Friday, August 9, 2013

Six Questions for Bruce Bethke, Editor-in-Chief, Stupefying Stories

Stupefying Stories looks for great stories, period. The editor wants "a story that grabs my attention, takes me away to an interesting place populated by interesting characters, keeps me turning the pages to find out what happens next, and at the end leaves me feeling that the time I spent reading your story was time well-spent." Learn more here.

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

BRB: First off, we're not exactly one publication: we're a monthly magazine, Stupefying Stories; an aperiodic "theme" anthology series, Stupefying Stories Presents; and a free weekly webzine, Stupefying Stories SHOWCASE. The kinds of stories we buy for these three channels don't overlap precisely -- it's more like a three-set Venn diagram -- but for a very good start at discovering what we'd like to see, check out SHOWCASE at 

The most important thing I'd add to the above description is that Stupefying Stories magazine is focusing on science fiction and fantasy these days. We have bought and run other kinds of stories in the past, which confused the heck out of reviewers and readers ("What is this mystery story doing in my science fiction magazine?!"), and we'll continue to buy other kinds of stories for the Stupefying Stories Presents line, but at this time, we're primarily an SF/F market.

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

BRB: In your lead-in you posed a dangerous question: you asked me to "list, in excruciating detail," all that I wanted to see in submissions. So first off, you need to understand that I'm not just an editor; I'm an award-winning writer with a thirty-year publication history of my own. Ergo, if I knew exactly what I wanted to see in a submission, I'd save us both a lot of bother, write it myself, and sell it to someone else who would pay me for the rights to publish it.

I guess that's the first thing I look for in a submission, then: a story that makes me say, "Wow, I never even thought of that! I wish I'd written that!"

The second thing I'd say to potential contributors is that, while writing is as much or as little of an art as you choose to make it, publishing is a business, and specifically, we're in the entertainment business. So I look for stories that I think our readers will find entertaining.

Remember, entertainment comes in a lot of flavors: it can be funny or scary, thrilling or romantic. Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry; make 'em cheer, make 'em sigh. But your readers are giving you an incredibly precious thing -- their time -- so you owe it to them to make good use of their time, and to deliver an entertainment experience that leaves them feeling something at the end.

I mean, something beyond a sense of depression, revulsion, nausea, or a profound wish that they could get the time they spent reading your story back.

The third thing I look for in a story would probably be called a complete story arc, but that seems a bit dry and lifeless. I prefer to paraphrase Mickey Spillane: it may be the beginning of your story that hooks me into reading it, but it's the ending that convinces me to buy it -- and makes readers eager to read your next story. Too many writers put too much effort into the beginnings of their stories and then don't so much end the story as let it crap out. I look for stories by writers who seem to understand that while the beginning is important, it's the ending that sells the story.

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

BRB: Trying to pare this down to a shortlist: the single biggest mistake a prospective contributor can make is to fail to read our submission guidelines. We've put quite a lot of time into refining our guidelines -- especially the list of things we do NOT want to see ( -- not because we're some kind of constipated prigs, but because there are things we simply do not publish, and it wastes both your and our time when you send us that kind of material.

I mean, would you send your hilarious parody of Fifty Shades of Grey that features a pedophile priest and an altar boy to Catholic Digest? Apparently some writers would.

The second biggest turn-off is just plain lousy writing skills. We see a lot of submissions from recent American college grads that could be classified as prima facie evidence that the author is either functionally illiterate or hopelessly aliterate. It's a big world out there; being an American no longer gives you an automatic advantage. I buy a lot of stories from writers in Europe and the Far East who, frankly, can express themselves in English a whole lot more fluently than a depressingly large number of recent American college grads seemingly can. Words, sentences, and paragraphs are the tools of this trade, folks. Learn to use them with precision.

The third biggest turn-off is just the opposite. We see a lot of stories from recent college grads -- especially recent Creative Writing MFA program grads -- that seem to be attempts by the author to stuff everything they've learned in six years of college into one story. The prose is overwritten, over-thought, and overwrought to the point of being incomprehensible.

It's okay. We know you just spent a lot of time in school and you're eager to show the world everything you know. Relax. Take a deep breath. You don't have to get it all out in one gush. You've got time.

And while I'm thinking about it, there's a fourth turn-off: kind of petty, but effective just the same. The name of our imprint is Stupefying Stories, and it's kind of a vocabulary test. "To stupefy" means "to stun or astonish." "To stupify" means "to make stupid." Address your submission to Stupifying Stories and it's dead on arrival.

SQF: Will you publish a submission an author posted on a personal blog?

BRB: Yes. We don't make a regular practice of doing so but we have done it.

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?

BRB: First off, it's nothing personal. Our submission-to-publication ratio has been running at about 30:1, so the vast majority of stories submitted are going to be rejected -- and worse, they're going to get form rejections. It's simple numbers. We don't have the space to publish every story we'd like to publish, much less every story that deserves to be published. We have to make choices, and sometimes we even reject terrific stories that just don't fit into what we're planning to publish in the foreseeable future.

As for follow-up questions: when we reject a story, we generally say everything we have to say about it at that time. While we'd love to give each and every author an individual critique of his or her story, our time is limited, and we're in the business of publishing fiction, not coaching writers. While it's my nature to say, "No, I don't mind," the truth is that I really don't have the time to do so. Any time spent on answering follow-up questions is time taken away from my primary business: reading new submissions and editing stories we're preparing to publish.

Beyond that, there's also the matter of the sheer volume of submissions we receive. To keep the place from getting cluttered up, once a story is rejected, it and all correspondence associated with it goes straight down the memory hole. So to even begin to answer a follow-up question about a story I rejected, the first thing I have to do is send my secretary off to find the story and whatever correspondence may be associated with it. And again, any time she spends doing this is time taken away from doing what I hired her to do.

Er, I do hope your readers understand that the Absolutely Worst Possible Thing To Do is to write back and argue with an editor who has rejected your story. This is the one guaranteed way to get your name on the editor's "Known Jerks/Reject on Sight" list -- which all editors keep, although not all will admit to doing so.

SQF: What is the best part of being an editor?

BRB: The thrill of discovery. I've often compared it to panning for gold. You have to sift through a lot of gravel, but every once in a while, you find a story that's pure gold.

And then you get the added fun of telling everyone else about it!

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

BRB: Sorry, can't think of one at the moment. Feel free to ask if you come up with one.

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

NEXT POST: 8/13--Six Questions for Jack Hill and Ana Maria, Editors, Crossed Out Magazine

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