I had the privilege of being invited by Reflex Press to be a reader for their Autumn International Flash Fiction Competition. I hugely admire them as a publisher of, ‘long, short and very short fiction,’ and have been fortunate enough to have had work published with them previously.
What I gleaned from the many entries sent my way, was inevitably going to find it’s way into a blog post. There were several things that struck me, which I think might be helpful for writers in submitting work to journals. Every reader or editor will have a different take, but this is mine:
- Think about your title
Writing short fiction requires that you grab the reader’s attention fairly swiftly, and the title needs to do some of the work for you. It should do the heavy lifting of piquing and reader’s interest, before they begin to read the contents. The Association for Psychological Science says that a series of experiments by Princeton psychologists, Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov, reveal that, “all it takes is a tenth of a second to form an impression of a stranger from their face, and that longer exposures don’t significantly alter those impressions.” (Their research is presented in their article “First Impressions,” in the July issue of Psychological Science, if you want to find out more.) I would say that the title of your story will have a similar effect. You may have a great story, but if the title is weak, or even irrelevant to the story, the rest will fall flat. The title is key to a good story and can be the difference between an acceptance or a rejection. Make sure you take time to think about what you want the reader to know. What is the point of your story? What’s the context? And, what do you want the reader to find out? In short fiction every words counts, and this very much applies to the words in your title.
2. Read the guidelines
It’s an easy thing to skip past, but don’t. The guidelines are there for a reason, and you absolutely have to stick to them in order for your story to even get past first reader. Reflex Press has two readers for each story – this is quite common. Those that reached me had followed the guidelines, but there will be many that didn’t reach any of us, because they were too long, in the wrong genre, or highly offensive. If a journal states in the guidelines that they do not accept racist or homophobic content, don’t send it, although I’d question why it’s been written in the first place. If they say, do not send in work over 1,000 words, you may have a gem of a story that is 1,003 words, but it will not get past the first reading, because it’s too long. Cut it or find another place to send it. Have a look at the font and size required. Editors really dislike fancy fonts or multicoloured submissions. You wouldn’t sent a CV off like this, so don’t send in a story that looks like a poster. The most common requirements are Times New Roman 12, but check. I can’t stress this enough. Most journals will tell you they only want one submission at a time and whether or not they will accept simultaneous submissions. Follow these guidelines. It’s important. Find out whether it’s an email submission or an online submission, which format is required, a Word or PDF document, or pasting the story into the body of an email, and take the time to find out the name of the editor. Don’t misgender or mislabel. Do not be tempted to just fire out a load of submissions to different journals in the same format. It’s generic and editors can see that it’s not specific to their journal. At the very least, begin with, Dear *insert journal name* Editor. Make it personal, but keep it professional.
3. Read stories that have already been published
Familiarising yourself with their work, and with the kinds of stories that they publish, will increase the chances of your work being accepted. Don’t send in a love story, if they like dark, twisty stories. There may also be a request to add trigger warnings for certain content, so again, back to the previous point, read the guidelines. Does your work fit what they are looking for? Do you know what style of work they publish? If not, read some of their publications. It really shows when a writer sends in work that clearly doesn’t fit either theme, if there is one, or the type of work that the journal publishes. Some journals will give you ideas of what they are looking for, like SmokeLong:
4. Consider your narrative mode: Tense, person and point of view
We’re highly influenced by what we read, so be careful not to just plump for the familiar. Do experiment, but make sure you’ve got a handle on it before writing and submitting your work. Choosing the right narrative mode for your story determines the perspective and the way that your reader experiences the story. It establishes the relationship between the narrator, reader, and main character, if you have one. This may need a separate blog post at some point.
- tense (past, present, or future). There are six different tenses in the English language, but only three are generally used in fiction. Past and present tense are the most commonly used. Future tense is rare and difficult to sustain, but as with any rule, there are exceptions.
- person (I – first person, You – second person, or They – third). Third person narrative is the most commonly used, followed by first person. As with the future tense, a second person narrative is rare, but I’ve used it for some of my favourite stories to create tension.
- point of view (omniscient or limited). This really comes down to who is narrating the story. Take The Book Thief as an example: Death is the omniscient narrator who switches between first person and a third person point of view, describing all the characters’ thoughts as well as his own. It’s powerful and works in this context, but won’t work with every story.
The best advice I can give is, don’t keep jumping about. Find your tense, person and POV, and stick to it. So many stories begin well and start to flounder because there’s a lot of jumping about and the story unravels. Unless there is a clear reason to keep changing, stick to what you’ve chosen. Changing tense can be one of the most frustrating things for a reader, unless it’s needed and expertly done. The Book Thief is written in the past tense, with flashbacks and occasional flash forwards, but unless you’re Markus Zusak, leave it alone.
4. Don’t underestimate your reader and don’t attempt difficult themes unless you feel confident you can handle them
There is a tendency for many, and particularly new, writers to tackle either assault or suicide. These are important subjects, but they are often badly handled and over described, with heavy writing and a blow by blow account. Assume your reader is intelligent, because most of them are. Don’t give them every detail and keep the sorded details out of it. Some of the most powerful stories I have read on these issues are the ones where what has happened is only hinted at. Don’t hit the reader over the head with a sledgehammer. They’ll pass out. Even journalists won’t give you all of the details in an article, so don’t do this in fiction. It will really kill a story and make the reader wince.
One of the best pieces of advice I can give is, find the space between the words. Some of the power of what you write will be in what you don’t say. Toni Morrison explains this brilliantly in an interview in The Paris Review on ‘The Art of Fiction’ (no.134):
“The difficulty for me in writing—among the difficulties—is to write language that can work quietly on a page for a reader who doesn’t hear anything. Now for that, one has to work carefully with what is in between the words. What is not said. Which is measure, which is rhythm, and so on. So, it is what you don’t write that frequently gives what you do write its power.”