Unlikely Story publishes three themed issues a year: The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, The Journal of Unlikely Cryptography, and The Journal of Whatever Tickles Our Fancy This Year. We reserve the right to put out an indeterminate number of further sub-themed mini-issues on an irregular basis, or not, depending on how we feel. See below for specific details regarding each issue. Read the complete guidelines here.
SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a submission and why?
ACW: Well, you’re asking at an interesting time, as we’re in the process of restructuring our publication. The number one thing used to be: The story must contain bugs. Now that we’re switching focus from The Journal of Unlikely Entomology to Unlikely Story (which encompasses JUE) our focus is a little broader. Since we’re doing three themed issues per year now my number one item is: The story should relate to the issue’s theme. Beyond that, stories should be well-written, meaning the characters should have motives for their actions, there should be a plot with some point beyond being an amusing anecdote or an elaborate set-up for a “twist” ending, and the story should employ recognized rules of grammar and spelling. Beyond that, beautiful or unusual use of language and unexpected integration of our given theme are happy bonuses likely to win us over.
BM: Oh, do the easy question first, right?
1) Ekaterina Sedia in one of her anthology guidelines said something like "send me a story that haunts my dreams." Yes, that. What is that thing that makes a story haunt an editor's dreams? Couldn't tell you. But if you send us something that has that, you've just beaten 99% of your competition. Even if there are some serious flaws with the story, not all is lost. Those are the ones we'll reject with an offer to look at a rewrite.
2) I'm only going to do two, because I'm going on forever here... There's always that story that seems perfectly fine, that doesn't do anything wrong, but there's just something missing. Good characters, tight plot, interesting concept, all the pieces look right. It's just... not quite where it needs to be.
I used this metaphor in a panel at Balticon a few weeks back, and I think that, as a musician, this makes that indefinable "something's missing" easier for me to get a handle on. Hopefully it makes some sense to other folks.
Your story needs to sing. Every person you meet has a song, a cadence in which they speak (rhythm & flow), a timbre of how they present themselves (not just the quality of the sound, but their body language, and how they play the rests). Each of your characters has to have a song that is uniquely theirs. One character's song can be influenced by another character's song, or by circumstances (being chased by the giant spiders, vs sitting by the fire recounting being chased by the giant spiders, for example), but they shouldn't be interchangeable. I should be able to make an educated guess from how the phrasing is constructed, which words are used, etc., which character is speaking. The narrator is NOT the author (with only a handful of exceptions); the narrator is a character in your story, and has both a song of his or her own, and has to provide the framing music that ties all the various pieces of music into one intricate tapestry: a cohesive and interesting narrative.
Stories that do that stand out from the vast majority of the slush pile.
SQF: What common mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a submission?
1) Unreflective use of clichés and well-established tropes.
2) Stories that reflect the Isms (sexism, racism, etc.) of the author. Stories that take on these complex societal phenomena in naive ways.
3) Because it has to be said: excessive telling.
4) Stories that aren't stories (a piece that describes Author's Really Neat Idea in detail, but never gets around to having characters, or plot, or story arc, or much of anything else).
5) Stories in which the wrong word is used (authors should know their homophones and use the write won).
6) Cover letters that assume that only the male editor needs to be addressed.
ACW: If a story has nothing to do with the theme of a given issue, it makes it pretty clear the author couldn’t even be bothered to read the guidelines. While we won’t reject a submission out of hand for failing to follow our preferred formatting guidelines, it is a turn-off and shows a certain lack of professionalism. Ditto for a story where it appears the author has no interest in spelling or proper grammar. Everyone makes honest typos, but a manuscript riddled with mistakes will get tossed. While we’ve been lucky enough not to receive too many, stories displaying racism, sexism, homophobia, or any other prejudice have no place in our publication.
SQF: Will you publish a submission an author posted on a personal blog?
BM: We consider the story previously published, so it would be considered a reprint. Because we publish a maximum of one reprint per issue, the chances of it being accepted are lower, but not outside the realm of possibility. We strongly recommend that writers not put work they wish to sell elsewhere up anywhere on the public Internet—it will bite you in the ass (I speak from experience from when I first started submitting stories without understanding what "first rights" meant). We also recommend that if you do want to sell a previously posted story, you state in your cover letter where it has appeared, and when, and whether it is still viewable, because editors know how to use Google.
SQF: What do you want authors to know about the submissions 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?
ACW: As a general rule, authors shouldn’t respond to rejections. They should send the rejected story to a different publication that might be a better fit, and, if they’re so inclined, write a different story for us. Rejection isn’t personal, though it’s sometimes hard not to take it that way. A story that isn’t right for us may be perfect for another editor. If we like a story, but it isn’t quite right for us, we’ll try to give some kind of personalized feedback. If we say we’re looking forward to your next submission, we really mean it.
If an author politely replies with questions, I’ll do my best to answer but unfortunately time doesn’t allow for personal comments on every story. An author in that situation would be better served finding a critique group or partner for feedback on what is and isn’t working. If an author responds to a rejection with a rude/abusive email, they’re pretty much guaranteed never to publish a story with us.
BM: Unless the rejection includes an invitation to respond or an offer to consider a rewrite, just start working on your cover letter for the next market you're going to submit it to. If the rejection includes feedback, pay attention to it. Even if you feel the feedback is completely wrong (even if it IS completely wrong), it may mean that there's a problem elsewhere in the story that's causing the reader to misinterpret something.
If an editor sends a rejection with an offer to look at a rewrite, that means you're really close. Jump on that opportunity. Even if the resulting story doesn't sell, you'll have a chance to exchange emails with the editor and receive detailed notes/critique about what's working for that editor and what isn't. People pay money for that kind of critique. You're being offered it for free. Take it and use it.
SQF: What is the best part of being an editor?
BM: Um. There's supposed to be a good part? This is a trick question, right?
ACW: Discovering wonderful stories by authors whose work I haven’t read before. Finding stories I absolutely fall in love with and can’t wait to share with readers.
BM: Oh, yeah. Well, there is that.
SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?
ACW: The question: What would you like to see more of in your submission pile? The answer: More stories by authors from traditionally under-represented groups/more stories featuring traditionally under-represented characters. Basically, we want stories showing the full spectrum of human experience, which means more than stories by and about straight, white, able-bodied, neuro-typical males, living a North American lifestyle. Which doesn’t mean we never want to see stories featuring those characters, or written by those authors, but we don’t want that to be the only thing we publish.
Thank you, Bernie and A.C. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.
NEXT POST: 8/23--Six Questions for Darryl & Melissa Price, Editors, Olentangy Review