What are some qualities of the stories in our Hold File? Here are some comments culled from my own notes:
Creative world. Creative doesn't necessarily mean funny-named critters and odd-looking foliage. Creative, when I think about world-building, means fleshed-out, that I have a sense of wholeness, of more than I can see in your story. Truly excellent world-building even spurs plot and characterization. Customs should make sense within the larger framework. Politics, economics, and culture, down to slang and phrasing, should affect and inform your characters' actions. You can even use similes to give me more information about your world. Closely linked is deftly-handled world building. This means no telling, no explaining. The characters behave as they do because it's what they know. They are so much a part of their world that I can't picture them anywhere else.
Just the right amount of information. Whew! Did we ever get some loooong stories for this issue. The short form is a "bite," not the whole pie.
Great tension. Nothing holds me rapt like tension. Every sentence should deepen it, draw the reader further in, locking them into the character's inevitable choices and fate. A reader (me) should ask with every scene: will he or won't he? Tension stems from a good story question and proper pacing. (No waxing poetic during sword fights!)
Intriguing, well developed foe. Let's hear it for bad guys--the most neglected character in poorly written fiction. But hey! Antagonists are people, too. They aren't just a rock to climb over; they're the whole reason your protag got into this mess in the first place. The better the antagonist, the better the conflict.
Writing is very clean. Clear, strong language. Solid word choice and sentence structure. (When in doubt: subject, verb, object.) No passive voice, no misused words, few grammar and punctuation flaws. No adverbs when a strong verb would do. No POV glitches. Don't tell it when you could show it just as well.
Voice matched plot and characters perfectly. Dave said something to me last night that stuck with me all the way until today. Sophisticated writers think about how to match voice to plot and characters. If your character is a sheepherder from the Shire who can't read, don't use big words in his POV.
Atmospheric. This is the most difficult to explain, but the most fun to read. If it's a story that takes us into the dark places of someone's soul, then keep the lights low. Suggest atmosphere with props and metaphor and voice.
It's a lot, I know, but if they can do it, so can you!