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SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a story and why?
AF: I want stories to start immediately. I don't like long, winding background information, or even background information that lasts a page. Short stories are just that. Short. So the author can't fool around.
Compelling characters are an absolute must for me. The plot might not be anything exciting, but if the characters are compelling, then I have a reason to read on, just to simply know what happens to these characters after all is said and done.
A third thing I also look for is the writing itself. I love when writers are clever with their metaphors, their similes, their overall figurative language. I love description that brings a scene alive, or even a mere object. Mostly, I love poetic description. A story doesn't have to necessarily be poetic for me to accept it, but poetic writing does leave a lasting impression on me.
SQF: What are the top three reasons a story is rejected, other than not fitting into your answers to question one and why?
AF: Sloppy writing. Any story that is pockmarked with grammatical mistakes receives an automatic rejection. Or a story that's poorly formatted, ones that don't leave enough white space. While we don't mention on our guidelines that we prefer shorter paragraphs for better formatting in our published issues, we expect writers to know the rules about white space already and understand that most readers appreciate shorter paragraphs and not just editors.
Another reason is the development of the story. Some stories just aren't well-developed enough, and others just don't tie in plot elements neatly enough. Others might just be confusing in general, jumping from one tense to another, or from one moment in time to another with no solid transitions.
A final one is cocky cover letters. One writer who submitted to us only wanted us to publish the piece if we paid. Obviously, this writer was either trying to trick us into yielding the fifty dollars payment we give to only one poem and one short fiction in each issue, or this writer was overly cocky and felt our magazine should be graced by the presence of that writer's story. When writers submit to us, we expect them to feel appreciative that we're publishing them at all, because the magazine market has gotten incredibly competitive with the advent of the internet. In fact, the market has gotten so competitive that our magazine has to have a vetting process, where we weed the good out of the bad, then take the good ones and narrow them down even more. So just because a writer gets rejected doesn't necessarily mean there is anything wrong with that story.
SQF: What other mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a story?
AF: Dull characters, overused plots, or easily forgettable fiction. The third part is especially a big deal to me. Since we don't have a minimum word count for our stories, the flash fiction we receive needs to leave a lasting impression. I've read so much published flash fiction that does nothing for me at all, flash fiction that is so easily forgettable because the writing is not compelling and the subject matter is just too mundane for me to really care. I don't expect car explosions or executions or anything to that level of excitement in flash fiction, but flash fiction is short, and many writers seem to treat flash fiction like it's an easy thing to do just because it's short. So they just present me a story that does nothing but tell rather than show, or they present an incredibly mundane scenario and don't even bother trying to make the writing clever. I've seen plenty of flash fiction published that makes those two mistakes for me, and so very few stories of flash fiction have left lasting impressions on me. In fact, most are just easily forgettable to me.
A final word: Just because you choose a 250 word limit for your flash fiction does not mean you can do nothing but tell. In novels it might be okay to tell in 250 words because you have thousands of other words to sustain readers' attention, but flash fiction is different. It might be easy for anyone to read 250 words, because 250 is so incredibly short, but your work needs to leave that lasting impression for me to want it, for me to say yes.
SQF: What is it about the characters in a story that makes them pop off the page and grab hold of you?
AF: Dialogue and voice. Voice is probably the most essential for me between the two, especially among first person narratives where voice seems to be easier to establish because you're right inside the character's head, writing their experiences as they see them, as they would describe them. Then again, I say voice is easier to establish in first person because I primarily write in first person. My WIP, Witch Tourniquet, used to be in third, but a reader of mine told me the voice was more suited for first, and it was. But dialogue is crucial to me in both third and first. Dialogue also helps to better cement the voice. The voice might be compelling, but if the dialogue is stilted and bland, my feelings suddenly change over how attached to a character I am, and I begin to view that character as either a flat character, or a mere stock one.
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?
AF: As I've said in a previous answer, just because a story gets rejected doesn't necessarily mean there was anything wrong with it. It just might not have resonated with me in a way other stories have, and that isn't necessarily a flaw in the story. That's a flaw in personal bias, and bias is almost impossible to control when it comes to picking and choosing what stories you want in your magazine. We do keep readers in mind, of course, so we're doing our best to have a hodgepodge of different types of stories in our magazine, stories that we might not even necessarily read in other published works on a day-to-day basis. All in all, I don't mind if authors respond to their rejections as questions, as long as they're not seeking criticism when none was provided, and as long as they are polite.
SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?
AF: How do you feel about personal rejection letters?
I know many magazines out there receive a plethora of submissions, and they probably don't even have time to be personal with their rejection letters. Well, we're trying to change that, but only with stories that deserve that personal feedback. If I find potential in a story, I'm going to let that writer know how he or she can bring that potential out. There's no reason for that writer to flounder in a void wondering what went wrong with the story, especially because that story has potential and could be the perfect fit for another magazine. Also, because we do have a vetting process, we aim to provide personal rejection letters to those who have made it into the good pile, but we didn't choose because they were also competing against other stories of equal caliber. Again, we want to keep our magazine varied, so if we have two western shorts in the good pile, we're going to have to eliminate one of those westerns to keep up the variety.
Thank you, Amber. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.
NEXT POST: 3/2--Six Questions for Daphne D. Maysonet, Co-Founder and Poetry Editor, The Corner Club Press