Elizabeth Black writes in a wide variety of genres including erotica, erotic romance, and dark fiction. She lives on the Massachusetts coast with her husband, son, and three cats. Visit her web site, her Facebook page, and her Amazon Author Page.
Let's play a game. You've written what you think is The Most Unique And Exciting Story In The World, and you want to send it to a magazine or an anthology submission call. You do exactly that and wait eager – and anxiously – for over a month to get either an acceptance or a rejection. An acceptance will be met with many congratulations and toasts with champagne – and pinches to make sure you're really awake.
A rejection, which deep in the back of your mind you may actually suspect you will get because you are a writer and you may thrive on disappointment, will leave you devastated. Or you'll shrug it off and send your magnum opus elsewhere. It's a toss-up.
Rinse and repeat.
While you play the "hurry up and wait" game, you may wonder how unique your story really is? Chances are, its theme has been seen before in many different incarnations. Editors run into the same old stories all the time. They often talk of common tropes that leave them guessing the plot and ending before they even finish reading your submission. There are some tropes many editors wish would never cross their desks. Those tropes should be buried and the ground sown with salt.
Here are some examples of those kinds of common and tired tropes. First up, here is a list of subjects Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine managing editor Nathaniel Tower is tired of seeing in lit magazine submissions:
Death Endings – For the love of everything that is sacred about literature, stop killing off characters in violent or sentimental fashion in order to achieve an ending. Characters die in approximately 12% of the submissions we receive. 99% of these deaths are pointless and make the story worse. Character death is not a substitute for a satisfactory conclusion.
Opening with sex or masturbation – Nothing turns me off faster than a story that opens with a masturbation or sex scene. I’m all about being thrown directly into a scene, but sometimes there needs to be some literary foreplay. If there’s an erect penis in the opening line of the story, I probably don’t want to read it. Interestingly enough, these stories are almost never sexy.
Sentimental cancer stories – Yes, nearly everyone has been affected in some way by cancer. I’ve had family members die of cancer. It’s been at least five years since anyone said anything new with a cancer story.
Stories that open with light streaming through the window – How many stories can begin with some type of light bursting forth through a hunk of glass? Apparently there is no limit. At least 15% of stories contain some type of light coming through something in the opening paragraph. There are often dust motes thrown in there for good measure. Please, no more dust motes.
Stories that begin with someone coming out of a dream or end with someone realizing it was all a dream – You’d think that all dream stories would have been banned from the universe by now. It seems as if many writers haven’t gotten the memo. I’ll personally kill the next character that wakes up from a dream at the beginning of a story. And ending with a dream? Well, that’s even worse. You might as well just call the story “Nothing Happened At All” and leave the rest of the document blank.
Alzheimer’s stories – Like cancer stories, only worse. These writers all pretend they understand exactly what it’s like to have Alzheimer’s. The worst offenders are those stories told in first person from the point of view of the Alzheimer’s patient. If I could forget one thing, it would be Alzheimer’s stories.
Cheating significant other stories – Whether the cheater is a man or a woman, these stories generally pack as much punch as an empty bottle of sugar-free Hawaiian Punch. There’s almost always a scene where someone is packing a suitcase, as if we’re supposed to feel some sort of relief at this newfound freedom from the tormented relationship. The only relief is when the story ends.
Machinegun bonus – Here’s a quick list of other things I’ve seen way too much of:
References to Nietzsche
Stories of thwarted creative genius
Bad things happening to trust fund kids
This is a portion of a list of stories seen too often by Strange Horizons, an online speculative fiction magazine. It is helpful in that it can steer you away from what you may not suspect are common tropes. Please visit this web page often since the list is updated and changed on occasion. Also visit the page now anyway, since this is a very long list. The examples below are only a small part of it.
Creative person is having trouble creating.
Weird things happen, but it turns out they're not real, like in a dream. (There's that dream thing again.)
Technology and/or modern life turn out to be soulless.
A place is described, with no plot or characters.
A "surprise" twist ending occurs. The "surprise" is often predictable, hence no longer a "surprise".
A princess has been raped or molested by her father (or stepfather), the king.
The narrator and/or male characters in the story are bewildered about women, believing them to conform to any of the standard stereotypes about women: that they're mysterious, wacky, confusing, unpredictable, changeable, temptresses, etc.
Teen's family doesn't understand them.
Twee little fairies with wings fly around being twee.
Christine Morgan has written horror, fantasy, erotica, and thrillers. She has also edited numerous anthologies, including "Fossil Lake", "Teeming Terrors" and "Grimm Black", "Grimm Red", and "Grimm White". Her list includes some other common tropes:
Child characters that do not behave/sound like kids! I've seen too many otherwise good authors present a child character as if they've never even been around children in their lives.
The above can also apply to animals, or any other different/differing perspective. In fantasy or sci fi, urban fantasy, horror, whatever; if you're going to give me a non-human race, then that's what I want to see played up, the differences, the exoticness; don't just make 'em humans with special effects makeup.
Any of the overdone sexism tropes: fridging, smurfette syndrome, automatic love interest, passive prize women, etc. That should go without saying but the fact it still so often needs to be said is almost more annoying.
Fridging (I think the term came from crime dramas and thrillers, where the body was found in a fridge or freezer or something) is what they call it when someone, usually a female character, is killed to motivate the male character ... most recent example that pissed me off was when I watched Thor: Dark World, when the easiest way to get Thor and Loki to work together was to kill Frigga.
Smurfette Syndrome is what I've heard it when you've got your group of characters, each of whom is characterized by some trope or type ... the jock, the nerd, the weirdo ... and the girl ... because that alone is enough of an identifying quality, right?
Automatic love interest is when a female character is added to the cast or in the story and the main focus is only to be which guy gets her. My own beloved Gargoyles did some of that with Angela, when, the moment she appeared, all that mattered was who she'd end up with. It's related to the passive prize woman thing, where the primary purpose of having a female character at all is so the hero has something to win or gets the girl at the end, whether anything else in the story had led up to it or not.
Radclyffe is an American author of lesbian romance, paranormal romance, erotica, and mystery. She has authored multiple short stories, fan fiction, and edited numerous anthologies. Here are a few themes/character notes/plot-lines that seem overused in submissions she has seen:
Protagonists who are relationship-phobic because they were cheated on. While this may be crushing at the time, most people do not swear off love and/or sex forever because of an unfaithful gf/bf/spouse etc.
Protagonists who are unavailable because they are mourning a dead spouse (while tragic in real life, and I’ve used this storyline myself :), it’s getting to be common-place)
YA’s - along those lines: dying teens as main characters
Unlikeable main characters (snarky, petty, narcissistic) - not the same as arrogant, confident, alpha
International settings no one would want to visit on a good day
Fantasy/sci-fi characters with incomprehensible names
Thinly- veiled morality tales (or social/political polemics). Write an essay or op ed instead.
Twilight/The Fault in Our Stars clones
“Romances” where one character dies (might be a great story, but it’s not a romance)
BDSM novels with no BDSM scenes (seen the movie?)
Intrigues where the villain is declared insane and justice is NOT served
So there you have it. Now you are armed with examples of what to not submit. Expand your mind, avoid those kinds of tropes, and create something that may truly be The Most Unique And Exciting Story In The World.
Author's Note: My story Infection appears in the aforementioned Teeming Terrors. My story Black As Ebony, White As Snow shall soon appear in Grimm White. Both books are edited by Christine Morgan. My short erotic story Like A Breath Of Ocean Blue shall soon appear in Best Lesbian Romance 2015, edited by Radclyffe.