SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a story and why?
BC: I’m a true fan of voice, and before all else I consider the energy of the prose. Is the story being told in an interesting way? If the language seems limpid, I won’t make it past the first couple of paragraphs. After that I look for the weaknesses in the story. Is the dialogue forced? Are the metaphors weathered? Is the story line weak? But to say that I look for three things in particular is probably untrue. I have friends of every personality, I like stories of all aesthetics. My main attention is on craft and delivery. Did the writer work the story through, or is it just something that tumbled out of their ash tray? If I find that the writer has an honest aesthetic, then I’m highly likely to take the piece. If I find that the writer has clumsily come into 1,000 words (or however long the story is), then I don’t take it. So . . .
SQF: What are the top three reasons a story is rejected, other than not fitting into your answers to question one and why?
BC: I won’t take stories about writers or writing. I won’t take a story that starts in a bed. I usually won’t take a story where the title is the last line. If the dialogue is bad I won’t take a story. Honestly, walk around and see how people speak and then look at your dialogue and shoot yourself. I usually won’t take a story if the first line is a periodic sentence. In fact, I hate periodic sentences. Seriously, though, periodic sentences appear way too much in writing. Stuff like:
Walking out of the burning building, Lillian realized that her life would never be the same.A sentence like that would never be said in real life; but, for some reason, people litter their stories with them. Here’s a challenge, spend the whole day at a grocery store and see how many people use periodic sentences in conversation.
I’m not particularly ridiculous about realism, but I don’t like antiquated language either. Henry James liked periodic sentences. Henry James was an asshole.
SQF: What common mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a story?
BC: It is not the job of a short story writer to translate bad TV into fiction. I see this so often that I can smell this approach in the cover letter. YOU ARE NOT PITCHING ME A SCRIPT. I DO NOT LIVE IN HOLLYWOOD.
SQF: Do you provide comments when you reject a story?
BC: Only if I almost accepted the story. Or if I truly, truly, truly, truly hated the story.
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?
BC: I got a rejection from Peter Cole at Keyhole magazine one time when I was drunk and I typed:
I have become an asshole. Go and fuck yourself.
into the message window of a response e-mail, but I didn’t hit send. I knew I was just drunk, and that only pieces of shit did stuff like that.
Three weeks later, miraculously, Peter Cole accepted the very story he had rejected; and the story was included in Keyhole 8.
So, my advice to anyone would be, don’t send pissy e-mails back to editors because you might be screwing yourselves. I highly doubt that my story would have been un-rejected if I had pressed send on the nasty-gram.
I guess you could send back nice comments or questions, but I’d actually discourage against that too, because it makes you seem amateur. If you have a personal relationship with the editor, then I suppose it’s okay, but for the most part I’d advise against it. Stay strong. Stay steady. Avoid mixing e-mail with whiskey.
SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?
BC: Do you care where people have published before?
Yes, and no. I don’t want to know about every publication that everyone has ever had. Five publication names tops, and don’t tell me what other people have said about your writing in the cover letter, and don’t tell me about your ethnicity or sexual identity in your cover letter, and don’t tell me that you’re in jail in your cover letter, and don’t try to make me feel sorry for you in your cover letter, and read at least three stories the publication has put out before submitting to the magazine.
Thanks. This was fun.
Thank you, Brian. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.
NEXT POST: 6/18--Six Questions for Leah Browning, Editor, Apple Valley Review