The Literarian is the new online journal of the Center for Fiction, publishing literary fiction and interviews with authors of different generations. Read previously published stories and learn more about this publication here.
SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a story and why?
DR: Originality, urgency, and sentence making. By originality, I do not mean that I am looking for a wild style (some of our stories have that, and others are traditional narratives); I am looking for work that asks me to view or understand some aspect of life in a way I hadn’t considered before. By urgency, I mean that something is at stake for the writer and for the reader; we’re not just tossing around pretty or clever writing. Sentence making is what sets prose fiction apart from other media; I want to see the author do what can be done only with the written word. If I could pick a fourth thing it would be wit.
SQF: What are the top three reasons a story is rejected, other than not fitting into your answers to question one and why?
DR: 1) I get the feeling I’ve read this before and I know where it’s going. 2) There’s nothing wrong with the story—I couldn’t point out flaws in a workshop—but I also wouldn’t say to a friend, “Hey, you’ve got to read this.” 3) The author is whining. You have to be really charming and/or wickedly funny to get away with that.
SQF: What other mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a story?
DR: I’m not sure there are common “mistakes.” It comes down to personal taste. I read everything myself. I don’t use readers. While I try to be reasonably prompt, I ask people to be patient, because I am serious about reading every submission.
SQF: What is the best part of being an editor?
DR: There are so many! I love being an editor. Here’s a bunch of best things: Getting to publish someone’s first or second or third story. Helping someone, at any stage of his or her career, make a good story better. Getting to publish someone wonderful who has not received enough attention. Publishing emerging authors next to literary lions. Celebrating writers who’ve had extraordinary careers. Putting together issues that showcase a wide range of styles. Asking people to challenge assumptions. I could go on all day here!
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?
DR: I’ve never blacklisted anyone. To be honest, I haven’t ever had a nasty response to a rejection, although there’s always tomorrow. Look, writing is hard, and rejection is hard. The worst thing about being an editor is having to reject people. What I want people to know—what we all already know but tend to forget—is that it’s subjective. When I’m saying no, I don’t give a specific reason. I feel that the writer has asked me a yes-or-no question: Do I want to publish the story? To turn around and give a critique feels somewhat patronizing. Also, the writer may hold onto one thing, one objection, when the reality is that the story just didn’t win me enough. If I see a fix that could make the story work for me, I will ask for a revision, or I will do a quick edit and ask for the writer’s okay. If I haven’t done either of those things, it’s better to move on.
SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?
DR: How quickly do you respond?
I try to be prompt, but I hope people will be patient, because I am serious about reading every submission. Sometimes I make snap decisions; other times I need to read a story two or three times, especially if I am thinking about how I might edit it.
Thank you, Dawn. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.
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