Monday, July 25, 2011

Six Questions for Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom, Editor, Melusine

Melusine, or Woman in the 21st Century, is an online journal of literature and art by women (but not only women) about women (and just about everything else.) The journal publishes short (1,000-5,000 words) or flash fiction (under 1,000 words), visual art and poetry. Read the complete guidelines here.

(Ceased publication)

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

JEK: First of all, I look for careful crafting, a sense that the piece was revised several times, that each element, and, especially with a poem, even each word is there for a reason.

Secondly, I look for content that fits with what the journal is about. Although we're a woman-focused journal, not all pieces have to be about women or from a female perspective (or written by someone who self-identifies as a woman, as we welcome submissions by men as well), but there is certain (admittedly vaguely defined) territory that tends to fit with our aesthetic. It's fair to say that this criteria is pretty subjective and tends to vary from issue to issue.

Thirdly, I'm looking for something that's fresh or different, that pushes a new boundary or explores some new territory. Not every piece we publish fits this last criteria, but I make an effort to include a number that do in each issue.

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

JEK: Work is most often rejected because it has, frankly, an amateurish quality that keeps it from achieving its potential. This is probably the number one reason most journals reject work, and I know my own work has been rejected for this reason many times since I began sending it out almost two decades ago. (I like to think, when it is rejected now, it's for other reasons, but I am probably flattering myself.) But there is nothing wrong with writing amateurish work in the first few years of seriously working at the craft, as long as a writer keeps working and revising according to feedback. I suppose it's a cliche, but simple perseverance (not just in re-sending out work, but revising, revising, revising and then re-sending) truly is the key to eventual publication.

The second reason would probably be that the work just doesn't strike a chord with me, even if it is fine writing that may very well be accepted elsewhere. It does come down to a matter of individual taste, which is why rejections should never be taken personally.

A third reason may be that the work is offensive in some overt way, although very little well-written work is rejected for this reason.

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

JEK: A lack of attention to details like spelling, punctuation and grammar is always a turnoff to an editor. I have overlooked these things when work excels in other areas, but it does create a subconscious bias against the work that I'm sure writers would want to avoid risking, so I think it's definitely worth that extra effort of a thorough proofread or two and definitely a spell-check. Besides betraying a lack of care on the writer's part, another reason for the subconscious bias is probably clear: more work for me, when it comes time to produce the issue. I can't speak for all editors, but speaking for myself, I am lazy and prefer to avoid additional work if possible.

SQF: What is it about the characters in a story that makes them pop off the page and grab hold of you?

JEK: This is to some extent one of those "I know it when I see it" sorts of things, but I guess it comes down to a matter of authenticity. Good character development doesn't just involve rattling off physical and psychological characteristics or repeatedly revealing key traits; it involves the writer really embodying that character from the inside through their words and then just letting the character do what that character naturally does. It's not an easy trick to pull off, but when a writer manages it, that's one thing that really makes their characters come alive.

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?

JEK: It seems to me that no response is really necessary when it comes to rejection letters. Writers have responded to rejection letters I have sent them thanking me for the time I took to read their work, and this seems thoughtful, appropriate and professional yet, again, not expected or necessary. To respond with anything between masked indignation and open anger seems incredibly unprofessional. I don't keep a blacklist, but instances like that do stick in the mind, and there have been one or two that soured me toward the idea of a writer's future submissions even when the work itself showed promise. An attitude of bargaining or negotiating for publication is definitely the wrong approach to take with an editor, especially with small press journals that have limited space, time and budget (if any budget at all.)

On the other hand, polite questions in response to comments are entirely welcome. Sometimes I would like to accept a piece with a few changes made, and it's great when editors and writers can work together in this way. I appreciated an instance when my own work was published after I revised a piece based on a suggestion made by an editor, and I have done the same as an editor.

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

JEK: I think you pretty much covered it.  Hmm ... let's see ...  Should writers include a bio if requested?  Yes, yes, they should.  And that's about it.

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

NEXT POST: 7/28--Six Questions for Shawn and Justin Maddey, Founding Editors, Barge Press

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