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Editor Interview: Willesden Herald Short Story Competition

This interview is provided for archival purposes. The listing is not currently active.

Q: Describe what you publish in 25 characters or less.

A: Excellent short stories

Q: What other current publications (or publishers) do you admire most?

A: The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, The London Magazine, The Paris Review, The Stinging Fly, Ambit, The Irish Times Hennessy New Irish Writing, BBC Radio 4 daily short stories and annual award (and daily book serialisations), RTE radio Francis MacManus stories, and another word here for the New Yorker fiction podcast.

Q: If you publish writing, who are your favorite writers? If you publish art, who are your favorite artists?

A: Leaving aside dramatists, poets and novelists only because we are in the short story world, and also the classics because they can be taken as read, the ones that come first to mind are Hanif Kureishi, Kevin Barry, George Saunders, Maile Meloy, Alice Monro, Annie Proulx, Richard Ford, Lorrie Moore and Charles D'Ambrosio. I couldn't possibly leave out the stories of writers who have been judges in our annual prize, all of whom have a special affinity with the short story genre, namely Zadie Smith (2005-6, 2006-7, 2007-8), Rana Dasgupta (2008-9), Richard Peabody (2009-10), Maggie Gee (2010-11), Roddy Doyle (2011-12) and David Means (2012-13).

Q: What sets your publication apart from others that publish similar material?

A: Our track record is good, a form guide to writers who go on to win further accolades and publication. Every year sees a great selection of fiction from round the English-speaking world land in the Willesden Herald inbox. Reading and judging is done on a volunteer basis, for no more than an inscribed mug, all for love of the short story. We've been very lucky to have had some of the world's best writers as judges. That might sound a bit boastful but, um, it's not.

Q: What is the best advice you can give people who are considering submitting work to your publication?

A: You've probably heard the one about buying books of the best stories from previous years, yes? I thought I'd mention that again. The winning stories comprise the New Short Stories series, published simultaneously each year in the US and the UK. Other than that, take a look at my list of favourite publications and authors and that gives the best idea of what I'm looking for. You have to get through me to get to the judge; it's a double challenge, like picking a complicated lock! Don't worry if your favourite authors are different, I'm open to anything interesting. I have published a list of faults and an article on the positive side too in the Willesden Herald blog. Search for "Common Faults in Short Stories" and "The Sense of a Short Story", if you'd like to read them. I share tips and teases from time to time on Twitter and on the Willesden Herald blog, so if you find that sort of thing amusing, maybe follow @willesdenherald.

Q: Describe the ideal submission.

A: If I see any bad error, I'm not going to put that in front of the judge, so aim for technical perfection. In addition I'm looking for a theme of sufficient importance. I am patient, I will not give up right away but I can't stand unmitigated solipsism, banality, phoneyness. I don't want to get to the second or third page and think "Life is too short". Best get on with things right from the start, not in a frenzy but, well think about talent shows. You'd know if something was no good, right? Think of "Dancing with the Stars" (you know that show? it's "Strictly" in the UK): you don't want to be a clodhopper. If it were easy, everyone would do it. My best summary is "a sense of perfection".

Q: What do submitters most often get wrong about your submissions process?

A: Some people still put their names in the text, which disqualifies. Also because we're circulating computer file copies of the documents, don't put your name in the Word or RTF filename either as that causes another headache. Some people still send things single-spaced. Sometimes people contact by email, thereby breaking the "no correspondence" rule, and the anonymity if they mention their story title. Sometimes we get stories with epigraphs or quotes from songs and literature but we can't afford the time or money to establish publishing rights, so we can't short-list those. Equally if there are foreign language sections, even with translation, I can't be sure either the original text or the translation is right, so only use those with discretion. If they are essential for the story and IF I know somebody who can advise me about the language, you might get through. Did you notice that was a big "if" there?

Q: How much do you want to know about the person submitting to you?

A: We have anonymous reading and judging, so correspondence is not allowed and can disqualify.

Q: If you publish writing, how much of a piece do you read before making the decision to reject it?

A: If I get to the point where I think "I can't put this in front of the judge" I stop. I try to give everything as much of a chance as possible, even if it's not winning me over, but if there are too many errors (see list of common faults above) even after a couple of pages, it's curtains.

Q: What additional evaluations, if any, does a piece go through before it is accepted?

A: This varies slightly from year to year, so this is just a rough outline. I filter down to a short list, which then goes to the judge. Sometimes if either the judge or another reader helps, as happens sometimes, there is a long list phase. If there is something I don't have enough expertise to assess, I will ask somebody with that expertise to advise. That happens sometimes with stories from cultures I don't know much about, for example if there are references to religious or national practices or legends, I need to verify that they are not factually erroneous. We had up to 950 or so entries one year, when we had a special prize but normally it has been settling in to under 400 and I can read them all. The number on the short list has varied from ten to fifteen but we are settling in on ten now. The judge chooses the winning entry and runners-up. All short-listed are published.

Q: What is a day in the life of an editor like for you?

A: I do the reading in my spare time outside of my day job. I usually try to read them at the same rate as they are coming in, so I don't get too far behind, but towards the end of the submission window, that goes out the, er, submission window.

Q: How important do you feel it is for publishers to embrace modern technologies?

A: Most of my reading for pleasure is done on a Kindle these days. We use an online submission system (Submittable) and Print On Demand for the books. So I guess that makes us non-traditional.

Q: How much do you edit an accepted piece prior to publication?

A: We are very light on the editing. Because our book is essentially a competition anthology, I like to show the stories as near to possible like how they were when we received them. But we will fix, of course, typos and errors. Potentially significant changes are run past the writers first, and the writers get a chance to proof-read a PDF of their piece formatted as it will appear in the book before the publication is put to bed.

Q: Do you nominate work you've published for any national or international awards?

A: We have not done this to date. It is something to think about, perhaps.