An Interview with Flash Fiction Online’s Editor-In-Chief, Suzanne Vincent, & Publisher, Anna Yeatts Mahjabeen Syed
Mahjabeen Syed: I understand that Jake Freivald founded Flash Fiction Online, how did you both become involved with the magazine and ultimately, the key players within it?
Suzanne Vincent: I first met Jake at Orson Scott Card’s Hatrack River Writer’s Workshop. I probably critiqued some of his work, and he critiqued some of mine. One story of mine that he critiqued was one that I wrote for a Liberty Hall Writer’s Workshop called “I Speak the Master’s Will.” During that time he was actively working toward building the magazine. As he was preparing to launch he contacted me and asked if he could buy “I Speak…” for his inaugural issue. Of course I agreed. It was during our dialogue in preparing the story for publication that the subject of my joining the staff came up. It was an exciting opportunity, and I took it readily.
A year or so later Jake restructured the staff and asked if I would be willing to act as a team leader, vetting and assigning slush to a team of readers and choosing those stories that would move on the final selection round. Then a little more than two years ago Jake decided he needed to concentrate on more pressing needs and asked if I would take his place as Editor-in-chief, and not long after he made the decision to either close or sell the magazine. That’s where Anna comes in….
Anna Yeatts: I began working at FFO as a slush reader in early 2012. Suzanne posted an advertisement on a professional bulletin board (Codex Writer’s Forum) and I happened to see it. I auditioned by critiquing a story for her and she brought me on staff. I basically read slush for a very, very long time but I suppose I was a reliable and quick slush reader. I started slowly working my way up the food chain by taking on extra slush and little responsibilities here and there.
Jake decided to step out of the Publisher’s role in the summer of 2013. Suzanne was a saint She was keeping everything going but it was far too much for her to handle on top of her “outside” life.
I decided to take on the role of Publisher in late August. I spoke with Jake and he was willing to turn the reins over to me after the September issue.
MS: How does your job (Anna Yeatts) as a publisher, differ from that of Suzanne Vincent’s as editor-in-chief?
AY: I think of it like this: Suzanne is the true artist. She can pick that diamond of a story out of the slush. So she deals with story selection— slush management, rewrites, acceptances, rejections. If a story is accepted, it’s because she chose it.I’m the business end.
I make the money decisions and make sure we get the issues out on time. I coordinate the contracts, illustrations, website, e-distributors, and social media promotions.
SV: I think I have the easier job. I do very much appreciate that Anna trusts me in making the final story choices. I have never felt pressured by ‘the boss’ to choose a story my conscience, taste, experience, or expertise could not abide, despite the fact that there have been MANY stories she and I have disagreed over.
MS: I noticed that a great deal of your staff have busy family lives and are located all over the country, from California to North Carolina, Utah to Kentucky. How do you ensure that deadlines are set and met and that everyone works together?
AY: A lot of the staff has been with FFO since the very beginning (or close to it). It’s definitely a labor of love. Those who don’t love it, well, they tend to drop off staff pretty quickly. Most of us are writers and know that this kind of work makes us better in our own writing. So we want to do it.
But sometimes there are deadlines that have to be met. Which means I have to start sending emails and Facebook messages reminding everyone of what I need and when.
If that doesn’t work, I use my scary voice. It’s quite good.
SV: Staffing is primarily my job. First it takes a great deal of consideration. We are all busy, none of us are paid, so we have to work hard to make the job enough of a pleasure to keep the work of reading, voting, and commenting a high priority. We also manage the staff in such a way that each of our three teams of readers are well balanced between those who have the motivation and time to get a great deal of work done and those who put in what they can. We also have two or three long-time staff members who are ‘floating’ — contributing when and where they can.
I heavily rely on my three team leaders to keep up on their assigned slush piles, and they do a good job of keeping their teams motivated and informed. Personally, I think they work too hard. But if they didn’t I suspect we’d struggle a great deal more. Slushing schedules are not quite as rigid as publishing schedules. Anna and our Webmaster, Chris Behrsin, are the ones to thank for regular publishing dates. We have a little more freedom in the slushing schedule to accommodate everyone’s busy lives– including mine.
But we do work hard to keep a regular schedule, to respond to stories in a timely manner. We have four important monthly deadlines–1st of the month is publication day; 8th of the month is the last day to read and vote on stories for the month’s final/winnowing round; 10th of the month is first day of winnowing; 20th of the month is the last day of winnowing. Everyone is regularly informed of those dates via automated email reminders. Primarily, though, it all rests on everyone getting their jobs done. Most of the time that’s not a problem, and if it is a problem there are always extenuating circumstances — more important priorities that should come first.
MS: As an online magazine, what do you find to be the greatest challenge(s) about being based online? The feats?
AY: The hardest part about being based online is that you don’t have anything to put in people’s hands. It’s contradictory to what I just said, I know. But there is something about having a story published and being able to take it home and hand to your mom and say, “See, there’s my name. In ink.”
But on the other hand, our overhead is much lower than a print magazine’s. Which,I like.
MS: All of your staff consists of volunteers. What do you do to pay the bills at the end of each month and where you get the funds to pay the authors?
AY: My pocket. Sadly.
When I took over FFO, I took over the existing business model,meaning each issue would always be free online. I’ve been working on finding other ways to finance the magazine but it’s a very slow process. Neil Clarke and Clarkesworld have proven that it can be done. It’s just going to take a while.
We’ve begun selling downloadable convenience copies each month in addition to a monthly subscription through several major distributors (WeightlessBooks.com, Amazon, Smashwords, B&N). It’s making money…slowly.
But the difference definitely comes out of my personal bank account.
SV: Mostly Anna’s answer, but I will say that our entire staff consists of writers. Every wise writer knows that an important way of improving your own writing is to analyze and critique the writing of others. So our staff members enjoy that benefit, and that benefit is the reason most of them join. Some stay because they find they enjoy this side of the industry as much as the writing side of it. Some cycle out because they’ve reached a point at which they feel they’ve learned all they can.
Some go on to bigger and better things.
MS: On your website, it’s mentioned that many people on your staff have a sweet spot for science fiction and fantasy submissions, when it comes to accepting stories of a different genre, what helps a story standout?
AY: Story, plain and simple.
A good story, well told, will always stand out. And it needs to start in the first line. Grab us by the nose and hold us glued to that laptop screen from the very first words. Don’t dilly- dally your way into the story.
Personally, I adore horror. I’ll admit I have a soft spot there. But you have to make us care about the main character.We need to know her. Love her. Hurt with her. Otherwise, meh. Off with her to the rejection pile.
SV: First of all, I think we’re publishing a pretty well-balanced mix of genres. But Literary, Mainstream, Sci-fi, Romance, Western, Slipstream, any good story has the same essential qualities: three of them for me:
First and most important is a story that makes me feel deeply. I don’t care what the feeling is — joy, laughter, giddiness, grief, love, hate. Make me feel! The author needs to show me he understands the concept of empathy (not sympathy), and that he knows how to use it make his characters powerful in conveying emotion.
Second, writing that shows me the author cares about more than just slapping words on a page, more than just about telling a story, but understands that how you tell a story, every word chosen, every sentence constructed, is important. I want writing to sparkle. I want it to be delicious on the tongue. Authors should be reading and studying poetry as a tool in the writing of fiction. I don’t need fiction to sound like poetry. I don’t need fancy, self-important prose. But letting a form of writing that is all about word choice and sentence structure influence an author’s fiction can only improve it.
Third, a story that shows me the author knows how to use that delicious language to construct a story, how to draw a reader in, how to hold the reader’s attention, understands the promise of a story’s opening and the responsibility he has to keep that promise.
MS: In the most recent post on FlashBlog, Anna wittily discusses the importance of a writer being befriended by a non-writer for the author’s overall sanity and well-being. I’m stuck somewhere between what Yeatts calls a hermit, who hides away to chuck out her entire story and only gets up to feed her crazy-eyed cat, and the introvert’s introvert who avoids eye contact at all costs and needs someone to take her out into the world to converse with more than mere characters in her head. Who are you as writers and who keeps you normal? Do you still have time for writing while running such a flourishing magazine?
AY: I’m a moderate level hermit. I need the house to myself and a large stash of coffee. I block myself into a room and write until the muse lets me up. The only thing that keeps me from staying there for months on end is that I have children who would be living on ketchup packets and stale cheerios if I didn’t come out. (Not really!) I have the world’s most supportive husband who keeps me sane. He’s wonderful with the kiddos and does all kinds of great daddy things with them so I can have my writing time.
It is hard to find a balance between writing and running the magazine. The magazine takes an enormous chunk of time, especially since branching out into social media and e-distributing. I tell myself that I’ll write first while my creative mind is fresh and then use the magazine as a break but that’s when a crisis will break out and I’m back into the magazine.
SV: I’m afraid I’ve let my writing slide these past few years. But I can’t entirely blame FFO. I have, however, found that I enjoy this end of the process as much as I enjoy the initial production end (writing).
But I’ve found it’s harder to find quiet writing solitude with teenage children than it was with small children. The little buggers don’t take naps, they don’t go to bed at 8:00, and they all hang out at my house.
And life is really about priorities. I have many priorities that take precedence over my writing. But when I do write, who am I as a writer? I’m a train. I get myself chugging along and prefer to keep moving. When something comes along to interrupt me it’s not unlike a train derailment — a mangled wreckage of shrieking metal and burning diesel fuel!
Someday, when the rest of my life gives me more opportunity to write, I’ll get that train going again, but it’s not FFO that’s taking away my writing time.
MS: What are the perks of working with so many people dedicated to writing?
AY: You never stop learning. Suzanne is absolutely brilliant at what she does. I love going onto the winnowing boards after she gives her final story critiques. I always see something differently or realize all the nuances of storytelling and technique that I’ve missed. I couldn’t ask for a better Editor-in-Chief.She’s amazing.
SV: You know, we can talk about political correctness and tolerance ’til the cows come home. But the truth is, it’s always nice to be in a room full of people with whom youhave something in common. But the greatest perk is finding just how different we all are, just how much we don’t have in common, learning from each other, learning to be more tolerant of differing opinions. Because we may all be writers but that hardly means we all agree on anything involved with storytelling. We very seldom see complete agreement on stories. And I value that. I value every opinion, every comment, even if I don’t agree with them. Even the most wildly disparate opinions give me food for thought as I mull my decisions.
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