“Six Questions For …” is my latest gotta-read. I’m a bit obsessed, actually.
I don’t remember how I first came across Jim Harrington’s blog. Probably it was a link from a link from a link. Yet it immediately captivated me, so much so that I bookmarked it and found myself returning, again and again, curious as to what editors and literary magazines would be featured next.
The “Six Questions For …” format is simple yet effective: Harrington interviews editors from various lit magazines and asks them six questions. (In today’s post, for instance, it’s Miranda Kopp-Filek, of Writing Tomorrow.) I not exactly sure why these interviews are so alluring. Is it because they utilize the question and answer format, which gives us a small peek into other people’s minds? Or is it because as writers we are always curious of the people behind the magazines and will do anything for a tip to might propel us toward publication success?
Whatever the case, I was so hooked that I had to snag Harrington for a couple of questions of my own.
Q:. You started “Six Questions For …” after a personal blog reader suggested you publish editors’ desires and dislikes. Was it an “Ah-ha” moment? And was it an organic process or did you face stutters along the way?
A: It wasn’t an instant “ah-ha” moment. My first thought after reading the comment was more like “this is an interesting idea, but am I really interested in tackling it.” I tried pushing the idea away, but it kept resurfacing, so I decided to give it a go.
I’ve hit a few speed bumps along the way, but nothing serious. At the beginning, I spent a few days reading guidelines and thinking about what I’d like to know about the editors and how they decide which stories are worth publishing. Over the four years I’ve been sending out questions, I’ve made some changes. I started with one set of questions that I sent to everyone. Then I created three sets of questions that I alternated sending. Some questions repeated in all three, like “What do you look for in a submission?” and variations on “What turns you off to a submission?” Recently, I began asking one question specific to the journal receiving the questions. I try to keep things fresh for me, too. 🙂
Q: The questions in each “Six Questions For …” posts are relatively similar yet responses vary enough to keep concept fresh. Were you initially worried that the Q & A formula wouldn’t hold up over time?
A: Q & A is the correct format for what I want to accomplish. I’m more concerned about editors continuing to respond. Once they stop, the project is over. There were a couple of times when I thought I might have reached that point. I’ve sent out over 1000 questionnaires, and my response rate is in the 30% range. I expected it to be higher, but I keep receiving enough replies to continue.
Q: What literary magazines do you read? Which ones can’t you live without?
A: If you’d asked me three months ago, I could have provided a list. In doing research for a post I plan to write for Flash Fiction Chronicles , I expanded my “reading list” to include genres and forms I don’t typically read. One way I’ve done this is to read stories announced by writers on Facebook, both those I follow personally and ones who post in various writing groups. It’s been an interesting exercise, so far.
Q: You say that you “discovered” flash fiction in 2007. What did you write prior to this? And can you explain your attraction to flash fiction? Is it the brevity? The challenge imposed by the word limitations?
A: All of the above. I’ve always had a problem writing long stuff. I earned a Master’s Degree in Music Education in the early 70s. Back then, often the difference between an undergrad and grad course was the number of papers you were required to write. I remember receiving one back with a C for the grade and the comment “too short.” Another professor handed me the twenty-five page paper I wrote (an epic manuscript for me) and said, “It’s kind of short, but I can’t think of anything you left out.” He even asked a colleague to read it, and she came to the same conclusion. Writing short comes naturally to me. I did write a novel a few years ago. It’s in a desk drawer somewhere. It wasn’t terrible, but I never had the will to revise it. Other than that, my previous writing was mostly work-related (reports, memos, survey results, proposals).
Q: You write a lot of short shorts on your personal blog incorporating word prompts. How did this come about and in what ways do these playful writing exercises sharpen your skills?
A: These prompts come from a 5 to 50/55 word challenge posted every Sunday at The Flash Factory, a private office at zoetrope.com. The moderator provides five random words. The challenge is to write a story of either exactly 50 or exactly 55 words, not counting the title. I love doing these. They’re (relatively) quick to write and they challenge me to provide as much information as possible in a few words. I also believe they help develop a writer’s skill in presenting only that information that is essential. The newest one is a good example. The five prompt words are in bold.
Waiting for Jerome near the abandoned farmer’s stand, their plan to run away in place, Grace adjusted the straps on her knapsack. A lawnmower groaned in the distance. She looked at her Lady Gaga watch, felt fluid from a tear on her cheek. Maybe he had changed his mind, decided to stay with his wife. (55 words)
In the first draft, I wrote, “She looked at her watch. He was late, she thought.” As I reread this I realized I didn’t need “she thought.” Grace’s is the only voice in the story. Of course, she thought it. “He was late” is also unnecessary. The reader should be able to figure out he’s late from the fact she looks at her watch. We do that when either we’re late or someone else is. I struggled a bit to show the reader that Grace is a young woman, to me in her teens. I used the title to do this, along with the reference to Lady Gaga. The title also creates a twist to the story, in that I assume the reader thinks both Grace and Jerome are young.
I also try to use at least one word in a different way, like grace as a name. In one story, I wrote “Now, his granite ego turned tissue-thin, he waited for her return, his revenge planned.” Sometimes, if I’m having a hard time fitting a prompt word in, I put it in the title.
Limiting myself to 55 words makes me think hard about word choices, and the effort helps me focus in my longer works.
Q: Can you talk about how interviewing editors has helped you as a writer, especially in the submitting process?
A: I always read the submission guidelines before submitting a story (I’m also that weird guy who reads the manuals!), but after seeing over 80% of the editors mention not reading and following the guidelines as one reason a story is rejected, I pay extra attention. The same goes for grammar and formatting.
A few times after reading a certain set of responses, I took on the challenge of attempting to write a story specific to that magazine. I read the responses again, came up with an idea, wrote a first draft, set it aside for a few days, read the responses again, and then went through my story paragraph by paragraph making sure that everything jibed with what the editor requested. I did this for three or four stories, and they were all accepted! One that comes to mind is “The Return Trip,” originally published in Weird Year.
Q: What’s the worst mistake you’ve made when submitting work?
A: Submitting a story to a journal that didn’t publish that genre—by accident, of course—I was in a hurry. There might have been one time that I mistyped an editor’s name. That’s another no-no. Honestly, because I carefully read the guidelines and spend the needed time to choose where I send my stories, I don’t make many mistakes in submitting. That’s not to say my acceptance rate is anything to boast about. You can do everything correctly and still not be successful. That’s the way the business is.
Q: Your work is published in a large variety of markets. How do you select potential markets and what type of research do you do beforehand?
A: I used to use Duotrope.com to research markets, until they switched to a subscription service. A couple of years ago, Gay Degani posted an announcement looking for an assistant editor to manage a markets page for Flash Fiction Chronicles. I didn’t volunteer, but a couple of other people did for me because of my work with Six Questions For. . .. 🙂 That list, while not comprehensive, is my goto source now for flash markets.
Q: What do you consider your biggest writing accomplishment?
A: That’s a tough one. I guess we always remember our first. Mine was “Yesterday’s Promise,” published at Long Story Short. “Sharing a Ride on a Rainy Morning” was selected by a prominent writer in the crime arena as one of her top five stories of 2011. That was a pleasant surprise. I’m sure I’ve missed some highlights.
Q: Mirroring a “Six Questions For …” interview, what one question do you wish I’d asked about you or your writing that I didn’t?
A: What else keeps me busy? I mentioned Flash Fiction Chronicles a couple of times. Beginning in March, I took over as Managing Editor, as well as Markets editor. Besides managing the site, I also write posts and “encourage” others to send in articles. In a recent one, I discussed the inciting incident and character arc and how they may happen outside of the story in flash.
Jim Harrington began writing fiction in 2007 and has agonized over the form ever since. His stories have appeared in Every Day Fiction, Liquid Imagination, Ink Sweat and Tears, Near to the Knuckle, Flashes in the Dark, and others. He serves as the Managing Editor for Flash Fiction Chronicles. Harrington’s “Six Questions For . . .” blog provides editors and publishers a place to “tell it like it is.” You can read more of his stories at his blog “Jim’s Fiction: Flash Fiction and Short Stories.” He can also be found on Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn.