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The story is original and should begin with such a good idea that readers feel they have never read anything like your story. The topic may be familiar—love, loneliness, loss—but the way you handle the story should be original. The best characters immediately engage readers, are often memorable in their quirkiness, and are involved in a situation that feels fresh and new.
Read any of the stories published on this site, and they should surprise you in some way. They should raise questions as you read. Read "Death by Scrabble", "The Woman Under the Thames", or "Death Comes for Simon." These stories lack predictability. They feel fresh and a bit surprising.
From the beginning the stories implant a question in the reader's mind that gives him or her a reason to keep reading. The traditional way to accomplish this is by giving the character an overriding need or goal. When readers know that the character needs or wants something, they will want to know if the character succeeds. They become invested in the outcome. The stronger the goal, the better the story. Throughout the middle of the story, the character normally pursues this goal while facing complications that prevent immediate gratification.
These setbacks, however subtle, cause readers to unconsciously root for the character. This identification with the character's need makes the story interesting. The story ends when the character either succeeds or fails to get what he or she so badly wanted, again as a result of something readers could not have predicted.
Ideally, the story has been tightened so that not a single word can be removed without hurting the meaning. When you finish a story, try cutting the story by one-half. That's right, remove 50% of the words. Most inexperienced writers think this is impossible. But challenge yourself. If you don't like the result, you still have the original, but you will be surprised at how much you can shrink the work, and at how much the deletions improve the final product. Look for:
For more examples of what to remove, see: Creative Writing Tips
You can learn a lot about an editor's preferences by reading what has already been published. Are the stories easy to read, or highly intellectual? Is humour acceptable? What type of humour? What length are the successful stories? What is the tone of the narrative —intellectual, tongue-in-cheek, personal, confessional? You'll find patterns in the most eclectic mix, if you look for them.
If you want your creative writing submissions to see print, read the publisher's guidelines.
Publishers almost always make it clear when you will hear back from them about your creative writing submissions. Read the guidelines!
Publishers wish they had time to explain to every hopeful writer what would improve rejected work, but of course they can't. To contact the publisher and ask why your creative writing submissions were rejected is unprofessional and marks you as an amateur. It puts the publisher in an uncomfortable position, and makes you someone to avoid in the future. If you want to know if your work has problems, consult a writing mentor, a writer-in-residence, or a writing group.
This makes you memorable in the wrong way, and you will destroy any chance of working with the editor in the future, at this magazine or at any other.
Publishers choose stories according to their taste, which is not universal, and they reject stories for many, many reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. They may have overshot their budget for the month. They may have received such high quality submissions that yours took a backseat despite its publishable quality. The publisher may have a backlog of submissions or may have published a similar story not long ago.
Review a rejected story with a fresh eye, improve it if you can, and send it out again, over and over, until it finds a home.