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"Penumbra publishes speculative fiction that always culminates in something unexpected - a flash of humor in the darkest tale or a fantasy piece that goes against the tropes--always something that hovers right on the periphery of the eclipse." Penumbra accepts submissions only for our themed calls. Read the complete guidelines here.
SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a story/poem and why?
CS: The top three things I look for are—first: a storyline that really engages me and makes me want to read more. The first 500 words of a short story have to establish the theme/mood/conflict of the plot and do so in such a manner that I have to find out what happens next. Poetry is different, because it's a completely different medium within writing, so the evaluation of poetry submissions ends up being more subjective, perhaps, than prose. Second: I look for originality. Each issue of Penumbra is themed, and all our fiction must revolve around those themes. If I have a Shakespeare theme, for example, I don't want a retelling of the same old story. I want to find something completely unique in a work, regardless of the theme. Third: I look for strong, tight writing with a commanding voice. If you don't establish the voice from the first sentence of a story or the first line of a poem, then the story will not succeed.
SQF: What are the top three reasons a story/poem is rejected, other than not fitting into your answers to question one and why?
CS: The major reason we reject submissions is for not following our submission guidelines—sending in a story that doesn't fall within our posted submission calls, for example. After that, and outside of the things I've already said, I reject because of technical sloppiness—Penumbra is a magazine, and we aren't going to do extensive editing on these stories. And once a story reaches the final round of evaluation, I have to reject manuscripts I really, really like that just don't work well with the other stories we've selected for that issue.
SQF: What other mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a story/poem?
CS: Homonym errors. Their/there/they're or it's/its or your/you're. This type of error is a huge pet peeve of mine, because it indicates to me that the author didn't really read through the story after they completed it. They're counting on spell check to catch any errors, and spell check doesn't flag synonym errors. To me, that gives me a feeling of carelessness for the whole manuscript.
SQF: What is it about the characters in a story that makes them pop off the page and grab hold of you?
CS: That's a good question, because usually it's something intangible. A writer who really understands the difference between showing and telling tends to write stronger characters, because instead of telling me, "John was angry!" the writer is showing me. "John's fingers began to hurt. He was gripping the baseball bat so tightly that his fingers were white-knuckled and throbbing." By showing a character's emotions through strong visual imagery, a writer is engaging the readers with that story—sucking them deeper into the character's psychology. A skilled short story writer does this without even thinking about it, but a young writer will struggle with the concept. Show versus tell is, unfortunately, one of those skills that can't be taught externally. A writer has to find that 'Eureka!' by himself, and train himself not to fall into that trap.
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?
CS: I don't keep a physical list of authors who behave badly. Unfortunately, I don't have to. Editors remember those writers, so regardless of the submission that mental red flag is there. We receive hundreds of stories at Penumbra each week, and the rejected authors I remember specifics on are the ones who kick back a knee-jerk response to a rejection. I received a response once where the author called me stupid. Unfortunately for him, I'm not stupid. I remembered his name, his story and his email address six months later. Burning bridges is never a smart thing to do.
However, we do not have a problem with answering an author's polite inquiry about why their story was rejected. To be honest, nine times out of ten I'm not going to remember the story right off the top of my head. That in and of itself is an answer of sorts. We go through our slush pile very quickly, usually within two weeks. If I can't remember the story or author two weeks after reading the submission, then the story needs some kind of in-depth work to MAKE the story memorable.
If I or my assistants have time, we try to respond to those questions—particularly from authors whose stories are near-misses, who made it to a later stage of the adjudication process but were rejected. Every author I reject at that stage of the game gets a personalized rejection.
SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?
CS: What kind of author or story are you the most excited to see in the slush pile?
I'm always excited to find a story by an author who's never made a pro sale, but whose grasp on the structure and substance of her story elevates her right beside the authors who've had hundreds of sales over a long, successful career. We've been very lucky at Penumbra; we've found at least one author like that in the submissions pile for every issue. We don't always publish them, but I do go out of my way to write that author personally and encourage them to keep writing, to keep submitting, and to trust their instincts. Letters like that, even rejections, have always bolstered my confidence during submissions. I like to pay it forward.
Thank you, Celina. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.
NEXT POST: 2/23--Six Questions for Matt Potter, Founder and Editor, Pure Slush