Thursday, June 21, 2012

Michelle Elvy, Founding Editor, with Sian Williams, Editor, Flash Frontier

Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction, is New Zealand’s flash fiction challenge and competition site. We publish issues on a monthly basis, with themes for upcoming issues posted at the site up to three months in advance. Each issue also includes an interview, ranging from nationally acclaimed short short story writers and editors to up-and-coming experimental story performers. At Flash Frontier, we are building a community of short fiction writers, one story at a time.

Flash Frontier publishes prose to 250 words. Read the complete guidelines here.

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

Flash Frontier: We always look for something fresh, something unexpected. If a story grabs us from the beginning – from the title or first sentence – we are thrilled.

We also like layers -- there has to be something going on beyond the obvious, under the skin of the piece.

We encourage stories that provoke new thoughts or ideas, that leave you with something to mull over long after you’ve read the page.

All these things are possible to do in a short piece of fiction. That’s the challenge of writing excellent flash fiction: creating something long-lasting in such a short space. 

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

FF: We reject stories that are trite or clichéd. If it’s predictable, we steer clear. This might have to do with character, or plot or the popular “gotcha” ending. The “gotcha” ending might be a fun exercise in writing, but it’s not for us.

We also reject stories that are not quite stories but short vignettes or slices of life. If the vignette is strong enough, we might suggest a rewrite by the author. Sometimes a character grabs us, but nothing happens in the story. Sometimes it’s good to give the writer another chance to delve deeper and to turn a vignette into a more memorable piece.

We reject stories that are poorly written. A misplaced comma or a misspelled word here or there is OK, of course; we care mostly about the heart of the story we are reading. But if we are confronted with a case of obvious carelessness -- so much so that it’s a distraction to the story itself -- that gets rejected. We like working with our authors to improve their stories, and we do quite a bit of that – it’s the give-and-take of editing, which is more often an interaction with a story and its author, not just a read-and-publish transaction. So we aren’t opposed to tweaking something with merit to get it up to standard – but careless attention to detail on a habitual basis in a story most often indicates deeper issues with the story itself.

SQF: What other mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a story?

FF: Change in POV in mid-story. A shifting or unsure narrator (if unintentional) is very distracting.

Difficulty with tenses and settings. If you can’t keep the story on track in one timeframe or setting, how can the reader?

And again, the “aha” moment stories, in which it feels it’s more about the writer’s inside joke than the story itself. We don’t publish gimmicky stories.

SQF: What is the best part of being an editor?

FF: The best thing is putting together something that is, in the end, larger than its parts. We read each submission in two ways: as a stand-alone piece (how does it hold up to the standards we set and expect?) and as a part of a whole (how does it fit into this particular issue?). The former is more straightforwardly tough: if a story does not hold up the standards we set and expect, it will be rejected. The latter is a more flexible: if we see weaknesses in a story but think it will fit into the issue, we’ll give it another look (and several more reads). If we decide in favour of a story for an issue because of the way it balances the issue as a whole, we might suggest changes to bring it up to standard. In the end, piecing together many disparate voices into a whole, with artwork by a New Zealand artist as well, is very gratifying.

We also like working with individual writers. There is a rapport that develops between editor and writer and we enjoy ongoing conversations with the writers who submit, some of whom appear repeatedly in our issues. At the outset of this project back in January 2012, we set the challenge for them to produce a story a month, and some of them are doing just that. It’s great to see the diversity and the development as we all continue with the project.

And our style choices rule! Sian gets to be as nit-picky as she likes about hyphens and Michelle gets to share her love of colons and semi-colons.

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?

FF: We read every submission carefully, no matter the quality. And we respond individually, always. We also recognise that this might be a new exercise for some – the condensing and consolidating required in flash fiction. So we try to communicate reasons why a story is rejected. Often it’s because we have to limit the number of stories we publish and we only choose the very best in the lot we receive each month.  In that case, we encourage a writer to submit again the following month. If we see merit in the writing, we let the writer know. If we see places a story might be improved, we indicate that sometimes too – we like to give writers who submit something to think about when we send the rejection letter. Sometimes it’s just a poorly written story, however, in which case it’s best not to get too specific.

Obviously, both editors and writers need to maintain professionalism. The writing and submissions process should never be taken personally. As with writing competitions (which we both, as writers, have entered and experienced our own fair share of rejection), a submission should be viewed with a broad understanding of the process, not from an emotional stance. Writing a short story is both an exercise and an art. Reading is the same. It’s all subjective in the end. But standards are set and excellent journals live up to their own standards. The writer must have an understanding of what the editor of a particular journal is looking for. Past issues make that clear.

At Flash Frontier, there is real variety, because we encourage submissions from new writers as well as experienced ones. So new writers should not be afraid of being rejected. And if they are, they should come back for more (with improvements).

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

FF: Who can submit to Flash Frontier?

We started this as a New Zealand-based project, so the answer is: anyone who is a citizen or resident of New Zealand (even if you are abroad) --  but watch later in the year for our international issue

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

NEXT POST: 6/25--Six Questions for Krisma, Primary Editor, Diverse Voices Quarterly 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for running this series. I've not long started my own flash-fiction website and reading about everyone else's experiences is very enlightening!