Friday, March 21, 2014

Six Questions for Mike Joyce, Editor-in-Chief, Literary Orphans

Literary Orphans publishes fiction, short fiction, flash fiction, and micro fiction. "The writing on Literary Orphans is a mood more than a style.” Learn more here.

SQF: Why did you start this magazine?

Mike Joyce: The first time the idea for Literary Orphans entered my periphery, came while I was visiting a friend on a trip to central Illinois. The friend in question is a tattoo artist, and the first thing I saw when stepping into his apartment was a giant mural he had painted, hanging on his wall, bigger than the sofa. I thought about the difference between visual and written art. I thought how great it would be if people could come into my apartment, and I could share my artistic abilities--show them something emotionally pivotal to me. No one who comes in my apartment is going to open my computer and read my stories. No one at a party, with beer and movies and other distractions, would even pick up a book I left on the coffee table and read it--I just couldn't imagine that scenario.

Visual artists are lucky. They get confirmation of talent immediately. They get the joy of sharing their art and knowing it meant something to someone else, however cursory.

Why do you write? Why do I write? Yes for ourselves, but we spend so much time trying to make our thoughts and feelings PHYSICAL on notepad.exe, that there must be some other reason. Why are we not just happy with thinking and feeling those emotions? Why put it on paper? We want to share. I believe that even writers like Kafka wanted that on some level.

I decided, realized, that online e-zines and print magazines are in many ways the equivalent of that, of hanging up a piece of your own art in your apartment before a party. Literary Orphans was started in many ways, to be that celebration of the individual talented writers I was surrounded by.

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

MJ: I will try to keep these brief and to-the-point, but want to answer in the "excruciating detail" that helped spawn this series.

Looking beyond plot, because not all great work has plot:

Thesis. I think a story should have a purpose, a goal, a direction of thought that it means to explore. I'm not saying that your piece about a bank-robbery needs to extol the virtues of the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, I'm just saying that it might want to examine why the bank is being robbed in some manner. It's not enough to say, "I'm going to write the most realistic character ever!" and sit down and make a list that includes your character's favorite mints, most hated holiday, the length of their fingernails, etc.--a "realistic character" is a realistic human, and if they're robbing a bank there is most likely a reason. Yeah the robber needs money, but why? What in their background allows them to use violence to get money? A great piece will insert a little psychology or sociology or sumthin'ology into it, and do it without the reader noticing, without it becoming the focus. A great piece will make the reader feel like they figured out the character on their own.

Schtick. You've got to have a schtick. What makes your story stand-out? Maybe the schtick is that the robbery in the aforementioned scenario is happening with a fake weapon? It adds a level of tension and interest that--while not enough to make a piece an amazing piece on its own--will certainly add interest. The important thing about the schtick, is that it doesn't have to be so content-related. For instance, it could be experimentation with style: that the story is told from the perspective of a group of teenage boys as in the Virgin Suicides. Or perhaps it may be that the setting is unique enough to be a schtick in and of itself, such as a (specific!) post-apocalyptic world.

Magic. Poetics, cadence, call it what you will. If you're a writer with talent, you know when you're doing it right and when you're not. You need to be in the zone--that area when powerful writing is just dripping from your fingers onto the keys. Every style of writer has it--if you're a minimalist, the jaunty snaps of the short and powerful. If you're verbose, the grinding run-on of a stream-of-consciousness wave. Don't submit something you aren't ready to. 

SQF: What most often turns you off to a submission?

MJ: Purposelessness. We're not overly fond of writing for writing's sake. If you sit down to write a story, and flip your pen for a few hours, and then decide to write just because you need to write because that's what all the manuals are saying... that piece isn't for Literary Orphans. We want inspired writing. Pieces about writing are usually avoided--they tend to be rambly. Yet, I have eaten my words on this on many occasions, so if you do have something really great about writing that you are proud of, send it in. That goes for anything, really. I am not being too specific here, because I feel if you think you've got something special, if you've got thesis and schtick and magic, I want to read it. The worst we can say is no.

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

MJ: Nine times out of ten, no I do not. If I do, it's usually several paragraphs because the piece connected with me strongly on an emotional level but fell short, and I want the reader to know that it meant something to me. 

We reject with a form on principle. Personally, I've received feedback on pieces, usually only a few lines, and they have upset me as a writer--way more than a form rejection. We respect the writer. We know you have your own idea of what good writing is. We know you are proud of your work. I'm not going to tell you that, "hey, you know that story you wrote about the girl and the guy? Maybe you should just write about the guy." That's not what we do--it's your story, your vision. 

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

MJ: Regarding the craft & mechanics: (1) There is not nearly enough writing that bends forms successfully. (2) The enormity of the writing community. Even a medium-sized magazine will get hundreds of submissions a year, and they'll publish only a small small small SMALL fraction of that. (3) It might take years for you to find the missing piece in your story that makes it sing. (4) It's given me a whole new perspective on rejection. There is one writer in mind, who submitted to us 4 times and I kept rejecting them. The 5th time they submitted--it was gold. In fact, it was one of the best pieces we've ever had the pleasure of publishing. (5) Don't trust Duotrope 100%. Those little asterisks they give you, saying that rejections are under-reported, trust them. Also, the people who use Duotrope are often veteran writers themselves. I have computed that less than 1/10th of our submitters use Duotrope. 

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

MJ: What magazines do you read on a regular basis?

I read PANK, Word Riot, The Penny Dreadful Review, Birkensnake, Ninth Letter, Dogzplot, Midwestern Gothic, FRiGG, Metazen, Pure Slush, and so many more. There is some amazing work being put out. I like to see it when magazines own their identity and don't fall into the easy trap of emulating institutionalized magazines from yesteryear.

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

NEXT POST: 3/25--Six Questions for W.T. Pfefferle, Editor, Red Booth Review


  1. I love the idea of this series. What a wonderful opportunity to get inside the minds of those "guardians of the gate" so to speak. Lots to learn here. Thank you, Jim.

  2. Thank you for stopping by, Jayne. Please share the site with your writing friends.