Friday, March 24, 2023

Six Questions for Dan Hankner, Editor-in-chief, Story Unlikely

Story Unlikely publishes prose of all styles, stripes, and genres, preferably shorter works, but stories up to 10,000 words will be considered. “. . .we’re looking for good stories, measured both by the quality of the writing and the skill in storytelling. We prefer prose that elicits emotion. . .” Read the complete guidelines here.

SQF: Why did you start this magazine?

Dan Hankner: The divide between the masses and the elites is growing, and it’s infecting every aspect of our culture, including literature. In fact, the arena of the written word may just be its origin. How often are the stories we’ve come to love – whether on the page or in the cinema – derided by the critics, while shallow titles devoid of purpose or meaning gobble up all the awards, accolades, and praise?

I’ve experienced a taste of this, only on a much smaller scale. For years I received positive feedback from editors who eventually declined my stories because ‘it just didn’t fit the theme,’ or ‘wasn’t quite the style we had in mind’. And I always wondered: who cares? Am I the only person who just wants good stories, regardless of whatever flavor of the month is currently trending?

Meanwhile, of what words of mine did manage to make it to the public eye, I began to witness the immense power that deep, meaningful literature can provoke. Do you know how many times readers have reached out to me, moved by the words I put to paper, weeping over their keyboards over a simple story? Me, a mere stranger, a million miles away, and they just let it all come out.

You don’t forget that - as a writer, and as a human.

While this continued, the industry took a radical turn, and I watched many authors - far more talented than myself - getting sidelined by mediocre pros. What was once a measure of writing and storytelling had been replaced by filling racial quotas, conjuring up new genders, and parking every dystopian plotline in the smarmy aftermath of global warming. I'm not saying these elements disqualify a story, but rather the story - in spite of whatever message you’re trying to sell - better be king. But it’s not…not anymore. And these publishers, either frightened to death by a prospective Twitter mob storming their virtual gates, or themselves having sworn fealty in religious-like fervor can no longer see past their own biases.

Somewhere along the way, an idea bubbled to the surface: what if I founded a magazine that shed all the pretense and just delivered the things I, as a reader, cared about? Forget rigid genre classifications, no more free passes to established authors coasting on past success, and to hell with the insanity of extreme politics. What would it look like if we just published stories because they were good?

Well, we did, and it’s working. We’re only two years in, and we’ve built an audience all over the world (we’re in 79 countries as I write this), with more people subscribing every day, every hour, and sometimes every minute. Like the American companies of yesteryear, we’re building our foundation on a reputation that delivers quality (stories and illustrations) every, single, time.

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


  1. Stellar openings (I’ll elaborate more on this in the later question)

  2. Aptitude and artistry in the writing.  After all, writing is a form of art, and art worthy of closer inspection needs to be dripping with days and years laboring in obscurity, trial and error, the 10,000 hours it takes to create a mastery of the trade.  Put in the time and do the hard work and your skill will bleed through the letters.

  3. Proper storytelling.  Generally, writers progress first in understanding what words to place in front of the other (which makes for aesthetic reading).  And although mastery of this is rare, even rarer is understanding how to turn those words into a delivery.  Think about your crazy uncle, your Grandpa Joe, or your best buddy from high school – we all have people in our lives who innately know how to tell stories, even if they’ve never put them to paper: pacing, buildup, suspense, character development and arcs, intriguing hooks and satisfying endings.  I believe proper storytelling transcends genre – or rather enriches it, which is why we’re not genre specific. Our ancestors knew how to do this, but somewhere along the way, we’ve forgotten.  If you can get back to telling stories so well that everyone stops to listen, then you’ve got what we’re looking for.

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

DH; Bad intros.  Like everyone, we’re busy and have limited time, so we can’t give every story a full reading – neither do we need to.  There are plenty of tells a writer will give in his opening page, and plenty of reasons for us to reject without reading further: poor mechanical (inability) writing, boring writing (no hook of any kind), cliches, formulaic writing, preachy writing/cultural or political dogma masquerading as stories, overly offensive (will elaborate later), and plot-lines devoid of character development are probably the ones we most often see.

SQF: What do you look for in the opening paragraph(s)/stanza(s) of a submission?

DH; We need to see that the writer has a firm command of language, and how to properly and poetically string words together – a signal letting us know we are in safe hands.  Alongside this, we need a hook.  By no means do we demand (as others often do) that the writer insert conflict into the opening.  Sure, that’s one way to hook us, but there are plenty of other ways: strong, engaging characters, descriptive, intriguing settings, humor, ‘the mystery box’ as JJ Abrams calls it; intros that give us a reason to read on.

SQF: Many editors list erotica, or sex for sex sake, as hard sells. What are hard sells for your publication?

DH; Obnoxiously political narratives, personal beliefs veiled as stories, excessive anything.  For us, PG-13 is great, R is fine if it’s part of the actual story, but we won’t go beyond that.

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

DH; “Why is Story Unlikely’s byline, “real people, real places, real stories (and plenty of fiction, too).”

Although we publish all styles and genres, we feel there’s a real absence in the market for true stories – call it narrative nonfiction, memoir, etc.  There’s something special about stories that really happened; not only have we felt this connection, but the biggest reactions we get from readers are often from the memoir-style stories that we publish.  Again, we desire literature of all stripes, but we have a certain affinity towards real life.  So much of our modern world is fake, yet we believe fiction is most powerful when it forces us to look within, and when it points us back to reality.     

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


  1. Dear Dan and Other Editorial Staff, Part of being a writer is finding your own voice/style. And as we writers know, connecting with an editor in part is about whether your writing style is on an approximation of an editor's wavelength. That said, whatever writing style best matches that of an editor determines a better statistical chance of placing that writing with that editor's magazine. My writing is more along the lines of "direct", without overly flowery descriptions that for me as a reader tend to bog me down. Two examples that resonate with my overall style so far are War Dog and Dan's delightful toilet ditty (how can you consider it "misspent youth" as long as you're on the can)? The writing in War Dog is very well written, and he handled the military aspect of his story delicately (given his own b/g in the military) without overburdening readers with too much detail or tech specific to his expertise. My being a retired geologist, but occasionally infusing snippets of that into some stories I write, is carefully thought out so that I don't lose the reader in a "too sciency" approach. Job well done on War Dog all round.

  2. Just a wonderful final interview question. That way, the interviewee can walk away feeling like they were able to address the points they wanted. Also, this rewards the reader. Wonderful.