I haven't posted much on E2 lately, and I've even missed a bunch of contest deadlines. I'm a big fan of short science fiction, fantasy and horror. My work area is a pile of Asimov's, Analog, Writers of the Future, Cemetery Dance, and other recent short-story publishers. All of them are dog-eared, tattered and smeared, not to mention the inky annotations in the columns.
I have spent the last couple of months analyzing what is selling -- right now -- in a market I want to break into. While I was at it, I thought I would compare some of my observations to the short stories I've read on Critters, Everything2 and online blogs. For this process, I only chose shorts I particularly enjoyed, if they were above 2,000 words.
One of the biggest discrepancies I saw was the lack of non-dialogue prose. All of the published shorts were heavy on environment and description. Even where there were spurts of furious dialogue, the author packed in a few sentences of the character's actions and surroundings. Funny enough, a reviewer of one of my in-work stories, "The Party Line", noted that it had too much description, and it slowed down the story. This was opposite of what I read in the published market, as it seems stories need more environment, scene and background to 'make it' to the minors of pro-pay authors -- the big leagues are for published novelists.
Comparing my written analysis to some of the stories I've read here on Everything2, I found the newer authors skimped in this area in almost every case, even though I completely enjoyed the stories as-posted. My guess is these stories would get rejected quickly, despite the novel ideas and execution. In a sentence, they lacked meat.
To be fair, some authors here on E2 are posting just for sheer enjoyment, and to share their work. I think many noders are here to hone their skills enough to get a lucky break, while the other large group is here for the entertainment and community. If you count yourself among the skill-honing crowd, here are some suggestions for you.
First off, read. A lot. Then, read some more. No matter what genre you want to break into, you need to know what is selling right now. We're discussing short-stories here, not novels. Getting a break in the short market is a bit easier than in the novel-publishing world. Getting a few "Published in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine" in your byline will not hurt your breaking into the novel market. Editors will note when you've been published in a big outlet, since it means other editors thought your work was worthwhile. You may even be working on building a following, if you get published enough in the short markets.
I would suggest getting a copy of a magazine in your genre. Read every story, and break it down into scenes and environment. You'll find a pattern eventually, and this pattern can help you tailor your short works towards what the editors are buying. I am not talking about stealing ideas, just noting how the published authors start, build, describe, build, describe, build, and then finally conclude. One story in the January/February 2007 edition of Asimov's, titled Rescuing Apollo 8, started out quickly. Twenty minutes magically disappeared, I missed dinner, and I was surprised how good the story turned out to be. My analysis showed an immediate tension build, some background, more tension building, some descriptive and background work, more building, more descriptive and environment, and a big final tension buildup that ended in the last few sentences. The majority of the story was non-dialogue prose, just like most of the stories in the issue.
I know that some of you are bristling at my suggestion that dialogue is not important. On the contrary, it is vital that the spoken words push the story along. Realistic dialogue is generally a must, since the vast majority of stories involve people, or anthropomorphic objects. My suggestion is that you should not shirk the descriptive work. The old saying, Show, don't tell, is apropos here. Don't say the room was dark. Try to involve the reader with emotion-capturing words, like: She woke early again. The liquid darkness swirled around her pathetic nightlight, hiding the secrets that crept out only during the darkest hours. Hell, I like that, and I have a story mapped out in my head within two minutes of writing the example. Emotional words move the reader. Ever cry over the ingredients of Cocoa Puffs? Hands? OK, ignoring Jet-Poop's hand, nobody. How many people cried after reading The Joy Luck Club? A few more, I see. Emotion rules the human heart, so make use of that force in your work.
Take two days off and compare recent published works in your genre to stories you upvoted and cooled on E2. Compare what sold, versus what needs improvement. We all need to improve our stories, myself included. Make a conscious decision to analyze published works, and compare it to your best here on E2 or in your portfolio. If anything, I think it will help you move in the right direction. It's working for me, since I've sold several horror stories to pro-pay markets, have a story in the Help Anthology, and qualified to join the Horror Writers Association.