"We are interested in crime fiction. That means fiction about crime. Not solving crime. Not bemoaning crime. Fiction about people who are criminals and maybe a little bit about why they are criminals, so long as you don't go Dr. Phil on it." Learn more here.
SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a story and why?
AC: The most important thing is the writing. Is it competent? Is it fresh? Is it filled with clichés? Does it move? Is it what I call ‘glacial prose,’ meaning, am I constantly looking at the page number, constantly trying to figure out how much longer the piece is? I don’t need to know too much about the plot in the first few paragraphs like some editors prefer, I just want my eyes to roll across the page with ease. Bad prose will always inhibit that. Some great examples of good prose can be observed in Garnett Elliot, David Cranmer, and Matthew Funk’s stories at All Due Respect.
Next is story. Is the story interesting? Is it original? In the case of All Due Respect, does it fit the nasty theme the journal has going? The story in All Due Respect that hit the nail right smack on the head (cliché! cliché!) was Mike Toomey’s. Raw, brutal nastiness. No apologies. No moralizing of any kind. Just hardcore crime fiction.
The last things I look at are the basics—Do you know how to spell? If not, do you know how to use your spell-checker? Do you know how to use a comma? How to properly break up paragraphs in a manner that makes sense? I’m not going to get too hung up on this sort of thing, but a sloppy presentation will tell me that you don’t take either my journal or your work (or both) seriously enough.
SQF: When reading a story, what clues tell you the story was written by a novice author?
AC: Within the story itself, if I see tons of clichés and hackneyed language, I know I’m reading the work of someone who is cutting his or her teeth, still learning, still finding his or her voice. Being a novice isn’t always a bad thing. I’m pretty sure I’ve published a couple of stories by ‘novices’ because I saw potential. The big thing to look out for is language that we’ve all read a thousand times before. And clichés. I can’t stress that enough. Go through your work and circle the phrases and idioms you know are common. Find new ways to say what it is you want to say.
Sometimes I will get an overused storyline. The one I see the most is the grifter who ends up getting grifted. I’m not a big fan of taking an old idea and putting what Hollywood calls “a twist” on it and then trying to pass it off as original. Contrary to what many people insist, there are original ideas. There are new stories to be told.
SQF: What other common mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a story?
AC: Obvious preaching is a bad thing. There’s nothing wrong with trying to change the world, even in a little crime fiction piece. The key is to be subtle. All your profound points and philosophical ideas will be absorbed much more thoroughly if the reader isn’t slapped in the face with your opinion. The best advice I can give is this: Just tell the story. Whatever the story wants to say will happen without conscious prodding from the writer. I’ve become a true believer in the Raymond Carver school of writing—Give the reader just enough to compel him or her to explore, in his or her own mind, what’s not explicitly stated in the story.
Another thing that bothers me, personally—Repetition of words and the redundant use of certain phrases. When I see this, I know the writer hasn’t done enough revisions.
Finally, pay attention to the guidelines. I get a lot of stories that are way, way over the 5000 word limit. It may seem like nitpicking, but there’s a good reason I’ve made 5000 the cut-off. When I get a story that is 13,000 words, I know the writer has either not read the guidelines or is ignoring them or, worse, thinks I’m so stupid I won’t notice!
SQF: Do you provide comments when you reject a story?
AC: This is a great question. I usually do not provide comments, and I know I should. One of my goals with All Due Respect is to create a journal where the author is in charge of his or her work. When a story is accepted, I will make any suggestions I might have and then allow the writer to revise the story as he or she sees fit.
Commenting on rejections is a tricky area. I know first-hand how rough it is to have a story rejected. I’m not sure what kind of comments I would like to see in that situation. I once got a personalized rejection letter from a big time literary journal. The editor wrote, “Nice writing. Let me know when Holden Caulfield grows up.” That’s one editor I better not ever meet in person! I will give this matter more thought, however, and see if I can find a way to include comments with the rejection email that won’t upset the writer any more than he or she might already be.
SQF: What do you consider to be the primary responsibilities of an editor?
AC: Another great question. I believe an editor should read each submission thoroughly. I know there are editors who read about a paragraph and toss the manuscript because they don’t see the conflict or the protagonist and antagonist or whatever formulaic nonsense they think a short story is supposed to have in the first paragraph. The writer took a lot of time to write the story, the writer deserves his or her day in court. Read the whole damn story. No excuses. If it’s not good, it’s not good. Who knows what might be lurking three pages in? Maybe the first few paragraphs are just the author clearing his or her throat.
In order for an editor to be a good editor, I truly believe he or she should be a writer as well. He or she should have already experienced years of collecting rejection letters and seeing how some editors are supportive and others are just jerks.
SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?
AC: One issue that I’d like to discuss is the issue of payment. All Due Respect has a budget of zero dollars and zero cents. It is literally impossible to pay writers. I know old guys like Harlan Ellison get furious about this. I would like to see the pulp fiction genre make some sort of collective movement towards creating a print magazine that pays writers and gets the work out to a mass audience. I honestly think the best writing in this field is being published by independents who, like me, can’t afford to pay writers what they are worth. It is time to make short story writing a viable profession, just as it was in the first half of the 20th Century. It’s only going to happen if people make it happen. I’m open to any suggestions by other editors and writers on how to get this started.
Thank you, Alec. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.
NEXT POST: 3/14--Six Questions for Susan Hansell, Editor, Spot Literary Magazine