Today, we’re shaking things up a bit on Ranks of the Rejected. I recently spoke with Josh Goller, the editor-in-chief for the excellent flash fiction lit-zine The Molotov Cocktail. I asked Josh for the interview because he produces one of my favorite publications, and I really dig his approach to the editorial gig. My own association with The Molotov Cocktail began in July of 2014 when they accepted a quirky little story of mine called “At the Seams.” Since then, they’ve published four more of my flash stories, and I’ve placed in three of their quarterly contests (you can find links to these stories here).
Josh was kind enough to share his thoughts on writing and rejection from the editorial side of things, and I think you’ll find what he has to say interesting, enlightening, and maybe a little bit motivating. If you write or read flash fiction, The Molotov Cocktail should be on your “can’t miss” list.
1) Give us the quick and dirty on The Molotov Cocktail. What types of stories do you publish?
The whole concept behind The Molotov Cocktail is to serve as a projectile for explosive flash fiction. We’re a zine that seeks the dark and offbeat. Another way to put it would simply be that we like to publish weird stuff. We like strange and surreal, unsettling and uncanny. When we first started, the emphasis was perhaps a bit more focused on dark subject matter, whereas now we’re really looking for all sorts of unusual stuff, it doesn’t all have to be macabre or disturbing anymore (but hey, that doesn’t hurt either). Dark subject matter will always catch our attention, but some of the fiction we publish now is oddly funny, exhilarating, or even inspiring in its own offbeat way.
2) How did The Molotov Cocktail get started? For you personally: Why on earth did you decide to spend countless hours of your life reading through piles of slush?
The idea for the project came to me in grad school in 2009, when I was working towards my MFA in Writing at Pacific University. Going into the program, I hadn’t given much thought to electronic journals. But that was around the same time that major newspapers were shuttering up, and it seemed like print might actually be on the way out with Kindle and e-books emerging. So I attended a few lectures about the burgeoning online lit journal market, and I also learned about searchable lit journal databases like Duotrope, and I started doing my homework.
I got a few pieces of my own flash fiction published here and there. But what I was discovering was a chasm between the literary markets (the academia-backed journals and the hip, sometimes pretentious indie ones) and the more accessible genre venues. There wasn’t a whole lot of journals that tried to fill in the middle ground. So I started to realize that, not only was an online lit zine something I could totally start myself, but I could also try to create a space to promote exciting flash fiction that blends a literary approach with some of the vibrant imagination of genre work.
Our quarterly contests, which we started in early 2014, have really helped invigorate the zine and have taken it into some new, exciting directions. Associate editor Mary Lenoir Bond came onboard (we met in grad school) to help judge the contests, and we’re really happy with the results. Mary studied fiction at USC with some tremendous writers like T.C. Boyle and Aimee Bender, and she also has an MFA in poetry, so her insight and perspective has been invaluable in making our quarterly contests so successful. And while each contest has a specific theme, the overall aesthetic of the site still holds true: we want stuff that’s dark and offbeat but doesn’t take itself too seriously. (By the way, folks, The Molotov Cocktail has a quarterly contest going on right now. It’s called Flash Phenom, and you should absolutely check it out.)
3) Why did you settle on flash fiction as the sole format for The Molotov Cocktail?
Unsexy answer: Because 1,000 words or less was manageable enough that I could confidently get the project off the ground. Longer form short stories, those that stretch to several thousand words, would simply take too much time to comb through, especially before I really knew what I was doing. And I realized that, being a fledgling site, it would be a lot easier to gain some traction and some relevance by churning out issues frequently. So I decided on flash fiction, with new issues published twice monthly. Also, from a reader’s standpoint, flash fiction is short enough that the reader can digest a few pieces within a few weeks, whereas people might not otherwise have time to get through a batch of longer stories.
But we’re planning to dip our toes into poetry in the near future, if only for one special issue. Associate editor Mary Bond will be heading up a poetry contest, and we’ll see where that takes us. Flash fiction will always remain our bread and butter, but we’re not averse to experimenting.
4) What pointers can you give writers submitting to The Molotov Cocktail?
Read. Our. Guidelines. In our submission guidelines, we’re pretty candid and thorough about what we want to see, but it’s amazing how many submissions we receive from writers who have clearly only skimmed them. After doing this for nearly six years now, I can spot a mindless mass submission almost instantly. We also get plenty of submissions that clearly don’t fit our aesthetic, and it becomes clear that those writers aren’t familiar at all with The Molotov Cocktail. That’s understandable in some way; nobody has time to read every journal out there. But if a piece feels like an e-mail forward, it’s definitely starting off on the wrong foot. It’s basically a cliché at this point for a lit journal to advise writers to read an issue first, but when it comes to online stuff (and flash fiction, specifically), that’s not such a tall order, and it really will greatly increase your odds of us accepting your piece.
When it comes to the contests, however, we’re a bit more open-minded. For instance, our Flash Fool contest last spring required a twist ending of some kind, which is not something we’d usually go for (M. Night Shayamalan be damned!). The contests definitely branch out from what we typically look for. They’re also a great way for writers to get their name in print, since we’ve now started collecting each contest’s Top 10 finishers into an annual Prize Winners Anthology.
5) I know you’re a writer too; in what way (if any) does that affect your work as an editor?
I wouldn’t say that my writing affects my work as an editor nearly as much as being an editor affects my writing. I’m also the managing editor at Spectrum Culture, which involves editing a lot of film and music reviews, features, and lists each week. Do that for very long at all, and you’ll learn that one of the best ways to improve your own writing is to edit the work of others. It soon becomes clear what types of pitfalls writers tend to fall into. Editing almost inevitably tightens up your own writing.
Specifically with Molotov, I’ve come to realize that a lot of people tell similar stories. When it comes to fiction, the idea is as important as the quality of the writing itself. A technically well-written story doesn’t mean anything if the driving idea behind it isn’t unique.
6) Okay, since this blog is (mostly) about rejection, let’s get to the meat. What are the top three reasons The Molotov Cocktail rejects a story? Please, be blunt. We writers rarely understand subtlety.
- If a piece doesn’t fit our aesthetic, or it clearly ignores our guidelines, it doesn’t last long in our consideration process. Sad to say, but a piece can sink in mere sentences.
- A quick look at Submittable tells me that we’ve received nearly 3,000 submissions over the years—not including our quarterly contests, or the first year-plus of our existence when we misguidedly tried to handle all submissions with nothing more organized than a Gmail account. I think a lot of people think that, when they submit a piece, it’s an up or down vote on their individual worth as a writer rather than a mad dash to the finish line against many other writers. We’ve rejected tons of a good stuff simply because we only publish three pieces per issue and there’s simply not enough room for everything worth publishing.
- Overwritten or underwritten. We don’t want to feel like the writer is more important than the story, or that grammar and punctuation are just suggestions.
7) Do you provide feedback in rejection letters?
We don’t, actually. I’ve personally submitted to a few publications where I’ve received detailed feedback from the fiction editor. I’d love to be able to do this, but it would require a cloning machine—and a bunch of sugar and spice. However, we try to send the most encouraging rejection letters we can, especially to those stories that were close calls.
8) Rejection is an unavoidable part of being a writer. Do you have any pro tips for dealing with it?
Every time you hit “submit,” put that publication out of your mind. Just assume it’ll be rejected. Move on to others. Even if they tell you not to simultaneously submit (that’s bullshit, by the way), go ahead and spread that story far and wide to venues that you think might want it. When it’s eventually accepted, pour a drink.
As I said before, don’t take rejection personally. As writers, we like to think we’re bleeding all over the page, but when you think about it, everybody bleeds. Bleeding is so passé. Journals only have so much space, and even if a few dozen journals turn you down, there’s likely still one out there that will fall all over itself to publish you.
Josh Goller grew up in the Midwest, but he moved to Portland because frigid temperatures are (paradoxically) of the devil. He wishes the wages of sin would include a cost of living increase every once in a while.