Friday, June 24, 2016

Six Questions for Nancy Kay Clark, Editor, CommuterLit

CommuterLit publishes short stories, memoir, novel excerpts and poetry, in any genre with a word count of 500 to 4000 words. Read the complete guidelines here.

SQF: Why did you start this magazine?

Nancy Clark: I started my career in the late 1980s as a print magazine writer and editor in Toronto. By 2010, the digital revolution had changed the magazine industry drastically. By then if you wanted to stay in the magazine industry, you needed to know how to write and edit not only for print but for online platforms, how to run a blog and website, how to produce audiovisual content, how to put together enewsletters and how to promote yourself and your publication through social media. Also by 2010, I had begun to write fiction and had joined a local writers’ group, where we offered each other support and consolation for the plethora of rejections we constantly received.

Meanwhile, blogs I read and seminars I attended kept telling me about the self-publishing revolution and how, even if you got picked up by a traditional publisher, you would have to actively participate in creating and promoting not only your work, but yourself as a brand. You would have to grow your own readership.

So what was an often-rejected print dinosaur like me to do? Well, like many of my fellow introverts and non-digital natives, I was uncomfortable with the thought of revealing myself online in a personal blog and the idea of constant self-promotion was daunting. I also knew that with a young family and other paying gigs on the go I didn’t have the time to feed a blog all by myself. I also wanted to promote not only my own work, but the work of my colleagues in my writers’ group.

My solution was to create a literary ezine that would take advantage of the mobile technology coming on stream. I would publish a short story or poem every weekday that the public-transit commuting public could read on their way to work in the morning. This would allow me to learn about online media and self promotion as I went along, which would benefit my wider magazine career. It would allow me to promote myself and my own fiction writing, and because I opened the submissions up to all, I could help promote members of my writers’ group as well.

It’s been a great learning experience and an interesting ride. Certainly, I have made mistakes, but the benefits have been worth it. Today, the ezine is still small, but it is a tight-knit community of people who love to read and write fiction.

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

NC: Because the ezine posts four or five new pieces per week, it has many slots to fill — unlike ezines that post on a monthly or bimonthly basis. Therefore, CommuterLit needs constant submissions. Each week, I choose the best four or five from the submission pool. So, as you can imagine the quality varies from week to week and so CommuterLit has become known as a site that accepts pieces from beginner writers. Often, first-time contributors tell me that this is the first time their work has been accepted anywhere.

That’s not to say that I never reject a submission — of course I do. Or that all our contributors are beginners. Our contributors write in a variety of genres and have different levels of experience.

But I’m okay with CommuterLit being known as a good place for beginners to submit. We all have to start somewhere.

I’m not looking for a perfect short story. I’m looking for potential. Something that has an interesting plot twist, an intriguing premise or theme, a character or voice that grips me. I’m looking for something that makes me laugh out loud, makes me tear up or makes me angry. Mostly, I love stories that make me think — that layer on theme over plot over character. Without a theme, without a viewpoint, it’s just an anecdote that you tell at a cocktail party — amusing, but forgettable.

Submitters to CommuterLit must also be mature enough to accept the constructive criticism offered in the online comments. I moderate the comments — I will not post vicious, personal attacks — but often a fellow CL contributor will post a blunt comment about a story and then an online debate will ensue over plot points or character development. Submitters must accept that a critical comment about their work is not a critical comment about themselves. It’s actually valuable feedback for them as they develop as a writer.

SQF: What most often turns you off to a submission?

NC: Gratuitous violence — depictions of violent acts that seem to have no other point in the story other than to shock.

Overwriting — this is usually the mark of an inexperienced writer, who either is in love with descriptive imagery and piles it on thick or does not trust the readers’ intelligence enough and explains everything in great chunks of exposition.

These kinds of sentences: “Why, yes I’d love to dance,” she smiled.  or “You’re crazy,” he laughed. You can say words, yell them, whisper them, screech them or even bark them, but you cannot laugh or smile them.

Clichéd plots or characters.

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

NC: No, sorry, there are too many submissions for that. Sometimes, I will accept something on the proviso that something in the text is changed, and then I will explain my reasoning and give feedback.

SQF: You also offer a critique service. What, specifically, do you provide and how much does it cost?

NC: The critique service is my solution for not being able to give feedback to everyone. Whether I accept a story for posting on CL is a separate issue, but regardless if someone wants feedback on a submission he or she can pay $50 and I will deliver a two- or three-page critique of the work. Often, writers have taken that feedback, redrafted the story and resubmitted it to CL and I’ve accepted it for posting — whereas their first draft I would not have accepted. Sometimes, they don’t want to submit the piece to CL, but just want to pay for the critique, which is fine also.

On my site, I also include pricing for manuscript critiques of larger pieces of work.

You can read about what my clients say about my critique service here.

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

NC: I guess whether it is worth having your work accepted and posted on the many online literary websites on the Web, including CommuterLit — particularly if contributors are not getting paid. Like many ezines, CommuterLit cannot afford to pay contributors. The little money I get in annual donations to the site and from the critique service, I use primarily to keep the site afloat and to cover some of my time. As a working writer and editor, the fact that I can’t pay my writers has bothered me greatly. I have tried various strategies — asking for online donations to specifically pay the writer after each story or poem posted and producing two print-on-demand CL anthologies, but the response was disappointing. I also know that because there are so many sites and self-published titles out there, promoting yourself and finding and growing a readership for your work are in many ways even more difficult tasks than they were in 2010 when I started CL.

I continually try to deliver benefits to my contributors in the form of professional development and to promote their work as best I can. I also continue to try to figure out how to pay contributors. But I have come to the conclusion that it’s got to be a two-way street. Contributors must also help promote CL through their own networks, must be willing to coach and support their fellow contributors through the comment streams and finally be willing to pay for online content if they themselves wish to be paid.

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


  1. CommuterLit is right on track! @mitchell_toews

    1. May I add that Nancy Kay Clark is one of the most accepting of editors and it's a pleasure to see acceptances (and rejections) come back so quickly. She's published nine of my stories and is a favorite market.