Friday, May 17, 2013

Six Questions for Kate Alexander-Kirk and Amy Sibley, Editors, Zest Literary Journal

Zest publishes fiction, creative nonfiction, flash fiction, poetry and art/photography. "We are most interested in writing that puts us in awe, makes us envious, that makes us laugh, cry, and rage; that is comforting and familiar, that is risky and dangerous." Learn more here.

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

  1. I like something that moves me – any which way. Dark humour is great but I just like being made to feel something. Even nothingness – if that isn’t too much of a contradiction!
  2. I like originality and quirkiness.
  3. I love reading things that make me think: WOW, I wish I’d written that!
  1. Although it’s an intangible thing, one knows when they’re reading good writing.  I look for writing that grabs me within the first few sentences or couple of paragraphs.
  2. It needs to read like something that lots of thought, care and time have gone into.
  3. I love reading about the everyday and the ordinary presented through the writing in a unique way. In creative nonfiction one may write about some spectacular event that’s happened to them, but it may not necessarily be good writing. A good writer can take everyday life, non-extraordinary events, and turn that into a captivating story.

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

Kate: It’s hard not to feel frustrated when people clearly haven’t read the submissions guidelines. Either it’s been previously published or it just doesn’t fit the theme – or they submit it directly on to our website as a comment. 

Amy: Same as Kate, ignoring any of the submission guidelines is an immediate turn off and will likely lead to rejection. If you can’t be bothered to read less than a page worth of instructions, how can I assume you’ve read and edited your own writing with any care? Ignoring the guidelines creates unnecessary work for the editors and makes me assume you don’t respect my time or the work we put into the publication. Also, common punctuation and grammar mistakes are a big turn off and likely will lead to rejection.

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

Kate: Absolutely! That was one of the biggest reasons why I wanted to set up my own e-zine. Too many editors just don’t provide feedback. When people submit their writing/artwork they’re taking a risk and can feel quite vulnerable. I know how that feels. I’ve been there too many times. You wait, sometimes months – sometimes well over a year – just to get a simple, unhelpful ‘no thanks’. I feel it’s crucial for editors to treat each submission with respect. It can be really demoralising to experience this lack of interest or a willingness to help. Most of us are giving up our time to do this and aren’t making money from it. We’re doing it for the love of it, so why not offer a little feedback as to why it didn’t make the cut or indeed, why it did! 

Amy: I think a small amount of feedback is certainly warranted. Even if it’s as simple as explaining we don’t feel the piece is polished enough or it doesn’t fit our theme closely enough. But I don’t feel it should be expected of editors to give loads of feedback. Realistically, there’s just not time to do that and we’re not providing a workshop service. But, I think it’s certainly reasonable to explain why we chose not to accept the piece.

SQF: Will you publish a submission an author posted on a personal blog? 

Kate: This is an interesting question. In the first issue we did accept a piece that had appeared on a personal blog, but that was because our disclaimer for previously unpublished work had not been posted on our site yet. It’s pretty standard to ask for previously unpublished work. On a personal level, I respect this and like this because it gives me an opportunity to create something new and to develop as a writer when I want to submit to a journal/e-zine.

Amy: Having spent ten years in the publishing industry I’m a bit of a stickler for permissions and copyright issues. Although I’m not overly bothered by the idea of it having been on a personal blog, I don’t see it as appropriate to draw the line in such an arbitrary way. If it’s on the web, it can essentially be considered published. Most publishing companies wouldn’t accept content that’s been published online, including a personal blog, so I think as a small start-up journal, we should be holding ourselves to that standard as well.

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?

Kate: Personally I have no problem with this. It would be unrealistic to get involved in a weighty dialogue with each and every submitter. Yet I think it’s completely acceptable for someone to reply to a rejection either to acknowledge it or to ask for clarification. Amy and I always provide some feedback as to why the piece didn’t quite work/wasn’t quite suitable for the issue and so hopefully any potential queries are already answered. I remember getting a rejection that said: “I'm sorry but I'm not sure about this piece, so will leave it this time.” How on earth can an editor think that a writer will be satisfied with that kind of response? I wouldn’t normally write back to query it but this was too enigmatic; it made me curious. My email was polite, not demanding, quite simply I asked for clarification. I got a swift and snarky response about how incredibly busy she was and how I should contact a critiquing service if I wanted feedback. Okay, we all have off-days, we’re human but don’t offload your personal issues to your contributors. If a piece doesn’t work for you, give a reason why. It’s a simple courtesy and there’s no need to be cryptic. 

Amy: I think by offering a solid, reasonable response for why we rejected it up front, we’re avoiding that ambiguity one can sometimes feel about why a piece hasn’t been accepted. I wouldn’t mind the odd follow-up question, but it does create the concern if you do it for one person, then you may be expected to do it for all. I’ve told some contributors we’ve rejected, in addition to my feedback, that the piece would benefit from being workshopped and then provided suggestions on how they could obtain that workshop experience in case they were unfamiliar with how to go about that. We also definitely encourage people to resubmit it once they’ve revised the piece.

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

Kate: Ooh, that’s tough. Maybe it should be a question on how to cope with rejection. The first time I ever plucked up the courage to submit a story anywhere I was fortunate enough to receive an acceptance. I was totally chuffed and totally clueless. I can’t tell you how many rejections I had to overcome before something else got snapped up. I’ve kept all of these email rejections. They’re all important. It’s too easy to succumb to the fear and vulnerability that every artist experiences (a great deal of the time!). Use these rejections to help you to improve. Take on board the advice that works for you and try not to take it personally. A good friend and great writer Stephen V Ramey once advised me just to resubmit my story somewhere else as soon as it was rejected. Get it back out. If you can, rework it, then resubmit it. If it’s good enough, it’ll get scooped up. I now know from my experience as an editor, quite often work doesn’t get rejected because it’s bad, it’s just not always the right fit in that place at that time. So get back up to the plate and take another swing with the bat!

Amy: What should a contributor do if their piece gets accepted, but they don’t agree with edits the editors have suggested?

After accepting a piece, we do review it more closely and make suggested edits. Rather than just make them we suggest them to the author and then have them confirm/make the changes. Not everyone is going to like all of our suggestions and I know as an author in that position, I personally had felt afraid to disagree. But, as an editor, I just want to say: don’t be. We are careful to be very respectful when suggesting edits, and polite disagreement is more than welcome. We’ve accepted the piece, we’re not going to change our minds. So, we’re more than happy to work with the author to make sure we’re all happy with the final piece for publication.

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

NEXT POST: 5/21--Six Questions for Melissa Swantkowski, Fiction Editor, Bodega

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