Monday, January 16, 2012

Six Questions for Alec Cizak, Pulp Modern

Pulp Modern publishes crime, mystery and speculative fiction from 2,000-5,000 words. Read the complete guidelines here.

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

AC: The first thing I look for in a story is the quality of the writing. Am I reading the work of someone who has put time and effort into learning the craft? I sit in workshops with writers who bitch and moan about conflict and character arcs and whatnot. Those things are important, but I never hear them discuss the writing itself. Whether you’re writing “literary” fiction or science fiction or crime or horror or romance or whatever, there is an art to the phrasing and language. That is what glues a reader to a story, compels him or her to read to the conclusion. Folks will prattle on and on about conflict, how important conflict is. The way I see it, if you know what you’re doing, the conflict will be there, naturally. If you can’t craft a sentence worth reading, nobody will give a damn about how clever your conflict is. I have to read a lot of submissions for Pulp Modern. Let me know right away that I’m going to enjoy the writing.

The next thing I look for is what makes a story unique. The reason “literary” fiction writers stare down their snoots at genre fiction is because genre fiction has a tendency to be formulaic. If you can play with a formula, comment on it, make it new somehow, that will go a long way towards separating your story from others. Even better, however, is just flat out coming up with something completely new. Many say there are no new ideas. Fuck ‘em. They’re dinosaurs, sloshing around in a tar pit of anti-creativity. Search and search and search for an original idea, an original conflict, an original character... Do whatever you can to separate your work from all the other work being done in the genre you’ve chosen to write your story in.

The third thing I would mention here specifically for Pulp Modern is how well a writer has straddled the border between tradition and post-postmodernism. It’s called Pulp Modern because I want to see a comfortable midpoint where both genre and “literary” fiction can realize we are working with the same materials. I cannot stress enough how important Copper Smith’s story “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” (featured in issue one) was to demonstrate what I ultimately want to see in Pulp Modern. His story was fast-paced. It had a unique voice. The pop-culture references were straight out of postmodernism’s playbook. The result, I feel, was a story that could appeal to the broadest possible (reading) audience.

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

AC: Something I see quite often that bugs the hell out of me are submissions that indicate the author has not paid one bit of attention to the guidelines. I get flash fiction submissions all the time. What part of 2000-5000 words do these writers not understand? Of course they understand it. They have either ignored the guidelines, or simply haven’t read them carefully (if at all). Sending me a story that does not meet the guidelines is a sign of disrespect. Why would I publish a writer who hasn’t taken the time to research the market he or she is submitting to?

Remember that perception is 90%. Take the time to format your story properly. Proof it until you are sick of it. A story riddled with typos and grammar issues is going to get chucked onto the rejection pile every time. I will forgive one or two mistakes, so long as I am already deep into the story. You mess up in the first paragraph, your story is on life-line from that moment on. I don’t want to be uptight about this sort of thing, but it goes back to the idea of showing respect to me, as well as to your own writing.

I don’t really have a third thing, but let me just toss out a few things that will make your story a hard sell with me: A mystery story is going to have a difficult time. There are two giant magazines that buy mysteries and pay much better than Pulp Modern does. I would try your mystery there first. I am really interested in crime fiction that deals with crime, not solving it (I guess that’s a holdover from All Due Respect). Now, if the writing jumps off the page and grabs me, maybe you’ll get by my inherent bias. Most hobbit and troll-like fantasy is also a hard sell for me. As for horror: Zombies, werewolves and vampires are an extremely difficult sell for me. I love horror and I want to see new ways to scare the crap out of a reader. Invent new monsters, modern monsters.

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

AC: I see a lot of verb-tense shifting within stories that says to me the writer is having some serious issues, that the story is not ready for publication. Also, I see a lot of stories where it’s clear the author doesn’t know which point of view he or she wants to stick with. The average reader may not notice a sharp shift from third-person limited to third-person omniscient, but I will. It’s another indication that a story is not in the shape it needs to be in.

SQF: What is it about the characters in a story that makes them pop off the page and grab hold of you?

AC: Originality. Somewhere out there, there’s an insurance adjustor who looks like a “normal” person but is doing something very, very bad in his spare time. Let’s meet that guy. Let’s see his “normal” life and his real life. Let’s see how those two worlds collide. That quiet librarian who you just noticed is wearing a pentagram around her neck, what’s she doing in her spare time that would make John Waters blush? Also, make sure your unique characters have unique voices. There are many exercises you can do as a writer to improve your ear for dialogue. I would recommend sitting in public places with a notebook and, without being obvious, writing down conversations you hear. These things will separate your characters from the many characters I meet every time I go through a new batch of submissions.

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?

AC: I’m very disturbed to hear that an editor is keeping a “blacklist” for anything. Especially disgruntled writers responding to rejection. Of course, the proper response to a standardized rejection form is to try that particular story somewhere else and try a different story at the market from which you received the rejection notice. The editor who said she keeps a “blacklist” must not be a writer. She must not have ever had to contend with the horrible feeling that you’ve sent your best work out and the editor you sent it to is an imbecile who didn’t “get it.” That of course leads me to wonder why this woman would bother editing a journal in the first place. If you don’t have knowledge and empathy for the struggles writers go through (especially in a time when they are expected to produce work for no pay), you should NOT be an editor. It’s a very good thing I don’t know who that particular editor is because I would put her on my SHITLIST!

I have been known to send nasty notes to editors who have sent me rejection notices I didn’t consider professional. Most recently, I sent a very snide email to the editor(s) of Fifth Wednesday. The wording of the rejection notice they sent me was unprofessional and to add an insult, they asked me if I wanted to subscribe to their magazine. This is a matter of chicken v. the egg. Was my response “unprofessional”? You bet. Was it a response to an unprofessional provocation? Absolutely. Now, the editor(s) of Fifth Wednesday may put me on a “blacklist,” but I have no desire to be published in a magazine that shows the lack of respect for writers their rejection notice demonstrated. Thus, I haven’t lost a thing.

Most of the time, however, responding in a snide manner is not appropriate. If you receive a rejection notice that looks standardized, it probably means your story wasn’t even close. It probably means that your story needs enough work that the editor doesn’t have the time to let you know all the details. If, however, an editor passes on your story but gives you tips on how to improve it (or maybe just tells you what’s “wrong” with your story), I think it’s OK to ask the editor further questions. Some editors might get annoyed by that, but if they’re willing to give advice in the first place, they should be prepared for the possibility of being asked to give follow up advice. It’s called courtesy. Not a difficult ethic to establish.

If a writer sends me a nasty email after I’ve rejected a story of his or hers, I assume the writer is just starting out. A seasoned writer understands that this is a subjective business and a rejection is more a reflection of the editor’s taste than the quality of the story itself. I have only received two grumpy replies to rejection notices. I chuckled and deleted the emails. In the future, I might send a notice to the writer explaining why that sort of response isn’t a good idea (that there are hyper-sensitive so-called editors out there who “blacklist” anyone who hurts their feelings).

One note I’d like to make here concerning Pulp Modern—I have sent “rejection” notices with suggestions for improving the story. I don’t mind taking another look at a story under those circumstances. However, I do want to see that a writer took some time in revising his or her work. When I receive a ‘revised’ story thirty minutes after sending the “rejection” notice, I wonder how much effort was put into the revision.

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

AC: Q: Do you make editorial suggestions to writers who have been accepted and what should those writers do with your suggestions?

A: Thanks for asking that. I go through each story accepted and make notes along the side (thank God for MS Word!). If the story was accepted, chances are I won’t have too many suggestions. Sometimes I love one particular thing about a story, so I’ll accept it with the intention of helping the writer improve it. In those cases, I’ve been known to make up to a hundred or more comments. I tell a writer that he or she may make any changes he or she agrees with, but that’s really like an old mafia guy saying, “Maybe you should leave town for a while…” I expect the writer to make the changes. I’ve been writing for thirty years. I know a thing or two about basic craft. If I ask a writer to remove extraneous adverbs, I would like to see him or her do as I have asked. I am trying to publish clean prose in Pulp Modern. I need writers to cooperate with me on this.

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

NEXT POST: 1/19--Six Questions for Editor, H.O.D. (A Handful of Dust)


  1. Cool interview about one of my favorite pubs.

  2. Excellent! Alec certainly knows his stuff. Great Q&A, gents.

  3. An insightful interview. We need more editors like A.C., but then I'm biased. They've accepted one of my stories, which will appear later in 2012.