Friday, November 8, 2013

Six Questions for Colin James Sturdevant, Co-Founder/Managing Editor, Houston & Nomadic Voices Magazine

Houston & Nomadic Voices Magazine publishes fiction to 3000 words, flash fiction (300-800 words), poetry, and creative nonfiction/nonfiction. Read the complete guidelines here.

SQF: Why did you start this magazine?

CJS: There are many factors to how Houston & Nomadic Voices Magazine began, and I will try and make it as brief as possible. I brought the magazine up as a project to my writers group, Writers’ ReVision, who are all emerging writers, and that have a lot of great insight and talent as well as potential. One of the aims of the writing group we created was to “provide a forum for writers to share their voice and work” and a magazine seemed like a way we could encompass that desire and mission. Even before we were a group I had taken a Fiction Creative Writing Projects with one of my favorite professors, Aaron Reynolds, and in the course we looked at publications (magazines, journals, and reviews) that were online and analog/ print format. We learned about submitting work, query letters, submission protocol, and more about the publication outlets. I then became interested in how one becomes a part of the growing market or publication world. As a student and a new or starting writer, I had this imagination and mindset of the publishing world as one giant focused on the “up and coming and famous” and had no idea if new writers breaking into the world of publication had any representation. That notion or narrow view of the world of publication may have started a slight desire to start a magazine. Let’s say that that is one of the beginning factors to the reason why I wanted to start a magazine - which is to broaden the marketplace and create room for new writers to have their work out there that deserve it. 

The second reason came from my volunteer work as an associate editor for Glass Mountain, the Undergraduate Literary Journal of the University of Houston, for the fiction section of the publication. I felt that associate editors were taken and hung out on the fence as just a filtration system for the genre editors, but my emotions and perceptions at the time were misguided by what I’d call “young adult angst”. To me it felt that there was a gap, and that all associate editors were given just a vote and little say. But that was because it seemed that learning the ropes of what else goes on in the magazine seemed off limits. Meetings that discussed other important factors for the publication that the rest of the staff handled where we weren’t invited to created a barrier to me, and it made me feel as an associate editor that I was more of an asset when needed rather than part of a team. The whole project felt disconnected, and so I left but desired to be a part of the publication process. I left Glass Mountain because in reality I failed to express my concerns and interests in the magazine which created a shift and created an attitude that made the institutional publication seem cold, and it wasn’t something I wanted. This distorted view that cropped up from the events of working there and misinterpreting reality broke me away from the publication that the university ran, but a part of me still wanted inclusion somehow. I wanted to create a magazine not tied to an institution of higher learning. I wanted to pioneer a project, and wanted the inclusion of academic writers and non academic writers to share the same page. The magazine project then became an “independent” operation or grass roots approach.

Thirdly, was the first mentioned bit. Writers’ ReVision had a goal, and there had to be a way to enhance our activity and a magazine seemed appropriate, and the first two desires reignited and I decided to put the project on the table as something for us to do to promote writers.

Aside from these steps, the magazine’s original intent had evolved due to technology - social media. After the meeting, a few of my friends stepped up to take on the roles as editors, and they were nervous as to editing the work of others and modifying another’s work if need be. We thought we’d publish academic writers (those who study creative writing at an institution) and non academic writers (self taught or writers not tied to learning from an institution). We wanted Houston writers since our city is so huge. But getting the word out in your own city isn’t easy, and being a new magazine may have made writers unsure of submitting to a new publication. We thought our first issue would be a five page pamphlet that wouldn’t be up to our expectations, but we ended up soliciting from writers we knew. So, now we’d have a fifteen to twenty something page magazine. It still didn’t seem enough to me. I wanted more. I wanted to do more, and I felt that it misrepresented the community of Houston writers as a whole. “What could we do to garner more submissions?” worried us until I stumbled upon a page on Facebook that was for posting calls for submissions. We ended up utilizing the social media and received work from outside our state and outside the country that we liked. This changed the course and direction of where the project would go. Instead of calling the magazine “Houston”, “Houstonite”, or something of the like - I panned out the name “Houston & Nomadic Voices”. We wanted writers from home and afar to tell their stories whether it be prose or poetry, to move us and our readers. “Social media” changed the direction and took effect on the growth and development of the magazine.

The fourth reason to why I started a magazine was from a discussion with my friend John Pluecker. I asked him questions on licensing, publishing, how to publish, copyright and more and he broadened the horizon of what a publication is. He told me that Copyright was a capitalist method, and he also brought up Copyleft and Creative Commons. We discussed how publication used to be a movement, and how now it is a grounded structure and model due to expectations. Publications and presses were less of a business and more of tools to express ideas - political, and moving as a continuous experiment, and how literature is becoming more hardened as entertainment and less about it’s cultural value that map the transformation of who we are as a whole. I decided to publish for the sake of culture and to preserve the records of human habits and understanding that are inherent in literature. It became a right of passage, almost ceremonial to be an editor and to publish new work.

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

CJS: That’s a difficult question to me because a submission in a sense is a package, what the writer puts on the table before us. I think of the submission as a unit of different parts that work together. First, and foremost, is a cover letter. A little formality and respect goes a long way, in my opinion. And this is speaking on my behalf as an editor, and a writer, set aside from the rest of my staff & editors. I look for a brief cover letter addressed to the magazine or “Editors”, and a bit that allows a conversation to begin between publisher and writer or plausible contributor. I think most submission systems and literary projects have automatic responses, but for now we type and respond by hand. When an author sends me a cover letter - it feels personal, that this person has tried to build a conversation with me for whether or not their work is ready made or belongs in our project, the magazine. The fact that a writer takes time to address us, and let us know what they are sending, and that they are open to allow our magazine to house their work is special, and we are very grateful for writers who want to trust us as a magazine. It makes me hold respect. If I am just sent an attachment and a Thanks, followed by a name or just a bio: it feels as if the writer may not care if we publish them, that we’re just another target in the market to take up a chance with, and that their publication matters more than the binding of work, collecting an aesthetic, and agreeing that this, their, literature is worth to be part of a literary discussion. This, to me, is also inherent in publishing: a discussion that happens between literature. The discussion is also in line with the cover letter itself. As an example of a compelling cover letter, here’s an excerpt from a writer that’s being published in issue 2. The formality and care, and interest initiated us as editors to take more time and interest with their work:

Hello H&NV,
Have heard of your mag., it comes by way of many a great local writer and you have recently published some favorites of mine. I respectfully submit a few poems for your consideration, along with the requisite short bio.  

Now, not everyone will have access to a copy of the magazine, but the fact that this person has read the publication and has identified some pieces with potential they could grant us, it goes a long way. We read every submissions with care. As a side note, when we release the Call for Submissions for issue 3, there’ll be a few past published pieces online for people to see to get a feel of our aesthetic. We find it unfair to tell people we’re sorry we couldn’t publish their work, but you should buy a copy to see what we are about. If they do not write material we look for, then they just may feel they have gotten gypped for buying an issue of something unrelated to what they write or enjoy as a reader.

Second, I look to see what may set this person apart from the rest. It may be demographic or nationality or identity, and maybe all at the same time. I try to focus on almost fifty percent of our authors being from Houston, and outside even if from another country - to broaden the discussion of literature. Houston, Texas, is one of the largest cities and extremely diverse. I want a discussion in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry to occur between (n)th generation of America and someone still in the culture of that opposite author’s roots. If that’s possible.

Third, I look at the work as a whole, and how it may work together with the first pieces of literature we accept. I look for ready-made work that needs little to no edits, and work that has something “working” or can be developed with a writer to be included in the magazine.

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

CJS: As mentioned before: not sending a cover letter. It says this person doesn’t care, but I could be wrong. They may be submitting for the first time and do not know the cultural and respectful ways to submit work. I’d also say receiving work addressed to an entirely different magazine is depressing, but not a turn off, which has happened.

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

CJS: Generally, we do send feedback or a marked up/commented on document if we felt it was close to the cusp of publication. Not every piece is approachable when it comes to feedback. Some pieces may be so underdeveloped that there’s no real way to address the piece - and that’s usually work that’s a rough draft. If someone does request feedback, we will if time is accessible. Our team of editors and staff have private lives to tend to, and as much as we love what we do, we can only designate so much time to the magazine - and that time has to be spent wisely on the project so the process of publication goes smoothly. I highly recommend looking at a piece with over twenty rejections, and the rejection letter tiers of what a magazine has said or thinks, and ask yourself what’s wrong with the piece and revise. Best to form a group that can give constructive feedback. Don’t give up on writing. Develop tough skin for rejection. It happens to everyone.

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

CJS: I’ve learned that writing and drafting a ready made piece for publication is a long process. Some pieces of mine have taken two years max and a minimum of one year to get into the shape that people are looking for. I’ve realized that pieces we accept have been worked on hard over and over again. It shows me that revising your work is extremely beneficial. It also allowed me to give better feedback to people I do workshops with outside of working on H&NVM. It has even helped me to edit my own work more harshly, and to create new questions on how to shape a piece in the process.

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

CJS: This is a hard question. I think maybe an interview on publication itself rather than focusing on accepting and rejecting work would be pretty interesting. Let me see if there are a few questions that you could ask, and then I will list questions that would pertain to the culture and means of publication that would be an interesting dialogue.
Questions Not Asked:

1.) Why are certain pieces rejected?

Answer: Some pieces may not fit what we look for or may just be a second or third draft that is unclear or not compelling. We’ve had people send irrationally written and creepy narrations on rape as if the mood and idea were acceptable and okay - as if rape was a happy go lucky thing to do. If you send us a piece that lists the scenes of something horrific and culturally taboo as if a sociopath wrote it - we won’t look at it any further. A submission that seems off like the previously mentioned is a rare case. If someone has sent something, and we find it online on a blog or on a Facebook note, then we must decline the piece. Once you post it, it has been published for the public’s viewing - and some online formats like that have terms that claim ownership of whatever someone might post.

2.) What are some of your favorite authors that may be examples of work you look for?

This question would have to be applied for each genre editor. I have certain tastes and things I look for, but when it comes down to it - my editors deserve a say in what works. They aren’t puppets for me to use as trump cards to build something, and after all this is a collective activity that’s democratic. When we get submissions, I’ll pitch an opinion and see what they say on the pros and cons of each piece and where they stand. If there’s something I like and REALLY would like to see in an issue - I will try and talk to the editors if a piece can be worked with to get it up to par.

As for my tastes: Tim O’Brien, Yusef Komunyaaka, Amy Tan, Elizabeth Wong, Richard Lange, Claire Kageyama, Richard Siken, Hasting Hensel, James Dickey and a big number of other writers.  

3.) How many times do you go over a submission, and how much time do you spend looking at them on an individual basis?

Fiction and Nonfiction: The beginning, for me, needs to hook me from the get go - and if it doesn’t captivate me within the first few paragraphs, I’ll probably just pass. Poetry: I’ve gotten to liking fictitious poetry and abstract, recently; but if a poem’s language is too loose and doesn’t form coherent images to rely on, I have to pass. For prose, I will go over a piece a few times if I make it past the first few pages, which means there is something “working” and has potential, which we will work with over time with a writer and continue to review the piece. As for poetry, if I keep reading all the way through and I don’t get confused from transitions - it’s a sure fire way that it will be thought heavier on. My editors may or may not need time to brew on pieces, but it always depends on what state and condition the work submitted is in.

4.) What’s your response time and when would it be suitable to send a query on the status of a submission?

Our submission period is from September to August, and we usually hope to respond within three to four months, but sometimes it may take longer depending on the academic calendar since we are all in school. Usually in the spring and summer we respond faster. Right now, since we are such a small publication, we need to look at submissions at the soonest convenience and to get back to writers as soon as possible. Our first issue, we received about 20 to 30 pieces total, and then our second call for issue 2 gained about 130 to 140 pieces total. If it’s been more than four months, it’s safe to see about the status of your submission through a query letter - but I advise writers to do this kindly.

5.) What is the goal of your magazine?

What I’d like to do is create a dialogue between literature WITHIN the magazine itself. Publications seem, to me, to be a single unit collective as a voice that enters discussion among other publications about literature and its representation. I think that this magazine is a dialogue on its own that can go into the world of publications as a two-toned collective that expresses American literature and International literature and where it falls in line locally.

Aside from the questions that weren’t asked, I think a discussion that analyzes the idea of a publication would be beneficial for writers themselves to understand the new ways and traditional ways publications are evolving. Such as ; What is a magazine, or a journal? A review?; What traits make these concepts what they are?; What is the purpose of Copyright?; Are online formats really magazines?; Do lit publications need an actual ISSN?; What does it mean when something is “published”?; etc.

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

NEXT POST: 11/12--Six Questions for Mike Cluff, Editor-in-Chief, and Dan Hope, Managing Editor, Fiction Vortex

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