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SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a story and why?
JCW: Clarity, competence, and conflict. I see too many stories that try to be mysterious, to play games with the reader. I like works to be front-loaded--subtly if possible--and direct. Red-herrings and misinformation I find annoying, unless it's Nabakov, who, let's face it, is a magician. Likewise, deliberately poor grammar, misspellings, run-ons and sentence fragments don't in themselves create voice, or style, or do anything but tempt a reader (or editor) to stop reading. Finally, when I say conflict, I mean both tension and action. I want adventure, risk, something life-changing to be at stake.
SQF: What are the top three reasons a story is rejected, other than not fitting into your answers to question one and why?
JCW: Those three reasons. Often a story is rejected because of all three, which I think suggests that authors have sent us work that's too new. Stories that are still in a state of becoming, still cooking. Remember that a journal editor is different from a book editor: we need to accept stories that are very nearly print-ready. We can't spend months, or even days, working with an author to shape and polish a manuscript. It's got to be ready before it's submitted.
SQF: What other mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a story?
JCW: I hesitate to use the word "mistakes." Other than those usage errors I mentioned earlier, which are annoying, it's not mistakes that turn me off. It's incompleteness. It's a lack of imagination, or lack of story, or lack of character, etc. If the story doesn't promise me something in the beginning and then fulfill its promise in the end I won't be publishing it.
SQF: What is it about the characters in a story that makes them pop off the page and grab hold of you?
JCW: That's a hard question. There are so many ways. It often comes down to the telling detail--a bit of description, a turn of phrase, a line of dialogue. Telling detail is, of course, always concrete, even when it's figurative. Short stories are especially hard because a writer doesn't have the opportunity to linger over a character's thoughts, features, or habits as a novelist does. The story must keep moving forward, always forward. Consistency, too, is important. A short story writer has to expose a character's fault or weak point early on, and then test that fault or weak point. Really, character has as much to do with story as anything else. The character in context is what matters most. And if we're talking about flash, I think character is secondary to the language of a work. Like I said, it's a hard question to answer in brief.
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?
JCW: Keeping a blacklist is taking it too far, in my opinion, but I can understand how the frustration might get to you. If a writer receives a form rejection, don't respond to the editor at all. That's my advice. I'm fine with a writer following-up if I've commented directly on his or her work, but keep in mind that I'm not, and won't be, a lit coach. Dropping a "thank you" to the editor who took the time to comment is a nice gesture. Sending something else, a few months or a year later, is more than welcome. Hoped for, even. I would avoid "what did you mean by?" kind of questions. I don't respond to those simply because I've moved on to the next thing.
SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?
JCW: Read the journals you're submitting to. Buy journals whenever possible. If that means submitting fewer stories a year, so be it. Honor those you'd have honor you. Support the work of those you'd have support your work. If you simply can't afford to buy lit journals, put in the time at a library reading room. If you can't do that, then read and submit to online journals. There are tons of great ones. If that's not a possibility either, then I think the writer needs to rethink his or her life. I liken submitters who don't read literary journals to that student who MUST answer all of the teacher's questions, comments on every passing remark, wants to argue every point on whatever side. It's exhausting, frustrating, childish and anti-social. Don't be that person. If you're submitting to journals, read journals. If that sounds impossible or distasteful, I don't know . . . good luck.
Thank you, John. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.
NEXT POST: 7/18--Six Questions for Cheryl Anne Gardner, Contributing Editor, Apocrypha & Abstractions