SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a story and why?
1. Sentences that are written like none other.
Plot moves me little, since arguably every story has already been told. Even if it’s about a pig that noses gravel all day, show me the language, the vital, nefarious, brutality of twisted syntax. Hold the pig under my nose, let it reek. Skin it while it’s squealing, roast it with witchcraft, jettison snarling, self-detonating wild boars from a B2-bomber.
Write something I can’t ignore. Give me the guts, and give it to me now.
2. A novel geometry.
I look for a form in the story that comes from a new angle, presents a new frame. There are a million ways to break a recipe, but only a couple ways to break an egg. Inching the tractor’s tires over a spoon which trips a trigger which shocks the chicken who pecks at the egg doesn’t impress – that’s taking it too far. So novelty for the love of novelty isn’t useful, either. Good writing is like guerilla warfare – we can’t predict where or when it will disorient, deface, deconstruct – or by what method.
3. Effortlessness, or the appearance thereof.
SQF: What are the top three reasons a story is rejected, other than not fitting into your answers to the above question and why?
1. Cliché language
The instant I see a cliché it’s bye-bye.
2. Cluttered, clumsy language or wordiness
Say more with less, and open the double doors for the lady.
3. Conventional narrative, conventional form
Readers are sophisticated and hungry. They want your blood, not Bela Lugosi’s blood. Bela Lugosi is dead.
SQF: What other common mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a story?
1. Errors of convention or usage. Its is possessive, it’s is a contraction. Their is a pronoun, there is a place (in my heart) for conventions.
2. A huge ego as a character trait can be amusing as hell, as Stanley Elkin provides in stories like The Making of Ashenden, or The Transient. The way Nabokov and Dostoyevsky bring neurosis to the page is art. But for authors to take on the traits of their characters – no, thanks. If I like a story but the author has a major ego hang-up, it can be a problem.
3. Not reading the other work on the website to get snuggly with the general aesthetic.
SQF: Do you provide comments when you reject a story?
Not typically. If a writer is truly aching to know why I didn’t accept something, I’m certainly not beyond giving an answer. If the story is a near miss, I usually try to work with them to make minor changes if they are open to that, but I do not rewrite stories.
It’s important to get rejected. Personally, I love being rejected. It reminds me I still need to work at it. I crave that as a writer, I live for that battle. I think it’s important to remember also that it’s not the writer who is getting rejected as a person, just the story. Maybe the concept is good, but the execution needs a good chest-pumping. Maybe the story itself is feeling overworked, it needs some alone time. Come back to it in six months.
Imagine how language would devolve if one were never rejected. We could all end up speaking like George W. Bush, all you “misunderestimated” me and I know how hard it is to put food on your family.
It is possible to turn rejection into critique. But if it’s critique a writer wants, I would suggest starting a writing group or finding friends who share similar writing interests to workshop in a positive, supportive environment. My experience with editors mostly is that there is no time to offer in-depth critique or often any critique at all, and the opportunities for dialogue in a class or workshop are much more rich and lasting than an email. On the other hand, I’ve had great exchanges with editors over the years who’ve accepted my work, and who knows, if I sent them some of the rejects they might offer some insight.
SQF: What is your advice to new, unpublished authors looking for a publisher or agent?
As Raymond Federman once told me, If you want to write for money, do something else.
To put it another way, Rilke offers better counsel than I ever could in Letters To A Young Poet. I may be guilty of referring to this quote more than once on public record. I cannot claim to have the answers, but I do enjoy Rilke’s response:
No one can advise or help you - no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple "I must," then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.
SQF: What’s one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?
I wished that you asked if Louffa Press needs any interns, because the answer is yes. I’m so glad you asked. I’m looking for interns to help with all aspects of design and also with grant proposal writing. The help Louffa needs most right now is for an anthology of chess themed micro-fictions, an intensive project which has been given the NYFA stamp of approval through their ArtSpire fiscal sponsorship. The drawings are by French graphic novelist Zeami, and the micro-fictions are by more than a dozen authors. It is scheduled to be letterpressed and numbered by the fall of 2012.
Louffa Press will be hosting A Night With Steve Katz at KGB Bar in New York City on October 12. Steve’s new letterpressed fiction broadside Slave Husbandry (limited edition of 50) will be available at the reading.
Thank you, David. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.
NEXT POST: 10/06--Six Questions for Dan Cafaro, Founder and Publisher, Atticus Books