Bite-size Special: What makes an Apex story?

Sci Fi Month (text only banner. The text is full of stars). Banner by Rinn of Rinn Reads.

It’s the first Friday of SciFi Month, and today it’s time for something a bit different for Bite-size Books: the first ever guest post here at x+1.

Lesley Conner, managing editor of Apex Magazine, is taking the keyboard to try and get to the bottom of what makes a short story an Apex short story. Over to Lesley – and her special guests, my colleagues on the slush team!

I’m asked all the time what makes an Apex story, and I could tell you. I could write paragraphs and paragraphs breaking down how they make me feel, linking back to some of my favorite stories from the past year or two, teasing you about the amazing stories we have lined up to publish in 2017, but I’ve decided not to do that.

Instead, I’ve decided to hand this post over to Apex Magazine’s slush readers. They are our first line. Jason Sizemore and I place a lot of responsibility on them to weed through the hundreds of submissions we get every month and pull out the ones that he and I should look at more closely. They know an Apex story when they read one.

So what are Apex’s slush readers looking for? What do they think makes an Apex story?

Readers Mike Baldwin and Beth McKenzie had similar things to say:

To me an Apex story is one that makes me forget that I am reading. It transports me to another world, a time, or emotional state that pushes me to wonder ‘what if?’ about anything and everything light or dark and beautifully twisted. – Mike Baldwin

To me, it’s an Apex story if I find myself leaning forward, peering at the screen, perhaps with a thought of “whaaaat?” Whether it’s disgusting, beautiful, jaw-dropping, or just so odd that I need to keep reading to find out what happens, it grabs my emotions and interest all the way to the end. – Beth McKenzie

Carolyn VanEseltine took that feeling of being transported, blending the dark with the light, and expanded it a bit in her reply.

An Apex story looks at the world in a new light and requires me to do the same.

An Apex story knows the difference between beauty and love and horror, but then it swipes a paw through the divisions and drags you into the blurry part.

An Apex story tells a story about people, not events, and it forces my heart to beat in time with theirs.

An Apex story is one that I have never read before in any other form.

An Apex story demands that it be read. – Carolyn VanEseltine

For Carolyn Charron, an Apex story is about the disquieting emotion. And I have to agree with her – most stories you will read in Apex Magazine are unsettling in some way.

Apex stories aren’t full of surface emotions like shock or disgust, nor are they gory or repellent – they delve deeper into humanity’s fears: they are disquieting, uncomfortable and resonate in your mind long after you put them down. – Carolyn Charron

Dawn Griffin is looking for imagination:

Don’t dazzle me with your story writing skills. Dazzle me with imagination. Be beautiful. Be bold. Be inspirationally descriptive. Dare me to stop reading from the very first sentence. Enchant me to the very end. – Dawn Griffin

Lia Swope Mitchell looks to the words on our website when she’s reading slush:

What I use as a guide to identify an “Apex Story” is very simply the words on the website: strange, beautiful, shocking, surreal. An Apex story should be strange, definitely, in that it should have a strong speculative element that is integral to the story. It should be shocking, surprising and unpredictable; it should be surreal, containing odd and intriguing imagery and situations. And finally, it should be beautifully written — keeping in mind that beauty may be simple rather than elaborate. – Lia Swope Mitchell

“A speculative element that is integral to the story.” Yes! I know as managing editor, this is a point that has led me to reject stories. If I can pull your speculative element out of your story and still basically have the same story, then it isn’t an Apex story and I have to pass on it no matter how beautifully written it or how much love it, because it isn’t the story for Apex.

Let’s talk about rejections just a little bit. While talking about what makes an Apex story, I also asked our slush readers what makes them stop reading or pass on story. Are there certain things within a submission that immediately flags them that this story is going to be a rejection.

As for what makes me stop reading … well honestly, almost nothing makes me stop reading. As a fellow writer, if someone has gone to the trouble to create a story and send it, I feel the least I can do is read the whole thing. But I will say I start skimming if nothing has really happened within the first page or so. If they’re still telling me about the drapes 500 words in, my eyes start to glaze over. – Beth McKenzie

Frequent causes of rejection: weak writing/lack of voice; opening too slowly or in a non-interesting way (story begins on page 4); weak and/or predictable storyline; cliché premise and/or characters. – Lia Swope Mitchell

Use of language is the first thing I notice–words come pre-loaded with emotions so choose them carefully to evoke specific emotions in your reader. – Carolyn Charron

I think our slush readers have really nailed what makes an Apex story. Apex stories a bold and surreal. They are imaginative and unsettling. They are stories that pull you through them, that demand to be read. Carl Duzett may have said it best:

Apex stories are either unsettlingly beautiful or beautifully unsettling. – Carl Duzett

We are currently holding a subscription drive for Apex Magazine with a goal of $10,000 to help us expand Apex in 2017. If you enjoy stories that are bold, imaginative, beautiful, and surreal, please consider purchasing a 12-month subscription for only $17.95. You can find out more about Apex Magazine and our subscription goals in our announcement on the Apex website. Apex will re-open to submissions in 2017.


Photo: Lesley Conner, managing editor of Apex PublicationsLesley Conner is a writer/editor, managing editor of Apex Publications and Apex Magazine, and a Girl Scout leader. When she isn’t handling her editorial or Girl Scout leader responsibilities, she’s researching fascinating historical figures, rare demons, and new ways to dispose of bodies, interweaving the three into strange and horrifying tales. Her short fiction can be found in Mountain Dead, Dark Tales of Terror, A Hacked-Up Holiday Massacre, as well as other places. Her first novel The Weight of Chains was published by Sinister Grin Press in September, 2015. Best of Apex Magazine: Volume 1 marks her debut experience in anthology editing. She lives in Maryland with her husband and two daughters, and is currently working on a new novel. To find out all her secrets, you can follow her on Twitter at @LesleyConner.


Bite-sized Books is a weekly celebration of short-form fiction.