Thursday, December 22, 2011

Six Questions for Calum Kerr, Editor, Word Gumbo

Word Gumbo is a bi-monthly e-zine that publishes fiction, poetry, non-fiction, and more. Read the complete guidelines here.

SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a story and why?

CK: As Word Gumbo is aimed towards a theme for each issue, we are looking for stories which interpret that theme in interesting ways. Sometimes writers mention the words in the theme, but that's not enough, we want the story to be based around it.

Personally, I like to see work that is well-written. That can mean something as simple as good punctuation, spelling and grammar - at a minimum - but also inventive turns of phrase, interesting use of language, innovation and the avoidance of cliché and redundancy.

Finally, I guess it comes down to personal choice. Something which grips me and makes me want to read on. So I like a story which gets straight in, rather than wasting time introducing the characters or setting the scene. And, I like a surprise in the end - not necessarily a traditional 'twist' but some sense of closure or resolution which emerges naturally from the story without being signposted too heavily.

SQF: What are the top three reasons a story is rejected, other than not fitting into your answers to question one and why?

CK: The top reason is not adhering to our guidelines. It sounds so simple, but we have set word lengths, set submission quantities, a policy of no simultaneous submissions, and a policy of anonymity. Not meeting those is the quickest way to find your piece being rejected.

The next reason is to do with theme. I know this fits in with my answer to question one, but it is a key reason and one which I find frustrating. A writer can send in a story which is wonderfully written, entertaining, engaging and moving but if it has no connection to the theme at all, we can't accept it. I'm not asking that writers always write something new specifically for the theme - that is unrealistic. But, if their story doesn't fit the theme, it is a waste of their time and mine to send it in. They should hold onto it and, if they particularly want it to appear in Word Gumbo, be patient and wait for an more appropriate topic.

For my third reason I'm tempted to go on about the quality of the writing, but I guess that's covered by my answers to one. So, I suppose the remaining reason would be our desire not to feature any one writer too much. Some writers submit stories, poems, non-fiction and scripts all for the same issue. If that happens we are likely to reject work in one or more categories in order to feature the best of what they have submitted. So, submissions in multiple categories can mean that a writer can be competing against him or herself.

SQF: What common mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a story?

CK: Poor proof-reading is one of them. If I like a story and there are spelling mistakes or missing words - missing 'the's and 'a's are a common error - then my editor's eye kicks in and I start looking for mistakes and not paying attention to the story. Another problem is where the writer has learned a new and interesting word - 'rebarbative' for instance - and seems desperate to use it, even though it ruins the flow and the voice of the story.

I suppose that leads to one of my big turn-offs. A story has its own voice - even in the third person - and if that voice is choppy or inconsistent (unless intentionally done) - then it drives you away from the story.

SQF: Do you provide comments when you reject a story?

CK: No, we don't. I used to when I previously ran a small magazine and while, in the main, they were well received, they occasionally led to abuse and, in one case, threatening letters. So, we provide a simple 'thanks but no thanks'. If someone came back and specifically requested some feedback, we would provide it, but only on request.

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?

CK: I don't have a blacklist. Well, not as yet. Not for the poor response to rejections. I do have one for people who have found our address and have decided to spam us with every story they write, with no regard for guidelines, deadlines, or theme.

As a writer myself I am used to receiving rejections - some with feedback, some without - and my response is always to just say to myself, 'Fine. I'll send them something else.' The majority of things I reject are to do with not meeting the theme, or poor proof-reading. That said, what I accept is almost always going to be based on the slightly woolly concept that 'I like it'. If authors read previous issues of the magazine, they can maybe get an idea about what kind of thing I like, and then they can decide if their writing is likely to fit. And, no, polite questions are always welcome.

SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?

CK: I wish you'd asked if I enjoy my job as editor. My reply would be yes, immensely. I ran a small magazine about 10 years ago before passing it on to a colleague when I started my PhD in 2001. I hadn't realised, until I started Gumbo Press back in April 2011 how much I had missed it. I get to communicate with all these wonderful writers. I get to read their latest work first. I get to give people the good news that their work has been accepted. It's a great experience. Also, because it is all anonymous, I don't know until after I've been through the submissions whose work I have accepted. It's really nice when I find I have accepted work by friends and colleagues - or really respected writers - on their merits rather than because I know them. It's a fun job, and I'm so glad to be back.

Thank you, Calum. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.

NEXT POST: 12/26--Six Questions for Steve Isaak, Editor, Microstory A Week

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