Friday, March 11, 2016

Writing in a Foreign Language

Flash Fiction Online is an international publication.

We publish stories from all over the world, by authors of many different nationalities and cultures.

However, we're also an English language publication, which means we publish stories in English.

This creates something of a quandary.  We receive a relatively large number of submissions from non-native English speakers, but publish relatively few of them.


The answer is the language.  A language barrier, really.  Nearly all of our non-native English speakers submit stories rife with grammar and syntax errors.  As an English publication we can't print stories written in a form of English that is largely incomprehensible to readers of the English language.  In addition, I do not have the time or resources to be able to work with authors whose English skills need polishing. Besides, that's not my job.  That is the job of the author, to present as clean and readable a manuscript as possible for me to consider.

Let's turn the tables.

Here in the United States our high school students are required to have a certain amount of foreign language training in order to graduate.  Most Universities also have foreign language requirements for graduation.  While valuable, a few meager semesters of beginning German does not qualify an English-speaking American to write and publish stories or articles written in the German language.

But, just for argument's sake, let's say I wanted to.  Let's say I wanted to use my limited understanding of German to write a story in German.  How would I overcome the obvious deficiencies in my translation?

Google Translate?  No.  Absolutely not.  (If you are not a native English speaker, test it by copying and pasting this article into Google Translate and translate it into your native language.  See?  Don't use Google Translate.  It's a useful tool for certain limited applications, but is not a solution to this problem.)

There is only ONE solution: I would find friends who are native German speakers.  Not only that, but these friends should be competent in the rules of grammar associated with the German language.  I would ask those friends to read over my manuscripts for the specific purpose of helping me with my grammar and syntax, to help me make my story understandable and competent to native German speakers.

How would I find friends who are native German speakers?

I would spend time at multiple online writing forums and workshops, asking around until I found someone willing and able to help.

Then I would be very, very nice to that person for doing me such an enormous favor.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Courier Must Die

Today I committed editorial high treason.

I editing my submission guidelines to read, "I MUCH prefer Times New Roman or a similar font.  Please do not use a Courier font.  I hate them."

I hear the collective gasp of writers and editors everywhere who have learned that Courier, in its many renditions, is the industry standard.  

Tough.  That industry standard needs to go the way of the Dodo Bird.

Why?  Because who actually reads ANYTHING in Courier anymore?  No one except editors entrenched in the tradition of receiving story submissions typed on a typewriter.  Because typewriters didn't come equipped with Times New Roman-like keys.  They came equipped with Courier-like keys.  So editors became accustomed to reading submissions typed on typewriters in Courier font types.  And that became the industry standard because Courier was easier to read that handwritten submissions, which was the industry standard prior to the invention and widespread use of the typewriter.

I imagine that there must have been a whole harem of editors, who were entrenched in the old industry standard of handwritten submissions, who actually resisted the change to typewritten manuscripts.  Because every generation thinks they've figured it all out, that their way is the right way, that change is bad.  

But the thing is, those same editors who firmly stuck to the 'handwritten is best' philosophy didn't EVER publish a book or magazine that was handwritten.  Okay, maybe in medieval times.  But thanks to Gutenberg and his movable type, books haven't been published in pen and ink for centuries! 

Which means that people have been accustomed to reading the printed page for centuries.

I, of course, love books.  I like to have them around.  I like to collect them.  

Over the years I've collected a number of old books, some of them more than a hundred years old.   A couple probably old enough that the people who wrote the original manuscripts probably did it with pen and ink and submitted those manuscripts in pen and ink.

Astoundingly, the books I have on my shelf are NOT published in pen and ink.  They're published in a lovely, easy-to-read typeface.  And here's the kicker.  NONE of them are printed in Courier.  Not a one.

So, for at least 100 years we, as a reading public, have not been reading printed material in a Courier-like font.  No.  Actually, the fonts we've been reading on the printed page for the past 100+ years have been much more like Times New Roman.


But we kept typing our manuscripts in Courier, because that's what typewriters used.  Typing them in Courier, printing and reading them in Times-like fonts.  For a very long time.

Behold, the invention of the electronic word processor! 

The first word processors came into use in the 60s.  When I was a kid in the 70s we had a cutting-edge IBM word processor that looked very much like a typewriter.  And it printed everything in a font that looked more like Courier than Times.  Dot matrix.  Remember that?  So we were using a slightly more versatile typewriter.  

Finally in the 80s word processing software advanced to the point that we could actually type on a screen that was NOT green dot matrix, and utilized changeable fonts that we could actually see as we typed.  Hooray!  [Side note: Unfortunately for me as an editor, this means that there are literally thousands of fonts available in the marketplace now.  Because at one point or another I'm likely to see every single one of them in a submission.  *shakes head in frustration*  For an editor, that is NOT progress and a topic for another whole blog post.]  

But that was thirty years ago.  Thirty years.  And we've advanced SO far, SO fast technologically, but have been mired in tradition anyway.   

Today I can choose to type on my word processor in any font I choose.  What fonts do I choose?  Depends on the project, for course.  But for writing I use a font that looks very much like the fonts I read, and those fonts are very similar to Times.  Why make myself adjust?  There's no need.  It's much easier on my eyes and my brain to have consistency in the visual rendering of the stories I read.  To me, reading Courier is like reading High German manuscript--which is what Gutenberg used on his printing press, and which was commonly in use in German printed material until about 60 years ago.  Here's an example:

Courier, it's time for you to die.  It's been a good life, and we appreciate all you've done for us.  I'll send flowers.  RIP.  

Saturday, February 20, 2016

10 Observations from the Slush Pile

1.  Do not, under any circumstances, submit a story in colored font.  Black only.  Please.  My eyes can only take so much.

2.  I'm finding I really detest that old editor's standard, Courier New (or Courier, or Courier whatever).   I much prefer Times New Roman.

3.  And while we're on the subject of fonts, do not submit a story in anything but the fonts recommended by A) EVERY standard manuscript format guideline or B) the submission guidelines of the market to which you are submitting.   B, however, is most important.  I mean, I suppose there may be some publisher who really loves to read stories in Harlow Solid Italic, and if there is that publisher would certainly make that known in his/her guidelines.  I mean, there may be.  Right?  Maybe?

Or not.  But if there is then you should do what she/he asks.

4.  If you are NOT a native English-speaker who is writing in English, I cannot overstate the need for you to have a native English-speaker read through your manuscript to make sure it reads well in English.

5.  Big blocks of text, with no paragraph breaks, are a turn-off.  Honestly, I have yet to see a story that uses such a style that wouldn't be improved by adding a few hard returns.

6.  Short story cover letters and novel cover letters are not the same.  If you don't know the difference, Google it.  In a nutshell, however, short story cover letters should NOT include a synopsis of the story.  It's a short story.  If I can't figure out what it's about by reading the first page or so (even the first paragraph or so) then you haven't done a very good job of writing it.  All I want from your cover letter is a polite presentation of your story, a short list of some of your most recent or most notable publication credits, and a 'Thank you for your time.'

7.  You do not need to add personal copyright information in your story file or cover letter.  Copyright, by law, is implied.  Also, a reputable publisher who has been in operation (and publishing regularly) for more than, say 6 months, is not likely to steal your story.  Our reputations are important to us.

8.  I'll say it again (and again and again and again), you absolutely MUST read and heed submission guidelines.  You must.

9.  I once frequented a writers' forum in which someone stated that if your grammar and punctuation are good you're ahead of 90% of your competitors.  Not actually true.  In my experience--and I've been handling slush for nearly 10 years--most writers can competently handle the mechanics of the English language.  What most lack, quite honestly, is finesse.

10.  The F-word is being tossed around like confetti these days.  I, personally, am not impressed.  It smacks of a crudeness and lack of refinement that I find unappealing at best.

Monday, February 15, 2016

What Is Flash Fiction?

In the fiction world we are given a fairly standard set of guidelines for exactly what constitutes a novel versus a novella, or a novelette versus a short story.

Beyond that, however, the rules grow murky.

What, exactly, is flash fiction?

That depends on who you ask.

In very general terms we can define flash fiction as any story shorter than acceptable short story length (usually 2000 words minimum).  But anyone publishing flash fiction can arbitrarily pick and choose word count limits and still call it flash fiction, AND can choose their own name for it: short-short, sudden, postcard, minute, smokelong, fast, furious, skinny, and micro as just a few examples.

Historically, flash fiction has been around for thousands of years--think Aesop--but has only been known under the flash moniker since 1992 when Editor James Thomas used the term to title his short story anthology, Flash Fiction: Seventy-Two Very Short Stories.  Before 1992, before flash was recognized as a separate form, greats like Chekov, O. Henry, Kafka, Ray Bradbury, H.P. Lovecraft, Mark Twain, and Kurt Vonnegut wrote flash-length stories.

For the 21st Century writer, the form is wide open, with markets everywhere now accepting very short stories and readers everywhere gobbling up a form that seems made for the frantic lifestyle we've come to lead.  Stories that can be written, edited, and submitted in a matter of hours.  Stories that can be read in the length of time it takes to smoke a cigarette, or drink a cup of coffee, or wait for a train.  Stories short enough to be enjoyed between classes, or while waiting at the doctor's office, or in the supermarket checkout line.

But there is more to flash fiction than merely length.

For writers, the form presents a new challenge.  How do I tell a complete story in so few words?

Granted, many writers use the form in writing and publishing vignette (also known as stream of consciousness or slice of life).  And it lends itself beautifully to that.  Those types of stories rarely work well at longer lengths anyway, and the shorter form is a wonderful way for the writer to explore the beauty of language and emotion without exhausting their appeal to an audience that might not otherwise read a high literary style.  Other types of flash include Nonfiction Narratives, which, based on length, are dumped into the flash 'fiction' category despite not actually being fiction; and Prose Poetry, which tends to be a VERY literary styles in which language trumps all else.

In my opinion it's relatively easy to present a vignette in 500 or 700 words.  One of the true challenges in writing flash fiction is in the careful crafting of a complete story--characters, setting, plot development, resolution and all.  A writer who chooses to study the form and accept this challenge will, invariably, come out the other end of it a better writer.

It is tempting to use the idea of flash fiction and apply it to something more akin to a story synopsis. This is not flash fiction.  How do you tell?  If dialogue is sacrificed for explanatory narrative, if your paragraphs are long and blocky, if you find yourself 'telling' too much and 'showing' very little, if more than 10 to 20% of the story is taken up with description rather than action, if what you're presenting seems like part of a larger story, is a scene from a novel, or an episode in a serialized story.

Learning the art of complete-story flash fiction forces a writer to examine every word choice, every character description, every plot point with precision and economy.   Some flash writers quip that if Robert Jordan had studied flash fiction first his Wheel of Time series might have been a few hundred pages instead of 15 doorstop-sized volumes that he never actually lived to complete.  I'm sure Robert Jordan fans would argue that fifteen volumes wasn't enough.  Having never read Jordan's series, I suspect the truth is somewhere in between.

In the end, writers should understand that what constitutes flash fiction is at the discretion of the publisher, and to become a successful author in the form requires two things: First, that you be familiar with the markets to which you intend to submit; Second, that you ALWAYS study submission guidelines before submitting.

For more on writing flash fiction, visit Managing Story Length and Thirteen Tips for Writing Flash Fiction.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

An Education in Submission Etiquette

This post is timely today because I have just sent rejections to a group of high school students who were apparently given the assignment to write a story and submit it somewhere for publication.

It's good that they're writing.  It's good that they're learning.  It's good that they're learning what it is to try and fail.  These are all good things.

But there is a difference between a story written by someone who cares about writing and someone who has written something because it has been assigned.

Don't get me wrong.  I love to encourage young writers as they develop their skills.  I love to see the excitement in the eyes of a young writer as she tells you the synopsis of her story.  I love to see raw talent on the page, to see the potential that lies therein.


You knew there would be a but.

Flash Fiction Online is fast approaching a submission rate of 7000 stories per year, with an average daily submission rate of 18 stories.  That's a whole lot of stories.  And I am in charge of processing every single one.  My staff is in charge of reading every single one.  My managing staff is in charge of deciding which ones come back to me for inclusion in the final selection round.

18 stories a day doesn't really seem like a whole lot.

And it wouldn't be if editing were my day job.  

It's not.  

While higher in priority than playing Zelda: Twilight Princess for the 5th time (I love that game!), it is not as high on my priority list as my family, or my service work, or the work I do to bring in a bit of bacon--all of which take quite a lot of time.

For me, the quality of the slush pile is important to me.  Every submission I receive that is less than ready for publication ticks minutes away from my life--minutes that add up to hours that add up to days.  And the older I get the more I miss those wasted minutes.

I have many experiences being the parent of young children who need help with difficult assignments, and because I am the parent and invested in my child's future and happiness, I willingly give up my time to help.  Of course that was elementary school.  By the time my children reached high school age they were expected to be able to do the vast majority of the work on their own, with plenty of support and minimal help from me.  Again, willingly.

I also remember high school.  Sure it was a long time ago.  But I remember it.  I remember doing assignments that I didn't really want to do.  Words on a page that meant nothing to me except that they fulfilled some arbitrary busywork assignment.  They meant a grade.  

How much of my greatest skill do you suppose I put into those assignments?  How much of my heart do you suppose I invested in them?  How much study do you suppose I put into them?  Minimal.

Most writers who submit to our magazine are genuinely presenting something meaningful, something that represents their best selves, that represents months or years of study.  They have an intimate relationship with grammar and style.  They consider every word choice and plot turn.  When they submit a story they do so at some risk to their heart and soul.  Even hardened veterans experience some anxiety with every submission and pangs of disappointment with every rejection.

And this after years of investment in what they love.

No matter the quality of the result, I can almost always be certain that the person behind the words in every story I process considers herself a writer.  And most of them have earned that title.  Most of them have sacrificed the blood, sweat, and tears.  Most of them have worn their fingers to the bone on their computer keyboards.  Most of them have enough rejections to wallpaper the Sistine Chapel.  

So when a 16-year-old takes a single semester creative writing class for an English credit, have they paid the price?

It's entirely possible some of them have.  It's entirely possible some of them have been writing since they could.  That they've read books and taken classes and participated in workshops and paid attention in grammar classes.  It's also entirely true that some have the knack for it.  But even those with the knack require time, experience, and a serious study of the craft to be able to hone it to an acceptable level worthy of publication.

How many of those high schoolers who submitted this week had that knack?  Not a single one. 

It's like the life-sucking machine in The Princess Bride.  Please, teachers, don't make me weep as Wesley did.  Don't make me an unwilling participant in your students' assignments.  By all means, if you see a story with some real potential, encourage that individual student to submit.  But not the whole class.  It's not fair to those students who will needlessly be rejected, it's not fair to me and my time.  

Tick, tick, tick.  Minutes gone.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Ask the Editor: Writing Conflict

Stella asked: My biggest writing weakness is conflict: I don't have enough of it. Could you give some examples of well-crafted conflict in novels or short stories? I'm not so worried about the obvious, good-versus-evil conflicts (Gandalf v Sauron, Nurse Ratched v Randle McMurphy); it's the ordinary conflict between friends that I'm looking for, and the action that stems from it.
A friend came up with a great example with Scully and Mulder, the two X-Files protagonists who disagreed ALL THE TIME.

Examples of well-crafted conflict?  If it's on the bookstore shelves it's likely packed with well-crafted examples of conflict--and multiple examples per novel.  

Conflict is everywhere in fiction and in real life.  

First, it's worth it to define conflict.

In fiction, conflict is the thing that causes characters to act.  And that's not always evil and it's not always overt. Conflict can be subtle.  Conflict does not necessarily have to be a struggle or a fist fight.  It can be as simple as the need to make a decision, the desire to make a decision, the failure to make a decision.  In fact, a story's primary conflict isn't usually evil, even in a good vs. evil story.  Evil happens all the time, but doesn't always cause people to act.  For example, human trafficking is a real thing that happens every day in probably every nation of the world.  But have you done something about it today?  Ever?  Has the presence of this evil caused you to act?  Probably not.  So the conflict in a good vs. evil story is the character's decision and why he makes it.  Why does he choose to fight?  Why does Steve Rogers choose to undergo those secret tests that turn him into Captain America?  There's the real catalyst.

But what if someone you loved were caught up in human trafficking?  Example: The film Taken, starring Liam Neeson.  How much time had he spent battling human trafficking until his own daughter was kidnapped for just such a nefarious purpose?

Action happens when the evil personally impacts a character, inspiring or sometimes forcing a reluctant character to act.

But, as Stella pointed out, conflict isn't always about good vs. evil, and it isn't always so in-your-face.

To begin with, conflict can be divided into two neat little boxes: Internal Conflict and External Conflict.  

Internal Conflict occurs within the character's mind or body.  Self doubt or guilt, desire for change or inspiration.  As you can see, not all internal conflicts will be negative, or good vs. evil.  Sometimes it's as simple as wanting something more out of life.  Maybe a decision that needs to be made.  Maybe as simple as which color carpet to choose.  Even the internal conflict that arises from an inability to make a decision.  Internal conflicts can be considerably more subtle than external ones.  Internal conflicts are also those that dig into the heart, that reach out to our sense of empathy.

External Conflict occurs outside the physical being of the character.  Some event happens that causes the character to want to act or change, or forces the character into action.  For example, a fire in your house would force you to act in order to save your life.  Liam Neeson's character was forced into action by his love for his daughter.  Millions of Americans were inspired to action by the events of World War II, growing victory gardens, women entering the workforce in huge numbers, out of a desire to help our boys overseas.  Thousands of Europeans were inspired to act in the service of those around them--families hiding Jews or supporting resistance efforts.

One World War II example of both kinds of conflict (because while internal conflict can exist alone, external rarely can) can be found in Cori Ten Boom's autobiographical book, The Hiding Place.  Ms. Ten Boom describes the internal struggle their family underwent as they were faced with the external reality of the suffering of their Jewish neighbors.   They were inspired to act, to help, but only after their own internal struggle over the safety of their own family.  In addition, much of the remainder of the book is Cori's internal struggle, her decision to not give in to despair despite the horrific external forces that were seeking to force her to do just that.  As is clear in her narrative, sometimes the resolution to these conflicts occurs only in the heart and in the mind.  In every way she appeared to be giving up, giving in, as she externally obeyed the commands of her captors.  But internally she was conquering them and herself through the way she chose to think. 

But I don't think Stella is asking for a lesson in the definition of conflict in fiction.  

I suspect the real question is, "How do I identify conflict in a story?"

Because that is 3/4 of the battle. If you can clearly identify the catalyst that spurs your character to act, and secondarily, how that character resolves that problem (or fails to resolve the problem), your story is already written.  Because that's what stories do.

Stella asked for examples.  Here are several from Flash Fiction Online.  

By way of exercise, read each story.  Identify the catalyst that causes each character to act or change in some way--the conflict.  Be careful.  There may be more than one.  Can you identify the main conflict, as opposed to secondary ones?  Identify the result of that action, or the resolution.  After the given links I'll give my take on A) the conflict or conflicts and B) their resolutions.

Irma Splinkbottom's Recipe for Cold Fusion (Flash Fiction Online, November 2009)  I use this story a lot when giving examples of, well, pretty much anything.  Mostly because I loved it then and I love it still.  
Kolkata Sea (Flash Fiction Online, July 2010)  Super subtle conflict here.

Irma Splinkbottom:  The main conflict in this story is Irma's own self confidence.  At the root of it, that's what causes her to act, that's what she is up against.  She thinks she can do better than those know-it-all scientists, so she acts.  With measuring cups and microwave.  The story resolves itself in Irma succeeding externally, but learning an internal lesson in doing so.  Of course, she did have to pay with her life.  

Kolkata Sea: As I stated, the conflict is subtle in this story.  What is it?  What is the thing that causes the character to act?  I would argue that it is love and longing.  This story is less a character piece than it is a setting piece. It explores how the world might change in a globally warmer future.  But it has characters who act within that tableau.  Something has spurred them to do so.  The mother wants to show her son her past.  The son wants to honor his mother's longing for that long ago world by scattering her ashes over the submerged city--the resolution.

The Pony Spell:  The conflict in this story is much more transparent--actually several conflicts.  There is the 'good vs. evil' struggle between the wife and the witch that results in the witch acting (Which is good, which is evil?) by casting that spell, which immediately brings up conflicts within the family of what to do with the wife-pony and is the catalyst for the main conflict--that of what to do when the witch offers to change the wife back.   There is the additional conflict of the witch's guilt at her actions, which is resolved when she offers to change her back.  The final resolution is humorous: Husband decides to leave the wife as a pony and everyone is happy, except maybe the wife.  

Peace-and-quiet Pancake: A couple of different points of conflict in this story.  A story really rarely ever has just one.  First is the conflict between the woman and her father--a tense relationship flipped upside down with the daughter becoming the caregiver.  The second is the conflict within the woman at her observation of the father and child in the waiting room.  What should she do?  All her struggles and resolutions are internal.  Nothing happens externally, she does very little externally, to change things within her environment.  The changes, the decisions, are within herself.  The resolution is in her coming to terms with her relationship with her father.  

Honeybee: In Honeybee, the conflict is an external one that spurs the main character to action.  The disappearance of the honeybee is the primary research objective for our character who, in the end, bends the rules to save them--resolution.  Her decision to act is spurred on additionally by the internal conflicts caused by love and longing.  Again, that love and longing.  They're powerful conflict devices and used often.  Really, we see them in the Pancake story and The Pony Spell in addition to this and Kolkata Sea.  

Friday, August 7, 2015

Look Like a Pro

The single best way to attract an editor's attention and be taken seriously is to look like a pro.

What do I mean by that?

I mean that every tiny detail of your submission looks like you know what you're doing, like you've done your research, like this whole writing thing matters.

The tiniest detail.

But too many writers fail to learn these things.

Granted, in the world of online submissions, it doesn't matter quite as much as it used to.  It's easier than ever to make manuscript alterations when it comes time to actually publish a submitted story.

But appearances really do matter.

So here's my list of those tiny details that show me you're serious about this writing thing.  I want to publish authors who are serious.  Most items are followed by a link to an article I found particularly helpful.  I expect you to click through and read them:

1.  Your cover letter 

Your cover letter should be short, sweet, and to the point.  Recognize that cover letters for short story submissions and cover letters for novel submissions are NOT the same.  You should NEVER include a story synopsis in a short story submission.  The story is short enough.  It can speak for itself.  Plus I should be able to figure out the basic gist of the plot by reading the first few paragraphs, because that's how short stories should be structured.

The following article is pretty good, but outdated for online submissions, which make up the VAST bulk of short story submissions these days.  I do NOT need to know if your manuscript is disposable.  It's electronic, not paper.  What I do with it at the end of the day doesn't have an impact on the rain forests or on my nonexistent mailroom clerk.  And, obviously, you don't need to worry about a SASE.

2.  Your title

How important is a title?  I can't overstate how VERY important a title is.

There are TWO aspects to your title.  The first is format.

This is Jr. High School grammar, folks.  Don't make me open your manuscript to find this:

this is the title of my story

On your keyboard there's a key, a pretty big one, that says 'Shift.'  Use it.  Use it correctly.

Here's a great little summary on capitalizing story titles.  Short, sweet, and to the point:

If that's too much for you, here's a neat little capitalization tool:

Correcting that title: This Is the Title of My Story

The other aspect of title is its character.  Is it interesting?   Have you given more than 20 seconds thought into what it should be?  Does it catch my attention without being more creative than the actual story?  Does it accurately reflect the nature of the story?

One story we had submitted had a title that made me certain the story was going to be humorous.  The story was none of the sort.  We published the story, but the author had to change the title.  The only reason the story passed muster at all was that it was good enough to overcome that title snafu.  Your story would have to be REALLY good to do that.

The following may be the ONLY article on the internet about writing a story title.  Fortunately it's pretty good:

3.  Guidelines

Every short story market has submission guidelines.  Every short story market has UNIQUE submission guidelines.  Every short story market EDITS their submission guidelines from time to time.

If you're submitting with a short story market for the first time, thoroughly read the submission guidelines.  Read them, study them, heed them TO THE LETTER.  Double check that you didn't miss anything before hitting that Submit button.

If you're submitting to a short story market for the first time in 6 months, REread the submission guidelines  Things change, new reasons for new rules arise.  New editors take over.  New owners mix things up.  Just for me, take another look.

4.  Your Manuscript

Most of a market's requirements for your manuscript will appear in the guidelines.  If you read those guidelines your manuscript is likely to be just fine.

But the truth is many authors don't actually read the guidelines, and if they do they consider themselves 'above the law,' or they think they're being clever by making alterations to their manuscript that will 'catch the editor's attention.'  Yeah.  They catch my attention, but not in a good way.

You know those WalMartians?  Sure, they catch EVERYONE'S attention.  But let's be realistic.  Are you going to ask THIS on a date?  That's probably what she's dressing for, misguided as she is.

When you try to be clever by using ANY font other than Times New Roman or Courier New, or by adding illustrations, or by including an artsy title, etc., you're making me cringe.  You're making me stare like a rubbernecker on the freeway.  Deer in the headlights.  I just stopped taking you seriously, and that WILL have an impact on my reading of your story.

Here's a great article on standard manuscript format.  Remember, combine proper format with a thorough reading of the guidelines.  Sometimes markets will ask for minor alterations of manuscript format.  Again, there are points in this article that are not relevant to online submission, but your manuscript should still 'look' as described in the article:

5.  Clarity

A few thoughts on clarity:

First, if your story comes to a scene break, DO NOT denote it by adding extra spaces.  Those extra spaces can become lost at the end of a page or can seem like a mistaken extra paragraph space.  I don't know.  Sometimes, honestly, I can't tell.  Make sure I understand where your scene breaks are.  It makes you look smart.  I like to publish smart authors.

Denote scene breaks like this:

This is my story and I'm going to take a scene break.


Now I'm starting a new scene.

See that pound sign?  (Shift-3) That's the quickest, easiest, least intrusive way to denote a scene break.  If you want you can use an asterisk (Shift-8)*.  That's acceptable too.  Please do not use anything else.  Please include an extra hard return between the scenes and the pound sign, as shown.

Second, make it clear where your story ends.

People are not perfect.  I'm not.  You're not.

Simply putting THE END at the end of your story makes both of us certain that the entire manuscript downloaded properly and that you ACTUALLY intended to end the story where you did.

For good measure, add a hard return AFTER typing THE END.  Some word processing software will do crazy things in conversion.  For example, if you are submitting with Submittable and writing using Open Office or Libre Office, then converting those files to .doc files, Submittable's software will chop off the last line of  your manuscript.  If that last line is a blank space then you'll be fine.  If it's THE END, no harm done.  If it's the last crucial line upon which the entire story resolves itself, you have a problem.

6.  Copy Editing

Please understand that word processing software is imperfect in its ability to identify every spelling or grammar error, and that they are completely clueless on the issue of word usage.  So if you type 'form' instead of 'from' the software isn't going to alert you to it.

You MUST eyeball edit--with your own eyes--your story before submitting.

Understand that I'm making the assumption that you are grammatically proficient. You should know when to use its or it's, your or you're, there or their or they're, lose or loose, lightning or lightening.  If you've just read through those and are scratching your head in confusion, you'd better look it up.  Plenty of online grammar guides out there.  (True confession: I'm still so unsure of 'effect' and 'affect' that I generally just avoid using them.)

If you are NOT grammatically proficient, I suggest you pick up a high school grammar guide and get back to basics.  Strunk and White's The Elements of Style is a good place to start, and it's free online, here:  

Know how to punctuate and capitalize correctly.  Know how to handle dialogue.  Learn about run-on sentences.

An opening paragraph with even a single grammar or spelling error will speak volumes to me.  Remember the WalMartian?

Don't get the idea that I demand perfection.  I don't.  (Another true confession: A reader recently pointed out one of those spelling errors that wouldn't have been dinged by any grammar/spell-check software.  'One' instead of 'on.'  To my credit, it was NOT in the opening paragraph.)

I'll tolerate an error or three.  Needles in the haystack.  But if it's fresh grated Parmesan on my Olive Garden salad (you KNOW you let your server keep grating longer than is good for you!), not so great.  If it's white cat hair on my black slacks, even worse.  No matter how great the story, how good the writing style, I won't be able to see that past the copy mistakes.  Because what that says to me is that you didn't give a damn.  If that's so, why should I?

As a writer you should be making every effort to make me happy, to not waste my time.

Think and act like a pro.  Learn what you must to make it happen.  The more you learn the better your writing will become.  The better your writing becomes the greater your odds of publication.