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Bewildering Stories

What Do Editors Want?

discussion with Jim Harrington
and Bewildering Stories

Jim Harrington, a veteran contributor to Bewildering Stories and an editor of Apollo’s Lyre, has created a blog, Six Questions, which publishes a series of interviews with editors of online magazines and, hopefully, others. We wholeheartedly support Jim’s objective: to help new writers. Here’s our contribution to the discussion.

Thank you for your questions about editorial procedures and criteria. I’ve received feedback from three other members of the Bewildering Stories Review Board. I’ll combine the responses and conclude each section with my own comments, as Managing Editor.

1. What are the top three things you look for in a story and why?

Our responses fall into three main groups:

  1. Mechanics:

    Good grammar and spelling, as well as reasonable punctuation. A carefully polished prose style is also necessary; we often see sloppy writing spoil a good story.

  2. Characters and settings:

    Psychologically believable, three-dimensional characters; plot intrigue; vivid settings depicted and evoked in concrete details.

  3. Ethos — the work as communication:

    I want enchantment; that is, a story that pulls me along. And a protagonist or set of characters I care about; if I don’t care about them, I won’t care about anything else in the story.

    [Managing Editor] Two science fiction grandmasters from the mid-20th century may seem quaint now, but their techniques reward study. Gordon R. Dickson’s stories can hardly be called “enchanting,” but he has exceptional strength at the level of the sentence: he uses it to propel the reader forward.

    Isaac Asimov was a self-avowed agoraphobe and had to struggle to create any settings at all, never mind vivid ones. Yet he genuinely liked his characters, and that endearing quality alone would account for his lasting popularity.

2. What are the top three reasons a story is rejected, other than not fitting into your answers to question #1 and why?

  1. Mechanics:

    Run-on sentences, sentence fragments, ambiguous or non-existent pronoun references, chaotic punctuation, inconsistencies in internal plot logic; failing to give characters names.

  2. Content:

    • Trite, mechanical plotting; clunky or clichéd dialogue; one-dimensional, “stick figure” characters; hackneyed plots; graphic sex or violence; gratuitous foul language. Also: transparent propaganda or preaching and disparaging individuals or groups simply for who they are.

    • [Managing Editor] Speaking of ambiguity, we once received a submission in which a sentence must have set a record of some sort: it contained four personal pronouns, each referring to a different person. I had no idea who was doing what.

      As for novelty, of course we’re interested in it, but never for its own sake. Any writer is best advised to learn from the past. Four thousand years or more of world literature is an inestimable treasure.

      “Propaganda” is a slippery concept, because a special target audience does not preclude good writing. I’ll roll out the heavy artillery by way of example: the Bible is, for the most part, a monument of literary genius in prose, poetry and drama. The Gospels, in particular, were written for a special audience. Yet they have always been unique genres, and they feature characters, settings and action that were not only new but revolutionary in the literature of Antiquity.

3. What common mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a story?

4. Do you provide comments when you reject a story?

5. I read a comment by one editor who said she keeps a blacklist of authors who respond to a rejection in a less than professional manner. I’m sure you know what I mean. What do you want authors to know about the stories 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?

6. What one question on this topic do you wish I’d asked that I didn’t? And how would you answer it?

Copyright © 2009 by Bewildering Stories
Don Webb, managing editor

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