SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a story and why?
- A compelling story. I can't stress enough how important it is to make every detail count. If my attention wanders a few sentences in, the writer hasn't done the job. I know lots of people who, as a rule, will read only the first two sentences before moving on if it hasn't grabbed them. I keep this in mind when I read stories. Do the first few sentences snag me? Did I read the entire story without stopping? Your average fiction reader is spending maybe 10-20 minutes a day reading online, mostly lunchtime or bedtime. There are hundreds of new stories on the web daily. It's too easy to skim over your words and move onto the next one. Give them a reason to stop and keep reading.
- Good writing, even if it's not my taste. I know this sounds vague, but I'm picking stories for a variety of people to enjoy. It can't just be about what I like. I look for tight sentences without superfluous details, a story that goes somewhere, and something that sticks with me. Is your story still on my mind days later? If so, you've done your job well.
- A journey. This requires a conflict, action, and resolution. This can be simple or complex, but the reader must be taken on a journey. The best stories are where the reader is immersed in the story, experiencing every detail with the character. That's hard to do. At the end of your story, did your character go anywhere or change in any way? Did they come to a realization or acceptance? Always remember the journey you're taking the reader on.
SQF: What are the top three reasons a story is rejected, other than not fitting into your answers to question one and why?
- A writer tries to be someone famous (and does it poorly). Sure, Stephen King practiced by imitating Melville and Emily Dickinson, but it's important for a writer to find his own voice. If I want to read McCarthy, I'll go to the original. I want to read you. Who are you?
- Song lyrics. One out of ten submissions contains song lyrics and I've yet to see it done well. If it's vital to the story, I usually edit it down to a line or two. Are you a writer or a DJ? Use your own words, not someone else's.
- Point of View or Tense violations. If a story has too many of these, it's obviously a first draft and probably has other problems. Do a read-through from start to finish before you send off a story. I'll correct a few, but if your story jumps from present to past tense over and over (and it's not an intended part of the story), you're getting it back. As for POV, most short stories don't have enough characters to change points of view and create mid-paragraph violations, but often an omniscient POV will slip in where it doesn't belong.
SQF: What other mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a story?
- Experimental writing gone awry. Often writers try to stand out by sending in a story done entirely in dialogue. Most people can't write dialogue well, though, and it becomes painfully apparent when there's nothing but that. Others write one-sided stories, such as a diary entry, a letter, or a phone message. Mostly, it's just confusing and messy.
- Good ideas not fleshed out. With the advent of flash fiction, stories have gotten shorter. Writers think they can cut a story short and label it "flash" and it's okay. I see so many 450-word stories that need to be 1400 words to be good. Don't rush a good story. Take the time to tell it.
- Crash and burn endings. A writer can ruin a great piece with a bad ending. Often, it looks like the writer ran out of words or space and just stopped writing. Other times, they throw in a twist or joke that feels cheap and leaves the reader feeling cheated. The reader should see the ending coming and feel satisfied. If you're not sure where to end, wrap it back around to the beginning.
- Hidden plots. A reader shouldn't have to get halfway through your story before they figure out what this story is about. Up front, introduce the plot or conflict. I'll read your entire story, but I guarantee no one else will.
- Confusing time lines or too many flashbacks. In a short story, there isn't much room to jump from past to present to future. It's really best to stay in the here-and-now. If I have to read a story four times to figure out when something happened and where I am in paragraph ten, then you've lost your reader a long time ago. Even if you're an experienced writer, remember that your reader may not be. Keep your story moving forward and keep the time frames simple.
SQF: What is it about the characters in a story that makes them pop off the page and grab hold of you?
AD: The reader has to relate to the main character in some way. They should want to be him, envy him, sympathize with him, or remember they were once him. If a reader has no vested interest in the character(s), they have no reason to keep reading. I see so many stories with unlikeable characters and I ask, why should I care about these people? Give your reader a reason to care and they'll lap up every sentence.
SQF: What percentage of your submissions do you accept?
AD: I did a quick calculation and it looks like about 12% of unsolicited submissions make the cut for publication. On top of that, I read about another hundred a month on various workshop sites and send out Requests for Submissions to the best stories. About 5% of those end up in our zine, too.
Very few are accepted as-is. The majority of what you read has been revised, sometimes several times. I'll give the writer feedback and ask for changes. This stage separates the serious writers from the scribblers. It's a lot of work for both of us, but if I see promise, the end result is always worth it. A few opt not to make revisions but pull back their story and I respect a writer either way. In the end, it has to be the author's voice and they need to feel proud of what they put out there.
SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?
AD: Are we really looking for gloom? Not really. We don't require happily-ever-afters, but we're not all dark stuff. Most writers take the name of the litzine literally and send in downer pieces. I'll go read them on other sites and see some great stuff and think, "now why didn't they send me that story?" Don't adapt your writing. Be true to your voice. We take all genres of fiction, from sci-fi to mystery to drama. I only handle fiction, so check the Submissions page for other forms of writing that we also publish.
Thank you, Allie. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.
NEXT POST: 5/7--Six Questions for Brooke Ford, Assistant Fiction Editor, Broken Pencil