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?
SV: First and foremost, I'm always looking for stories with memorable characters; and more than simply memorable--characters who are well-drawn out, who I can empathize with, and who are well-suited to leading me into the story with them. I equate a story to a party. I, as a reader, have been invited to the party, but I'm much more likely to enjoy myself immediately at the party if I have someone I know and am interested in to show me around. So if the author uses a few lines to introduce me to the main character and help me care about what he's doing and why, I'll be much happier to keep reading about him, and, therefore, much more likely to consider the story for publication. Some of my favorite stories are ones in which the author succeeds in interesting me in a story, through the main character, in the very first sentence.
Secondarily, I look for something different, something unique about the story that makes it stand out from the thousands of other submissions we receive yearly. I'm not talking about gimmicks. I'm talking about something within the story itself that hasn't already been done hundreds of times before. Which means authors should be reading our magazine (and other story sources) so they're not submitting something redundant. Be aware of publishing trends. After the success of Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight series, for example, we were inundated with good-guy-vampire stories. Personally, I wouldn’t lose sleep if I never saw another vampire story again. On the market front, if an author sees that I’ve just published a story about scarecrows it wouldn’t be a good idea to send me a scarecrow story, because I'm not likely to publish another story about scarecrows again soon afterward. It's also a good idea to Google those lists of 'What we see too often' that many magazines have available.
Thirdly, I'm looking for writing that sparkles! Being able to write coherently is one thing, but being able to put words together in such a way that the prose SINGS is another. But singing prose isn't going to sell a story by itself. Otherwise we'd publish a lot more literary fiction. It’s really mostly icing on the cake, but it’s icing that’ll sell a well-made cake.
SQF: What are the top three reasons a story is rejected, other than not fitting into your answers to the above question and why?
SV: Aside from cardboard characters, redundant storylines, and bland prose, I'd say we reject an awful lot of stories because, simply put, they're not stories. Our magazine publishes stories, not synopses, not fragments, not plotless slices-of-life. We crave a clear plot and a clear resolution--which isn't easy to do in 1000 words or less.
We also reject too many stories over guidelines issues. We (as is true of every market) have our guidelines for very specific reasons, and an author is going to make me unhappy with him if he doesn't show he is considerate of MY time by reading and strictly adhering to the guidelines. You know, we're actually one of the more forgiving professional markets on guidelines issues. Most pro markets won't even give a story a sideways glance if the author has failed to adhere to guidelines. Automatic and instant rejection.
But in the end, most stories are rejected because they just don't turn my crank. Every editor, no matter who he/she is, has his own personal tastes, and oftentimes I reject a story just because I don't really like it that much, because I have some personal bias against its content or style or point of view. This is true of every editor. I can’t help that I don’t particularly like curry. If you put a dish of curry in front of me, I’m not going to like it. But there’ll be someone else out there who’ll LOVE it! It’s the same with stories. Submitting stories is a game of roulette, really. You spin, you send, and if you're very lucky you get the right story on the desk of the right editor at the right time. The good news is, if you don't give up and keep playing, you're bound to win eventually.
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.
SV: For our purposes at Flash Fiction Online, plot and character are of equal importance. We've rejected a lot of beautifully-written stories with interesting plots because the main character is two-dimensional, and we've rejected a lot of stories about fascinating characters because the plot is incomplete or uninteresting. Besides, they both serve important functions in any story. A plot makes for something to be interested in, but the character gives us a reason to care about it.
Personally, I tend to feel the same way. In my spare time, I look for books/stories with fascinating plots and well-written characters—both.
SQF: Do you provide comments when you reject a story?
SV: Sometimes. We have a three-tiered selection system. The first round, no. We really wish we could, but we don’t have the time to give personal comments to seven or eight hundred authors each month. Authors should realize that most editors and editorial staff members out there don’t do this as a day job. We have to fit it in with all our other personal, professional, and family responsibilities. So, no.
However, at the second tier, my staff team leaders have the option to give personal comments if they wish. We’re more likely to be helpful to first-time authors who are just getting their feet wet in the submission rat race, or to authors whose stories were well-received but just didn’t quite make the cut.
At our top tier—our winnowing round—all authors receive comments based on staff discussion about each story.
SQF: What do you consider to be the primary responsibilities of an editor?
SV: I’m going to frame this in an ‘I expect myself…’ format:
First and foremost, I expect myself to be true to my word. This means that I’ll be trustworthy, but also that I’ll expect authors to heed my word. If I say I’ll reject your story because it’s shorter than our guidelines allow, I’m going to reject your story because it’s shorter than the guidelines allow—end of story.
I expect myself to be fair. A good story is a good story, no matter who wrote it. I’ve rejected stories by pro authors and accepted stories by first-time authors based solely on the story itself. Our mission at FFO is not to further the careers of anyone. Our mission is to publish amazing stories, no matter their source.
I expect myself to be polite and respectful in all my dealings with authors and the public. Mind you, I will only stretch so far. I’m not hugely tolerant of snarky, conceited authors—like a recent author with numerous publications who submitted a 260 word poem to our 500 to 1000 word fiction market (remember my comments about reading guidelines) and replied “…good luck to you…in finding something half as good.” Um. Wow. I asked her not to bother submitting with us again.
I expect myself to work tirelessly in searching through the endless haystack seeking the sterling silver needles, the absolute gems of short-short fiction. And, in the end, that’s why I do this job. It’s what makes it all worthwhile. That moment when I open a story file, start reading, keep reading, get to the end and smile or wipe away a tear or sit breathless and awestruck. I suppose it’s the same kind of high that keeps people pumping nickels into slot machines.
SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?
SV: What’s the best piece of advice you can share with new authors?
Work. One of my favorite quotes is from Jack London, who said, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” Good writing takes work. It takes practice. It takes study. It takes determination. It takes persistence. The same apply to getting published. I won’t promise you that you’re going to be the next JK Rowling. In reality, not everyone’s cut out to be an author, just like not everyone’s cut out to be an American Idol. Some just don’t have the pipes, even though they believe they do. But there is no such thing as a successful author who has not done (and who does not continue to do) these things.
Thank you, Suzanne. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.
NEXT POST: 3/8--Six Questions for Kristin Roahrig, Editor, Lissette’s Tales of the Imagination