SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a story and why?
- A catchy or compelling title. We use a submissions system, like most online publications, and if I'm not intrigued by your title, I'm not going to be excited about clicking through to read the rest of your piece. And, 9 times out of 10, the people who put no effort into their titles seem to have put equally little effort into the rest of their work. So make it have a little zing!
- Quirky characters. I like my stories weird, bent, bizarre, odd. I like ordinary characters in odd situations, and odd characters in ordinary situations. I like learning more about characters that act differently than the average, everyday human. Who wants to read a perfectly nice story about two people who really like each other and get along? No one. It's boring. I need drama, which means action. Put a quirky character into a tight spot and have him or her react.
- A satisfying ending. It doesn't have to tie everything up in a neat little bow, but it shouldn't just drop off as if the writer stopped typing in the middle of a sentence, either. Margaret Atwood is famous for her non-endings; I HATE that. Margaret, if you're reading this, can you please write an ending to one of your books now that you're a Canadian institution who could sign her name to the phone book and sell a million copies? Seriously. Beginnings and endings are the hardest to write well, so all writers should focus their efforts on improving these areas.
SQF: When reading a story, what clues tell you the story was written by a novice author?
LR: Usually it's the premise of the story itself. I get a lot of repeated themes that seem to come to mind for beginners. The "Adam and Eve" story, which reveals its "twist" at the end is pretty common. Then there are stories that have no STORY. They're full of emotion, they're very passionate about something, but there is no action. That's not a story. For the most part, you must have more than one character (unless you're writing about Man Vs. Nature, or Man Vs. Self). You should have a snappy title. You should have an actual ending, and preferably a good one -- or at least one that makes sense. I get a lot of stories that make it obvious the author is just sending them to anyone who publishes stories, anywhere. How can I tell? Well, we're not at all into Christian themes, or gore, or black metal, and yet we are constantly receiving pieces that hit these themes. I know we don't have very specific guidelines, since we're looking for work in all different genres, but I think it's pretty clear that we're not about frilly love poems you'd find on a greeting card or how great Sarah Palin is. Even a quick pass through the front-page articles would demonstrate that you've gotten the gist. So don't send us that stuff. Oh, and for the love of Pete, DO NOT email me your piece through our contact form! It's going in the trash. That's why we have a submissions system with Submishmash [Ed: now called Submittable]; I don't want my inbox cluttered with emails from budding poets who have sent me their ENTIRE opus. Really. Just pick three poems you think are good, and we'll let you know.
SQF: What other common mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a story?
LR: Every editor says this, because we're all fascists about grammar and spelling: goddamn, read your work over before you send it out! Use the spell-check on your computer, yes, but then get a live human to read over your piece. Preferably someone who has a clue about the English language and how to use it. Maybe a teacher, or a writing student, or even an actual editor that you will pay to find your errors and correct them.
Oh, and if you're sending out stories to a million different publications, please have the courtesy to get the name of OUR publication right in your cover letter. You may have a brilliant story, but I'm going to be annoyed if you're saying how much you love Harper's or the New Yorker or whoever the heck else you've sent the thing out to. Just be aware, and try to be polite, you know? Let's all start out on the right foot and lead with good impressions, is what I'm saying.
SQF: Do you provide comments when you reject a story?
LR: I don't, mostly because we're really swamped with submissions, and people will tend to keep following up with further emails asking, "Well, WHY didn't you like this?" and "But it was based on a true story!" and whatever else. I think offering comments just invites people to ask further questions, which I don't have the time to answer, so I send a standard rejection letter instead. If people really want to know what's wrong with their piece, I think they should hire a professional to give them the feedback they're looking for. Or just keep on reading and revising and mailing the piece out to different publications. There may not be anything technically wrong with it, but it's just not for us. There are lots of reasons why stories get rejected; as a writer myself, I find it's best not to take anything too personally. Unless, of course, you get a personalized rejection letter informing you that you're a complete idiot, singling you and your piece out by name, from someone whose opinion matters to you. In that case, you might want to keep your day job.
SQF: What do you consider to be the primary responsibilities of an editor?
LR: One might say that an editor edits, but that's pretty simplistic. The primary responsibility of the editor, from my perspective, is to curate interesting stories in an interesting way. If I get great stories right off the bat, that makes my job easier. But if I can see some shiny bits in a piece that isn't quite there, and I can work with you to polish it up into a diamond -- or even a cubic zirconia -- then that's even more satisfying. The problem with that is I find most of the authors I have contacted to say "It's almost there; what if you try this?" are not open to my suggestions. They think their piece is perfect as is, and they won't change a single word. Writers have to be open to editorial suggestions. They don't have to necessarily TAKE the suggestions, and I prefer to be able to discuss with writers why they feel a certain way so we can negotiate and retain the central focus of the piece, but they have to be able to take constructive criticism and think about how it might change or even improve the piece. To me, that's the thing. The editor and the writer are a team. We're not adversaries. Editors want you to be proud of your piece, and to publish the best possible pieces they can. So when they give you advice, it's because they've read a lot of stories, and they have a clue about what they're doing, and they're trying to help you publish a really great story.
SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?
LR: What are some of Black Heart's upcoming projects?
We are currently working on creating digital anthologies, which we sell online via Smashwords, to bring in different types of readers. The anthologies will be released on a quarterly basis, and each will focus on a different genre, thanks to the expertise of many different guest editors. The first in this series of anthologies is called The NOIR Issue, and was guest edited by my crime fiction writing pal, Jimmy Callaway. You can buy a copy of it online at http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/71026 in every imaginable digital format for only $2.99.
Our next project, which is currently open for submissions, is an Austin Writers Anthology that will feature the work of established locals, up-and-coming authors, and even a few choice bloggers. If you've got a piece you'd like to contribute on the theme of Austin Places, you can submit (or read the full guidelines) here.
Thank you, Laura. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.
NEXT POST: 10/31- Six Questions for The Janitors of the d.ustb.in