. Alfred Hitchcock was right that suspense and surprise are different things, but foreshadow your plot too heavily your reader experiences neither.

8. And I think there’s a question many writers don’t ask themselves while they draft and polish. It might be the best it could be, but…. Is it a story? Does anything really happen? Does an opinion, a view, a relationship, an outcome – actually change? Is the reader, the narrator or both - enlightened about anything? Even the briefest flash fiction needs to be something more than a well-turned paragraph. Hint at the story beyond the frame. And pay attention to endings. There were a few pieces that just stopped. Some left me scrolling on, assuming there was something over the page. The ending is the pay off for the reader, who has invested their time and attention. Stories that simply stop are the equivalent of abandoned cars that ran out of petrol a frustrating mile short of their destination, usually because the driver didn’t p