On The Premises publishes the winning entries for the magazine's quarterly contests. For each contest, authors are provided a prompt and asked to "write a creative, compelling, and well-crafted story that clearly uses the premise." Stories must be 1,000 to 5, 000 words. There is no entry fee to participate. Read the complete guidelines here.
SQF: How did you come up with the idea for a magazine where every story is written to the same prompt?
TRK: The idea for a specific prompt for each issue came because I kept wishing someone would publish an anthology of stories based on a couple of my favorite story ideas. As an example, I like stories where people are traveling and get lost. I made a slight variant of that idea into our first contest premise (one or more characters are traveling somewhere, but for some reason they never arrive).
Our other goal was to publish stories from virtually any genre. We didn’t want to publish just one kind of story. We wanted to try to expand readers’ minds a bit, and it seems to be working, at least a little. We’ve gotten e-mails that say, “I normally don’t read literary/fantasy/horror/whatever, but I read [a story of that kind we published] and I liked it.”
SQF: Your website states you look for creative, compelling, well-crafted stories. Can you elaborate on that?
TRK: Creative, to us, means that a story will surprise us while still being believable within the parameters of the fictional world it creates. If we can read the first page of your story and guess exactly what’s going to happen, and we’re right, your story will score low on the creativity meter. The story will score a zero if, in addition to being utterly predictable, it’s the kind of story we’ve seen lots of times before.
Compelling means we can’t put it down. The idea, the characters, the writing—something about it grabs us right away and sustains our complete attention. On a technical level that tends to be a combination of interesting idea, interesting character(s), and appropriate pacing. Pacing has a lot to do with how compelling a story is, and pacing is difficult to learn. I haven’t seen too many books or people who teach it well, either.
Well-crafted: that’s pure prose. Choose every word carefully. Many of our submissions seem to be a string of the first words that popped into their authors’ heads. The first words are generally not the best. You have to think carefully and sometimes long about exactly what you’re trying to do with this sentence, that sentence, that paragraph. Is there any word in the paragraph that throws off the tone or breaks the rhythm? I can tell when authors asked themselves that sort of question and when they didn’t.
The best way to learn prose, in my opinion, is to read award-winning stories and study their word choices, analyze their sentence structures, and so forth. How would YOU have written that sentence? Stick your version of the sentence into that paragraph and read it aloud. Does the paragraph sound different? Why?
SQF: What are the top three reasons a story is rejected, other than not fitting into your answers to question one and why?
TRK: I’d be willing to bet that at least 50% of the stories we reject could have been winners, if the authors had:
1) Explored their basic idea more deeply. Ask yourself: What else might happen in this situation? Can I find an even more interesting reason for these actions to happen? Should this story be set fifty years earlier? A hundred years later? How else could the plot be resolved, and would that other resolution be more interesting? Most importantly: Why did I, the author, choose to write about these characters, in this setting, performing these actions?
2) Developed their characters more deeply. Get to know things about them that will never appear directly in your story, but will influence everything they say and do in the story. Characters are icebergs: we readers only see the tips, but you, the author, have to know the whole iceberg. Would you take this character home to meet your mother? What would happen if you did?
3) Polished the prose. A beginner can do the first two things in this list pretty well, but this one takes lots of practice. The best writers say the most with the fewest words; the worst say the least with the most words. The only way I know to learn how to write better prose is to study the best-written stories you can find, study some of the better books about writing (not just fiction writing, but any writing), and work closely with people who write better than you do.
Please note that step number three can be condensed to “...study...study...work.”
SQF: What other mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a story?
TRK: Blatantly unbelievable story developments. Example: a story tries to convince me it’s set in the real world, yet somebody shoots up a street full of people in a major city and nobody seems to notice. Come on.
People who write stories without knowing basic facts about their subject matter. If your story is focused on a bowling tournament, don’t have the main character pull “his bowling ball” out of his car and enter the bowling alley. Serious bowlers use more than one ball and the balls are stored in bags or sometimes hard cases on wheels.
People who make the opposite mistake and only write what they’ve directly experienced. This is supposed to be creative writing. If you’re a third-generation farmer whose parents never learned how to read, please don’t send us story after story about third-generation farmers whose parents never learned how to read. Ask yourself how things might have gone differently. What if you were a third-generation farmer whose parents were both multi-lingual math Ph.D.s who farmed anyway? Sprinkle in some real-life details about farming so we believe you know what you’re talking about, but plot-wise, make stuff up! Please!
SQF: I read a comment by one editor who said she keeps a blacklist of authors who respond to a rejection in a less than professional manner. I'm sure you know what I mean. What do you want authors to know about the stories you reject and how authors should respond? Along this same idea, do you mind if authors reply with polite questions about the comments they receive?
TRK: We can’t really keep a list of annoying authors--much--because we judge stories without knowing who wrote them. My co-publisher and I take turns being the “administrative” person who downloads the stories, enters e-mails into our address books, and the like, though. Having done that duty a few times, I can tell you that there are a couple of people who have repeatedly sent us materials that are never based on the contest entries, and generally aren’t short stories on top of that, and they manage to violate all our other rules too. We’ve stopped responding to those two or three people. Eventually, they go away.
In three years, I’ve had exactly one author respond unprofessionally to a rejection. That was early on when someone got all huffy because we refused to consider a story that didn’t fit the contest premise. Apparently, this author is a saint in his own religion and I’m going to hell for being a huge corporate (lol!) soulless producer of crap who refuses to listen to the one person on Earth who knows The Truth. I’ll leave what that author’s “story” was like to your imagination.
Honestly, we haven’t had a big problem in this area. We’re probably too new and too small.
But as to what I want authors to know: In June 2009 we started a critiquing service. Now, let me be clear—stories that make the final round of judging but still don’t get published get a free critique as a consolation prize. But if your story didn’t end up in the top ten, and you’re wondering why, we’ll write up a 1-2 page critique of the story for $10. So far, response to this offer has been good. Not too many have taken us up on it, but those who did loved it. More than one said they’ve never gotten such detailed feedback on their writing in their life.
SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't, and how would you answer it?
TRK: Great question. The question I wish you’d asked is, “Why is On The Premises a web-only magazine?”
In the print publishing world, “published” refers to that tiny bit of time between when a book is not yet published, and when it’s out of print. Except for the one-in-a-million true masterpiece that future generations will cherish and enjoy, most fiction is here today, gone tomorrow...whether or not audiences would still enjoy it. In fact, most fiction is published in magazines with such limited print runs that hardly anyone will get a chance to read it.
Here’s an exercise for you. In the Autumn 1995 issue of the now-defunct Story magazine is a short story I like quite a bit: “Damsel” by Glen Weldon. Why don’t you go dig up a copy of that fourteen-year-old issue of a defunct (but well-known) magazine and read it? I’ll wait here.
Yeah. That’s what I thought.
Now supposed that story had been published on the Web? There’s a pretty good chance it would still be out there in readable form somewhere. If I wanted to share it with you, all I’d have to do is give you a URL.
On The Premises is web-only because we can keep stories up on the web for as long as we want (and as long as the authors let us). Eventually we’re going to remove the HTML versions of stories, but we also make a PDF version of our magazine, and the PDFs will be available for as long as I can keep them available. One of my goals is for their availability to outlive me.
Do I honestly believe that 60 years from now, some random OTP story from our early years will have a huge audience? No, of course not. But if even one person wants to dig that story out of our archives and read it, that one person should be able to find the story easily, even 60 years from now.
It may be possible for you to dig up “Damsel,” but it probably won’t be easy.
Thank you, Tarl. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.
NEXT POST: 2/1—Six Questions for J.W. Wang, Editor, Juked