Over the Transom: Meet Our Readers

Over the years, this column has mostly been my attempt to capture my thought process while reviewing submissions, but the actual process that stories go through from our inbox to the front page is much more collaborative. For nearly the past year, we’ve had Tim Ford and Lou Sytsma add their perspectives to the mix, which I believe only makes us stronger. In the hopes of giving a glimpse into how we select our stories, the three of us got together virtually to chat about how we approach reading for AE. This makes for a longer “Over the Transom” entry than the others, but hopefully a more entertaining one as well.

In five years of publishing AE, not a lot has changed. Like most adventures, AE started as a small group of people who wanted to make something happen, so we started doing it, and kept going week after week, year after year. But our group has grown a little in that time. We’ve had the good fortune to work with some regular feature contributors who have helped shape the voice of our non-fiction section. And on the fiction side, we now have more readers helping us to select the stories that we publish from the submissions we receive.

Over the years, this column has mostly been my attempt to capture my thought process while reviewing submissions, but the actual process that stories go through from our inbox to the front page is much more collaborative. In the beginning it was mostly a conversation between myself and editor D.F. McCourt — we both have slightly different tastes and things that we see and look for when we read, so when a story appeals to both of us, there is a good chance we have hit gold. For nearly the past year, we’ve had Tim Ford and Lou Sytsma add their perspectives to the mix, which I believe only makes us stronger. In the hopes of giving a glimpse into how we select our stories, the three of us got together virtually to chat about how we approach reading for AE.

Helen Michaud: Something I’ve never written about is what my actual reading routine is like. I tend to read submissions on my tablet, and I aim for a relaxed state of mind. I’m often reading while stretched out on the couch or just before I go to bed — I get a lot of reading done when I’m on vacation from my day job! I usually read a few at a time rather than great swaths at once. What about you? Can you paint a portrait of where you are when you’re reading for AE?

Lou Sytsma: I generally read submissions at a desktop because I find it quicker to supply feedback that way.

I read submissions usually in the morning after a wake up coffee or at my work desk during lunch time. I aim to read at least two a day. Any more than that my concentration begins to waver and I don’t feel that I’m giving the writer a fair shot if that starts to happen.

Tim Ford: I’m lucky enough to have a separate room with a home office in my apartment. I usually read on Saturday or Sunday, and set aside a block of time so I have no other distractions. My desktop Mac is positioned by a south-facing window that gets a ton of light, which is perfect for me. I like to listen to some light and ambient music — video game soundtracks are often a good choice — and take on four to seven at a time. It varies widely depending on the quality of submissions and their word counts.

HM: I’ve written a lot since we began publishing AE about what I think makes a good story. What usually grabs you most when you’re reading? Is it plot, character, imagery, an intriguing premise? Which do you value more: originality or sheer skill at writing (however you define the latter)?

TF: The first thing I look for is if the story has a “unique” premise. That said, “unique” doesn’t necessarily mean re-writing the wheel, and I think we all know most plots are well-trodden at this point. What matters is that the writer is bringing something new to the table. Even familiar, well-worn ideas like time travel, post-apocalypses, or aliens can be made new again, through characters, melding of genre, or setting. From there, character is secondary, and language is tertiary. To me, you can write gorgeous prose but if your characters are dull and your premise is something I see all the time, it will almost definitely be a pass in my eyes.

LS: This is very easy for me. It’s all about character. Good layered and flawed characters are what grab my interest. Everything else from the writing tool box should be used to support characters. Plot, imagery, and premise should be used to not only craft complex characters but push them out of their comfort zone and create conflict for them.

HM: Is there anything that turns you off of a story? Whether it’s subject matter, writing style, sloppy grammar … is there something that makes you stop reading or that earns an automatic “no” from you? Are there any “story sins” you see committed over and over that you’d like to advise writers to avoid?

LS: White room syndrome — i.e., character wakes up and does not know who they are or where they are. Major turn off. Not saying such stories cannot work but they face a definite uphill battle to engage a reader. Related to this are stories that do not answer some basic who — especially who — what, where, when, why, and how questions in the first two or three paragraphs. Especially in short pieces, I want to know who the story is about and what the premise of the story is as soon as possible.

Stories that have a downer arc are not my thing either.

Writing that is meant to show off how clever the writer is, which takes the reader out of the story, instead of just telling the story. This ties in with writing style, grammar, spelling mistakes. If the story is engaging I can forgive a typo or two but in this day and age of spell and grammar checkers there should be very few of these. Formatting is a big one too. Follow the guidelines. All of these add up to professionalism and demonstrate that the writer takes pride in their work. It shows in the work and when it does, it makes me more receptive to the submission.

TF: I try not to adhere too strongly to a list of automatic sins, because I think most things are changeable, but one way to immediately earn my ire is to revoke all changes in status quo. That is to say, anything where the story ends up undoing all the development it had done to this point, i.e., through “it was all a dream” clichés, deus ex machinas, sudden inexplicable character resurrections, etc. Anything that makes all the decisions and struggles of the characters irrelevant is to me an automatic fail, because ultimately the net value of the story is zero. If you were to plot such a story as a graph, it would begin at the same point and end at the same point. Change is what makes a story a story.

You will immediately arouse my suspicion if you invoke Nazis, the KKK, any sort of major tragedy (genocide, 9/11, etc.). I have seen stories that have successfully incorporated these elements, but they had to work very, very hard to win me back once the proverbial bomb dropped. My advice is: If you are latching onto these things as a “gimmick,” you are better off rethinking your decision.

Far less common (thankfully) are stories with inherent racism, sexism, etc. Those are also automatic failures for me.

Other than that, excessive grammar/spelling mistakes and very, very hack writing (you just know it when you see it) will make me stop reading outright.

HM: It’s cathartic to talk about the stuff we’re tired of seeing … but what’s most interesting to me are the near misses. In our monthly roundups of the stories under consideration I sometimes refer to these as the “intriguing failures” where there’s a lot to like about a story but it doesn’t ultimately make the cut. Without getting into too many identifying details, are there any stories that come to mind when you think about this category, and what do you think made them a reluctant “no” instead of an enthusiastic “yes”?

TF: There are a couple of times I can think of where a story has had a fantastic, interesting idea, but failed on the merits of not going anywhere with it. One example is a friendship between an alien and a human that is irrevocably altered by circumstance and tradition. Unfortunately, we never get much depth about that alteration, and it doesn’t delve deep enough to leave a sense of progression or movement.

In other cases, sometimes things just make us uncomfortable, and they don’t go into enough originality or creativity to make us keep them around. One story that I liked, but made others queasy, just didn’t have enough going for it to make for a convincing argument for publication. This also had an interesting idea, but didn’t take it far enough.

LS: Pretty much echo what Tim said — stories that have set up interesting characters and premise but then fail to have any resolution. I often wonder if these are cases of the story being an excerpt from a larger piece. Sometimes I think writers try to be too subtle.

HM: What are some your favorite stories since you’ve been reading for AE? What makes them stand out among the rest?

TF: Weirdly, one of my favourite stories is one that I also didn’t “get” on my first pass. Luckily, I was attracted enough to it to give it a go-round again, and it’s now — in my opinion — one of the most touching stories we’ve published since I started reading: “Drying Grass Moon.”

My second favourite is pure comedy. I rate it pretty highly because, in my opinion, comedy is actually one of the harder things to do well, and this one knocks it out of the park with a simple but pleasing idea that leads to a nice twist: “The Correct God-Damn Procedure.”

LS: Well I like all the pieces that get published! So picking one or two is tough. Tim has mentioned some good ones. I also really like “Love Among Dead and Crawling Things” — very prophetic and creepy. “A Multiverse Love Story” took a nice twist on parallel universes. And “The Patent Bagger” was another story that put a new spin on a cloning story.

In some way, all of them tickled my funny bone too.

HM: Time for some final thoughts. Tim, I know you’ve been a reader before, but Lou I’m not sure if you have. Has the experience been what you expected when you applied for the role? What do you get out of it personally? Would you recommend it to others, whether it’s for AE or another magazine?

LS: Yes, this is my first reading gig. It has been pretty much as I expected because as a new writer I have spent a lot of time learning about writing. Not just the craft but reading and talking to other writers about their experiences which included being a submissions reader.

One of the best ways to learn about writing and breaking into the market is to apply theory to practical applications. Reading other people’s submissions shows me not only what works but what does not. So this experience has helped me in developing my writing craft.

Of course, the big plus is having access to a wide variety of work not normally possible and the joy of discovering an awesome story.

For lovers of story, be it just as a reader, or as a writer learning their craft I highly recommend volunteering to be a submission reader. Not only is it a great learning opportunity but nothing beats reading a great story by new writers.

I am enjoying the experience immensely!

TF: This is my second reading gig, though I’d only started the first a little bit prior. What’s struck me is the marked difference between the two. AE, I find, is a much more personal, detailed, and collaborative experience. I appreciate being able to discuss stories both in Helen’s updates and in the comments sections on the site. It’s very interesting to see what other people have to say about things, and to see things in stories that I might not have otherwise seen.

I would absolutely recommend slush/first reading for anyone who aspires to any kind of literary career or other prospects. As a writer, you come to learn a great deal about form and substance, and as an editor you learn to spot the errors and problems, while also forming your own identity that can define the kind of things you want to see published down the road.

For me personally, the best thing about AE is that it’s Canadian. I love seeing names I recognize pop up with new, fresh stories and ideas. I love that we are helping shape and define our country’s unique take on a broad, evolving genre. I know that some writers, starting out, have preconceived notions that slush readers are petty, angry little people who like to plunder submissions for ideas to steal. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nothing beats the great feeling that comes from finding that story that fires on all cylinders and ignites your imagination, leaving you inspired.

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