As we get our seventieth issue all kitted out in its Sunday best and ready to meet you on December 21, we are also preparing to say goodbye to our second team of Readers In Residence, who worked so hard to help find these stories. Over the next four days, we will be posting some of their thoughts on their time at SmokeLong as well as their advice for submitters.
Today’s post is from Tim Craig.
by Tim Craig
‘Would you like to read for Smokelong Quarterly?’
I mean, what are you going to say in response? ‘Sorry. I’m a bit busy repotting my Alpine perennials this month. Can you see if someone else is available?’ Of course, I jumped at the chance. No way was I about to turn down my chance to see how such a revered litmag works from the inside. Hell, I might even work out the elusive trick to getting something PUBLISHED there (my current record vis-à-vis SLQ stands at a less than impressive—Submitted: 1; Rejected: 1).
Every writer of sub 1000-word fiction wants to be published in SmokeLong Quarterly. It’s the Mount Everest of flash; the gold standard, the Michael Jordan, the Katz’s Deli. And yes please, I’ll have what they’re having.
Well, dear reader, here are some observations gleaned from my time as a Reader in Residence at SmokeLong that I hope will shed some light on the process, and perhaps help you defy the odds and have one of your stories elevated to the Pantheon of the Flash Greats. Because, let’s face it, the odds aren’t good. Less than 1% of submissions are accepted—a demanding standard of quality control which ensures the stories at SLQ are consistently excellent. But here’s the good news: it’s easy to lower those odds dramatically by following a few of the following simple rules and tips. So, here goes.
Firstly, read SmokeLong Quarterly! Sounds obvious, right? But I would guess maybe 50% of people submitting haven’t read it, and therefore miss what it’s all about. Of course, YOU wouldn’t submit a prose poem or a novel extract or a film script, or a joke to Flash Fiction’s Finest, would you? So you’re already way ahead of so many of the hopeful authors whose submissions I read.
Secondly, make sure you understand exactly what ‘Flash’ fiction is. (I’m not sure I always do, but that’s for a different meeting.) What flash fiction ISN’T is maybe a bit easier to agree on. It’s NOT simply a very short story. And so many of the pieces I read were just that: perfectly well-written, with solid characters and engaging narrative. But they weren’t ‘flash’: they lacked the transcendent ‘overstory’ which distinguishes the genre from that of ‘short-short’ fiction; that evasive, quasi-poetic quality which elevates a story from mere narrative and causes it to take deeper root — and linger longer — in the mind of the reader.
So, basically, make sure what you send is Flash, and you’re already ahead of the game. If you’re not sure, see Tip #1, above. Read SmokeLong Quarterly. That’s Flash.
Thirdly, make sure you do the basic housekeeping before you press send. I had to reject at least five of the stories I read because they had the author’s name on them. It’s literally the fifth line of the submission guidelines: ‘Please include no identifying information on your document.’ And a couple more promising stories fell by the wayside by dint of exceeding the 1000-word limit.
Also, check spellings and grammar, and make sure character names don’t change back and forth because you forgot to amend them from previous drafts. These last aren’t going to make or break a story, but equally it’s not a good look when you’re trying to make your submission stand out for the right reasons.
Finally, a note on my experience of working alongside the other editors. I was struck by just how unfailingly diligent and conscientious they were. I was genuinely impressed by the level of care and respect my fellow readers gave to each and every story, right to the last word, even when it was obvious from the first line that it wasn’t going to be accepted. They supplied helpful suggestions for improvement, a considered reasoning for their final mark (‘Yes’, ‘No’ and ‘Maybe’ being the three options given to the minimum two — often as many as four or five — readers for each submission) and weren’t afraid to disagree with each other’s assessments. Although, naturally, they were completely wrong when disagreeing with mine.
In summary, it was a real honour to be asked to be a Reader in Residence for SmokeLong. I read some great stories, some almost-great stories, and some stories that appeared to have just wandered in off the street because they saw the lights were on.
I thoroughly enjoyed being put on the spot and made to question and defend my own thoughts on what makes a great piece of flash fiction, and I’ve come away from the experience even more certain than I was before that any piece that makes it past the gatekeepers and onto the hallowed ground of SmokeLong Quarterly really does deserve to be there.
Originally from Manchester, Tim Craig now lives in London. In 2018 he won the Bridport Prize for Flash Fiction and has also placed third — and been commended — in the Bath Flash Fiction Award. His stories have also appeared in the Best Microfiction Anthology and the BIFFY50.