How do I know that “feedback” about my story will be worth it?
The Our Stories staff has 11 MFA degrees between them, dozens of publications, two novels and thousands of hours teaching.
We have this neat video which shows you exactly how we give feedback and what you'll receive in return for your submission fee:
Are you in print?
Yes! We publish our volumes annually. You can purchase the Best of Our Stories at our Publishing link.
Nope, in fact our price is very competitve.
What about the writing? Who have you published?
We’ve published some of the finest short stories online, including storySouth notables winners, Dzanc Best of Best of the Web anthologies. Starting this year we will nominate stories for the Best of Short Stories and Pushcart prize.
Cool. What do I do now?
Check out what contests work for you or sign up for a workshop. We'll be around.
"The journal features extremely strong fiction and wonderful interviews with writers such as Matthew Sharpe and George Saunders. Another strong point are the essays by editor in chief Alexis E. Santi... his journal focuses so much on creating a strong community between the journal's authors, editors, and readers."
"Thanks for all the good feedback. I'm sure you know how unusual it is to get feedback of any kind, whether a piece has been accepted or rejected. I think you've got a really good thing going--SMART!"
"I see that you are now offering workshops. I think that's great, and will consider participating in the future. I do want to thank you for advice you gave me on a previous submission. I followed your recommendations, submitted it to Casey Quinn at Short Story Library, and is was accepted for publication. So thank you! I'm sure the workshops will be helpful to others. Your feedback was perfect!"
"Your comments ring a note for a revision. I always try to have two things going on at once in a story and their convergence creates the conflict/shift that makes for an epiphany. Many thanks for the very pertinent remarks!"
"Thank you so much for the detailed critique. I will submit to you again, as
I enjoyed the feedback."
"Thank you very much for your personalized rejection, as well as your suggestions. To be honest, in Francine, I have held back a bit. As you know the short story market can be very particular, and it was my mistake to submit a story that has "...not enough madness and too little description..." I will make sure that my next submission to Our Stories will have more of both. Whether I will be able to submit during the current contest, or whether I'll have to wait a bit longer, I will most certainly submit again."
"I appreciate you guys reading it and giving it that much thought. That means a lot."
"Thank you, Alexis, for taking the time to personalize the response.
I do agree with your criticism--you are exactly right."
"Thank you very much for considering my pieces and for giving me such insightful feedback. As fellow writers that have most likely submitted work to the black hole that is publishing and never hearing of the work again, I'm sure you understand how much I appreciate your critiques. I definitely found your commentary helpful and will try again."
"Thank you Alexis, your feedback is very valuable, I am currently revising this story and will submit again soon"
"Thank you for sending me your comments. I appreciate getting a "rejection" that is so insightful. Your remarks will help me when I revise my story. "
M. E. M.
"Thank you for this. It is a very novel and rewarding idea to know what
worked and what didn't. I will certainly be submitting in the future."
"That's really good advice and on the nose with what I'm struggling with in my writing. I'm "stripping down" another story currently: come on plot! I know you're in there! This is helpful and encouraging. I really appreciate you taking time to read it."
"I can only begin to thank you for the thought, and combination of critcism and encouragement I found in your comments. I know I can use the english language, and God knows there are enough charaters chattering in my head that dialog's never been a problem. That's all craft. But to build a compelling STORY from the craft-- One doesn't learn that easily. And a writer's group where everyone thinks you wonderful is no help at all. So, thank you. For the first time I've gotten some guidance on how to turn the craft into art."
"Thank you for your feedback. I've had a number of short stories published, and quite a number rejected. I recently got a rejection notice for a story sent 18 months ago. My last published story arrived last week. I sent it out almost two years ago. If you're an author, you are used to rejection. It's hard to get used to being completely ignored. Many literary magazines use phrases like---we do not accept simultaneous submissions. If you do not hear from us in six months, feel free to submit elsewhere. Six months? On average, one in 100 short stories get published. If I submitted to these publications, I think my story would be published when I turned 119 years old.
Thanks again for your kindness. Get ready for more stories. I've another 15 or 20."
"Thank you so much for your detailed and insightful feedback on my story "Lodgers," I really appreciate your time and kind consideration.
I'll certainly keep the contest in mind and also the online workshop.
Keep up the great work"
"Just wanted to thank you for the feedback. The detailed edits and
personal response are very much appreciated, and I'm certainly going to
submit to Our Stories again."
"Thank you for your feedback. i'm going to share it with my writing group here in NYC and i'm going to tell them i was favorably impressed with your feedback. maybe one or more of them would like to submit to 'Our Stories'."
"Wow, you guys have really done an excellent job in plugging up an unwanted literary hole! I was very much impressed with the quality of your comments about my short story. My immediate reaction was that it was so much bunk, but I have been seriously reconsidered your suggestions."
"The editors at Our Stories make a rare effort to encourage writers by saying why a piece doesn't work for them. Feedback that begins on a positive note considers the sometimes fragile, creative ego and opens the writer to review the elements mentioned and decide whether or not they wish to address them."
--Margaret D. E.
Alexis E Santi
To quote the long time director of the Iowa MFA program, Frank Conroy, “All good prose must have Meaning, Sense and Clarity.” No good fiction (no fiction that has lasted anything over a few years) has ever lacked those fundamentals. Alan Cheuse, a good friend, author, professor and book reviewer on NPR, pushes the three P’s: Purpose, Passion and Perception. Did you know the purpose of the story? Did you touch the senses of perception? Did you feel the passion? Because, if so, you can bet that great literary bell hop checked these off before he let you ride into that “perfect dream” that John Gardner talks about in the quote below. So, I tend to look for all of this when I'm reviewing. Here’s what I think: The true weight of a writer’s talent is not what they do with the first draft, but it is what they do with the 30th and having the stubbornness to get to that 30th draft is perhaps the greatest gift you could ever be given by the literary Gods.
For more about Santi's thoughts on fiction and being an editor, his letters from the editor provide extensive fodder, as found in the archives section.
with every review there are two levels of the piece that ought
to be addressed. The first level is the matter of the story.
Is the language working? Does the story unfold in an interesting
and enlightening way or does it fall flat and tell too much
too soon -or not enough? Are the characters consistent and
round? Is it lacking tension? I find that beginning experimental
writers and art fiction writers often believe that the fundamentals
of writing are less important than the form or the art of
their piece, but it is simply not true. The basics are still
there, they are only masked in a creative way. On this first
level of critique I am concerned with giving the writer real,
pratical suggestions such as, "Move the second-to-last
paragraph to the beginning..." which is what I think
the writer is looking for in a workshop. On the second level,
I concern myself with the writer and his or her overall work.
What does this writer need to focus on? What can I explain
about the art of writing to guide this person to clarity on
M. M. De Voe
As an editor, I begin by trying
to discern the writer's intent, and only after I have some
idea of what the writer is trying to accomplish do I begin
to actively judge the piece. I am welcoming of all styles,
voices, and all genres, and yes, that includes crime story,
horror, scifi, and fantasy. Bring it on, as long as it is
well-written. Smart experimental fiction can be truly delicious.
Nothing need ever conform...it only needs to be brilliant.
I do not expect any author to write like any other author,
but I do expect each and every story to hold my interest.
Boredom is the death of readers, me included, and believe
me, I will let you know if--and when--a story flags. But
unlike most editors who will simply throw the story out at
that point, I will attempt to give suggestions to enliven
the story, or at least try to divine a reasonable explanation
for my lack of interest. I believe in very detailed critique,
in specificity and explanation, and while I try to restrain
myself from line editing, sometimes spelling errors are just
too egregious to pass by.
People always say that the first sentence is important;
I go one step further and declare that a writers' entire
work can often be judged based on that first sentence.
Is it cluttered with adjectives, devoid of meaning, rife
with possibility, bland, exciting, mesmerizing, enticing,
grammatically incorrect, profound, stupid, weird, a weather
report? Many editors will never bother reading past that
first line--so make it sing. Pay special attention to that
first sentence, because it, along with the title, are your
welcome mat and front door. Then, once the first sentence
is perfect, make sure the rest of the story lives up to
Nothing that happens in a story matters until the character comes across vividly. The good old modes of fiction (dialog, action, thought, exposition, and description) convey character, and while some of the modes characterize directly (exposition and thought), the rest do it indirectly. There are no rules except make characterization fit the story's meaning and purpose. I love Tolstoy as much as Dybek. After characterization, give me profluence, forward movement. Something I can anticipate will happen. That doesn't have to mean give me a plot-driven piece. Anticipation can arise from theme-plot, development sometimes in imagery. Think about how the bells at the beginning of Woolf's Jacob's Room couple with thoughts of death. Later, when we hear bells again, the association happens subconsciously. Finally, the Gardnerian vivid and continuous dream. Keep it vivid with careful description and characterization, keep it continuous by watching out for editing oversights, and watch out for spending too many words on thoughts, actions, or descriptions that may distract from the story's meaning and purpose.
I believe a good draft starts with imagination and a free-wheeling sense of individual purpose and mission. This is the writing that no one else gets to say is good or bad, right or wrong. This is where those strange insights and prejudices that you thought no one else shared are allowed free expression. Later, who knows, you may discover they speak to something universal—this is not the place to edit yourself, rein in your id, or feel embarrassed. A good story starts in the dream consciousness. A second draft—the crafted version of that raw output—is the one to submit. In this one, you've read over your material carefully and found all the places where one piece of your unconscious resonated with some other piece of it, perhaps without your knowing it. In this second-draft stage, you identify those interior echoes and heighten them, bringing them from the unconscious to the conscious. Here and in later drafts you identify how plot, character sketch and description can be carefully chosen and crafted to further heighten those themes that arose from your early, messier ramblings Like a beautiful watercolor, each element added in these later drafts is simply a denser shade of a color you already applied in your first wash.
Writing is an act of courage and dedication. I read as hungrily as I listen to music, always interested in a plot or stylistic technique I've never encountered before, or searching for an improvement or twist on what I've already experienced. Any story I read that demonstrates respect for the craft deserves my respect and care as its reader. For me, the writer's ultimate goal is to tell the story with a passion for language, and to create deeply-wrougt characters while weaving a memorable plot. But if you give me two out of three, we can make it work. Revision can be akin to shape-shifting; stories are rarely "finished" in the sense that I think of them as living things, always capable of altering to bring them closer to their true meaning. What is so wonderful about revision is that while writing is so solitary an endeavor, receiving feedback and starting a conversation about a piece creates community. It's exciting to participate in this kind of community of artistic ideas, to engage with others who dare to stop their lives, freeze time and encapsulate something on paper for the rest of us to share.
To really like a story, I need to feel that the writer cares deeply about the people and situations she or he is presenting; and that she knows why I should care deeply, too. In stories and drafts I really like, I can feel that the writer cares deeply about the people and situations she or he is presenting; and that she knows—or, in the case of a draft, is at least struggling to figure out—why I should care deeply, too. Stilted, uninspired, or overwrought language with no rhythm or vitality can make me cringe, but the only thing that can really make me scream is a story in which it is obvious that the only thing driving it is something superficial: an idea or a didactic point; a desire to copy something current and successful; or even just a meaningless play with language—that is, a story with no feeling in it. Give me a fearless and generous story, a writer who goes to the place she or he is most afraid to go, and you can’t go wrong with me. When writers write out of the darkest or most uncomfortable places in their hearts, they almost inevitably create characters, in serious and funny stories alike, who are complicated, conflicted, and not free of blame for whatever happens to them. When I find characters like these, I follow them wherever they go.
I read a story twice: the first time, for the pure enjoyment of reading a story--period--as if I have simply picked up a magazine in a doctor's office or a library or the comfort of my own home and demanded to be entertained. The second time I read the story, I examine its parts. I become somewhat of an engineer, that is to say, I take a phenomenon and analyze all of the many factors that went into its eventual occurrence. Did the story work, and why? Did the story fail, and why? When I reach this engineering phase, I break each short story down into its 4 basic parts: structure, character, plot and language. For structure, I examine the point of view--is it consistent? Is it deep or do I ever fall out of it? I examine our point of entrance--did this story begin, as Kurt Vonnegut famously said, as close to the end as possible? For character, I examine the motivations of each person involved. What did they want? Did they get it? Or more importantly: did they have the opportunity to get it and what did they choose? When I say plot, I don't necessarily mean to address the question: what happened in this story? Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver (oh, and Seinfeld) all proved that you can go on about "nothing" and say plenty. So. What I do address with plot is the arc of the story. Is there a common thread running throughout the story? Is there one, consistent emotional arc? Finally, language: if a writer has control over their language, it will snap, crackle and pop (copyright infringement pending). That's all there is to it. If a writer doesn't have confidence in their language it will show before I finish the first sentence. It is my sixth sense. I don't see dead people, but I do "see" language. Again, my second read involves studying the phenomenon of telling a story. And like all phenomenon in nature, when the sight is truly spectacular, the hows? and the whys? and the whats? are the last things on my mind.
I respond to a story first and foremost as a reader. I hate to be thrown from fiction’s “vivid and continuous dream,”* so whatever jars me out of a story, I make note of as an editor. It can be a moment that fails to make sense, or a scene that violates the world the writer has created. It can be a line of dialogue that rings false, or a character that abruptly changes names or motivations halfway through the plot. That is why I believe character is destiny. Conflict and tension: what draws a reader in and keeps that reader reading…all driven by characters’ desires and needs. That is why I will do my best to identify where I have been completely enveloped and where I have not—with an honest and earnest attempt at showing how to make the “vivid and continuous dream” as vivid and continuous as possible. Simply (but not easily): I look for compelling characters and evidence of proofreading. Even a misspelling can toss me out of a story. Give me people who will live inside me, and animate them with both sense and sentence.
We slip into
a dream, forgetting the room we're sitting in, forgetting it's
lunchtime or time to go to work. We recreate, with minor and for
the most part, unimportant changes, the vivid and continuous dream
the writer worked out in his mind (revising and revising until
he got it right) and captured in language so that other human
beings, whenever they feel like it, may open his book and dream
that dream again.
one time I thought the most important thing was talent. I think
now that the young man or the young woman must possess or teach
himself, training himself, in infinite patience, which is to
try and to try until it comes right. He must train himself in
ruthless intolerance--that is to throw away anything that is
false no matter how much he might love that page or that paragraph.
The most important thing is insight, that is to be--curiosity--to
wonder, to mull, and to muse why it is that man does what he
does, and if you have that, then I don't think the talent makes
much difference, whether you've got it or not.
I have rewritten
— often several times — every word I have ever published.
My pencils outlast their erasers.
The most essential
gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector.
This is the writer's radar and all great writers have had it.
is the rewriting: The first sentence can’t be written until
the final sentence is written. This is a koan-like statement,
and I don’t mean to sound needlessly obscure or mysterious,
but it’s simply true. The completion of any work automatically
necessitates its revisioning.
Joyce Carol Oates
You can't write
about people out of textbooks, and you can't use jargon. You have
to speak clearly and simply and purely in a language that a six-year-old
child can understand; and yet have the meanings and the overtones
of language, and the implications, that appeal to the highest intelligence.
Katherine Anne Porter
cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual
from the successful one is a lot of hard work.
written - they're rewritten. Including your own. It is one of
the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite
hasn't quite done it.