Empty Oaks publishes flash fiction and short fiction to 10,000 words. Read the complete guidelines here.
SQF: Why did you start this magazine?
Ro McNulty: I very much believe that if you want something done properly then you have to do it yourself. We all started out as writers before we got interested in editing. I spent a lot of time trying to get my own work published and found myself getting frustrated with a lot of indie publications out there. Editors can be quite dismissive towards their contributors sometimes; they often make unreasonable demands on writers and sometimes offer very little in return. A lot of genre publications, especially in horror, seem to be carbon copies of each other with no distinctive features whatsoever. I wanted a publication with a distinctive ethos that published ambitious work, that I could be proud to be a part of. After a while I thought I should just cut out the middle man and start my own.
SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a submission and why?
RM: I think most editors will tell you that this is comes down to personal taste. I basically publish work that I enjoy reading. We’re quite flexible with our submission guidelines, and if we see something that falls outside our usual remit but that excites us anyway then we’ll usually snap it up.
Personally I look for originality first and foremost. I sometimes find myself reading 20,000 words a night, so for a story to be in with a chance then it needs to stand out from the pack. I need something to get excited about, that’s bold, that breaks the rules.
I’m not a genre purist, and perhaps unusually for a spec fic fan, I’m a sucker for realism in literature. Empty Oaks rarely publishes pure pulp. In my view, even the most fantastical stories should have some sort of real-world relevance; either because it addresses real themes, creates believable characters or uses plausible settings. I know not everyone agrees, but I think all fiction needs to have a point. I’m not interested in escapism.
Obviously we’re primarily a literature zine but we also publish poetry, nonfiction, photography and art, and this is something I’d like to see a lot more of in Empty Oaks. I love visual art; one of my personal ambitions for the future is to publish a fully illustrated issue.
SQF: What most often turns you off to a submission?
RM: Gratuity is my number one biggest turn-off. Sci-fi and horror writers typically work at the darker end of the emotional spectrum, and that’s fine. Nothing should be off limits. But those dealing with volatile subjects should be careful how they handle them. There are real people, with real feelings, who have lived through things worse than even the sickest authors could dream up. If you want to write about dark subjects then think about them. Do your research, put yourself in their shoes and tell their stories, in full colour and with depth and sensitivity. Don’t just go for shock.
I’m picky about prose and structure, too, and I tend to think that less is more. I’m not often impressed by flashy writing and long words if the story itself is a boring one. Similarly, an engaging, preferably fast, pace, is absolutely key, and this is something that a lot of writers struggle with. My advice would be not to use ten words where two would suffice. A good trick is the breath test; read your stories out loud, and if you need to stop to breathe mid-sentence then you need to start cutting.
I think this is true in all writing, but it’s imperative when writing for the electronic market. I’m always mindful that the reader will be reading on a device that probably has an internet connection. We’ll be competing for their attention against unlimited online content, and at the first hint of boredom, they’ll simply close the document and go back to looking at cat videos. Stories need to be punchy.
SQF: Do you provide comments when you reject a submission?
RM: We try to. When we were putting together our first issue I gave feedback to pretty much everyone who sent a story in. These days we can’t offer as much just because of time constraints, but we still like to help authors out if we can. On occasion we’ll be sent a piece that has excellent potential but isn’t ready to publish. It may be messy or poorly structured, or have continuity or syntax errors that the author themselves has missed. Rather than reject these stories out of hand, I usually send the piece back with some suggestions for changes and ask to read a second draft. Other editors might not be willing to do this, but I think it’s a waste not to. Some of my favourite pieces have needed multiple revisions before they’re publishable. If the concept is a good one, then the story is usually worth the effort.
SQF: What magazines/zines do you read?
RM: Three-Lobed Burning Eye is a great horror zine, It tends to publish weird fiction with an emphasis on the weird. There’s always something unexpected on there. Midnight Breakfast is good fun—they don’t publish a lot of genre work but their stories often have a spooky or a supernatural undercurrent despite their real-world content. That’s something I’d like to see more of in Empty Oaks. I like Queen Mob’s Teahouse too, although again it’s not a genre market. All of these are free, and all host content directly on their web pages, so they couldn’t be easier to access.
SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?
RM: I'm not doing your job for you! I guess my advice to anyone who wants to start their own zine is just to get on and do it. All you need is a laptop and a bit of grit. Do it yourself, and aim high. Some of the best fiction I've read has been in free zines or small presses. Indie doesn't have to mean amateurish.
Thank you, Ro. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.