Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Six Questions for Michael J. Mattson, Executive Editor, The Hellroaring Review

The Hellroaring Review publishes short, flash and micro-fiction, and prose poetry. Read the complete guidelines here.

SQF: Why did you start this magazine?

MM: The Hellroaring Review grew from a sonnet sequence called "Hell, Roaring". Initially, I intended only to launch a new blog to build an audience for my own writing. Knowing something of the challenges of blogging, it became apparent that I wouldn't be able to provide enough content on my own to make the site profitable. Money isn't everything, but food for my children comes pretty close, so The Hellroaring Review morphed into an online journal.

Creating an online literary journal isn't hard. Creating one that actually pays its writers is another matter when even the most prestigious journals pay writers very little. The Hellroaring Review is unswervingly dedicated to becoming a paying market ... a top-tier paying market. It will take time, but for us it is a non-negotiable commitment, and that means building an audience for The Hellroaring Review.

The journal is the focal point of a much larger project that will be rolled out in phases over the next several months: an online studio for young writers, workshops and critiquing services, and a Featured Writers' program. I want to find dedicated writers and help them get established, build their audience and find success, however they might define it.

SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a submission and why?

MM: Language, voice, and jealousy. Language tops the list, hands down. The first story accepted by The Hellroaring Review came down to a few really well-turned phrases. It was written in the first person, which I consider the most difficult voice to master, especially in flash fiction. But those few phrases made the narrator's voice dominant over the pronoun "I", completely stripped it of its power. I know how I feel when I turn a phrase that resonates, and I was jealous in a good way. For a few moments I was thinking, "Man -- I wish I'd written that!"

SQF: What common mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a submission?

MM: Not reading the guidelines. Anyone who has spent any time researching markets and submitting work has heard it over and over, but until you're on this end of things you don't really know why it gets repeated so often. Our guidelines page specifically states we want prose poetry, not lined verse, but writers keep sending pieces that use line breaks. Writers need to read guidelines. 

Another common mistake is one of narrative voice -- too few writers of flash fiction seem to grasp the difficulties of writing in the first person. Though not a grammatical or mechanical error, it is often less than the best choice. I outline some of the reasons in an upcoming article for Flash Fiction Chronicles called "An Eye for an I", which will be published this Fall. In brief, "I" is the single-most dominant word in the English language: handle it with care.

Another common mistake is breaking from conventional techniques of craft without good reason, debasing otherwise good writing by trying to be clever or avant garde. It just comes off as pretentious. This is not a criticism I reserve for unknown writers. I love Cormac McCarthy's writing, but I don't really care for his break with conventional form. It worked well in "The Road" because it added to the atmospheric quality of the novel. It doesn't work nearly as well in his other works. It detracts from their quality. He often makes readers work much harder to track his narrative than any writer -- yes, any writer -- has a right to do. Remember that editors are readers, and respect your reader's time. They are investing it in your dreams and aspirations.

SQF: Do you provide comments when you reject a submission?

MM: We try to comment on as many pieces as we can. I know from my own experience how meaningful and helpful it is to get rejections that are more personal and that offer constructive criticism. Being a new venue means not always having a huge slush pile, so we still have time to add that personal touch for a lot of submissions. That said, we're getting to the point where we can't respond personally as often as we'd like. 

SQF: Based on your experience as an editor, what have you learned about writing?

Both as an editor and as a participant in studios and workshops, I have learned how important critquing others' work is to improving your own. Being formally educated in ancient languages provides me some affinity for objectively evaluating written work -- its why school children used to have to learn Latin (and why they should still) -- nothing better equips a person for close, objective reading. The one thing that can run a close second is giving careful criticism. 

SQF: What do you want authors to know about the submissions you reject and how authors should respond? Along this same idea, do you mind if authors reply with polite questions about the comments they receive?

MM: Form-letter rejections are always signed 'The Hellroaring Review'. If I or my associate editor provide some comment, we sign the letter. Form rejections from The Hellroaring Review generally mean one of two things: either there are too many issues to give detailed comments; or, it is simply a matter of taste. We strive to make a point of commenting if a rejection is a more subjective call -- well-written, just not clicking with us. If a piece clearly shows strength of writing, we want to encourage authors to keep writing and submitting their work.  

We absolutely welcome respectful questions from authors. It is one reason our goal is to make The Hellroaring Review profitable -- no one feels the same way about starving artists as they do about starving children, and I want to do this full-time. I want to be able to invest my time and energy in other writers' careers, help them take those all-important steps toward realizing their own goals.

SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?

MM: Do you see yourself as an editor only, or are you also a writer? If a writer, can you tell us something about what writing means to you, what keeps you going?

T.S. Elliot is quoted as saying "Most editors are failed writers - but so are most writers." I am a writer, and will fail as a writer only when I'm dead.A few years ago my parents moved to Montana for the second time in their doubly-blessed lives. During that move a picture surfaced which I had drawn in the first or second grade of something I wanted to invent. In it I was lying on a grassy lawn -- or perhaps it was a bed of nails, my artistry somewhat lacking -- with a wire attached to my head and to another wire which I plucked like a guitar string to then move a pencil suspended over paper. The purpose of the whole apparatus was to transmit my thoughts to the page. For me, writing is a return to my first love. To communicate meaningfully through the written word, to evoke emotion and abstract thought in another mind is the most magically human thing we can do. It is the ultimate valuing of who and what we are. By writing we are, in some sense, most distinctly human.

Thank you, Michael. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.

NEXT POST: 10/26--Six Questions for David Svenson, Founder & Editor, The New Poet

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