Monday, March 12, 2012

Six Questions for Pat Dey, Slushreader, 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 story and why?

PD: A fresh idea, or a new take on an old concept. I want to be intrigued, amused, challenged, given insight into someone else's world, a brief escape from this world.

Stylish writing. Not necessarily the literary kind, maybe not even grammatically correct, but prose that draws me in, that matches the milieu and its characters, creates atmosphere, that delights in the telling of the story.

Hope. I love reading about winners, people who overcome big challenges and little ones, or at least start.

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

PD: Not credible. I love SF, especially the incredible kind. But I have to be willing to suspend disbelief. The story has to hang together with an internal logic. No matter how daft its ideas, the incredible bits have to be consistent. The characters, their motivations, reactions, behaviours, too, have to make sense, even if “sense” in their world is nonsense.

Everybody dies, or MC kills everyone off or, even worse, commits suicide. (I sometimes think the writer needs counseling, or a shoulder to cry on, not publication.)

Abstract info dump, or a lecture pretending to be a story. I want to be drawn into the action, with a character I care about, a problem to deal with that's interesting and an ending of hope.

There's a fourth which bears mentioning, for the stories that avoid the first three. Short stories often have a surprise ending; it's part of their charm. But if it's a complete surprise it fails. It has to be foreshadowed, a hard technique to master but immensely powerful because the surprise feels real: one feels “Darn, I didn't see that coming – but I should have, could have, might have.” And that's a satisfying ending.

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.

PD: I would have said plot more than character when I was younger. Then, one of my favourite authors was Asimov, often criticised for his shallow characters. I didn't care because I loved his informed speculation about where science might take us ... and was no doubt shallow myself.

Perhaps because I'm older, and have read all the SF there is to read (or so it sometimes seems) I'm more likely to be attracted by interesting characters. Plot remains vital, as is a strange milieu (I'm still drawn to SF more than anything else) but it's more important that the characters deal with their problems and interact with each other and their world in a manner that's engaging. I like to feel they're my friends while I'm reading. I love it when, because of the strange milieu, somebody does something surprising yet completely in character: the Harry Potter stories are full of such delights.

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

PD: (Suzanne, FFO's Editor, summarises comments from us slush readers in the rejection letter.)

I teach adults for a living; I'm naturally inclined to offer comments. They'll often appear negative because, to save time, I won't bother saying things like “The fact that I'm commenting means there's something in your writing I want to encourage.” I'll try to summarise what worked, and what didn't. I often want to say, “You really ought to workshop this story before submitting it, to get the bugs out.”

I won't comment when the author demonstrates respect neither for me nor himself by not bothering to learn the basics of writing. Common symptoms include careless spelling, grammar or punctuation, no hook, juvenile profanity, 2nd person POV that jabs its finger at me, or quasi-literature buried in pompous prose.

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

PD: Consistency. When I buy a Gardner Dozois anthology of SF I know exactly what I'm getting: a well-informed selection of stories, some in the traditional Golden Age hard SF or space opera style, others more modern, softer science, even challenging subject matter. It'll be a roller-coaster of strange worlds, there will be something for everyone, lots of variety, some duds and a few gems, all firmly centered on speculation, nicely written with believable characters and milieus. I feel as though he knows me, a million like me, and how to entertain us.

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

PD: What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

The slush pile is huge. Statistically, the chances of getting published are remote. But it's astonishing how much of it is bad. Bad. I mean, really bad. For a decent writer, the chances of getting published are better than you might think. Trouble is, writing's hard.

So learn the craft of writing. Read three books, no more, on writing. Re-read your favourite stories but this time with craft and technique in mind. Then learn by doing: workshop your stories online at Hatrack River or Critters, or in meat-space with a local writing group. Not only is having your work critiqued a great way to find out what works and what doesn't, by critting other people's work one learns more about one's own writing. Read potential markets: find out what they like. Before submitting, either workshop the story or get someone you trust (in terms of taste and honesty) to read and crit it: revise it once or twice but not twenty times, for you'll lose the passion you had when you first wrote it. Put it to one side for a while, then read it with a fresh mind. Read and write, and read and write, and then do it again.

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

NEXT POST: 3/15--Six Questions for Jacob Uitti, Managing Editor, The Monarch Review

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