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SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a story and why?
JS: 1) Voice 2) Character 3) Subtlety
I like interesting story lines, but the characters are what matter most to me. I don't feel much about machines or houses or trees. They can be incorporated into the story or poem, and the character might feel sentimentality toward them, but they better not be the main focus. Strong images are big for me. Things I won't forget. Something described in a unique way where I can smell it or taste it or feel it. I like things done subtly. I don't like big metaphors. I don't like symbols and metaphors being pointed out by the author. I want the author's hand to not exist, but I want the voice in the story or poem to absolutely exist. Honest, strong, sure of itself.
SQF: What are the top three reasons a story is rejected, other than not fitting into your answers to the above question and why?
JS: I never reject stories or poems because they don't meet my guidelines. I see a lot of editors saying that, and I understand it's annoying, but that's no reason to just toss a submissions away. You might be passing up on Hemingway because you're annoyed with them missing the guidelines or having typos. Sure, you want professional work, but mistakes happen and typos are inevitable. A clean manuscript is nice, obviously. Anyhow, I pass on stories that are just boring. The traditional literary story is boring to me. There doesn't have to be thunder and car crashes on page one, that's not what I'm saying. The voice must carry me. The characters must be unique and intriguing. I pass on characters and plots I've seen before. I pass on hokey voices that I just can't buy. In poetry, I pass on vaguery, cliches, and lack of strong image and story-telling. I also dislike overt rhyming and fairy-tale endings.
SQF: What other common mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a story?
JS: I pretty much covered it.
SQF: Do you provide comments when you reject a story?
JS: I do when I think the work is very close to publishable OR and most often, when a writer is young or I think they need encouragement (I know this because I check all cover letters after reading pieces and making my decision). I like to encourage those who are just starting out or are pursuing a cool project or who personally address previous issues or make personal comments.
SQF: Based on your experience as an editor, what have you learned about writing?
JS: Writing is tough. It's really tough. Most journals accept less than five percent of all pieces sent to them. The work is hard enough to do, but then you go out and try and get your stuff published, and it's a really hard endeavor. I had over 400 rejection letters before I had an acceptance. I was always submitting to the best journals in the country, and I was submitting when I began writing, which isn't the smartest idea. It takes a lot of time and patience to break into those top-tier journals, but after several years, it did happen. I've been pretty fortunate the past few years. I think a writer has to just push on, and it's such a lonely endeavor for most of us. You write by yourself and oftentimes writers don't have peers to show their work to. Everyone needs a good editor, and everyone needs to push on and persevere, especially in the face of rejection.
SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?
JS: What do you hate most and love most about being an editor?
I hate rejecting pieces. I love accepting them. Nothing makes me happier than to make a writer or artist's month with a YES.
Thank you, Jonathan. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.
NEXT POST: 8/25--Six Questions for Ben Aleshire, Editor, The Salon: A Journal of Poetry & Fiction