SQF: Why did you start this magazine?
AS: The literary marketplace didn't make sense to me when I was graduating from George Mason with my MFA, and, to a certain extent, it still does not make much sense to me. How OS started is a long story so bear with me.
I was working at Mason's lit journals, Phoebe and So to Speak, reading fiction, while at the same time I was sending out my own manuscripts. So, this meant I would come home with a pack of manuscripts from our office--thirty stories at a time in these big manila envelopes with all the used up postage and perfect cover letters replete with paper clips and what not--and read through the stories at my desk. I may have not been the best writer in my MFA program, but I will have a fist fight with anyone who thinks that they were a better reader. So, I'm just working through manuscripts, reading away; and as soon as I see a "justifiable rejection" to stop reading--that's it--I stop. It's really that simple when editors are reading submissions--the entire industry is built around what I call these "justifiable rejections," which means that as soon as an editor has a reason to reject you--they will. Carte blanche. And I read quickly at that time--as most fiction readers do--because you have to get through what they call the "slush pile", a term I dream of eliminating from our lexicon, I might add. It doesn't matter whether you wrote 18 beautiful, gut-wrenching pages of a WWII story or whatever, if you blew the first line of your story then you're in the rejection pile. Or a story about how your character had the DTs so bad he saw bunnies jump through his stomach, if you took three pages to get to those rascally rabbits--rejected.
So, I had had the sneaking suspicion for a while that this was wrong--really wrong--and it was nagging on me. I just believed that reading for a literary journal (especially housed in a damn MFA program) shouldn't be that simple, that there is a certain onus on the fiction readers to do more. I talk a little bit more about this in an essay I wrote that I encourage everyone to read. I write an essay a quarter about the craft found in our archives.
Now, at the same time I was doing this, I was sending out my own manuscripts in another pile. I had about seven stories at the time that I was circulating, and they all were coming back with the same sort of cold alienating rejection letters that I was sending out for Phoebe and So to Speak. So just picture that for a second--on one side of a writer's desk was a pile of submissions to be read and discarded manuscripts and sealed SASE's, with pre-printed rejection tear sheets; and on the other side of the desk were my own SASEs coming back to me. I just looked at the whole fn' thing as Sisyphusian task. What if the story was good and we wanted to work with the writer through some drafts, or what if the writer had something very specific that they needed to revise? The standard model out there does not allow for that communication to be opened up. Therefore, I believe, most manuscripts end up being circulated with nary the thought that other editors are rejecting the manuscript based on the same initial thoughts that any other editor has in rejecting a piece. Let me make that a bit clearer: every time a story is rejected, 100% of the time the reader at a journal KNOWS why the piece is rejected; but they do not consider for an instant actually telling the writer their reasoning. Why? This nags at me to this day. There is a sort of unwritten rule that I wanted to violate and destroy to address this issue. I wanted, in short, to tell a writer how we "saw" their story. To give them a window into a stranger's mind. From there it was simple, the theory essentially came first in the founding of Our Stories: create a more humane and validating system of reviewing and supporting emerging writers. Publishing great fiction came second.
SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a story and why?
AS: I believe all great writing has three basic elements of Meaning, Sense and Clarity; at least that is what I have come to learn and believe. Frank Conroy, a national treasure of a professor and writer, who has never really gotten the credit he deserves for what he did to shape American Letters, came up with that--or at least from what I remember in an interview back in 2004 with him found at Narrative Magazine. I see Meaning defined as that the piece "matters" for something, that it is essentially making a statement of some sort that redefines the world as the audience knows it before encountering the piece of fiction. Second, Sense to me is that all great fiction contains the universally accepted qualities of human senses: smell, touch, taste, sight, etc. These elements are what can be translated 100% into any language and are what often writers ignore. And finally, Clarity--which means that the writing is polished, that the sentences are clear, that the reader is not bogged down by sloppy writing which ultimately distracts the reader from engaging in the text.
SQF: What are the top three reasons a story is rejected, other than not fitting into your answers to the above question and why?
AS: There are lots of reasons that a piece is rejected, and I assume that you've received quite a variety of answers to this question across different journals. All journals have their own aesthetic. At times this aesthetic is built upon an editor's personal, and at times unqualified, preference as editor of a journal, ergo they dislike surrealism or they only accept absurdest literature that is under 1000 words. All editors are not built alike, and I distrust editors at other journals for their lack of published writing on the craft, publishing credits, time at MFA programs or stated credentials in analyzing fiction. Anyone can edit a good looking journal and get it up on the web--what their qualifications are to read fiction vary to a great extent. Which brings me to another point--the online literary community has radically changed what is considered "publishable fiction" and has become increasingly smaller in size and scope. It seems that as the literary world grows ad infinitum in online journals that editors cannot cope with longer and longer pieces. We take anything up to 7000 words, but when I send things out I am dismayed that most of what is deemed acceptable for review must be contained to flash fiction.
However, this does not answer your question exactly. For me, I'd say the number one reason a piece is rejected is that the beginning is not really the beginning. Stories have a way of working themselves out in a manuscript and often I find that stories that I read take sometimes 2, 3 or 6 pages to get into and I observe the writer as "working things out" in their head at first, taking futile and increasingly desperate stabs to get their story across to us and when they finally do--the writing is great and I love the story--however, what do I do with the first 6 pages? How can I justify publishing a story that takes that long to get into? So that's my top reason for rejecting a story. My second is that the story doesn't seem to go anywhere. It is not enough to write "a love story," you must tell us why this particular love story deserves to stand next to Romeo and Juliet or what have you. There needs to be a certain audacity in the writing that tells me that the writer believes, truly believes, in what it is they're trying to tell you. Finally, I believe in the great power of human connection. I love when characters connect with one another, however fleetingly, and change one another's lives.
SQF: What is it about the characters in a story that makes them pop off the page and grab hold of you?
AS: I was going to add this at the end of the last question, but I feel it fits in better here: I love characters that bump into the world, even clumsily, and show us something that we hadn't seen before. There's a great example of this in a story we published in the Spring of 2009 in Paula Hari's story "Lane Change." The story is told in second person and has this gorgeous piece of human connection towards the end:
"Restless, you check your blind spot. There is nothing but darkness, not a pinprick of light behind you. You lurch into the left lane. You accelerate. The car whines in protest. As you pass you look up into the cab of the semi, the unshaven trucker nods and runs his hand through thinning hair. You punch the gas and the car speeds into submission. The speedometer only goes to 90. What happens then, you wonder? What happens next? Behind you there is a flash, the "all clear" signal from the trucker's brights. You flip your blinker up and glance over your shoulder. Back in the right lane you look into the mirror, the semi evaporates into the night."
There's something I love about that, how the power of connection ends up allowing her some peace in her journey away from an abusive relationship. Do that--make that happen--everyone can feel that power.
SQF: According to the guidelines, you provide personalized feedback for every story submitted to Our Stories. Please tell us more about this.
AS: During our open submission periods (right now once a year for three months) we provide two or three paragraphs of feedback for every submission that we receive. We have a staff of of 15 readers (including myself) who all have "done time" in an MFA program, have written stories themselves, and some who have published novels and memoirs. During our Richard Bausch short story contest and Best Emerging Writer Award, we provide page-by-page feedback for contest entries that goes through an entire manuscript. I believe this is a win-win for a writer and remains the only sort of contest in the country where everyone gets something for submitting to a literary journal. I have gone on the record before and I will go on the record again, I see other literary journals that run contests as uber-intellectual and artistically snobbish ponzi schemes. To me, there is no point in submitting to a literary contest that provides you nothing for your hard earned cash. If I were to tell you that you should send me $20 dollars so I can look at the first page of a manuscript and then put it in the recycling bin, you'd think I was crazy, right? I mean, I know this is the case because of that principle I mentioned earlier of "justifiable rejections." Well, that's essentially what is done everywhere else in the world right now, because the literary contests have no rules, no guidelines, no universally accepted practices to uphold standards of decency in how to run a contest. Show me a journal that says, "for your contest entry we will read every last page, promise!" and I will show you a literary journal that is lying to their public, engaged in the worst sort of practices in a capitalist society. Yet, the point is that they don't say that--they expect you, the writers (who in all likelihood are also their readers) to accept the fact that you will send them money and be alienated in the process of this submission system. To me, this is truly sad because art--in its purest form--is supposed to allow the opposite of alienation. It is supposed to bring people together, it is supposed to be a special commune with the reader and the writer where they share in a moment. To me, even the fiction that does not find its way into print deserves that moment of commune with a reader at a literary staff; and to ignore it is to ignore your basic human instincts.
SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?
AS: My staff--I'd wanted a question about my staff. How can I possibly run a journal where we receive thousands of submissions a year? Like I said, I have 15 staff members at all ranks and levels of experience. They are a group of all-stars tied together from around the world who I think the world of. Despite the fact that the majority of them I have never met in my life, I find them all fascinating and talented human beings. They work hard at what they do, and they all believe in our mission as I do. It helps lift me up on the days I find this job very difficult to do, when they tell me that they also believe and that their work engaging with other writers is rewarding. There are too many hard working MFA grads out there in the community, and it is my one wish that other literary journals would hire on more readers for their journals. We are in the midst of a massive change in the writing community, where we can create virtual publications with staff members around the world, with a glut of MFA grads that are looking for some way to remain connected to the world of publishing. Why not hire more! Don't you see these grads want to work and will work with little expectation to get paid? Hell, we write without the expectation that what we create will ever be published, why would the use of our skills not be the same!
You see, Our Stories is essentially a community of writers--the ones who submit, the ones who don't get published, and all of us on the staff--we're a community. When a staff member goes page-by-page through a manuscript, they receive about 2/3's of the submission fee. The rest goes to the journal and PayPal for processing the charge. I believe this is the final step in the humane system of Our Stories: the writer gets an honest review, which helps them along in the process, they exchange their money for such a review, the staff member is validated because their work (the work they went to do a Masters in for 2-3 years in doing) is validated, and I am validated as an editor because 1) I get to publish amazing fiction, and 2) I get the satisfaction of paying my staff a decent wage for their work.
I thank you for the opportunity to share Our Stories with your readers. We look forward to meeting all of you and all of your characters.
Thank you, Alexis. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.
NEXT POST: 8/13--Six Questions for Rick Marlatt, Poetry Editor, The Coachella Review