Time for another installment of Ranks of the Rejected. This time I interviewed Josh Hrala, the editor at The Arcanist, a new flash fiction market that focuses on fantasy and science fiction. I’m always excited when a new flash fiction market appears on the scene, especially a paying one, and Josh and The Arcanist are off to a great start. Josh has an extensive background as a professional writer, so he’s no stranger to rejection, and now that he’s working the other side of the literary fence, he has some great advice for writers looking to publish their fiction with The Arcanist or anywhere for that matter. Check it out.
1) Give us the short and sweet on The Arcanist. The description on the label if you will.
The Arcanist is a flash fiction publication that focuses on SFF stories that are 1,000 words or shorter. Our goal is to provide a place where people can get new SFF stories every week and devour them wherever they are. Alongside these stories we pepper in non-fiction pieces about SFF authors, news, and other things related to the genres.
2) You have an impressive writing background, so what made you decide to jump the fence and try your hand at the editorial side of things?
It’s really hard to nail down an exact moment. I’d say that I’ve always wanted to be an editor, and I’ve always loved the tasks I had to do in editorial at my various staff writer positions. Even while writing 2-3 articles per day, I enjoyed working on stories written by others, developing them into working pieces, and making them the best they could be. I even enjoyed the scheduling and formatting of the pieces. There’s just something to it, you get to put everything in place and give it a final polish.
As these thoughts started to sharpen in my mind, Andie, Patrick, and I started to write together and talk about stories. All three of us love SFF in all of its forms and originally started writing short films and mini-bibles for TV shows when we could. It turned out that almost everything we made worked better as fiction than it did for film, and we’re still developing stories right now. Eventually, The Arcanist was born out of the idea that we loved doing this, and we could use our collective fiction knowledge and my editorial background to make something new.
What really excites me about being on this side of the fence is giving SFF writers a new place to publish their work, a place where they get paid, a place that looks modern, isn’t behind a paywall, and presents their work in ways that other sites don’t. What we’re trying to do with The Arcanist is bring new readers and writers into the SFF fold by publishing solid stories in a new, easy-to-access way.
We are giant craft nerds, too. We all met at Point Park University where we were a part of the creative writing program. This formal writing education made us love well-crafted literary stories. So we want to use that know-how to elevate both SFF and flash fiction because both genres take a lot of heat. SFF often gets critiqued because it involves more world-building than plot, character development, and structure while flash fiction can be viewed as too short of a medium to be taken seriously. While those can obviously be true depending on the work itself, we want to show what can happen when craft is valued more than settings and ideas while also showing that great fiction – regardless of genre – can be accomplished in very few words.
3) Why flash fiction? How did you and The Arcanist land on that story length over more traditional short stories?
When we were coming up with what we wanted The Arcanist to be, we had a few goals in mind. The first was to find a way to spread our love for well-crafted SFF content to people who may not read it otherwise. While many hardcore SFF fans love a long, epic narrative, I know a lot of people in my life who would never sit down with something that big. However, they are the same people who don’t blink an eye when it comes to reading a bunch of long articles on Facebook. This gave way to the idea that flash fiction is a great ice breaker and – if presented in on the right platform – could inspire new readers and writers to give the genres a shot.
Of course, traditional short fiction was an option – one we might revisit later alongside flash – but we wanted something smaller, something that can be read on the bus ride home. A bite-sized bit of magic that people can read anywhere.
Secondly, as I mentioned above, we love craft and believe that short form content is a great way for writers to hone – or show off – those skills. When a SFF writer is forced to stay under a certain word count, especially when it’s as tiny as 1,000 words, things get interesting fast. Characters have to be active and making choices right from the start or even the best ideas can fall flat.
In short, it makes writers question what they need to tell a story, and that can lead to some really cool things that readers will love.
4) What advice can you give writers submitting to The Arcanist? Which stories have the best chance at publication? Which stories are absolute nonstarters?
The first rule of submitting your work to us is to please, please, please read the submission guidelines. They aren’t even that hard to nail down: a SFF story that is 1,000 words or less. It’s surprising how many people just scroll down until they see the submit link and send things off without actually knowing if it’s what we want.
If your story meets these requirements, you’re already in a good place. However, there are some tips that will really put your story over the top.
The biggest problem we see on a craft level is that the characters in the story are often more boring than the world they inhabit. You can have a great world, but your story will be ruined by a passive character who merely walks through it and doesn’t make a choice or have any agency.
Also, make sure that you aren’t starting your story at the wrong place. This happens with monster stories quite a bit. What’s more interesting: how the monster got out or what happens when the monster is already out and the character has to deal with it? It’s the latter 99 percent of the time. If you need to write the buildup to the monster getting loose to make sure you know how it happened, that’s fine, but then the submitted story should probably take place afterwards. We get many stories that end where they actually should have started.
So, as tips go, you want your story to start at the right place, to make sure your characters are active, and make sure you aren’t relying on a witty idea to push your narrative. Ideas are cheap, execution is hard. We are all about the execution here.
5) How about a glimpse behind the scenes at The Arcanist. What does the evaluation process for a story look like?
We have two ways to submit stories. You can either email them to us or use our form, which requires you to submit a Google Doc version of your story. We HIGHLY recommend using the form, it makes it way easier on our end and we end up getting to those ones first and the inbox second.
The stories are then divided up and assigned to either me, Andie, or Patrick. We do not use slush readers, so everything that is submitted goes straight to an editor. The assigned editor reads the story and makes sure it follows the rules. If the story flat-out doesn’t work for us, it is rejected. If the first editor reads it and is on the fence, we all talk about it. If an editor really likes it, we do the same.
The on-the-fence stories and the ones individual editors want to greenlight are talked about in person, and we break them down and see if they truly work. Personally, these discussions are my favorite part because we really dig in and make a decision.
After that, it’s all about either breaking the bad news or sending acceptance letters, setting up payments and publication dates, and finally unleashing the story into the world.
6) This blog is called Rejectomancy for a reason, so let’s get to the good stuff. What are the top three reasons The Arcanist rejects a story. Be blunt, even savage if you must.
The number one reason is that you didn’t follow the rules. They are there for a reason. They are meant to challenge writers and be a bit difficult. When you write “approx. 1,000 words” we know that typically means “I went a bit over, sorry.”
The second is not knowing what your story is about. This goes back to what I said earlier about ideas and narrative. A lot of the time, we love the ideas presented in a story. We often scratch our heads and wonder how someone came up with this, which is fantastic. It’s a great feeling to have. The worst feeling to have, though, is realizing that the story is merely that concept with no narrative, action, or anything to back it up. It’s hollow, and doesn’t work on a craft level because narrative took a backseat to a clever idea, making the story more about the idea than anything else.
The third is a simple question: does anything actually happen in the story? With our 1,000-word limit, you don’t have a lot of time to flesh out a world or describe tons of scenery, you have to get to the point. There’s not enough space to have a character walk around and take things in for longer than maybe a sentence before something has to push them to action. Just because it is short doesn’t mean the story doesn’t need to have a beginning, middle, and end. The best stories we see have active characters and twists that make us look at the whole thing differently. The “turn” is one of our favorite moments, but even these can fall flat without active characters.
Also, just as note, please don’t submit your story with weird colored fonts, large sections underlined, or any other strange formatting. We read a lot, and these attempts to get our attention only hurt our eyes. I don’t know why people do this, and we won’t outright reject stories for this, but it makes us sad and gives us a headache, which doesn’t help your chances.
7) You’re a writer too, so you understand that rejection comes with the gig. Any pro tips for dealing with it?
I’m not sure there is way to actually prepare yourself for a rejection. You have to learn early on that you can’t get your hopes up even if you think your story is gold because, let’s face it, we all think all of our own stories are gold.
If you want to get your work published, you need to wrestle with the fact that rejection is likely in your future far more often than acceptance, but you have to also understand that just because one place rejects a piece doesn’t mean it won’t work elsewhere. Make a plan, send out your story, follow all of the rules the publication asked for, and see what happens because it’s always worth it in the end. Remember that rejections are nothing personal and that every rejection is a chance to make the story better.
Josh is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Arcanist. His work has appeared on Cracked, PopSci, ScienceAlert, Geek & Sundry, ModernNotion, and others. You can get The Arcanist’s stories delivered straight to your inbox every Friday by subscribing for free here.