Dale Wisely is the founder of Right Hand Pointing and Left Hand Waving. RHP, in business for 5 years, features short poetry and fiction under 500 words, and art. Left Hand Waving is a brand new project and features first-person stories. “We’re looking for stories written about things that happen to the author, or that happened to people close to the author. We want a kind of urgency and immediacy to the tone, as if something crazy just happened and the author is telling a friend about it in a coffee shop.”
F. John Sharp edits fiction for RHP and is a co-editor, along with Dale and poet Howie Good, of Left Hand Waving. Read the guidelines here.
SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a story and why?
JS: Craft, voice and emotion.
Regarding craft, I look for tightness, efficiency, the use of language. I look for the ability of the author to simply write effectively. I often reject writing that looks like writing, that looks like the writer was trying too hard to make it seem writerly, which more often than not makes it feel false. Some people can pull that style off, but more often than not, it lacks verisimilitude. As for language, take great characters, solid theme, good voice and match it with sloppy language and it falls apart. Language is what connects the page with the eye, it's the go-between. It has to get the message right. Fancy language isn't necessarily good language. Good language is good language. For examples of that, pick up the nearest Best American Short Stories and pick any story.
Regarding voice, my advice is to try to have a strong voice, and be true to it, and I will more often than not find value in that.
Regarding emotion, I like there to be something in the end that pokes or punches or kicks me in the gut. I like there to be an ache. This is not the result of a clever or trick ending, but rather the result of something in the characters and how the story affects them, and how they move through the story, and how they relate to a theme that has been subtly but unmistakably woven into it that makes me say, "Yes!" Emotion is tied into the characters, theme, language, voice, and it all has to come together to make it work.
SQF: What are the top three reasons a story is rejected, other than not fitting into your answers to question one and why?
1. Done to death with nothing new to add.
2. Failed humor (don't try it if you're not good at it.)
3. It's just not a story.
I will add that with the short short form we specialize in, sometimes I will take something that just isn't a story, that is more like prose poetry, that is simply beautiful to read. But mainly, it needs to be a story.
a. Preoccupation with self, especially self-pity..
b. Flowery language. Gimmicky language. Opaque language.
c. Clear evidence that the writer hasn't read our guidelines, paid attention to them, or cared about them.
SQF: What common mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a story?
DW: So far, as we've begun this Left Hand Waving project, we've gotten some good stories that would be appropriate for another 'zine, but not for us. In general, though, I'd say that I'm really irritated when I receive writing which contains grammatical or spelling errors. Anyone can make mistakes and I misspell words and make grammar errors all too frequently. (And I've made several mistakes in these sentences, just to see if you're paying attention.) But a writer ought to read, re-read, and read again. I admit to being a bit put-off by a submission that clearly has been blasted out to multiple magazines at once. We don't mind simultaneous submissions, but sometimes you can tell that a writer is sending their work to LOTS of editors without much attention to fit, and that's a turn-off. Related to that is a submission with no greeting. This REALLY irritates me. My advice to authors: Take time to note the name of the editor, address him or her by name in the email, and write a cover note that lets the editor know you've actually read their journal and you are interested in having your work in that journal. It’s just good manners.
SQF: Do you provide comments when you reject a story?
DW: This is a tough area and the honest answer is "sometimes." I think I comment most often when the work is quite good and rejecting it is a fairly close call. If a writer gets some commentary from us, he or she ought to see that as a show of respect. Not to be unkind, but there's not much point in commenting on really dreadful writing. All editors say this, but when you get a lot of submissions, it's hard to find time to provide feedback. I’m not sure how many authors want it, actually.
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?
DW: I don't keep a list and, I must say, hostile reactions to rejections just don't happen to us. When we send a rejection, any of the following responses are entirely welcome: (1) No response at all. This doesn't offend us. (2) A response of something like "thanks for taking the time to read my work" or “thanks for letting me know” is quite nice and always appreciated but, of course, the prerogative of the author. (3) A question or request for criticism is fine, when it's requested and not demanded. These responses, though uncommon, bother us: (1) Hostility, which is extremely rare, (2) submitting a revision that we don't ask for, and (3) quickly sending another submission with a, sort of, "how about these?" attitude. Of course, waiting a few weeks and submitting something else, that's perfectly fine.
SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?
DW: This is a question I would like: "How do you feel about the authors that submit to your journal?" Answer: We are truly honored by those who send us their work, whether we take it or not. If I have a regret about being an editor, it's that I can't seem to find time to respond as promptly, as often and as extensively as I'd like. I hate that. Authors who submit to us deserve a reasonably prompt response and we truly would like to give everyone feedback (if they want it.) We’re always looking for ways to improve that.
Thank you, Dale and John. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.
NEXT POST: 3/5--Six Questions for Martha Clarkson, Poetry Editor, Word Riot