Thursday, November 9, 2017

Ask the Editor: Slush Pile Suggestion

Jack Belck wrote:

Slush piles are huge for one simple reason: vast quantities of writing coming in are, as slush readers know only too well, rubbish whose nature boils down to those submitting being close to illiterate and blithely ignorant of the way the language should be used, not abused.
Possibly the only cure for this excessive volume would be to require would be submitters to first email an item on the subject of x and no longer than Y lines.
The subject needs to avoid the overworked like love, loss, illness,ageing and birth. Length should be short because only the skillful can write tightly and well.
Those unable to meet these specs will not be assigned code numbers clearing them for future submissions. The slush pile will therefore shrink greatly.

That's an interesting suggestion, but impractical for several reasons.

1.  First, I can make a very quick judgment about a submitter's talent, or lack thereof, by simply reading the first paragraph of any submission.  A submission is its own 'audition.'

2.  Logistically, it would be more work for me to have to 'audition' writers before allowing them to submit, because...

3. There are far fewer writers who submit again and again and again than you might think. And VERY few who submit repeatedly, only ever receive a form rejection, do nothing to consider why they're repeatedly receiving form rejections, and continue to submit. 

If I were to do as you suggest, I would be auditioning nearly as many authors as I would otherwise be receiving submissions from.  It wouldn't significantly reduce my slush pile, and it would only make more work for me.  I don't like more work.  I'm human, and therefore inherently lazy.  I prefer to lighten my workload.

4.  An editor can only ask authors to jump through so many hoops before he starts offending not just the ones she DOESN'T want submitting, but the ones she DOES want submitting.  

5.  I would hate to have been black-balled from submitting when, as a hopeful but hopelessly naive teenager I had decided to submit a hopelessly immature story.  While it's true that there are some people out there who should rethink their dreams of being a successful author, there are far more who are developing as writers, who will learn and grow and progress, and maybe even write something worthwhile.  

6.  Our submission software (Submittable) doesn't allow me to ban authors.  I wish it would.  But I wouldn't ban authors for incompetence.  Only for inexcusable rudeness. THOSE are the kinds of assholes who shouldn't be allowed to submit stories--anywhere.  I'm much more forgiving of incompetence than I am with deliberate assholery.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

ASK THE EDITOR: Why Am I Such an A**?

Author With Self-Respect (AWSR) asked:

"I'd like to know why you think it is OK to verbally abuse prospective authors before they even submit to you? 

"'THANK YOU for thoroughly reading our guidelines! (Do it. You may wish you had, because I am JUST in the mood to dump your story in the trash if you don't follow the rules. Thank you! ~The Editor)' [A quote from Flash Fiction Online's submission guidelines.]

"'' [A link to our submission page.]

"You can honestly stick both the sarcasm - THANK YOU - and the attitude where the sun don't shine, and shame on anyone that allows this to pass unchallenged." 

Not unchallenged anymore, eh, AWSR?

I bet you thought I wouldn't have the guts to answer. 

Let's start with your question, and provide a definition.

abuse  n.  
1.  wrong or improper use; misuse:
the abuse of privileges
2.  harshly or coarsely insulting language:
The officer heaped abuse on his men.
3.  bad or improper treatment; maltreatment:
The child was subjected to cruel abuse.
4.  a corrupt or improper practice or custom:
the abuses of a totalitarian regime
5.  rape or sexual assault.

Have I used this warning improperly?  If it were true that properly submitted stories was the overwhelming norm I suppose it could be argued the warning is improper.  IF it were true.  If only it were true.  If only. *sigh*

Was my language harsh or coarse?  I didn't use any crude or coarse language.  I didn't phrase it in unusually stern language.  Considerably less stern than the language I used with my own growing children when they misbehaved.  But since when is stern a bad thing?  Stern warnings are not uncommon, nor are they inappropriate when circumstances call for them.

Is the statement mistreating prospective authors?  Only those who allow themselves to be mistreated by it.  There is nothing in that statement that mistreats anyone. 

Maybe I'm a corrupt totalitarian editor?  Closer to the truth, maybe.  But I am the ruler of the roost.  I am the one that must manage a huge slush pile.  I am the one who represents the magazine in the most public way--second only to our publisher, who would have been much more "offensive" had she been the one to pen those lines.

It certainly isn't sexual in nature.

How exactly is it abusive to prospective authors?  It very specifically targets only a portion of those authors who submit with us: 

"...I am JUST in the mood to dump your story in the trash if you don't follow the rules."

Only those authors who choose not to heed the submission guidelines should feel in any way offended by this statement.  And if they decide to feel offended and refuse to follow the guidelines they are likely to feel even more abused when they receive a form rejection--because I do NOT use up my valuable time telling every author why I reject a story.  I'm not paid NEAR enough for that.

Which brings us neatly around to a few hard facts about editors:

1.  An editor is NOT your babysitter.

It is not my job to hold your hand and pat your head through the submission process.  I will treat you with all the polite respect you deserve.  I am not your critique partner.  I am not your writing coach.  If you make a mistake during submission that causes your story to be rejected, that is not my fault, nor my responsibility to explain.  

Does my statement seem a little harsh?  Maybe.  But if it catches your attention and causes you to be extra careful in reading and heeding my guidelines, and if it causes you to be extra careful in properly preparing your manuscript, then I'm doing you a favor. 

(I could have said f*ing favor there.  Yes, I could. But I prefer to avoid coarse language.  It's extraordinarily unprofessional, wouldn't you say, AWSR?)

2.  An editor does NOT have time to correct your mistakes.

Truth: Most magazine editors aren't paid for their work. 

I'm not.  I've been working at Flash Fiction Online for 10 years now, without a penny of recompense.  My work for this magazine is done in my spare time--what little of it I have.   And we're not a small-beans pub.  We pay professional rates.  We are SFWA membership-qualifying.  We have 35,000+ monthly readers.  That, my friends, is no small beans.

I have as many responsibilities outside the magazine as you have outside your writing activities.  I process THOUSANDS of stories per year with no monetary reward to hope for.  YOU write DOZENS of stories per year with some hope of monetary reward--which, by the way, you may receive because some unpaid editor somewhere chooses your story over the thousands of others that land on his/her desktop.

Let me tell you something else:  A few months ago, I was rejecting 20-25% of stories because authors were regularly disregarding guidelines.  I took action in order to save myself some extremely valuable time.  

First, I edited our guidelines to include that harsher statement that AWSR has chosen to be so very offended by.  

Second, I added a required button to our submission form, in which authors must indicate that they have, in fact, read the guidelines.

What do you suppose the results have been?

A dramatic decrease in rejections due to guidelines errors?

Dramatic may be an overstatement.  I still reject 10-12% of stories due to guidelines errors.  1 in 10.  Still far too many.  It should be closer to 1 in 100--the honest error, the mistakenly downloaded file, the mis-typed word count.  If it was 1 in 100 I could justify using some of my time to give authors a chance to fix the error and resubmit. 

I am harsh to save myself time and to decrease the chance that YOU, ungrateful and easily offended one, will receive a bland form rejection, along with 99.4% of the other 8000+ authors who submit with us each year. 

Honestly!  Toughen up, put away your self-pity, spend more time learning how to write and less time worrying about potential emotional boo-boos.  Writing and submitting is hard enough.

To address AWSR's non-PC submitter-shaming ("...shame on anyone that allows this to pass unchallenged."), AWSR is the ONLY submitter who has challenged the statement so far.   

NOTE:  AWSR felt the need to publicly complain on Reddit (expanding the whining to include my preferred choice of fonts and for wanting Standard Manuscript Format!  GASP!!  The horror!) , in which discussion he/she found very little sympathy--at least from those who could write a legible paragraph:

So, you see, AWSR, I don't put up with abuse either.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Ask the Editor: Flash Series?

RaenaEnchant asked: Can flash fiction be individual stories in a series, using the same characters and setting?

ANSWER:  Sure!  Maybe.

It depends on whether each individual story in the series can stand alone as a story.  If they can't, they're scenes in the larger story, not flash fiction.

If you want an example of an author who has done something similar quite successfully, look at Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine.

Dandelion Wine is a novel, but not quite a novel.

With Dandelion Wine, Bradbury strung a bunch of short stories together into a narrative that he cemented together with additional transitionary scenes.  The result is a novel with a fairly thin plot--it has no more resolution than simply the end of the summer--but with some amazing stuff happening in the middle.  Most of the 'chapters' in Dandelion Wine can stand alone as short stories, or can do so with only a very small amount of narrative removed.

Denoting Scene Breaks

Scene breaks can be an effective device to regulate pacing, change point of view, or, simply, change the scenery.

In plays, a scene break is usually clearly denoted by the movement of scenery or actors off and onto the stage, manipulation of lighting, etc.  Occasionally, those scene changes can be fairly subtle.  Sometimes one actor remains on stage, within the same physical scene, while other actors move offstage, to be replaced by a new set of actors who bring their own opinions, passions, actions.

In fiction, scene breaks should never be subtle. 

In a final draft, the published version, the publisher makes the choice whether or not to denote scene breaks,  Often that choice depends on where on the page the scene break happens.  

A careful perusal of published novels will show that a symbol of some kind is not always used, but it is always used when the physical location of that scene break makes it ambiguous.  

For example, many books simply use space to show scene breaks.  But if the scene break happens to fall at the end of a page, some kind of symbol will be used to show that a scene break occurs.  Otherwise that fact is not clearly signaled to the reader, leading to confusion.

We don't want readers to be confused.

But more than the reader, we don't want the editor to be confused.  Especially the acquisition editor. Me.

How do we avoid this?

We use a symbol, as mentioned above, to denote a scene break. 

An extra space between paragraphs is not enough.  Just like that book with the ambiguous scene breaks, an editor considering a story might not be certain of the writer's intended scene transitions.

When it comes time to make that break, simply insert a # or a *.  Don't be clever.  Don't insert clever or lyrical symbols from some symbol-oriented font.  If my computer doesn't support or doesn't contain that particular symbol font, I may see nothing at all, or I may see some ambiguous box on my screen.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Why You SHOULD Name Your Main Character

A few minutes browsing through my slush pile will yield a plethora of stories that open with some unnamed man, woman, or child.  And each time I see one I roll my eyes and ask 'Why?'

The trend seems to be growing.  Do authors think it's trendy?  Do they think it adds an air of mystery or suspense?  Do they think it helps their reader place himself into the shoes of the unnamed character?

If they think any of these things, they're thinking wrong.

If they're not thinking these things I'd like to know exactly what they ARE thinking, because not naming a main character in a story makes very little sense to me.  And if you're just doing it for the hell of it--if you don't know WHY you're doing it--you shouldn't be doing it at all.

I suppose there could be instances in which it might be effective.  No.  Wait.  I don't want to give any author an excuse for doing it.  Just don't.  I promise I'll be more likely to give your story more than a cursory glance if you name your character, and I'll explain why in a minute.  But as I'm looking through slush I DO have an instant and automatic visceral reaction that negatively impacts my reading of your nameless character story from the very first paragraph.  And that's because SO many authors have done it--and done it BADLY.  I don't want to see it anymore, even if it IS done effectively.

Chances are, it won't be.  Trust me.  Best to not.

But why is naming a character so important?


You've moved to a new town and are looking for some social interaction.  You hear about a dance at a local pub and decide to go.

When you arrive you're a little hesitant.  What if there isn't anyone interesting there?  What if you read the advertisement wrong and it's actually a party for retired dental assistants?

But you screw up your courage, check the ad again to be sure, put on your best dress, and go.

You walk in the door, find the bar, order a drink.  For the first little while, nothing happens.  No one seems to notice you, or everyone is already paired or trio-ed up with people they seem to be familiar with.  You take your drink, knees knocking a little, and approach a small group of people who seem to be having a good time, who seem to be the kind of people you might be interested in getting to know.

You walk up to them, catch the eye of one of them, smile and say, "Hi.  I just moved into town."

Wait.  Something's missing there.  It should be: "Hi.  My name is ____name____.  I just moved into town."

Whoa.  Wait a minute.  You give your name when you introduce yourself?  Wait.  What?

Food for thought.

A name is a reference.  It says something about you, about your character.  It gives your reader an instant sense of familiarity, which makes your reader feel instantly comfortable with your character.  And if a reader feels comfortable with your character you plant the extremely VITAL seeds of helping your reader give a damn about your character.

That seed is crucial.  Without it your reader is always held at arms distance from your character.  Without it you may never be able to establish a meaningful connection between your reader and your character, and therefore between your reader and your story.  And without that you may not be able to keep your reader's attention.

I don't care if your beta-readers said they loved your story. I don't care if your critique group didn't complain about your nameless character.  In the end, your goal isn't to impress them.  It's to impress me.  If you don't hold MY attention, you don't sell your story.  It's that simple.

Why do we read fiction?  What KEEPS us reading fiction?  It's characters.  It's characters we care about or can relate to.

ESPECIALLY in flash fiction, you have SO LITTLE time to establish an emotional connection between your character and your reader that you want to employ every possible device to do so quickly.  A name is the most obvious and most effective way.

The NAME doesn't have to be obvious.  In fact, I wish more authors spent more than half a second coming up with names for their characters.  An interesting name adds interest that further draws your reader in.

Think about it.  When was the last time you met someone with an unusual name.  Did you say, "That's a pretty name!"?  Did the name pique your interest in the person?  Now a name that is TOO unusual can be annoying.  You don't want a name of the sort that those of us with an ounce of sanity shake our heads and think, 'He must have hated his parents all through his school years.'  Not THAT unusual.

Unless, of course, the unusual nature of the name becomes part of the story!  (Just because I said that doesn't mean you should run with the idea.  I'd hate to see 40 'unusual name' stories in my slush pile next week.)

But I digress.  The point is, give your character a fetching name.

Monday, July 11, 2016

ASK THE EDITOR: Question About the Definition of Flash Fiction

RaenaEnchant asked: Can flash fiction be individual stories in a series, using the same characters and setting?

ANSWER:  Sure!  Maybe.  Depends.

Flash fiction is a complete story in a few words.  For my definition, go here: What Is Flash Fiction?

Specific to Flash Fiction Online, flash fiction is a complete story--characters, setting, conflict, resolution--of between 500 and 1000 words.

To put this question in context, Raena is working on a project--a series of short segments that she can eventually compile into a larger piece.

THE most successful example of this sort of thing is, in my opinon, Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine.  One of my personal favorite books of all time, Dandelion Wine is, as most of Bradbury's work, a compilation of short stories.  But Dandelion Wine is unique in that Bradbury compiled a series of stand-alone stories, adding interludes and additional segments to give it a story-like flow from beginning to end.

To be fair, however, Dandelion Wine is a novel without a strong central plot, conflict, or resolution--though each individual story has plenty of such.

So the answer to the question is, "SURE!  IF each 'segment' can stand on its own."

A Scene is not the same thing as a Story.  A Scene has a function within a Story.  It is used to develop conflict in order to move the plot along or to develop scenery or characterization.  A Story contains Scenes that can be placed on the plotline of the story like popcorn kernels on a string at Christmastime.  Scenes are not usually independent of the overarching plotline.  The information within them often depends on knowing information from other Scenes.  And the STORY depends on all those pieces of information fitting together to form a complete and satisfying picture when the Story is complete.

If too much of each 'segment' relies on information present in other 'segments' of the larger story, it's not flash, it's a scene.  If your 'segment' relies too much on knowledge of BIG ideas--like governments, unique worlds, unique religions, civilizations, or technical ideas--it probably won't work as flash.

If too much of your 'segment' is spent explaining the missing information, it may BE flash, but it probably won't work WELL as flash.

A good flash story will be visually broken--very few large blocky paragraphs of information, plenty of dialogue and thoughtfully-paragraphed action.  I can often tell just by looking at the lines of narrative on the page how much I'm going to like it.  I groan (and NOT inwardly) when I open a story and it is a single paragraph.  Flash is dynamic, not static, and the way the words look on the page should reflect that.  The way each paragraph is constructed, the way information is revealed, the way characters are introduced, the way the reader is drawn into the story from the very first sentence, should reflect that.

If it's not flash, then, what is it?  Scenes.  Just scenes.  Put them all together and write a novel, keeping in mind that the disciplined study of flash can help make you a better novelist!

Oh, and read Dandelion Wine.  Figure out how Bradbury did it.  Try to identify the scenes that were added later to form the glue between the independent stories.  Very much worth your time.

Thursday, June 2, 2016


Standard submission format is standard submission format for very specific reasons.

Largely outdated reasons.

Standard submission format has been virtually unchanged since the invention of the typewriter.

Today, however, much of what we read is published not on paper but on screen.  Shouldn't Standard Manuscript Format evolve to meet the specific needs of online publishing?

I think it should.

Let's take a look at some of the specifics of standard manuscript format, why they might have once been useful, and why they might still be useful, or not so useful anymore:

1.  1" Margins and Double Spacing:  Editors of old liked space on a page.  They also preferred as small a bundle of pages as possible.  The compromise was the 1" margin.  A Margin large enough to write editing notes in, but small enough that a 300 page manuscript is only 300 pages, not 325.  Same goes for double spacing.  It provided a bit of space for writing in-line edits.

What other purpose does it have?

Some editors will tell you that double spaced manuscripts are easier on the eyes.

Hogwash.  90% of what we read--both in print and on the web--is single spaced.  In the hard copy print industry, this is so the publisher can cram as much print on a page as possible, saving himself millions in paper and printing costs.  We're accustomed to reading print in cramped quarters.

In the electronic publishing industry it's so we get as much information in one screen-shot as possible.  The more information I can see on the opening screen, without having to scroll too much, the happier I am as a reader.  Don't you hate those pages in which the picture takes up so much of the screen that you have to scroll down to read the description?

Today, all Flash Fiction Online submissions are electronic.  Most markets utilize at least email submission.  Very few still linger in the archaic days of hard-copy snail-mail submission.  In the electronic age we have the ability to keep manuscript notes in handy little electronic dialogue boxes or use the footnotes feature on our word processors.  There is no need for space.

I will, however, concede one caveat.  It's simply annoying to read stories with insanely wide margins.  Don't use 2 or 3" margins.  It's ridiculous.  It looks ridiculous.  It's more difficult to read.  It makes me a slave to my mouse's scrolling wheel, because a story that could be one page long is now three.  Honestly.

2.  Left-hand Aligned:  Actually, leave that one alone.  Don't mess with it.  Again, it's what we're accustomed to reading.  Books and magazines are left-aligned.  It looks good.  It looks right.

3.  12 Point Courier, Black Type: I can go along with 12 point type.  Don't make your typeface too small.  I'm not getting any younger.  Right now my glasses are perched low on my nose to compensate for the creeping far-sightedness that comes with age.  Near-sighted and far-sighted at the same time.  I refuse, however, to consider myself old enough for bifocals, so you're just going to have to make sure your typeface is big enough to be easily read (12 point), but not so large that I have to, again, be a slave to my mouse wheel because the type-face is so large you only get 20 words on a page.  Honestly.  Just don't do it.

I definitely take exception to the use of Courier, however.  I've blogged about it before.  It's insane.  Why Courier is still the industry standard is so far beyond me I can't even express my disdain.

Here's some courier for you.  Ugh!  It looks like I'm typing with an old Underwood.

Again, it's not what we're accustomed to reading--and we haven't been for a long time.  I dare you.   Grab any book or magazine off your shelf.  Open it up.  Is it printed in Courier?  No.  Why does anyone think I would want to read a thousand manuscripts in a typeface I don't read in any other venue?  

As for black type: If you submit in ANY typeface color except black, you richly deserve the rejection you will undoubtedly receive.  In fact, you deserve an EXTRA rejection, just to prove the point.  Submit in black, because your story will be printed in black.  It's what we're accustomed to.  My eyes don't like to read purple or orange or green.  Black only.  Still a good and wise industry standard.  

4.  Indents and paragraph spacing:  Guidelines on these types of spacing depend very much on the final product.  If your story will be submitted to a print publication, then Standard Manuscript Format still very much applies.  Print publications consistently use first line indents and no spaces between paragraphs.

However, online publication is a different matter entirely.  Go, right now, and surf the web for a few minutes.  Switch from site to site and observe how paragraphs are formatted.  Very few use first line indents.  Very few have no spaces between paragraphs.  Exactly the opposite.  NO first line indents.  SPACE between paragraphs.  This type of formatting works better in online publication.  It's easier.  We don't have to worry about the word processor formatting translating poorly into HTML. 

Here's an example from a web page that tells you that you should always use first line indents and no spaces between paragraphs:  How to Format a Short Story

Here's another example from a short story site: An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

And here: And Then, One Day, the Air Was Full of Voices

I MUCH prefer submission with a HARD RETURN (Please NO formatted double spaces between paragraphs--they disappear in html.) between paragraphs and NO first line indents.  This means NO use of the Tab key and NO first line indent formatting.

However, this brings up another problem.  Authors absolutely MUST indicate scene breaks with some kind of symbol.  A # or an * are ideal.  Very simple.  Small.  But absolutely necessary.  This should be done this way:

5. Header Format:  In the paper age we were told to dutifully put our last name, our title (or part of our title), and the page number in the top, right-hand corner of our manuscript.  This was because if, by some unhappy chance, an editorial intern happened to be walking down the hall with your manuscript and just happened to trip and fall, and if, by chance, your manuscript happened to be in his arms with a half dozen other manuscripts and he just happened to drop those manuscripts and scatter pages all over the floor, he would then be able to pick those manuscripts up and sort all those hundreds of pages in the right order and by the right author and story.

But I don't print your story.   I almost always read your story on my computer.  I can actually download your story to my Kindle, or read your story on my phone while I'm riding in the car to visit my sister.  There is almost no chance that the story will be messed up and put out of order by anyone but you when you submit it to me.  And if, by chance, something odd happens, I can always send you a quick email, asking you to resubmit.  It takes minutes of our mutual time.

There is no need for headers.  No need for page numbers.  My word processor or my submission software tells me what page I'm on and how many pages I have left to read.

In addition, some markets--including mine--ask you to remove all author identifying information from your story manuscript, so stories can be read 'blind.'  I like that process.  It allows for completely unbiased judgment of your story based solely on the story.  It eliminates the creepy and elitist practice of favoritism, and gives new, untried authors equal footing with the pros.

6.  The End:  Yeah.  Keep that.  Why?  We found out recently that our submission software sometimes clips off the last line or so of stories submitted in certain word processing software formats.  So, for example, documents that were written with Open Office or Libre Office would lose that last, final, climactic sentence.

By simply typing a HARD RETURN, then THE END at the end of your manuscript, you reassure yourself that you won't get clipped, and you reassure ME that you did successfully download your story correctly.

Of course, sometimes that can backfire.

If I get to the last line and it's followed by THE END, but I'm not ready for the story to end...

Just make sure you write a good, solid ending.

7.  Italics: When you italicize words, the italics will NOT translate to HTML.  In the old-school formatting guidelines, we're asked to underline words that should be italicized when using Courier.  Actually, it's probably best option for HTML usage.  However, neither underlining or italics are likely to translate over well.  Underlining, however, is a bit easier to see and pick out of a manuscript for later italicization when publishing.

So what do you do when something should be underlined?

None of the irregular manuscript formatting options--italics, underline, bold, etc.--are likely to translate over to HTML.

And, as far as I know there are currently no good solutions.  Just do the best you can.

8.  Author Information: Standard Manuscript Format says to left align these at the top of the first page.  That's actually still a good idea, but not really needed.  Again, it's a guideline needed for the paper manuscript.  The editor has your contact information in TWO places--your cover letter and your manuscript.  This lessens the odds of that information becoming lost.

But with electronic submission, the cover letter (your direct email) and your manuscript (the attachment) are inextricably linked together.  The greater danger is having your submission (cover letter and manuscript both) being accidentally deleted.  But that's almost always recoverable.

It's not needed, but it's not an inconvenience for our purposes as online publishers.

9.  Word Count: This is also still a good idea.  That word count might tell a publisher, editor, or editorial assistant how to sort your story.  Maybe they have different departments for different length stories.

For some markets, such as ours, that word count is crucial.  I actually LOVE it when submitters type the EXACT word count somewhere at the top of the first page.  (For most markets, a word count rounded to the nearest hundred for longer stories, or the nearest fifty for shorter stories is adequate.)  I don't care if it's top left, top right, or under the title.  Having it there makes my job easier.

I have done it.  I have committed publishing blasphemy.

Burn me at the stake.