Teaching sophomore English has its up moments: kids occasionally “getting” literature, staying up on the “hip” language, hilariously wrong typos (a recent favorite: “When I was 13 I learned the importance of thrust when my parents thrusted me” on a paper about trust). Then there are the papers that annoy more than amuse, the ones that just parrot back what I say in class.
Yes, I tell my students, I know all that – I’m the one that told it to you. I want to know not that you heard me (or copied down what I wrote on the board), but that you understand it. Take what I said and do something new with it. Or disagree with me and defend your argument. Or give me a hilariously wrong typo. But it’s usually students who don’t “get it” on their own and students who afraid to take risks. Sigh.
When it comes to short stories I look for the same thing. Take risks. Show me something new or at least different. The hilariously wrong typos don’t hurt (me, that is; they make me smile, though they won’t necessarily help you get published). Do something new with an old standby. Sparkling vampires, not a good idea, but a vampire with a pilot’s license? Worked for Stephen King in “Night Flyer” (and like sparkling vampires can never be done again). The Whywolves from Adventure Time (they’re devoted to scientific inquiry … and bloodlust). Forget slow-moving or fast-moving zombies: Bill Murray as a zombie – now that’s unexpected, if short-lived. A new Frankenstein, maybe, with a Vicki instead of a Victor (Marvel Comics did a Victoria, but Vicki just says spunky monster maker).
But the safe, the riskless. The it-was-all-a-dream. Character One is also Character Two, but neither knows it. The Hooker/Monster/Spaceship with a Heart of Gold (a hooker-monster might have possibilities, though, if done right). Adam and Eve. It’s actually Earth. Been there. Done that. And if I’ve done it myself, odds are I’ll catch on to where it’s going before the joy of discovery sets in.
Other than that, what do I like? Subtext over symbolism. Tarentino-esque dialogue that doesn’t smack of Tarentino-esque dialogue. Strong female characters. Pop culture references that don’t feel like they’ll be dated by the time acceptance turns into publication. Cunning similes. Apt descriptions of hairstyles.
And if all else fails, give me a hilariously wrong typo.