Posted by: Kathy Temean | February 21, 2010

Stop Getting Rejected

I found this article by James Plath sharing
21 ideas on how to get your submission out of the slush pile.  James has taught creative writing on the college level for almost 20 years, so he knows alot and may be able to
steer you in the right direction and turn that thumbs down to a thumbs up!  
Here are 21 tweaks to consider when trying to revive a rejected story:
1. Could it use a new beginning? Lead with a powerful scene, a witty exchange or a dazzling description that’s now buried. Or, try x-ing out paragraph one, then two and so on, until you get to something that includes more action, interest or contrast than your original beginning. You’ll find that what you had may have been only throat-clearing, rather than saying something necessary to the overall story.

2. Does the ending allude to a deeper story? The best endings resonate because they echo a word, phrase or image from earlier in the story, and the reader is prompted to think back to that reference and speculate on a deeper meaning.

3. Is there a dominant visual image? With the movie Deliverance, it’s the “Squeal like a pig” mountain rape scene; with Pulp Fiction, it’s the needle thrust into the heart of a woman who had overdosed. Strong central images such as these anchor the story in our memories.

4 Is the right person telling the story? I vividly remember a Kurt Vonnegut story of a broken relationship, told not by one of the participants, but by a plumber wedged underneath a kitchen sink whom the couple seems to have forgotten. Speculation on the part of a narrator is sometimes more interesting than exposition.

5 Have you included enough interior monologue, or too much? It’s amazing how many writers tell a story from a certain point of view, but don’t spend much time inside that particular character’s head. Without internal thoughts—which can help to serve as a counterplot to the physical action—a story will be less complex. But pick your moments carefully. Characters should reflect during pauses in the action—not during physical action scenes.

6 Are there too many minor characters, or too few? There are no hard and fast rules, but short stories can’t hold too many characters (or proper names). If characters aren’t absolutely necessary, get rid of them—or at least don’t give them names. Call them by their occupation, function or dress, like “the grocer,” “the girl who kept staring at him” or “the man in the blue shirt.”

7 Have you created appropriate frequency and intensity of scenes? A scene should reveal something about the character, advance the plot in a significant way, provide insight into the “theme” or, as Eudora Welty suggested, do all three. Too few scenes can make a story seem like little more than a sketch; too many scenes can dilute a story to where important scenes can lose their power; and dramatizing the wrong moments is like highlighting the wrong passages in a novel for the next reader to find.

8 Why are you telling me this? Ever stand at a party and wonder why someone was telling you a story? The movie Stand by Me is a tale of 12-year-olds framed by a beginning where a grown writer is seen contemplating a headline about a local attorney’s murder and an ending where we see that writer finding inspiration from his son and a playmate to end his story. The frame gives the story an immediate context and anticipates the “why” question.

9 Do you appeal to a reader’s senses? The world around us is made “real” by our senses: touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing. Stories that lack a convincing sense of reality often lack imagery that appeals to a reader’s senses. A writer once told me that he strives to include five sensory details on every page. In retrospect, that seems like overkill, but you can make a fictional world come alive for readers by making it first come alive for your characters.

10 Do you appeal to a sense of place? Many stories exist in a vacuum, where lines are spoken without any description of an interior or exterior setting. That’s like going to the theater and having the house lights never come on, or having characters stand there and deliver lines without any stage action.

11 Are your characters motivated? What drives them to do the things they do? Do we know what they want?

12 Is your time frame interesting? Too many stories revolve around a single incident covering one to three hours. Could your current story really be a scene within a larger story? What if the story was stretched, like an image stamped in Silly Putty, until it became distorted and possibly more interesting?

13 Could you add texture to your story with echoes, allusions and metaphors? The fiction studied in college—Literature, with a capital “L” —is rich with figurative language and echoes. Figurative language includes metaphors, similes (“he had teeth like an alligator”), symbols and allusions (“someone had arranged the leaves on his lawn in the shape of a cross”). Echoes work by repeating key phrases or words within the story so that they have a cumulative effect on the reader.

14 Have you considered the use of an unreliable narrator? Would your story be more interesting if we were led to believe that your narrator wasn’t telling the whole truth, or if our perceptions were something different from the narrator’s?

15 Do you provide both trivial information and “deep thoughts”? If your character is a bricklayer, then readers want to learn more about a bricklayer’s world—the technical aspects of the job, as well as the mind-set of a mason.

Read the rest of his suggestions at:

“I refer to the unsolicited pile as the ‘discovery pile’ rather than the preferred term in the industry, ‘slush pile.’ I feel ‘slush’ has a negative energy.” — Edward Necarsulmer.  Edward talks about Contracts in tomorrow’s post.

I’m in the revision process right now, so I plan to give each one of these tips some deep thought.  Anyone else revising?



  1. Thanks Kathy, great check list in rewriting and proofing a manuscript before submitting.


  2. Are we ever NOT revising? LOL!


    • Jeanne,

      My life is one big revision. I just saw you r new piece of art with the dog on the bed – Love it.



  3. Kathy,

    I’m very concerned…a week has gone by without a new children’s book agent or agency opening for business. How will your blog survive?


    • David,

      I must be slipping. I know I heard some new names. I guess I better get them up for you? You are so funny.



  4. Yes, I am revising. So this post is timely. I have lots of work to do but it always surprises me to realize how little sensory detail I have included. Thanks for that reminder and for each of these points.


    • Joyce,

      Good luck with the revisions. I decided to tear my whole novel apart, get rid of characters, cut scenes, add some different ones. I got half way through and there it sit waiting for me to have the time it needs to finish it. Someone needs to add on a few extra hours everyday for me.



  5. I absolutely can’t get enough of this kind of info. It just so happens that I really love the revision process, and honestly, it’s been too long since I’ve been able to work on what I really want to be working on. This is one list I’m keeping handy when I do! Thanks, Kathy 🙂


    • Donna,

      Oh, where is that extra time? It keep running in the other direction.



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