SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a story and why?
- First, fantastic imagination, which is most central to what I’m interested in publishing.
- Second, deliberate use of language, because the work must be art, or at least crafted with great care.
- Third, there must be something about the piece that strikes me as a bit “strange,” or at least unique. It must be more than just a well-composed genre exercise.
SQF: What are the top three reasons a story is rejected, other than not fitting into your answers to question one and why?
- First, the writer doesn’t seem to quite understand the meaning of “speculative” or “fantastic,” or perhaps even “imaginative.” I receive a great number of submissions that employ vigorous and/or unusual language and/or imagery, sometimes quite good, but essentially are “realist” pieces, or purely literary experiments. The imagination needs to be utilized in a way that goes beyond metaphor, and well beyond daily observations or musings. Certainly beyond playing with words in clever or novel fashions. I feel I’ve made this as clear as possible in my guidelines, but occasionally it seems like people submit work when they are on frantic, mass e-submission campaigns, or have seen that I’ve published work by an author they admire, and assume that means they know what I’m looking for without reading enough of the magazine (much less the guidelines). The essence of the problem, most frequently, is that there are too many MFA students out there trying to create “big L” literature, at the cusp of what might be considered the avant garde at any given moment, who just don’t have any background in, or appreciation of, speculative, fantastic, and imaginative writing.
- Second, some people don’t seem to put enough effort into editing their work. A great writer is an even greater editor (unless he or she is an exceptionally gifted natural storyteller). I simply can’t imagine why someone would want something with his or her name on it to appear “as is” in too many cases.
- Third (and this is simply a personal quirk), it would take a lot for me to accept a piece where the protagonist is some kind of writer. I suppose Mark Leyner can push a pseudo-autobiographical character into what I consider sufficiently speculative territory, but most currently working cannot. Aside from that, writing about writers just bores me, at this point. Barry Malzberg’s Herovit’s World might have been the last work that truly succeeded in that vein (not that it was in any sense autobiographical).
SQF: What common mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a story?
ZW: Lately, there are far too many writers playing with semi-colons without understanding how they really work. I also see them used improperly in many print and online journals, and even in some small-press books (which leads me to believe that far too many editors don’t understand how they work either). Comma splices are also quite jarring for me. Occasionally I’ll receive a piece where the writer has used a semi-colon in a place where they should have used a comma, and in another spot there is a comma splice where they could have utilized the mysteriously attractive semi-colon.
Sentence fragments can certainly become tiresome, if the author doesn’t really seem to know what he or she is doing. I am not against completely dismantling the language, if it is for a certain calculated effect, but if you’re going to do this you should be aware of how you might put it back together again. Rules change, of course, and I have a feeling that a great many of them will simply disappear. New modes of electronic communication have drastically altered the way writing is both created, consumed, and considered, more in just the last few years than over the last hundred.
It also irks me when there are too many typos. Spellchecking your work should be the bare minimum. Occasional homonyms, I understand. Even the most professional writers slip up sometimes. If I get to the point where I’m red-penning a piece to bloody ribbons in my mind, however, before I’ve even read it once all the way through, the writer probably just isn’t ready to be published anywhere.
All that being said, I can still be completely won over by work that is not only amateurish, but thoroughly brutish and naïve.
SQF: Do you provide comments when you reject a story?
ZW: I try to, because I always appreciate some indication that my own work has actually been read by a particular human being. I think form e-mails are feeble, if not cowardly, especially if they are from “the editors,” but I do understand how those can, at a certain saturation point, become necessary. Many writers I’ve rejected have responded appreciatively to my taking the time to explain what worked for me and what didn’t in their submissions, but some don’t respond at all. I assume those folks have just scratched me off their lists, and aren’t interested in trying again, but those are the sorts I don’t imagine would deal well with the whole editing process anyway. I have considered asking submitters to indicate whether they would like to receive any comments on their work or not, but I assume that would be just one more step they might forget to take in the submission process, and I genuinely don’t want to make that any more difficult than it needs to be. At any rate, if an editor can’t effectively put into words why a piece doesn’t work for them, they probably aren’t much of an editor. There is only so much time, however, and the last thing you want to get into is a situation where an author is actually arguing with you about why you should have accepted his or her piece for your publication. That hasn’t happened to me, but I’m certain it happens.
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?
ZW: I’ve never experienced an author or artist behaving in a terribly rude or outlandish fashion, which I am thankful for. I imagine it would be difficult to consider more of his or her work without recalling such behavior, but can’t imagine actually bothering to make a “list,” which seems a bit dramatic. I have gone back and forth in a friendly way with rejected authors before, and sometimes that is enough for them to get a better idea of what I want, and then everyone is happy. There are some, however, who just shouldn’t be published yet, but I don’t know that any writer should ever hear that from anyone besides a teacher, mentor, or trusted friend.
SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?
ZW: This might be a bit much, but I’d say:
What do you hope for the future of writing/art?
At this point, almost completely due to very recent developments in communication/information technology, the financial bottom has fallen out of practically all traditional “creative” commodity industries, ruining them as potential careers. I think this is a very good thing. What I’d like to see, as a result, is these occupations de-glamorized, de-romanticized, de-fetishized, and de-institutionalized to the extent that the only people pursuing them are doing so because they absolutely have to, rather than want to. The literary landscape is, in innumerable ways, more competitive than ever before, and many who are the most successful at getting their work out there are truly more gifted at new sorts of self-promotion than at whatever craft they are ostensibly selling (and/or have simply paid their way through the right institutions to make the right connections, etc., which isn’t such a new approach). I think the yearning for that sort of “success” will eventually wear out, when people realize the attention they might receive for working with certain types of media just isn’t worth the effort, much less the financial “rewards,” and the sort of post-academic, Petri dish work that’s only taken into consideration by competing creators will seem foolish to pursue. Of course, in this scenario, there is still no safeguard against people continuing to produce the kind of mindless claptrap that panders to the lowest common denominator, but I do find it a slightly more noble and authentic impulse to create for the sake of entertaining and storytelling than treating the process of creation as a sort of esoteric athletic event, or means to practice neo-political maneuvers (the dubious drive of “self-expression,” urge to preach, convert, or control, and other complicated impulses which might lead to the creation of an aesthetic object aside).
That’s all something of a pipe dream, but I am extremely excited by the sorts of works that are, or might be, created without any kind of market pressure, or longing to achieve a certain type of cultural status or recognition. Other pressures and desires will always be involved, of course. I would just like to see the results of those pressures and desires unadulterated by potential prestige. This is certainly not to say that all creators who are currently enjoying popularity through their work are achieving it via the means I have framed here as unappealing. This is not the case. Many of these people are hardworking dreamers who would be struggling to create what they think of as beautiful, essential and true regardless, but too many (and any is too many) genuinely are not. This is also not to say that I lay claim the miraculous capacity to discern those possessed by a genuine calling from those who are not, or that it is my duty to do so. My job at New Dead Families is to take the best of what I receive, and try to make it better. I’m hoping for better. Both less and more.
Thank you, Zack. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.
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