SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a story and why?
JF: Creativity in approach to the inspiration artwork is a must. With Painted Words is slightly different from other publications in that there is a very clear and direct ‘prompt’ for the story which means that each writer is starting with something in common. How they interpret the image, however, what they actually take from it and ‘see’ in the image, is completely and utterly unique. As long as I can tell that they have been inspired by the art, and not simply submitted something that they have had sitting around gathering dust (trust me, that has happened), then I am happy; reading through all the pieces and seeing the variety of paths taken from the same starting point is wonderful.
Now, forgive me for seeming a little contrary here; but even though all of the pieces submitted to With Painted Words are born from the same prompt, originality is always welcome. There is a school of thought that there is nothing new in the world; and, to some extent, that may be true, but an old story told with an interesting twist is still very much doable. I relish seeing new and interesting situations and characters or, at the very least, a different perspective on the old and familiar.
If I get both of the above things then it leads into the third thing that I look for—a hook. I want to want to read the piece. Simple as that. If the writer can make that happen within a few words, or sentences, then they probably have a very good chance of getting published at With Painted Words. I deliberately set the word limit at one thousand words as I think that it is much more challenging to write something short and still make it compelling. So compelling, creative, original works of fiction that make me think are always going to win me over.
SQF: What are the top three reasons a story is rejected, other than not fitting into your answers to question one and why?
JF: As I alluded to above, if there is really no clear link between the piece and the artwork, then it won’t matter how good the writing is—it won’t fit With Painted Words. There are numerous publications out there (online and print) that accept ‘open’ fiction and poetry. I will even point the writer to a few of them to be helpful; but part of the challenge at With Painted Words is not just in writing a great story but in writing a great story that is obviously inspired by the artwork.
A generally weak, bland or problematic plot or characters. A thousand words isn’t very much to work with; and if a writer struggles at the outset to not only grab my interest but to maintain it, then they are going to get rejected. Two of the biggest issues are with a plot that really goes nowhere at all, meandering along until its conclusion, or characters that are not memorable or easily distinguishable from one another. Imbuing characters with personality, with life, is something that makes a story stand out.
Overwriting, or focusing on the technical ‘craft’ of writing rather than simply telling a good story, tale or yarn, is a bugbear of mine and a sure-fire way to end up in the rejection pile. I would honestly prefer to take a great story, and have to edit it for a few hours to iron out the grammatical (or other technical) issues, to something that was obviously written by a professor of language but had no depth or emotional hook. I want to be entertained by the story, not dazzled by a person’s ability to put words together.
SQF: What common mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a story?
JF: As much as this sounds contrary to my answer above there are occasions where the sheer amount of problems with spelling, grammar and punctuation makes reading (let alone enjoying) a piece next to impossible. I would never tell anyone to give up writing but there are people—as harsh as this will sound—who need to work hard on simply improving before they submit to any professional (or semi-professional) site.
For the writers that are ready to submit to a publication I would always advise a final proof-read before hitting the ‘send’, ‘submit’ or ‘print’ button. Sometimes it is the little issues that are the most annoying, and these are normally ones that could/should be caught and fixed by the writer themselves. Something that I like to do, and think works really well, is to read the piece out loud. If it doesn’t sound right, then it is a good indicator that something needs fixing.
SQF: Do you provide comments when you reject a story?
JF: The honest answer here is that I try to do so. Sometimes time gets away from me; and the reply is more akin to an automated rejection than anything else but, thankfully, this doesn’t happen too often. At the very least, I try to give a personal response that lets the writer know what I liked and didn’t like—but am not always able to give the in-depth analysis, feedback and critique that each and every piece deserves; real life and other commitments just don’t allow for it, unfortunately.
One thing that I am always clear on, no matter time constraints, is that in the majority of pieces it is not a case of poor writing or storytelling at fault but simply that other pieces were better. When you only publish a small number of pieces each month, you are always going to have to reject someone, unfortunately; and—so far—I have been lucky enough to have only rejected a handful of pieces based on their quality (or lack thereof) as opposed to the number rejected simply because I cannot accept them all.
SQF: 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?
JF: I don’t keep a blacklist of authors though this may simply be because With Painted Words is still new and has only had eighty nine authors so far (6th December 2009), so I may have to keep it in mind for the future. ;o)
The closest that I have come, so far, is to contact a single person who has twice submitted work belonging to other authors. Both times he has been up front about it and stated that as the author is dead he wondered if it would be okay to submit it. . .. I am hopeful that my polite emails to him, letting him know that it isn’t okay, will put it to rest.
I hope that all authors realise that a rejection is never about the writer but always about the writing itself. Normally, the reason for rejection is simple: it isn’t what I am looking for (as in it doesn’t relate to the prompt), or it simply isn’t as good as other pieces. If it is something different than that—if, for example, it actually isn’t very good at all—then I will explain that in the rejection letter as gently as possible.
I don’t mind at all if authors reply to my rejection letters; and if they have a specific question, then I will do my best to answer it—time willing.
SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I’d asked that I didn’t? And how would you answer it?
JF: What made you want to do this?
I come from an art background (educationally, at least, I would be classed as an ‘artist’) and find that my own writing can be quite cinematic and visual. Combining great and interesting artwork with equally great and interesting writing, is something that appealed to me; and thinking there was a very real ‘need’ in the market for an art inspired literary publication, I decided to use what little time I don’t have (two young children, two martial art classes, and a very busy ‘real’ job, not to mention a beautiful wife that I don’t spend enough time with) to fill that gap.
The fact that I have enough artwork sent in already to keep me going through to August and am getting submissions—not to mention simple well wishes, feedback and comments—from more people than I imagined this early in the fledgling publication process makes me think that I made the right choice.
Only time will tell, of course.
Thank you, Jay. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.
Originally published here: