From editor and author Joe Ponepinto via Jane Friedman:
An admission: As I read my way through the submission queue for our literary journal, I often decide to decline a story well before its end.
It’s not that the stories are always bad. Many times the premise is interesting, and the characters as well. It may exhibit the opening tension and stakes that can pull a reader in. In fact, there may not be anything technically missing from the submission, and this proficiency is supported by the writers’ cover letters—many submitters have been published in other journals; some are contest winners or Pushcart nominees.
But for me, the stories they’ve submitted just don’t resonate.
So it’s a matter of taste, then?
Sometimes, but more often it’s something else. It’s a quality that can’t be measured or pinpointed, and I think that’s why it’s an aspect of good writing that is rarely taught in MFA programs, or writing classes, and almost never mentioned in blogs and articles on writing. Call it something ethereal. Call it alchemy. Or call it what it is, a story so advanced that it is no longer just a story, but something beyond a story—a virtual reality that transports a reader into a frame of mind vivid enough to replace actual reality. It’s a story so engrossing the reader forgets that he’s reading, a story in which the author’s voice seems not to exist. A silent story, as a writer friend once noted.
So many times stories give me the impression of a writer writing about something. It’s in the story’s tone and flow. It’s in the plot that’s been done a few thousand times before, or is based on something that’s in the news. It’s in characters filtered through the writer’s personal experience, which limits their diversity and individuality. In short, the writer is present in every sentence, hunched over the reader’s shoulder, which is why so much in these stories sounds like explanation, like the writer worrying that readers won’t “get it” unless they lay out paragraphs of background info. As Elmore Leonard famously said, it sounds like writing.
As I read these submissions, I can visualize the writer thinking about aspects of writing as he writes. Does this scene have tension? Is it making my theme clear?
But a successful story exists independently from its author. It seems so real that readers don’t have to be schooled in the facts of the story’s world, but can, through the actions and dialogue of its characters, adapt and understand how it works. Kind of like the way we do it in real life.
Link to the rest at Jane Friedman