My name is Stefan Milićević and I am a slush reader. This is the part where you all stand up and say “Hello, Stefan“ in a reassuring voice. Do it. Seriously. Do it now. I am a gentle soul.
Anyway, a few days ago I joined the Flash Fiction Online team and I slushed some twenty or thirty stories. Anna told me to do so, or I’d get the hose again. While I am a newcomer, I did notice a certain type of story I’d like to talk about. It appears to be a recurring problem so I figured I might as well try to address it. Also writing a blog post makes me feel better about talking to the voices in my head.
Let’s talk about screeds for a second. Screeds are not stories. Oh, sure sometimes they like to pass themselves as such, but it is painfully obvious when they do. If a robot in a trenchcoat asks you to take him to your leader you wouldn’t be fooled. Sure, he got the vocabulary down, but his pronunciation is off, and the antennae poke out under his trilby hat. He’s still a robot… and this analogy is still tortured.
So recently I chanced upon a story that was essentially a screed against Catholics. Punchline? Well, while I may not be a practicing one, I was raised Catholic. My mother is a Catholic and my grandparents are. When this story gently elbowed me in the ribs and tried to get me to chuckle about those whacky Catholics and how they are the very reason why the world is going to hell, I was not amused.
Trust me, this has nothing to do with my personal predilections. The story might have tried to tear Methodists, Muslims or pet store owners a new one and my reaction would have been the same. These days it’s become fashionable to bemoan the dreaded PC police and I imagine some people feel they have to tiptoe around their opinions when writing.
Here’s the thing though: challenging something and being outright hateful and dismissive are two different things. One takes effort, the other does not. Thinly veiled hate speech is not publishable material.
There’s a couple of reasons for this:
People who read this magazine come from all walks of life. Stories that feature dogmatic hobby horse topics paint with the broad brush of generalization and that is unfair.
Screeds tend to ignore plot and characterization. That is just bad writing.
Reading a screed tells me right off the bat that the author ignored the submission guidelines.
This venue is inclusive in the sense that it allows any genre and multiple submissions. The list of things that the staff considers a hard sell is short. I consider that a great courtesy of the magazine (and don’t forget the professional rates). Following submission guidelines is a way to repay that courtesy.
Hardcore cynicism tends to be a hard sell as well. These are screeds as well and they condemn not any particular race, religion or political ideology – no, no, no. These stories condemn the human race. It’s all hubris, cruelty and decay; cats and dogs living together.
Sure, TV, movies and video games have become quite dark as of late, but that’s neither here nor there.
The important question to ask oneself when writing a story where everyone is despicable and humans are the source of all evil is this:
“Do I really believe that?“
Have we humans done terrifying things? Of course we did. We are not strangers to kindness, generosity and love either.
Here’s a good rule of thumb when it comes to writing, and I do believe it applies to life in general:
“Nothing is absolutely so.“
What are you saying? That’s Sturgeon’s law? Damn it, here I thought I was being original. I feel so sheepish I might as well start to bleat.
There you go! I hope this post has been helpful. Happy writing folks. I can’t wait to read your story!
Stefan Milićević is a writer from Bosnia and Herzegovina. He has been published in venues such as Mirror Dance and Golden Visions. He is fluent in five languages and has traveled through most of Europe (much to the dismay of all Europeans). In 2011 he attended Cat Rambo’s editing classes and in 2012 he graduated from the University of Banja Luka. When he is not reading or writing, he is playing Go or Magic the Gathering. He is mostly harmless.