Literary Magazines Flooded with “Junk” AI Submissions

Literary magazines are starting to receive AI-generated writing, prompting some editors to put a pause on submissions, which have also increased in number. I’m happy to see that (for now) editors are able to discern the real thing from that which is produced by AI.

It’s creating a frustrating slowdown in the publishing process. However, one magazine, Metastellar (speculative fiction and “beyond”), says “Yes, you can submit AI-assisted stories to us. But they better be good.”

Well, fine. But the automated aspect of these submissions is likely adding more work to the pile, increasing the wait period for a response, and taking up editing time reading submissions that are basically empty of content.

What does this mean for human writers who are putting in the hard work of thinking through an idea, drafting it, writing and revising–instead of relying on AI? What does this mean for the viability of fiction magazines? If you are interested in these issues, you may find this article interesting: “AI-generated fiction is flooding literary magazines–but not fooling anyone” (in The Verge).

The Invisibility of the Editor

As a freelance editor and copyeditor, I found this essay to be a breath of fresh air. So much of what editors, copyeditors, and proofreaders do is taken for granted. I’m not referring to a lack of “recognition”; I often receive notes of appreciation from writers and really appreciate it! I’m thinking more about the role of the editor in maintaining the romantic notion of the published writer as “glorified . . . lone author” and the publishing company as its only bastion. Article by Alice Grundy in The Conversation.

Gutenberg on WordPress

(This was posted in 2018)

For WordPress users, an alert: they are soon switching to a new editing scheme: Gutenberg, which will go from text-based to the more visual block-based editor. Supposedly this will give more power to editors who don’t know how to code, and make it easier to post on your mobile phone. This could possibly go up as early as Nov. 19, although it could also be as late as early January if it’s not entirely ready by Nov. 19.

I use WordPress a lot and I’m a “text person”; I do very little coding. So, how well their editor works always has a big effect on my posting process. Right now I’m taking Part I (presented by Machielle Thomas and Micah Wood) of the BlueHost Gutenberg seminar on this, so I will jot down a few of my notes here:

“‘Blocks can contain anything from images and videos to quotes and text…and you’re able to insert the block from the menu into any different format you’d like.”

You can create custom blocks with preset features for specific uses and effects, for example, to create all the formatting you need that you can just drop into your page.

“Blocks give you power.” Really? Sounds like a talking point to me… 😉 (they actually show an image with arms raised into fists here). Uh, OK.

“The blocks make perfect use of space…ability to create content without unnecessary white space” —  alright; they’ve got me there. One of my pet peeves (especially when working with poetry and line breaks) is too much white space.

Looks like you can do a lot in Gutenberg without hand-holding from a developer.

So I wonder how well this will integrate across all the different themes (templates) on WordPress. Will I have to switch themes? Answer: no, not all themes will be compatible.

Process of installing plugin will be exactly the same as previous plugins. But if you’re a Bluehost customer (promoted by WordPress), you might want to try it out in a staging environment first. Fortunately, they do show you how to do this in Part I of the seminar.

More later…

So, if you are a WordPress customer, your site will automatically be updated to Gutenberg. Regardless of whether you use Bluehost or not, you might want to back up your site before Nov. 19.

If you check out the seminar and just want to see what features Gutenberg has, skip up to the 20:40 point.

Micah takes us through the process of creating a page in Gutenberg. Initially, the editing page looks empty in comparison to what I’m used to seeing. Like – where’s the toolbar?

You click on a + button to insert a block, and clicking on the block brings up a menu. You can make images wider than the content area, and it should be a lot easier to place images side by side in Gutenberg (really looking forward to that), and you can also create a gallery.

There will be tools in a right-hand “document panel” that will allow you create up to six columns across your page, for example:

  • you’ll still have the ability to use the classic editor
  • ability to duplicate a block
  • code editor mode, if you want to do html
  • make a block reusable
  • for all you poets out there — there is a verse block! This is really a plus for me, because I manage an online poetry journal.
  • ability to add tables and columns of text
  • you can add different types of blocks within columns

All, or most, of this can be done without having to do any coding.

At this point, I’m really looking forward to this changeover to the Gutenberg editor. WordPress will integrate Gutenberg in several phases. It is now available as a plugin if you’re in the WordPress business plan (go to plugins in WordPress, and do a search for it). Eventually, in 5.0, it will be in WordPress’ core, hopefully available for everyone at all levels.

Update 11/16/2018: I logged onto one of my websites today, and received this message;

Check out the new building blocks of the web

A new publishing experience is coming to WordPress. The new editor lets you pick from a growing collection of blocks to build your ideal layout.

Be one of the first to try the new editor and help us make it the best publishing experience on the web.

So, here goes…

11/29/2018 update: Well, my first tryout of Gutenberg worked fairly well on the front page of my site, but I had problems posting with images in the blog;  I did not find the plugin to be very intuitive. Perhaps some parts of the theme were not well adapted to the plugin. But after all, it’s early, and the new editor is still in beta. Time will tell…

11/30/2018:  I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that all kinds of tutorials are now sprouting up on how to use Gutenberg for WordPress. Go to the Gutenberg Hub to get a rundown on some of the current best. And here’s WordPress Learning Lab’s Gutenberg Tutorial.

5/30/2019 update:

Six months later, I’ve got the image posting down, and I can’t imagine blogging without Gutenberg.

—– Jean Vengua

Top 5 Issues I Saw as a Judge for a Short Story Contest

I was a judge in all three rounds of NYC Midnight’s 2017 Short Story Contest (they also run flash fiction and screenplay contests). This means I not only got to read hundreds of stories between 1000 and 2500 words long, but compose comments and critiques for each one. Writers had an exceptionally limited time to write and edit their submissions–from about a week to 24 hours, depending on the round. They were also restricted to certain genres, characters, and other requirements…again, depending on the round.

I got to read some truly marvelous stories during this time. I also read a great many fair-to-good pieces. Fortunately, after the first round, the most poorly-written examples were few and far between.

Here were some of the issues that prevented many of the contestants from scoring as high as they might have.

  1. Not understanding the genre

The NYC contest dictated the genre for the first two rounds. Honestly, were I to enter the contest myself, I don’t know how I would manage writing, for example, a political satire or romantic comedy. So I can identify with those poor souls who had three days to write an award-winning tale in a genre they had never touched before.

That said, the contest rules gave descriptions for each genre. I had to call out several stories for missing that particular boat. Fortunately for the contestants, two other judges and/or the contest moderators had to agree with me before the submission could be disqualified.

Whether you are submitting a piece to a literary magazine or contest, understand what they want. When a journal says “read a back issue to get a feel for what we want to see,” take them at their word to increase your chances of selection. If a contest wants “magical realism,” know what that means before sending your best work to them.

  1. Ignoring or misapplying the cadences of storytelling 

The best contestants understood the rhythm of language and how it affected the reader’s experience. From small scale pacing (sentence construction, where and when to insert a pause, sentence length); to mid-scale (paragraph construction and size); to large-scale (paragraph usage, dialog placement versus narration, section breaks)–the flow of the story is controlled by these decisions.

The most troublesome stories usually did not understand this concept. One submission contained, for no good reason, sentences so long they left me reeling. The longest was over 90 words! Some others were 60 to 70 words. A few geniuses can get away with this (I’m looking at you, Victor Hugo), but even those are typically in novels, not short stories.

  1. Sending a first draft

Okay, the NYC Midnight contestants are understandably rushed. But writing a story also means rewriting a story. Working on a deadline? Budget time to edit the piece. Editing and rewriting are part of writing. I can’t emphasize this enough. If you are tacking the last paragraph to your first draft six minutes before you have to attach the document and press SEND, don’t bother pressing that button.

Harsh? No. In my case, contest rules required lowering a score for even one spelling or grammar mistake. Editing is a necessary component of good writing and storytelling. Many submissions had an interesting plot buried under adjectives or misused commas. Whether you have five years or one day, a sizable portion of that time should be spent rewriting, rearranging, chopping, weeding, and all the other colorful metaphors for editing. For best effect, have someone else do the final edit and proofread. If that is not possible, spend as much time as you can spare reworking that first draft into a polished piece.

My most common reason for lowering a submission’s score? Poor editing. Because poor editing makes for a substandard story. And why send out anything but your best effort?

  1. Lack of focus

This applies most especially to short stories and flash fiction: Every word should be put to work. Put a leash on your adverbs. Strengthen your verbs until they can do the heavy lifting. If it isn’t setting the tone, it should be advancing the plot; preferably both.

Cut characters. Several submissions had far too many characters for the story length. Cut needless settings. Why did the characters walk to the library? There better be a story reason; if you can remove that trip without crippling the plot or the emotional arc, do so.

  1. Flat emotional arc

True, not all good stories necessarily need a strong emotional arc. Some stories, especially genres like murder mysteries or police procedurals, can get by just fine with the energy of the narrative arc alone. But if your character(s) are going on an emotional journey, or changing and developing between the first and last sentence, there also needs to be an emotional arc. And too many writers do not quite grasp that.

Maybe the character starts off happy, has something terrible happen, then fights to reach a new high. Or perhaps the emotions just get worse and worse–welcome to many horror stories. A short story has to pack a lot into a little space, so the crafting of an emotional journey must be tight, with thoughtfully chosen situations and clear characterizations.

Although the following reference applies more to long-form fiction, consider studying No Film School’s page on emotional arcs for a brief education on the subject.

—Michael Fink