Friday, June 4, 2010

Six Questions for Scott Barnes, Editor, New Myths

New Myths publishes flash fiction under 1000 words, short stories from 1000 to 10,000 words, poetry, non-fiction under 10,000 words, and artwork on a quarterly schedule. All submissions must deal with some aspect of science fiction or fantasy. Read the complete guidelines here.

SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a story and why?

SB: The first thing I look for is not in a story at all—it is the author’s list of publications. Authors with several prior sales tend to have much more professional stories. If the beginning doesn’t grab me, I will give them a few extra paragraphs to pull me into a story. Although one of my primary goals in founding New Myths was to publish new and beginning writers, I simply don’t have the time to read more than a page or two before rejecting a story.

The second thing I look for is any reason to reject a story. I hate to say it, but I’m looking to say no. So I look for things like clichés; too many uses of weak verbs; politically correct story lines (I can see those coming from paragraph 1, and so far I’ve never been surprised); stories based on a ‘cute’ idea rather than on plot, character or ideas; and so on.

If a story makes it past item #2, above, it made it past my slush pile editor. She will read it through until the end, and then I will read it through until the end. At this point I’m looking for plot, character, voice and originality. Basically all the elements of good writing. There is another element over which the writer has no control. I also have to balance the contents of my magazine. If I’ve already accepted three hard science fiction stories for the upcoming issue, it will be really hard to sell me another one. If that is the reason I reject a story, I tell the author this and encourage him to submit elsewhere.

SQF: What are the top three reasons a story is rejected, other than not fitting into your answers to question one and why?

SB: This is a tough question. Mainly it is just a feeling. Many stories scream “unprofessional” from the get-go, even though they are well formatted, etc. Probably the top reasons that I can put a finger on are: 1) cliché ideas; 2) not presenting the story situation soon enough (character, goal, obstacle, setting, etc). There is a lot of “traveling to the story” in beginning writers’ stories. And 3) stories that are based around “cute” ideas rather than solid plots.

SQF: What other mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a story?

SB: As I mentioned above, I get A LOT of what I call politically correct stories. For example, I have NEVER read a story where the humans trading with aliens actually honored said contract. I suggest that everyone read Robert McKee’s book Story on plotting. He says that at the end of every scene you should have a “turn,” where the story can go in one of several directions depending on the decisions made by the main character(s). Choose the most surprising ‘turn’ that is logical for that character and go with that one. You will have much more interesting stories.

SQF: What is it about the characters in a story that makes them pop off the page and grab hold of you?

SB: That’s a tough one. Each character must be unique. Everything about them must radiate their personality, from the way they dress, the way they talk, the choices they make, and the way they think. You’ve heard “show don’t tell.” Well, show me what makes him different than the other characters through actions. And, by the way, thoughts are actions in my book. The closer we are to the character’s head, the easier it is to “show” how they are unique.

Someone pointed out that readers don’t care that much if a character is good or not, but they enjoy reading about characters who are good at something. This is also true. Whether it is sleuthing (Sherlock Holmes), ancient codes (DaVinci Code), sword work (Blade), waging war (Gates of Fire), jockeying (Dick Francis books) or so forth, we love to read about people who are extraordinarily good at something.

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?

SB: I am surprised at the high quality of most of the submissions I get. That is the number one thing I want people to know: your stories are GOOD. I also want people to know that rejection is simply one man’s opinion. I belong to a discussion group, and people regularly talk about stories being accepted after 15, 20, even 40 rejections. Keep sending them out! And while you’re waiting for that acceptance, take what feedback you can get and apply it to the next story you are writing. This is a business of continuous improvement.

I am happy to get feedback from my authors. The problem is twofold: There is a slush pile editor between my correspondence and the authors’, so they may not be replying to the right person; and I may not see their correspondence for several months. Because this is not my “real” job, I have to do all the work in batches when I have time. So an author may get a reply in a day one week, and have to wait three months for a reply the next. I haven’t figured out the best way to overcome this, but I’m cogitating on it.

SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?

SB: As far as rejecting stories, I think you about covered it. I think writers would be interested to know that I get about 1-2 submissions per day. Before the economic crash I was getting 3+. I don’t know why the number has dropped  when the number of readers continues to grow. Maybe the unemployed writers are too depressed to write, or maybe their electricity has been turned off… Regardless, it’s a good time to submit.

Thank you, Scott. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.

NEXT POST: 6/7--Six Questions for Christine Lajoie Golden,  Editor, Golden Visions Magazine

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