SQF: Why did you start this magazine?
David Steffen: Diabolical Plots as a publication started back in 2008. I hadn't yet sold my first story, and I kept hearing how writers are supposed to have some kind of online presence. At the time I was barely on social media, and so it seemed like I was expected to set up a blog, but at the time I thought blogs were pretty much all people talking about themselves (I have, of course, realized since then that there are many blogs that aren't just me-fests, but that was my impression at the time). I wasn't really that interested in writing about myself all the time, so I had pretty much written that idea off until I read Juliette Wade's blog, TalkToYoUniverse. Juliette didn't just sit around and talk about herself, she went out of her way to actively engage readers and writers in conversations about fiction. This got me very excited, and I decided that I would try to use a blog-style format to try to engage in the conversation with readers and writers. I started by finding some well-known authors to interview, books to review, articles about writing and etc.
The goal of the magazine remains the same as it did in those early days, though the exact content has shifted over time. It's been a long-term desire to publish original fiction on Diabolical Plots, and in 2015 that finally became financially feasible, and I've just finished picking the final lineup for year three of original fiction--now with a higher word limit and with two stories published per month.
SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a submission and why?
1. Does it make me care?
Part of this is that the beginning has to pique my interest as a reader. A short story of this length can't waste space--a big expository lump is going to kill the pacing and the reader interest. And there has to be something to keep the reader reading--humor or empathy for the character or some kind of intellectual puzzle, something to keep that reader reading. I like a pretty wide variety of types of stories, so "make me care" is a very broad statement, but when I'm considering each story in slush I am closely examining my reaction to it. When I read the beginning do I care if I read the rest? When I read the middle of the story am I looking forward to the ending? After I've finished it, is it something that I would recommend excitedly to another reader? These are all questions I ask myself as I'm considering whether to hold the story for the final round or not.
2. Does it stick the ending?
Of course, for me to make it to the ending, you have to pull off #1 reasonably well. But, the ending is one of the most important things as well--it should tie everything together, give some resolution to the plot and themes explored in the short story, ideally ending with a really memorable final sentence. Best endings are ones which aren't the obvious ending, but ones which make sense in retrospect.
3. Does it feel like something new?
You will hear that "there are no new stories". And to some extent that's true. But there are still stories that "feel" newer than others--that cover new ground in some way, exploring a familiar story from an unexpected angle. I have a great love for weird fiction--I love to read a story that's going along in a seemingly straightforward fashion and then something comes along that's completely unexpected that flips the whole thing on its head.
SQF: What most often turns you off to a submission?
DS: Overexplaining is probably the next biggest turnoff. If you spend 500 words at the beginning of the story describing the setting, or describing the magic system, or describing the orbital mechanics of a satellite, before something actually happens, that's going to be a problem holding my interest. If the reader needs to know these things, it works much better if it can be worked in as events rather than explanatory narration.
If the story appears to be one of my peeves is another big turnoff. I am so tired of serial killer stories. And stories that are entirely about a person killing their spouse or child because of annoying personal habits. Zombie or vampire stories can be a hard sell, but humor is probably more likely to pull those off for me than straight tellings because I think humor has better chance of feeling fresh. If a story seems like one of those things at the beginning, then my opinion is already sour as the story starts and I might start skimming extra early--I can be turned around, but it takes a lot more at that point.
SQF: Do you provide comments when you reject a submission?
DS: Rarely. Last year I was much more likely to provide personal comments. Since last submission window I acquired my first Smartphone. This tool helped remarkably in keeping up with slushreading--I could read a couple stories as I was waiting for the dogs to use the lawn, or when waiting for takeout food to be ready, or any number of other small moments in the day. The big downside to slushreading on the phone, though, is that I despise typing on a touchscreen. So I'm much less likely to type out a personal comment casually, and so probably will only do so if I feel that I have a very clear idea of what kept me from holding the story that I think might be of specific use to the author. This time most of the "held for further consideration" notices were even form letters, for the same reason (though it is important to me to give personal rejections to all stories that were held).
SQF: If you could have dinner with three authors, who would they be and why?
1. Ferrett Steinmetz--he has so many good short stories, and he's the writer of the AMAZING books: FLEX and THE FLUX, which may be my favorite books of all time (a wide open magic system that includes both bureaucromancy and videogamemancy, wonderful fully-fleshed characters, and epic scale).
2. Brandon Sanderson--he consistently knocks it out of the park in particular with his worldbuilding and his interesting magic systems.
3. Caroline M. Yoachim--She has an incredible number of short stories and they are ALL SO GOOD. She is also super nice and I'm sure it would be a great time.
SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?
DS: "What should I put in my cover letter?"
It might, at first glance, seem a little bit odd that I am suggesting this question. While the Diabolical Plots submission system does ask for a cover letter, because the submissions are judged blindly and I am the only editorial staff member that means that the cover letter is read by no one until the final fate of the submission is decided and therefore it has no effect whatsoever on the choice.
So why did I suggest the question? Because a lot of people write short story cover letters quite badly. And, to other short story publications, the cover letter may be read before the submission and may give the staff some initial impression.
Things to think about:
1. Watch for copy-paste errors. It doesn't look great if you send a story to me addressed to Lynne Thomas, or which offers a story to Liminal Stories, or which has the wrong story title.
2. Don't summarize your story. Short stories are not submitted like novels--a short story is short enough that at the vast majority of markets a summary is not expected. On the rare occasion that a market's guidelines ask for a summary, of course you should provide one, but otherwise leave it off.
3. Don't list things that aren't positive--for instance, listing a personal rejection to another market (it's still a rejection after all).
4. Don't make it too long. I've seen some cover letters that were 1000 words long. That's way too long--it should be a few sentences to cover the basics.
The best cover letter is pretty brief, possibly even terse. Just include the word count, story title, and maybe a few of your best sales if you feel they are impressive enough. If you don't have any publications to list, don't sweat it--don't try to invent things to make yourself sound impressive. We've all got to start better, and if your story's good, it's good.
(I personally am also fond of cover letters that make jokes or are silly just to break things up a bit, but I'm not sure I'd advise that in general unless you have some sense of the editor's attitude toward such things)
Thank you, David. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.