What an engaged group of readers in residence we’ve had the last few months. Thank you so much to Emma, Sarah, Grace, Clarie, and Josh. We have enjoyed working with you and appreciate your commitment. Thank you for these closing comments and suggestions for potential contributors.
This was my first time as a reader for any publication, and I immediately felt rather fraudulent in the company of so many other writers I admire. I wondered who exactly I was to be assessing other people’s writing – let alone for SmokeLong Quarterly, a group of absolute pros who have allowed me to read so many beautiful stories in the past.
It felt like I’d snuck in somehow: my own writing tends towards satire, and silliness, and jokes. What interests me most are terrible truths told in a way so ridiculous that upon seeing it a part of your soul immediately leaves your body; the literary equivalent of a covid briefing by Boris Johnson, or Matt Hancock giving a high five. Flash fiction, like poetry, does not tend to be seen from the outside as frothy in the same way that comedy does, and so I worried that, as much as l love flash, I would be viewing everyone’s submissions through the wrong end of the binoculars.
The other thing I thought was that my job as a reader (and maybe as a writer) was to spot the technique first and then work out whether I liked the story. But I discovered that when I read a good story, most of the time I know it from the first few lines. I forget why I was reading, only that I want to read on.
In the end reading is less a technical exercise and more like hearing a bell being rung – you are listening carefully for what hits the right note, what reverberates long afterwards and has you thinking about it 3 days later in the queue for the post office. That’s the bit I loved the most.
And so in the end there are three nuggets of knowledge that my time at SmokeLong has gifted me with:
Firstly that the team at SmokeLong, and the people I’ve read with, are the nicest, most friendly lot ever, with the sharpest instincts for storytelling that I can think of. I feel very lucky to have rubbed shoulders with them.
Secondly, that a good joke and a good piece of flash fiction – even one that isn’t funny at all – have the same principles: rhythm and pacing is everything, every single word has to be doing something, and you should line up your audience to expect one thing, then deliver a surprise. Ideally, a terrible one.
And lastly, I was totally blown away by the sheer range of subject matter and approaches in what I’ve read over these last months. There is such a deep well of creativity out there, I hope it doesn’t sound too earnest to say that I feel a renewed sense of what a weird and brilliant bunch we all are, and the urgent, desperate need right now for everyone, from everywhere, to have the opportunity to tell their stories. Thank you so much to SmokeLong for letting me read at least some of them, and to the writers for writing them – such an honour.
Reading for SmokeLong Quarterly has been an absolute honor. I’ve learned so much more about the elements that go into crafting flash. Even the feedback from other editors has been eye-opening and rewarding. It was amazing to witness everyone’s creativity and experience the joy of finding a submission that sparks something within. In terms of tips for submitters:
Titles should be punchy and reflective of your piece but not outrageous or provoking.
I personally love language that excites and feels fresh. At the same time, the language shouldn’t be so extravagant or dense that it provides a difficult reading experience.
The story should move and/or build towards something greater. The story and its characters should not stay stagnant.
Every fiction writer should read poetry. Poetry teaches you to pay attention to the world and your language.
The ending should be strong enough that it lingers in the reader’s mind long after they finish your piece.
Such an invaluable experience.
I was amazed by the spectrum of submissions we received.
On the one hand, there were a lot of submissions that were not really flash stories at all, but something that should have been longer that had been artificially abridged to meet the word count, or that was just not an actual story. So I would say that if you’re confident you do have a piece of flash fiction/flash CNF, then it’s worth a punt!
On the other end of the spectrum were fantastic pieces that didn’t quite go far enough: pieces that sagged in the middle or didn’t go deep enough.
There were a few that were great stories but were rehashing well-trodden ground without adding anything new, and so were ultimately declined.
So these are some things to ask yourself about before submitting, and perhaps consider getting feedback on, to give your work the best chance.
Josh Jones Luffin
Reading for SmokeLong Quarterly has been such an honor and privilege. And getting a behind-the-scenes glimpse provides invaluable insights into the submission process. I always recommend writers to volunteer at a journal. Not only does it give back to the literary community, it also lets you get a sense of what makes a submission pop off the page. It helps you see how subjective the submission process is—where one piece might resonate with one set of readers and fall short for others. It helps you understand how flash is such a naked form, how every line counts, how a piece can have moments of brilliance, but if it doesn’t stick the ending, or nail the beginning, or if it sags in the middle, it will ultimately be hard to say yes to. It helps to see how many talented writers there are. (And yes, there are inevitably some submitters who clearly aren’t familiar with the journal’s aesthetic or who fail to follow the submission guidelines; that said, I was impressed with how many good pieces there were, many on the verge of being great.) It helps you understand the importance of revision, of getting trusted readers, of letting a piece simmer before hitting submit.
Of course, these are things we all know as writers. We’ve read the craft books, the screeds against unnecessary adverbs, the advice about starting as close to the end of the story as possible—all the well-trod pearls we’ve absorbed in workshops or from reading innumerable online writing advice columns. But when you’re in the editor’s seat, you feel what makes a good story and, more important, what makes a great story. And then you hope others agree with you. Sometimes they do. Often there’s a robust debate. When you can all agree on a Yes, it’s a magical feeling. Editors love to say yes.
So. Read, read, read. See what editors are responding to. And volunteer to be an editor yourself. Not only will you get a chance to say yes to both new and seasoned writers, you’ll become a better writer in the process.