Monday, March 26, 2012

Six Questions for Anne Pinckard, Slush Reader, Flash Fiction Online

Flash Fiction Online publishes stories from 500-1,000 words containing "strong, interesting characters, plots, and (to some extent, at least) settings." Read the complete guidelines here.

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

AP: The most practical and perhaps useful answer is that FFO’s current group of slush readers seems to favor speculative stories with well crafted characters that end on a positive note.

On a more abstract (and personal) level, I look for narrative authority. What could be more delicious than surrendering to a masterful storyteller? If a writer can achieve such authority, then everything else falls into place or becomes irrelevant. For this to happen, the story needs integrity. It must hold together as a complete, coherent entity and it must be told with absolute honesty and conviction. I'm shoving a lot under this criterion but when I reflect on the diverse stories that have moved me, this is the common feature.

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

AP: No story, and by this, I mean it lacks change (more on this in #3).

Content: Stories that have too much gore, violence, explicit sex, and are relentlessly dark, negative, and hurtful. These may be perfectly good stories, but they're a real tough sell for this crowd (see my answer to #6).

Bad writing: I'm shocked at the number of typos I encounter (and we're only talking 1000 words here). I let one or two slide, but some submissions have had missing words or phrases. Bad grammar and syntax are also common. Sometimes this is a stylistic choice, but bottom line, if I can't understand what you are saying or if it hurts my head to parse, I'm going to get frustrated. Purple prose will also get a story rejected. On a subtle level, if the diction feels inaccurate or imprecise, I'm likely to pass. Oh, and this isn't technically bad writing but is important: We automatically reject stories that aren't formatted correctly. We don't even look at them. Well, sometimes I peek.

SQF: Which of the following statements is true and why? Plot is more important that character. Character is more important than plot. Plot and character are equally important.

AP: Character is more important, but it’s a tough call between that and #3. I define “story” as change, and here's where I'll explain my answer to #2 (and for those who are curious this definition is based largely on Robert Mckee's text "Story").

A story is meaningful change in character brought on by a change in the environment. The environmental change could be as subtle as the character waking up one day, getting a latte spilled on him for the umpteenth time, and deciding okay, that's the last straw. And then the story is triggered – the character responds to the first stimulus by changing, which creates a reaction in the environment, which in turn creates a reaction in the character, and so on. In sum, these events become plot. By meaningful, I mean the change must guide the character to some experience or conclusion that resonates with the reader and is predicted by the story (but not predictable).

Character trumps plot because a well developed and nuanced character reacts to the environmental stimulus in such a direct, specific, and unique way that the next part of the story falls into place. This is how I define a "character driven story".

Stories that lack, well, story, often have a framing issue. We get a lot of vignettes and descriptions. These are often lovely, often literary, but they aren’t stories. In these, the character change has already happened off screen; the character is simply following through on that change. But the story itself has already happened.

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

AP: Sometimes. If the story is otherwise excellent but just not right for our publication (it's too violent, too explicit, etc) I'll let the author know.

SQF: What do you consider to be the primary responsibilities of an editor?

AP: I'm  what you could call a "level 2" slush reader. Once the slush reading team I’m assigned to votes, I sort out which stories will move on to the final winnowing round (which are read by all readers). My primary responsibility is to identify stories that reflect FFO's editorial vision and will entertain our readers.

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

AP: What does a rejection mean? The only thing it means for certain is that that story wasn't right for our publication at that time. We reject great stories all the time -- we have to. This could be because we already just published a story about zombies on a spaceship. It could be because of content (FFO shoots for a PG-13 rating). At some point it comes down to personal taste. The story just didn't tickle enough of our readers the way they like to be tickled.

But it can mean that the story has issues and may get rejected by other publications, and based on the answers on this blog, it seems most editors are looking for very similar things (though they may define them differently – that’s where taste comes in). So a rejection can mean your story could benefit from workshopping and a revision.

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

3/29-Six Questions for Cameron Eigner, Founding Editor, -ality

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