Why The Forge declined your work.

I’ve been working with a few new writers, a couple of whom are now submitting pieces to competitions and journals. There’s such satisfaction in helping people shape their words so they shine, especially when you see their writing get stronger as they work at their craft. (My advice to everyone: Step one – READ. Step two – read more! Never imagine you can write well if you don’t read.)

I thought it might be helpful to write a blog post on what makes an editor say no to your work. Of course, writing is subjective, what chimes with one person might not with another, but there is writing which transcends theme, subject etc – and demands to be read. That’s what all writers aim for but rarely achieve, I think. In the five years I’ve been the managing editor of The Forge I’ve read hundreds and hundreds (thousands?) of submissions. Every time I read, I do so with hope. I want to love the piece. I want to be moved in some way – maybe to feel a connection, or have something illuminated, understood, expressed. Sometimes, it’s enough to recognise a feeling. I’m equally happy to be absorbed in a story and believe in wherever it takes me – go along for the ride. I don’t want to notice the writing. It needs to be smooth, immersive. I loathe over-writing. I’m not a fan of punchlines and twists. I read so many stories that are similar that anything unique always gets my attention. There is a kind myth that the majority of submissions are good and to be published is a bit of a numbers game. Luck is required. We publish one story a week and the vast majority of submissions we receive are rejected. Duotrope lists our acceptance rate as 1.6% and we are a “challenging market”. The harsh truth is the vast majority of subs we receive aren’t good. We think it’s vital to offer free submissions so all writers can send us their words, but the downside to this is it opens us up to writers who have nothing to lose by flinging whatever at us. We say our only criteria is literary excellence but it’s super rare to read a story and think yes, this is bloody brilliant and I must publish it. It does happen, but not often. If less than 2% of stories we get sent are superb and about 80% aren’t great, that leaves 18% which are fab but still don’t get published. To those writers, sorry, there’s nothing more you could have done. Each editor of the month only gets two picks and the rejection was sincere when we said we’d like to see more of your work. We don’t keep work at our editorial table for longer than three months – by that time your piece will have usually been read by at least eight editors. I hate those rejections so much because, damn, writer, you are doing it all and still we said no. This writing malarkey is hard and unfair and you deserve better.

I asked some of my fellow editors to tell me why they say no to a piece:

Sarah Starr Murphy

I have SO MANY THOUGHTS. I’m sure they’re not unique but:

-A common storyline (divorce, death, love, etc.) that isn’t treated in a new and exciting way. I love all of these topics but if it’s done a lot you’ve got to figure out a way to do it in your own unique fashion. It’s got to be better than the 10,000 other stories I’ve already read about a character losing a parent, right?

-That goes for characters too. A fully fleshed out character with really intriguing details is very hard to turn down. Ditto setting.

-A piece that doesn’t feel fully resolved, that lacks a complete arc. I love ambiguous endings and I’m happy to push the envelope towards less plot-heavy and more character-driven, also I love flash, but it’s gotta have SOMETHING going on. Even just a minor turn can make it feel complete. Chekov! That man often has practically zero plot, but his short work feels complete because he’s figured out that subtle turn at the end.

-If you can manage to surprise me without being hokey, that’s a win. All editors read a TON of stuff – subs, books, other journals, etc. It has to rise above the general din, and if it genuinely surprises me, it usually will. Not just plot, but voice, setting, theme, title, etc.

-Usually it’s the language that gets me to pick a piece. Really exquisite sentences, not a single extra word. And that’s really hard to tell newer writers because there’s no way to get there other than just working your butt off for years. But it’s true. Like, if I pulled out the stuff I wrote in college, I know that it has plot and arc and character development, etc, but it’s pretty much crap because I hadn’t put in the work yet. The language wasn’t there. It was, generously speaking, adequate.

Sommer Schaffer

For me, I tend to reject if:

1.) The plot and language are too stereotypical–they show me nothing new. I’d rather read someone’s unpolished own voice, than a more polished voice that is not their own or is too stereotypical.

2.) I have a sense of the writer writing, and thus I’m not able to fully visualize and get lost in the story. How can you make the story as immersive as possible? Are you utilizing all your senses when crafting the story?

3.) I don’t have a strong sense of place. As the reader, put me precisely where your story occurs, and show me.

4.) The ending isn’t there yet: it feels as if it was rushed because the author just couldn’t figure out how to end the damn story, or it feels out of character with the rest of the story (because the author just couldn’t figure out how to end the damn story!). Take your time. Let a story sit for a while if the ending isn’t coming yet. It will. Conversely, if you have the ending first, write it first and craft the story from there.

Rachel Wild

I tend to say no if:

1. The writer is telling me what to think about the situation, rather than showing me something, some clues, from which I can then make a deduction for myself

2. The writer is using clichés to describe something, for example: ‘her eyes shone like diamonds’.

3. The characters are two dimensional, they have no emotional depth, or resonance.

4. The story ends, and nothing has changed, despite there being loads of action. What I mean by this is that there must be a difference, and it can be subtle, to how the protagonist feels. It doesn’t need to be spelled out, but I the reader will understand that something has been gained or lost, the world has moved and now this person’s reality has diverged from where it was before.

Damyanti Biswas

A story that I pick up usually has the following:

Layered, nuanced characters.
A setting that’s immersive, sensory.
A story with a great voice.
Something that grabs me, and won’t let me go, and stays with me after I’ve read it.
A story that is about something, and there’s a change in either the character or the circumstances, however minor.
That’s emotionally engaging, moving and with an ending that leaves me thinking.

I’ll reject a story if:

–reads pedestrian–no skill with language, this is an immediate no.
–flat characters.
–feels tired, as if rehashing something that has been said before.
–a story that doesn’t know what it is about.
–reads very artificial, or pretentious.
–the beginning is not compelling.
–the ending does not satisfy.

I’ll possibly pass to the editorial table stories that I subjectively do not like, but have been crafted well. If a story is poorly crafted, at the language, character, or plot level, I let it go.

Jacky Taylor

• If a piece reads like something out of someone’s diary (unless it’s meant to be part of the narrative!) Too often what’s meant to be a story is nothing more than just an account of something that happened and it makes me feel ‘so what?’.

• A piece can be simple, complicated, on pretty much any theme but as Sarah says the writer has to demonstrate their own take on it, they have to lift it above the mundane and what everyone has said in the same way before. There has to be a certain amount of uniqueness about it to make it stand out and grip me in some way.

• The writer has to invest something of themselves in their work, something that only they could say or write about in a particular way. Too often we see well-crafted pieces that are competently written but almost as if they’ve all come out of the same word factory and have nothing new to say.

• I applaud writers who take risks, they may not always succeed but if they’ve taken a piece somewhere different in the narrative, somewhere unexpected, as long as it has its own truth and isn’t just randomly plucked for sensation – it has to have emotional depth and honesty too.

Smash Lits with Angela Readman

I was delighted to publish a wonderful flash by Angela Readman at The Forge – you can read A Quiet Like This here. And she kindly took part in an interview too.

1) What is your superpower?

I can make anything & anyone smell of loads and loads of garlic. Think about, I can make everyone fancy pizza, even the pizza disapprovers. I can stop people talking mid-sentence, suddenly aware of their breath. I can stop anyone standing too close and make all kisses a bit awkward.

2) What is your favourite cheese?

I had this swanky cheese that was wild garlic and mushroom. Just once. I have never been able to find it since. It is now the legend of dairy. Somewhere the stall holder who sold it is laughing at the curse he put on me for having too many cheese samples.

3) What was the last text you sent?

I haven’t sent a text in over 2 years. I think it was probably Help, I am lost in the Metrocentre.

4) Who is/was your unlikely crush?

Captain Birdseye. Harley Quinn. Gomez Addams.

5) Bacon VS Tofu—who wins? Why?

Bacon. I haven’t eaten meat in over 30 years, so I just hang around greasy spoons sniffing people. I arrived late to tofu, I didn’t try it until a few years ago. It’s OK, but whenever I have it I am filled with a sense of is this it? Am I doing it wrong?

6) Your writing is music, what style is it?

I’d like to say something cool like blues, but it is probably more like one of those strange mash-ups of Nine Inch Nails doing Shake it Off with Taylor Swift.

7) What makes the wind blow?

The whispers of all the things your old invisible friends are saying behind your back.

8) Have you ever had your fortune told?

I went to a psychic fair once when it was raining. A spiritual healer put his hands on the back of my head and told me the spirits were telling him to give me his phone number. I didn’t call.

9) Who is your favourite Neighbours character?

Joe Mangle.

10) Did you have an invisible friend when you were younger?

Yes, but he said we should see other people. He went to Orkney and took my invisible cat with him.

11) What did you do last Saturday night?

Drank a beer, looked out the window, talked about owls.

12) Do you have any recurring dreams?

I dream I can fly, but it’s in an odd way. I sort of hover in doorways. I also sometimes dream Keanu Reeves is making me lemon tea, always lemon. He serves it in a china cup and is always wearing white trousers and flip flops.

13) What sandwiches would you make for a picnic with Curtis Sittenfeld?

I don’t think I know a sandwich good enough, the egg with salad cream I make won’t cut it. I might have to do something with aubergine. There’d be salad. I would apologise that I don’t know anything about pomegranates. I’d make a flask of Yorkshire Tea with sweet soya milk and we’d drink from Moomin mugs.

14) What is your favourite smell?

Hardware shops, freshly cut wood, that smell like an engine is being fixed.

15) What’s your favourite swear?

Fuckery.

16) What word or words make you cringe? 

Flange, actually, necessarily, anyhoo, feisty.

17) Who is your favourite TV detective?

Agent Cooper.

18) Write me a question for the next Smash List interview I do.

If there was a TV show called The Masked Writer, what would your costume be?

19) What is the last thing you Googled?

Epicurious 4 levels Mac & Cheese. I also like watching videos of robot lawn mowers for no reason. They are incredibly calming.

20) What question should I have asked you?

What’s the last song lyric that got stuck in your head? Fool’s Garden, Lemon Tree, ‘And nothing ever happens, and I wonder…’

Smash Lits with Susannah Rickards

I recently published a gorgeous nonfiction piece by Susannah, https://forgelitmag.com/2020/09/14/hartlepool-beach-extras/. I read it as not only being a memory of a very particular time, but also a meditation on the importance of creativity in a life whether or not anyone else is there to see it. I also interviewed Susannah about the really important stuff; biscuits, drinks and Airwick, amongst other things:

1) How do you organise your bookshelves?

No need—my husband does it. He’s like a librarian—all alphabetised and by subject. He’ll be adding little dewey decimal stickers soon and I’ll get fined for leaving towers of them under the bed.

2) What is your favourite biscuit?

At the risk of sounding utterly pretentious…there’s a little biscuit factory on the road to Mont St Michel in Normandy. I used to be a tour guide and we used to stop there on the way back from the monastery. They sell sablés. Grainy, chunky discs of butter and sugar. I’m glad they are so far away.

3) What is your default pub drink?

Nothing beats a pint of Kronenburg after a long hot walk. Otherwise I’m a middle-aged cliché: prosecco.

4) Do you have a poster/picture on your wall? Describe it.

The house is full of prints and paintings as my parents are artists. But I don’t have any in my writing room. Instead, I have two very shabby felt teddy bears, hand sewn by my twins when they were five. They are glue-stained and wall-eyed and spilling stuffing. I have them to remind me that the liveliest and most interesting creativity isn’t always pretty and tidy.

5) Do you have any phobias? What?

Daddylonglegs aka Craneflies. It’s hard to love a flying spider that swoops at you. I try and fail. Not reached that ‘fail again, fail better’ stage with daddylonglegses yet.

(And it’s the season – arrrggghhh.)

6) Can you make up a poem about an Airwick?

The category of those who make me breathless subdivides into a) ay-ay! rhapsodic beauties of flesh, fur, foliage and b) ack-ack! snatching for my blue inhaler. Don’t take it personally, but, Airwick, love, you’re b.) You’re down there with Lynx.

7) Have you ever had a nickname? 

Spuggy. It’s the Geordie word for sparrow. I grew up in Newcastle. My family all still call me Spuggy. But no one else does or should.

8) You have to swap places with one other writer for a week. Who and why?

Shakespeare when he was writing Macbeth or Lear or Merchant of Venice. I’d love the visceral experience of being in his body and mind when that poetry is pouring onto the page. I want to know how he arrived at it, whether he knew how good it was, or was just hacking it out in time for rehearsals.

9) Do you believe human beings can spontaneously combust?

I believe absolutely anything is possible, so yes.

10) Have you ever written an angry letter to a magazine or newspaper?

Yes, as a self-righteous teen.  Never since.

11) Have you ever read someone else’s diary?

Oh, Lord, I so wanted to lie in this answer. But yes. Once. A famous actress was lodging in my parents’ house when we were the only two people in the house. I idolised her, so I snuck into her room and read a couple of pages. She must have realised because she hid from me. I never even got a glimpse of her. Never again. I feel very guilty about that. It’s just wrong. Diaries are not meant from public consumption and they are not, I believe, even true reflections of how people feel—they are steam release. I’ve had my diary read too. Horrible experience.

12) Who is your favourite Neighbours character?

Alf Stewart in Home and Away.  I had a very niche crush on him when I was younger.

(To be fair, I agree and still kinda do although I think I might want him to be my dad.)

13) What’s your favourite sweet?

Nougat with almonds.

14) Have you ever seen a ghost?

Apparently. In primary school I was walking to the public baths for our weekly swimming lesson in a crocodile with my friends and we passed a house where an old woman was waving at us through the window, so I stopped and waved back, making the crocodile back up. My friends said, ‘What you doing?’ and I said, ‘Waving at that woman.’ They all said, ‘What woman?’ We all stared at the window. I could see her. They said they couldn’t. And then a girl who lived in that street told me the house was empty and an old woman had died there earlier that week.

15) What is the most over-rated novel?

I can’t pick one but I do think all those pompous, misogynistic, middle-aged white men we were forced to take seriously in the Seventies, who think they have the right to bore on page after page about their groin aches and if you dislike it, you don’t appreciate high art, well they’ve aged pretty badly, haven’t you Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow?

16) Who is your writer crush?

Graham Greene makes me cry. I want to write as well as him so much it hurts. Same is true of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. Recently I snaffled up everything Deborah Levy has ever written and my jaw is on the floor at Michaela Coel’s script for I May Destroy You. I wish it was a novel so I could keep rereading it.

17) What’s your favourite swear?

My husband says arse-biscuits. I have borrowed it from him. It’s very satisfying but breaks a sweat in genteel Surrey where we live now.

18) What would your karaoke song be?

I absolutely can’t sing. The right notes sound in my head, clear and perfect, but an entirely uncontrolled elephantine grunt comes out of my mouth. But if I could sing…ooh… Nope. The idea of singing in public is so appalling to me that my mind has blanked. Can’t even think it.

19) Write me a question for the next Smash Lits interview I do.

Where’s the weirdest place you’ve ever written?

20) What question should I have asked you? 

What else do you do with books besides read them?

Flash Fiction competitions and why they sometimes suck and why ours doesn’t.

I hate how it often feels as if the writing world is only opened up by having money. If you can afford to pay for an MA, a writing retreat, a workshop, then you not only pay for the knowledge you gain but also the connections you make. The internet is a leveller. I joined a brilliant online writing group and have learned heaps from other writers, for free. However, if I want to submit my work to competitions there is usually a fee. I moan about this to anyone who will listen. Who will win a flash fiction competition that charges £9 to enter? A writer who can afford it. Someone kindly suggested on twitter I could email competitions and ask if they have reduced entry fees for those with a restricted income. It’s a terrific idea to offer such places. The truth is I can pay a £9 entry fee if I really want to, but I choose not to. I want the playing field I am on to be as open as possible.

I’m the Managing Editor of The Forge and we pay writers thanks to the generosity of John and Yosh Haggerty and the writers who submit using our $3 tip jar option. I know it’s unusual to have this private backing and it’s a privilege. I understand the need to charge money to make the prize fund. But… £9 for 300 words?

We are holding our annual flash competition this September and the prize is $500, publication, and, a 2-year subscription to Duotrope (thanks Duotrope). It is free to enter until we hit our Submittable limit of 300. There is also a tip jar option. Our tagline is “Literary excellence is our only criteria.” And it’s true. We are looking for stunning writing and that’s it. We are open to all voices with any background, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual and personal identity. I’m very proud of what we offer and would be grateful if you spread the word. Because it is rare to offer something for nothing I expect we will be inundated so to be sure of free entry get ready to sub asap. I know the writer tendency is to wait for the deadline (September 14th) and then fling something in just before midnight in a last-second scramble but we open on September 1st.

I’m looking forward to reading your work.
(I’m posting this on my personal blog because these are my personal views and I don’t speak for any other member of The Forge.)

Smash Lits with Jennifer Todhunter

The Levitation is a brilliant one-sentence story by Jennifer Todhunter – do read it. Jennifer also took part in one of my Smash Lits interviews. (I so agree about the peanuts and chocolate thing.)

1) What is your favourite cheese?

Cambazola.

2) Bacon VS Tofu—who wins? Why?

Bacon-wrapped tofu. They’re both winners in my book.

3) What colour is Thursday? 

Sort of a see-through/shimmery colour, like everything in the Night on Earth documentary.

4) You have to swap places with one other writer for a week. Who and why?

Alice Munro because she’s a short story master and because Munro’s Books is in my hometown.

5) Do you believe human beings can levitate?

I believe human beings want to believe they can levitate.

6) Buffy or Veronica Mars?

Fiona Gallagher.

7) What’s your favourite thing from childhood that you’ve still got?

Fossils I found in the clay banks outside the pub my parents owned. A snail, in particular.

8) How do you stop procrastinating and get on with writing?

Insomnia and sporadic workshops.

9) Do you have any recurring dreams?

When I was a kid, I dreamed about my house burning down while I watched from the driveway a lot. I remember knowing what was coming and not being able to wake up, which was the worst.

10) What’s your favourite sweet?

I’m down with any peanut butter/chocolate combo. A friend told me he ate peanut butter + nutella today and that sounded like the best. I might actually try that now.

11) Do you have a fave meme? What? 

I don’t, I’m sorry. I’m a pop culture idiot.

12) Did you have an invisible friend when you were younger?

His name was Casey. He lived next door which apparently confused our neighbour.

13) What did you do last Saturday night?

It was mellow. There was a bonfire and sweet tunes, so the best kind of mellow. Best kind of night, really.

14) Who is your writer crush?

Currently, Bonnie Jo Campbell and Samantha Irby. I can’t pick one, their work kills me in different ways.

15) What are your windows like?

Dirty and wide-open.

16) What sandwiches would you make for a picnic with Jenny Offill?

I’m more of a soup person, and I feel like Jenny Offill might be too? I’d bring tortilla soup with all the toppings: tortillas, avocado, sriracha, cojita, cilantro, lime. The soup would be spicy enough to make the insides of your eardrums itch and would leave you wanting more. Speaking of wanting more, peanut butter + nutella = heaven on a spoon.

17) What question should I have asked you?

Late nights or early mornings? (Both.)

18) What’s your favourite swear?

I love a good fuck.

19) What word or words make you cringe? 

I have three cringe-worthy words, I recently told my kids what they were, they won’t stop saying them, so you’d better believe I’m not telling the interwebz.

20) Write me a question for the next Smash List interview I do.

Favourite-all-time-forever-never-let-you-down song? (Blind Love by Tom Waits.)

Smash Lits with Sam Asher

I published a terrific story by Sam Asher this week. It’s called Fish Food and you can read it at The Forge. I also had the pleasure of interviewing him. Seriously, his answer re: his phobia is still making me smile.

1) What is your favourite fish?

My instinct was to look for some kind of obscure, exotic, masterwork-given-gils of a fish and pretend I’ve always been fond of one of those, but the truth is I’m exceedingly fond of the goldfish. They’re wonderfully unpretentious, and excellent listeners. My parents had one for over a decade, and we gave him a decent burial. He was a good fish.

2) Have you ever had your fortune told?

Nope

3) What is your worst habit?

Putting my boots on the couch.

4) Who is your favourite TV detective?

I’m not at all sure I know any.

5) You are wallpaper—what is your pattern?

He-Man.

6) What is your default pub/bar drink?

I’m an alcoholic in recovery. Typically I’ll just order a soda, but the further I get into sobriety the farther my waistband seems to expand. That in mind, I’ve been trying to stick to water. Yes, a party with me is exceptionally muted and depressing. I did recently discover cream soda with lime juice, which tastes a little like an old holiday cocktail my dad would make us.

7) What colour is Thursday?

Mauve.

8) What picture do you have on your wall? 

Atop the mirror that hangs over my wife’s dresser is a painting of a tiny penguin carrying a turkey baster. His motives, surely, are nefarious.

9) What is your favourite fairytale?

Trickle down economics.

10) What words make you cringe?

The verb ‘get’ (or any of its variations) is a garbage verb for garbage people.

11) What is the last thing you googled?

Toy stores in Soho.

12) What’s your favourite swear?

Fuck. Absolutely. No other word contains such a wealth of meaning based on such tiny variations in intonation. I could write ‘fuck’ five times and each time it could signify something altogether different, or even opposite to, the ‘fuck’ previous.

13) What was your first gig?

It was the Reading Festival in 2005. The first band on the line-up was Goldie Lookin’ Chain, so their classic hymn to acceptance ,‘Your Mother’s Got a Penis’ will be a tune I never forget.

14) Do you have any writing rituals?

Trying not to suck.

15) Do you have any phobias?

Turtles. I don’t trust any creature that can hide its face inside of its torso. And they walk so deliberately, at such a slow pace. Where to, I ask? Where are you going, turtle? Why are you taking so long to get there? Is your time somehow infinite? Are you immortal? Are you just lazy? What are you hiding inside that shell? Is it money? Is it gifts? Is it my childhood? Reveal yourself, cruel amphibian.

16) What was your favourite book as a child?

I was actually taught to read with an illustrated children’s bible, and despite my avowed, and occasionally dispiritingly militant atheism, I still think kindly of it. In terms of narrative, I stole a copy of Little Wolf’s Diary of Amazing Deeds from school when I was 6 or so, and read it a dozen times. I kept the same copy until last year, when a combination of mental illness and residual, twenty-five-year-old-guilt at my first foray into theft led me to donate it to a local LGBTQ charity store.

17) What instrument did you play at school?

Air drums.

18) Write me a question for the next Smash Lit interview I do.

Assuming ghosts don’t currently exist, if I gave you the power to do so, would you will them into reality?

19) Who is your writer crush?

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah.

20) Bacon VS Tofu—who wins and why? 

I’m a vegetarian, but tofu is brewed in a vat of spavined farts, so I suppose bacon, as a concept, but tofu as a meal. Pigs also, did you know, are smarter than Republicans? Eat a Republican instead.

On defunct journals and lost gems.

I had a bit of an incident with this blog a couple of weeks ago; somehow I deleted the theme (I really have no idea how) and couldn’t get it back as it’s so old it’s no longer available. I switched to this one, which looks clean and simple, hopefully, and I figured it was a good time to check all those links I have to my published fiction. Over 20 of them led to spam adverts or domains for sale – SAD FACE. Of course, when a journal ceases to publish they might not maintain an archive, but it got me thinking how rubbish it is that those stories are now in this limbo of being previously published and unavailable to read. Some of my best fiction, published in good quality places, has disappeared.

I had a chat with Yosh Haggerty, publisher of FLM, and being the champion of writers that she is, she suggested we might want to consider accepting a couple of previously published pieces to help others in the same position. So, for the month of December only, we are opening a special submissions category for such work and I will select two pieces for publication with us. Send me your favourite lost wonders.

Have at it!

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑