Saturday, February 16, 2008

Canada Calling: Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg is a Canadian writer and magazine editor who has had a love of the written word from a very early age. He has been an avid reader for nearly 50 years and an editor and writer for just over 10. It was following the publication of his first short story in Storyteller magazine that they asked him to be one of the readers for their slush-pile.

Storyteller gets a wide assortment of genres and story types and they like to have at least three readers go through the stories, each having a different genre preference in their personal reading. Mike was brought in as the Fantasy/Horror reader but now shares a love of the Mystery with the other readers/editors.

And, as he says, “Warning, I tend to ramble on a bit when asked about writing.”

PDD: What is the allure of short stories?

MS: Well, that is a common question I get from readers and writers alike. For me it’s as simple as reading time constraints and ‘loving a variety of genres’. I have always been a voracious reader and will read everything from a novel to the label on the cereal box. And the beauty of Short stories is . . . when you are stuck on a bus going to and from the office, sitting in a dentist or doctor’s office waiting room and none of the out-dated magazines interest you, what do you do? Well, I reach into my briefcase and pull out the latest issue of Storyteller or an anthology of short stories and lose myself in another world for a few minutes. Unlike a novel, short stories allow you to read a complete story in, well, a short time. They allow you to explore a variety of genres, writers and publications… what’s not to love.

PDD: What can a writer do with a short story that’s not possible in a novel?

MS: First off, polish their craft. A lot of beginning writers jump feet-first into the novel. And a lot of them soon find themselves floundering. Or they finish their masterpiece only to have it rejected over and over. There are things that a writer needs to learn if they wish to be published: write tight and have a strong beginning, middle and end to every story. They need to learn how to properly use Point of View, dialogue, setting, pacing, all those things that hook a reader, draw them in and carry them through your story to a satisfying conclusion.

There is no place better to both learn and hone these skills than a short story. Think about it. In a novel you have many characters, plots, sub-plots, etc. But in a short story you keep it simple, tight and basic. You have only a couple characters. One plot and maybe – that’s a big maybe – one sub-plot. Short stories allow you to learn how to focus on creating that perfect story.

And as a bonus, you get the chance to develop your voice as a writer, explore and mix genres (which more and more editors are looking for) and build a name for yourself so that when you do write that great novel you have a publishing history you can show your editor. Promotional budgets are near non-existent for new writers these days and if you approach the publisher with a series of short story publications you show them you have a ready fan base they (and you) can build on you sell the new novel. And if you are fortunate enough to win an award for one or more of those short stories you pretty much guarantee an editor/publisher will at least look at your novel manuscript.

PDD: What are some of the challenges that short story publishers face today?

MS: One of the biggies would have to be money. Plain and simple. If you are in the publication business, especially with magazines, it is all too sadly about cost and revenue. It is not cheap to put out a magazine and unless you have one monster of an advertizing budget or a ton of ads in your magazine, you do not make money. I’ll tell you now, it was nothing but the love of short stories and a desire to promote Canadian writers that kept Storyteller afloat those first few years. And even today we are happy to just stay in the black. For us it has always been, and always will be all about promoting good Canadian fiction.
Another challenge is distribution of the magazine. Again, unless you have a ton of revenue in ads you won’t be making anything. For every issue of ANY magazine sold off the rack, there will be 3 or 4 that are never sold. And unless you pay extra to have them returned to you, they are trashed. That is a lot of paper and printing costs that are lost for every magazine.

And then there are the stories themselves. For every magazine that publishes short fiction it is a challenge at times to fill your quota. Now, I’m not saying that we don’t get enough well-written stories; it’s more a matter of getting in enough that suit your particular publication. Each publication has its own type or style of fiction they prefer. In mystery that can be anything from cozy to P.I. Though more and more are expanding on that and accepting a wider variety. Things like mixing genres is starting to become popular . . . something to keep in mind.

Here at Storyteller we can get anywhere from 300 to 600 submissions per issue. It sounds like a lot, but even that number gets whittled down quickly and does not promise an easy issue. There are a few reasons for this.

One, we receive a lot of submissions from new writers who are just learning their craft. And the majority of these are probably the first story they have ever written. They just aren’t there yet. We encourage newer writers to join critiquing groups so that others can help them polish their stories and writing craft.

If the story is close, but not quite there, we often make comments on the manuscript as a way of encouraging them. Many of our writers started off with a few rejection slips before they managed that perfect little story. And, many of our writers have gone on to become published and award-winning novelists. In fact, we work hard on supporting our writers and on making this happen as often as we can.

Another reason for rejection can be a simple fact of not following our guidelines. They’re there for a reason. Read them. Follow them.

Let your story sell itself. No fancy paper. No scented paper. No weird fonts or colours. Keep it simple. Can you imagine how much of a strain it is on these old eyes if everyone used fancy fonts or the wrong sized fonts or coloured paper or ink. Oh, the agony. You mess with those simple things with ANY publication and you are guaranteeing your piece is rejected. For those who watch shows like American Idol, you know what I mean. A person comes in wearing a costume you might as well turn the volume down because you know they are going to suck as a singer. Same with a manuscript. Don’t dress it up. Let the quality of writing and story telling sell the piece.

PDD: Would you care to make a prediction about what the short story market will look like five years down the road?

MS: I like to think that it will be about the same or better. The magazines may change but there are always those whose love of the Short Story will make sure the markets are always there.

PDD: You say on the Storyteller web site, “While we specialize in variety, there are some things we don’t publish. We stay away from the extremes of genre.” What is an extreme of genre?

MS: Good question. First, a few of the things we tend to steer clear of. YA, Young Adult. The vast majority of our readers are adults 35+. They don’t want YA so we stay clear of it. And as for the ‘Extreme’ issue. Well, how to explain this. Lets take horror. We all enjoy a good ghost story or a slightly macabre tale now and then. But a lot of people just aren’t into the gory hack-and-slash.

Science Fiction: have your mystery aboard a starship or on the moon but keep away from techie details about the ships star-drive engines or artificial gravity on the moon. And for fantasy, have a bit of magic but keep the fairies and elves to a minimum. If you like to write that deeply into a genre, there are magazines and anthologies that look for it. It all comes down to knowing your market.

PDD: Your Magazine sponsors the Great Canadian Short Story Contest each year. Does that mean if a writer doesn’t live in Canada, he or she can’t submit to the contest?

MS: In a word, no. The whole idea of this contest is to promote Canada and Canadian fiction. We do ask for stories that take place in Canada and reflect the unique culture here. I mean, where else would a show like Little Mosque on the Prairie have been given the chance let alone done so well. Or shows like This Hour has 22 Minutes or Rick Mercer’s The Mercer Report. That is Canadian humour at its best.

We have also had amazing stories of what life was like for older immigrants in their first year in Canada. Historical mysteries and scientific achievments like Canada’s Avro Arrow also do well.

If a writer still isn’t sure about Canadian writing, I suggest going to the web site and ordering a copy of one of the Great Canadian Short Story Contest back issues to get a better feel for it. Oh, and the story has to take place in, on, over or under Canada. Coast to coast to coast that’s a lot of land and a whole lot of stories.

PDD: Tell us a little about your own writing.

MS: Well, my first published short story was in Storyteller. It was called “What The Cat Dragged In” and was a bit of a Fantasy/SciFi story set in this world about a dimension-hopping cat that would leave the most interesting catches on the back stoop for his owner to find. It was inspired by my sister’s cat who used to leave partially eaten mice and chipmunks on her back stoop most mornings. With just enough left that you had to wonder what it used to be when it was alive.
I have also written mystery, horror, and psychological thrillers. My stories have appeared in both magazines and anthologies here in Canada, the US and in Europe. My first few short stories were rejected up to about 16 times before being accepted. That rejection rate is now down to about 3. So, you see, even us old dogs can learn. :-)

To learn more about Storyteller magazine, including author submission guidelines, go to www. We look forward to hearing from you.
Next month, Canada Calling visits true crime writer Nate Hendley.


Sofie Kelly said...

Welcome Michael. I found one of my Storyteller rejects just recently. And it did deserve to be rejected.

Anonymous said...

I am really surprised that Storyteller Magazine doesn't have an electronic submission mechanism. Did I overlook something? Will this change soon?

Anonymous said...

Great article.
Polish your craft is an
excellent comment.


Terry Finley