SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a story and why?
AB: First of all, I’m going to state how awkward I feel making these claims. It feels like trying to pinpoint what I find attractive in a romantic partner. Dark hair? Blonde hair? Tall? Short? None of that ever really matters. Attraction is always about the unique individual (and chemistry and hormones and, I don’t know, string theory or something). I think the same applies to stories. Each story, no matter its parts, can be wonderful.
At the same time, there are certain things hoped for, and it’s probably best to know them and be honest about them (likes Townes Van Zandt, doesn’t kick puppies…I think this just turned into a dating column, I’m going to stop now). So, here are some hopes, or some guidelines, in any case.
Language – I look for language that breaks me in some way. I want to read back over a line or two and marvel. I want to be jealous of those words. I want a sense that the author has taken care with their work.
Revelation – This is a tricky word. I definitely don’t mean that a character needs to come to some sort of revelation about his or her life (Why, of course I should stop mainlining heroine and go back to school! Thanks, Inspiring English Teacher!). I will say, however, that the stories I like best reveal something about others, or myself, or a culture, or physics, etc……… I guess when I say revelation, I mean discovery. I want to discover something as a reader.
Investment – This is another tricky word. (Most words are tricky. I’ll stop saying this.) I want to be invested in the story. Ideally, at the end of the story, I will continue to imagine the lives of the characters.
SQF: What are the top three things that turn you off to a story and why?
AB: I think we can take the three above and reverse them for this: A story with no sense of discovery comprised of careless language and featuring innocuous characters.
Things I am not exactly the largest fan of, although a good writer can change my mind:
- Stories about academics, or writers, or students trying to become academics or writers
- Machismo stories (Masculine stories are great. Swagger stories are great. Machismo is a false, blustering kind of masculinity. Machismo is Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds.)
SQF: What advice can you offer new authors hoping to publish their first story?
AB: I don’t know that advice can be specific to new authors. Some pretty standard comments:
- Read the journal to which you are submitting. Ours, like most online journals, has an archives section, so it’s pretty simple. (And, really, why would you want to be published somewhere unless you love their work? What if they accept your story, and then you read a few past issues and discover that you think they publish crap? Wouldn’t that be far, far worse?)
- Make your bio concise. Even if you decide to go the quirky bio route, make it briefly quirky.
- Don’t, and I repeat, DO NOT, respond to a rejection.
The journal just didn’t “get” how awesome your story was, right? It’s their fault entirely, those stupid jerkfaces.
Look, maybe this is the case. We all know tales of amazing stories being rejected by lit journals. Maybe one day your hard work will be just such a tale. Let your amazing story being published elsewhere be the response to rejection. Let the jerkfaces be the ones in the wrong (with their stupid, sad, jerkfaces). Although the publishing world can seem giant and amorphous, it’s really very small. We all talk to one another, and nothing beats a great angry submitter story. They get passed around, taped to office walls, posted on Twitter. One inebriated rant against the oppressive oligarchy of Stupid Jerkface Journal, and it’s highly possible that your name will become a punch line. Your name is important. Resist.
My only other advice would be this: Don’t despair. Don’t take it personally. Keep working.
SQF: Do you provide comments when you reject a story?
AB: If the submission has impressed me in some way, then yes. I (we) usually let this person know that we would like to see more work if it is available. For the most part, however, a rejection is clean and impersonal. I admire the process at Our Stories more than can possibly be expressed, and, as a writer, I understand how getting a personal rejection can be helpful and encouraging. But, as a writer, I also know that an impersonal rejection is not more of a rejection.
SQF: What do you consider to be the primary responsibilities of an editor?
AB: My primary responsibility at The Umbrella Factory is pretty simple: find fiction we can all be proud to publish.
But I have a responsibility to those submitting as well. I do not read submissions when I am tired or cranky or hungry (this leaves a pretty small window of time in my day). Did you read that report about judges being more likely to give harsh sentences just before lunch? We all like to think we use our gut to decide if a story is what we are looking for, but, ya know what? Sometimes our guts just need cheeseburgers. I promise those submitting to The Umbrella Factory that their work will never be rejected because I need a cheeseburger.
In the largest possible sense, I have a responsibility to promote and foster quality contemporary short fiction. That’s what I try to get at with my section on our “The Beginning” page.
SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?
AB: Um, “Who will take the AL Central?”
I’m actually quite glad that this interview was brief. I think setting parameters can be helpful, but trying to codify something this subjective can also be pretty damaging, maybe even silly.
Do I like redheads?
Do I exclusively date redheads?
Good grief, of course not.
Thank you, Amanda. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.
NEXT POST: 5/31--Six Questions for Cetywa Powell, Editor, Underground Voices