Friday, February 19, 2010

Six Questions for Camille Gooderham Campbell, Managing Editor, Every Day Fiction

Every Day Fiction publishes fiction of 1000 words or fewer. All genres are acceptable, as well as stories that don't fit neatly into any category. The magazine caters to an adult readership, but is not interested in publishing stories containing gratuitous sex and violence. Since much of EDF’s readership may be reading from work or over a meal, anything that you wouldn’t feel comfortable reading on a workplace computer or wouldn’t want to read while eating is unlikely to be suitable for this market. Read the complete guidelines here.

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

CGC: The very first thing I look for is competent prose. Almost anything else can be addressed in a rewrite if the piece overall seems worth it, but if the basic word-stringing skills aren’t there, the piece won’t be salvageable. Online flash fiction depends on readable prose—either sparse/clean or lyrical/poetic styles can work particularly well, so those are usually what we look for. Dense hard-to-read prose is a killer with an online readership, even if it’s well crafted; while a literary novel might get a careful close reading and complex prose might be appreciated, an online flash fiction piece has only seconds to hook a reader and stop him or her from clicking away.

Provided that the prose is up to standard, I have to see a story arc (also known as a plot). Because we deal exclusively with flash fiction, often the story arc can be implied, hinted at or sketched in, but it has to be there. Something has to happen, or we have to be able to tell that something has happened leading up to (or will happen as a result of) the part of the story that is given to us in the flash piece. Subtle plots are okay (as long as we get them), and internal story arcs (also known as character arcs) are fine too. I know this is a tough one—a frequent point of debate in our readers’ comments is whether something is or is not a story—so it comes down to a judgement call: if two out of three of us agree that there’s a story arc, then there’s a story arc.

The other key thing that I need to get from a piece is a theme or purpose. I’ve got to take something away from reading it, whether it’s as simple as a good laugh (or groan, or shudder, or warm fuzzy feeling), or a complex point that leaves me thinking all day. Stories that leave me thinking “so what’s the point here?” are always a fail for me, no matter how nice the prose is or how technically solid the story arc might be.

In all honesty, though, the very best stories just carry me away and I forget to look for these things or anything. If I can forget to be an editor and just read, then the story has won me regardless of anything else.

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

CGC: Usually, the plot is one we’ve seen too often and/or doesn’t bring anything new to the table. This can be a short-term thing or a long term thing. In the short term, it’s maybe just bad luck or bad timing—we might have just accepted a similar piece, or sometimes we’ll see a run on something really random, like insect’s perspective stories or seniors finding romance. Actually, runs like that lead me to wonder whether they are a result of some writing prompt somewhere on the internet, so if you are writing from a very specific prompt that’s also available to thousands of other writers, that’s something to be aware of. In the long term, there are plots we always see way too often—a particular least-favourites of mine is wise superior beings/aliens/gods passing judgement on bad humans and destroying the earth—and standard stock that doesn’t add a twist or say something new (vampires, werewolves, and fairytale retellings run a strong risk of falling into this category).

Fairly regularly, we see pieces that are clearly excerpts from novels in progress. Even when there’s a nice self-contained story arc, excerpts often betray themselves by references to other happenings, overly familiar references to characters we’ve never met, relationships too complex to explain without a lot of backstory, and chunks of exposition brought in to explain things a novel reader would have picked up earlier.

We also get stories that are very good, but that we can’t accept because they won’t suit our readership. Since the majority of our readership is coming to EDF either from a workplace computer (presumably on a break!) or over a meal, or both, we try to avoid anything too stomach-churning or sexually inappropriate. We get all kinds of cannibalism and other gruesome horror, and erotica pieces, but unless they are incredibly understated and subtle, we can’t publish them. While we occasionally take a chance on a borderline piece, usually these types of stories are automatic rejections; we even have a slush folder for inappropriate submissions.

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

CGC: Probably the most common culprit we see is the trick-you twist, where the reader is deliberately misled at the beginning to prime a twist ending. For a twist to work, the clues have to be there. Character A can’t be genuinely frightened of the murderer at the beginning if it turns out she’s the murderer at the end.

Another common problem that we encounter pretty regularly is the rushed ending. Since our word count limit is firm at 1000 words, we often see a good story spoiled by an ending that’s either so condensed as to be hardly an outline, or else tacked on so randomly that it’s almost a non-sequitur. Additional clues that the author squeezed the piece down to fit are: a word count right up there at 999 or 1000, and prose and pace that are consistently well-handled throughout and then deteriorate in the last couple of paragraphs. If a piece isn’t staying nicely under 1000 words, then do it justice and go for a longer form—squeezing will ruin it.

My personal least-favourite issue is the dead narrator. When a story told from the first-person point of view ends with the narrator dying, how is the story being told? Unless the narrator is quite clearly speaking from a ghostly post-death perspective, or has left us the story in the form of a letter or diary entry, this one’s a major credibility buster for me.

Finally, both all-dialogue stories and second-person point-of-view stories are extremely hard to pull off and take a lot of skill to deliver effectively. The best are brilliant, but most don’t make the cut.

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

CGC: Always.

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?

CGC: Generally authors don’t need to reply to rejection notices at all, though it’s a nice gesture if someone feels like thanking us for our time or telling us that the comments we made were helpful or some such polite response—it’s not necessary at all and we don’t expect responses, but a “courtesy” reply of that sort does no harm.

I have no problem with genuine questions about our comments—if an author doesn’t understand a comment, is interested in more elaboration, or wants to clarify whether s/he has understood what we said correctly, that’s just fine and I will always take the time to respond to those sorts of questions. However, we occasionally get “questions” that are really a thinly veiled disagreement, which I do find off-putting. Answering the same question four or five times and then seeing the same issues/problems with the author’s submissions over and over frustrates me as well because if the author isn’t learning from the answers and yet keeps asking the same questions then I feel like I’m wasting time, talking to a wall. Sadly, these are often the same people who don’t read submission guidelines.

The most futile sort of post-rejection email is the one in which the author feels a need to explain something post-rejection (e.g., “I understand that you wanted to know more about X’s motivation, but my intention was to show that X was mindless and had no motivation…”) because if the author’s intent wasn’t clear from the story in the first place, then it didn’t work.

The blacklist? I would guess that most editors have one, at least a mental one if not an actual list. When someone swears at you and disputes your fitness to be an editor, cites a girlfriend/boyfriend’s or parent’s opinion as a reason why the piece should have been accepted, accuses you of “harassment”, and tells you that your rejection doesn’t matter because your magazine isn’t so great anyway… you can’t help thinking, “I don’t want to deal with this person again.” I don’t think anyone is likely to get on an editor’s blacklist (certainly not mine, anyway) for a minor faux pas, an accidental simultaneous submission or something, but there are individuals out there who don’t seem to realize that swearing and threats are inappropriate in a professional relationship, and my only option as an editor is to choose not to deal with them.

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

CGC: One thing you haven’t mentioned is the issue of revisions and resubmissions: what does a revision request mean, and is it okay to resubmit a revised version of a story after the original version has been rejected?

If we’ve requested a revision, it means we’re seriously interested in publishing the piece. If the author is not able to tackle that promptly (i.e., within a week or ten days), it’s a good move to send a quick email letting us know that s/he is willing to revise the piece and estimating when s/he will be able to get to it. Alternatively, if the author isn’t interested in making changes (and choosing not to revise is a legitimate option; no offense will be taken) a polite note letting us know that is much appreciated as we can then close our file on the story and move on.

What about revising after a rejection? Usually, no. Generally we do not take unsolicited resubmissions—if we’re interested in seeing it again we will ask—because we’re already overwhelmed by the number of new submissions. Taking a second look at everything would quickly swamp us altogether. However, if an author has made substantial changes and really feels the revision merits another look from us, the best course of action is to send a query first and convince us that it’s worth our time to see it again.

Finally, for anyone who isn’t clear about what constitutes a revision as opposed to a new story, if we’re likely to recognize it as the same piece then it’s a revision.

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

NEXT POST: 2/22—Six Questions for Kimberlee Williams, Managing Editor, Vanilla Heart Publishing


  1. Jim,

    I've been following this blog since it started and I would just like to say that I've found these interviews wonderfully informative.


  2. Thanks, Dianna. It's good to know that readers find these interviews helpful.

  3. Yes, seconded! Sterling work, Jim. Getting real advice from editors, and ideas about where to submit is invaluable for all writers. Thank you for this great blog.