A word from the editor
I try to provide all the information a submitter could want in our responses. However, for those of you who like to dig deeper, here’s a little information on how we respond.
I look at artists’ galleries. If interested to work with them, I discuss process.
The bulk of submissions are stories. Here’s how it works at present.
Stories are generally read within 24 hours. I read all the stories myself. If I don’t want a story, I send out a rejection. If I think a story has promise, I assign it to readers and assistant editors for a second opinion. (If you’re interested to be one, see the About page). When I get their comments back, I make a determination whether to reject the story, reject it with a request for a rewrite, or accept it.
For those who request feedback, I try to note either:
- a focus point – a one or two word suggestion on what to tackle first. This response generally means that I felt the story was a long way from what we look for, and the focus point is often what I see as the largest problem.
- blunt comments – brief comments on what we thought were weaknesses. There’s not always much diplomacy here, so beware.
I currently use the following categories, each of which has a specific response template:
- Reject (no feedback) – either the author requested not to receive feedback or I just couldn’t think of anything helpful to say (sometimes the well just runs dry).
- Reject (default) – most stories fall in this category. It simply means that I didn’t think the story matched our needs. The story may work elsewhere, and other stories by the author might work for us.
- Reject (encourage) – I didn’t feel the story worked for us, but there was something about the writing that intrigued me. I specifically encourage these authors to try us again with something else.
- Reject (rewrite) – I really liked the story, but didn’t think it quite worked for us, and felt it needed more than minor changes. I offer these writers the opportunity to submit a revised version of the story. Usually that leads to several exchanges before we reach a final version.
- Accept – I may suggest minor edits, but we’ll buy the story. Once we agree a final text, I’ll send out a contract for you to sign, along with a 1Q interview question. As soon as I get back the signed contract and your PayPal address, you get paid. A vanishingly small percentage of stories are accepted with no revision.
See the statistics page if you’re interested in a breakdown with a little more data.
What I look for
I read each story personally, and I make the final decision. Here’s what I find most important:
- Opener – Opening lines aren’t magic, but they do matter. I want the opening line to be strong. If it’s awkward, convoluted, or tortured, that’s often a sign that I won’t like the rest of the piece either.
- Prose – I can usually tell whether I’m satisfied with the quality of the prose within a couple of paragraphs. Occasionally there’s an exception for an experimental approach, but usually my read of those first paragraphs is pretty accurate. I tend more toward clever word choice, metaphors, and imagery. More Zelazny, MacKillip, and Vance than Asimov. Definitely not Hemingway.
- Characters – I want to feel engaged by the characters. Usually this means knowing what it is they want, and getting some sense of their ‘internals’. It’s not necessarily the same as liking the characters.
- Resolution – I want the story to have a satisfying and appropriate ending.
Below are some terms that tend to turn up in comments from me or the slushreaders.
- Not engaged – I didn’t feel engaged by the characters. Character is a big subject, but this usually means that I didn’t find a reason to care what happened to the characters. A key to this is frequently that it’s not clear what the character wants or values.
- Direction – In short story, you generally want your readers to know where you’re going. Is this a thriller, a hard SF story, a romance, an epic fantasy? Should we expect to look for prose flourishes, relationships, special effects? ‘Lack of direction’ means I couldn’t see where the story was going in the early paragraphs. Sometimes this can work; more often, it means you’ve started the piece before the start of the story, and you could consider cutting.
- Focus – Stories that lack focus may have set a clear direction, but then lose track of the path. In novels, there’s room for long excursions into the woods, and time to come back. In a short story (even a long one), you want to stay within sight of the road most of the time. Otherwise, your reader will start to feel lost, and to wonder why they’re reading about X, when they thought the story was about Y.
- Context – What’s the world like? If we don’t know where we are and what the rules are, the story may be hard to follow. I often see stories that start in a squalid hut, characters wearing coarse linen, it’s a long way to the nearest village, etc. – the mind goes naturally to fantasy. Then suddenly a blaster appears and an alien is opening a trans-dimensional wormhole to Zarquon. Sometimes that’s funny. More often, it’s confusing. Give us hints about the world – but not too many. A story that starts up with the Lkosia having fought the Pilouu because of the loss of the Iksluy, and that’s why K’cresu never talks to Xerumb during the Muli-Timba – well, that’s just hard to follow, because we don’t what any of it is.
- Start/End/Open/Close – In my terminology, the ‘open’ is the opening line or two of the story, and the ‘close’ is the last line or two. There’s a mythology about openers and closers that I don’t buy into – they’re not magic, but they are your reader’s first exposure to the story, so it is an important opportunity to set the stage or underline the theme. The ‘start’ and ‘end’, on the other hand are much broader – the first or last few paragraphs or scene. The end is usually the resolution of the story. The close is the seal that sets it in the reader’s memory. Starts and ends are about structure and workmanship, while opens and closes tend to be about poetry and metaphor.
- Polish/clumsy prose – These are versions of the same thing. ‘Polish’ means the prose is functional and workmanlike, but could use more subtlety or finesse. ‘Clumsy’ means the prose is less functional, and getting in its own way. It’s a step below ‘polish’ – the prose doesn’t flow smoothly and needs attention. It’s not a question of adornment, but of grace. Highly poetic prose can suffer from this as much as simpler styles, though it happens less often.
- Overwritten/overwrought. This usually means that the writer has gone overboard with images and metaphors. They may be good individually, but occur too often, or they may be strained from the start. Metaphors are great (cf. title of magazine), but should be used with care. They need to contribute to the story, not get in its way.
- Awkward backstory/infodump/exposition. You have to get your backstory in somehow (or do you? We often see backstory that could be cut), and the easiest way is to just dump it into one long paragraph. Most of the time, that’s either dull or interrupts the flow of the story. There are authorial tricks to avoid this (“remind me what happened in 2089, Linda”), but mostly they come across as just that – tricks. Ironically, a sizable infodump also goes along with insufficient context – clearly, the author knew there was a problem with information, but an infodump rarely fixes it.
- Grammar/punctuation/tense/semantic errors. Poor grammar, typos, sudden tense shifts, happen to all of us sometime. Too many of these, though, indicates the writer hasn’t proofread carefully. Semantic errors generally means we think you’ve chosen the wrong word – not just that there’s a typo, but an impression you don’t know what the word means, or you’ve chosen the wrong homonym. One thing that really gets under my skin, and makes me worry about our teaching institutions? See this.
- No story/resolution. A surprising number of stories don’t have enough story to them. That is, they’re slice-of-life pieces, or vignettes, or for some other reason add up to “So what?” ‘Weak resolution’ is my shorthand for “I didn’t feel satisfied with the emotional climax of the story. It didn’t wrap up in a way that made me feel reading the story had been a worthwhile investment of time and intellectual energy.” Sometimes the story just stops. Sometimes the end is fine, but just not strong enough for the bulk of story preceding it (a.k.a., the story was too long for the ending). As a reader, I want to feel some kind of emotional resolution when I reach the end of the piece – something that ties all the pieces together and makes me feel something more than “Gosh what a clever idea/unusual situation.”
Of course, we’re not unique in providing feedback to authors. From my own experience, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Deep Magic, and ASIM all consistently provide useful feedback. F&SF often provides great feedback as well. I’m sure there are many more venues that do, and of course Grinder and Duotrope provide an easy way to find these. Feel free to suggest other venues in the comments.
If you have submitted five or more stories without an acceptance and want some overview feedback, contact us, listing the top five submitted stories you’d like feedback on. If I see a common weakness among your submissions, I’ll let you know, and suggest areas you might work on if you want to sell to us.