Friday, November 25, 2016

Six Questions for Philip Elliott, Editor-in-Chief, Into The Void Magazine

Into The Void Magazine publishes flash fiction to 1,000 words and short stories to 4,000 words in all genre (literary preferred), non-fiction to 4,000 words on any topic, and poetry to 80 lines in all forms and styles. Read the complete guidelines here.

SQF: Why did you start this magazine?

Philip Elliott: On an immediate level, I want nothing but a career in writing and editing and so launching a literary magazine is not only a logical step to take but it's me in my element, doing something I absolutely love and getting to see it grow, making connections with so many amazing writers and artists along the way and discovering their work and following their careers, gaining a unique perspective on and insight into the craft and publishing, learning all the while. More importantly, though, I know how hard it can be to get published, and I also know how much brilliant writing is out there that sadly might never find a home. Even though there has been such a rise in the number of literary magazine in recent years, they are still astronomically outnumbered by all the writers and artists on the planet, and I wanted to create a magazine that, while publishing only great pieces, offers a real chance for all, regardless of experience. And on a deeper level, I wanted to share with the world truly passionate writing that offers a glimpse into the core of the people brave enough to share a part of themselves to the world, making it a slightly less difficult place to live in for us all.

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

PE: First, it's voice. This is particularly true for fiction. Right away I'm checking the first paragraph for that magic stuff, that power and flow of a writer in full control of the words, the sentences, the rhythm, the poetry, and the interaction of it all. That's the key to great writing. If you can find your voice--or more specifically, if you can find the voice of the piece you're working on--you can do anything. The first paragraph is key, grab my attention, with either the beauty of the words or the intrigue of the action, preferably both. Ignite my curiosity. Give me a sentence to swoon over. Pull me into your world.

Second, it's heart. Sincerity. Passion. I like to see that this story, poem or essay means something to you. I don't mean intensity or heaviness, just honest, real. There's a world of difference between a light-hearted humorous story written for the sake of being entertaining and a light-hearted humorous story written because that story needed to be told--a pulsing, breathing thing that comes to life on the page. Show me that story.

Third, it's great dialogue. Dialogue is a tricky business. It's often a fine line between cartoonish, unlifelike exchanges and flowing, natural ones. I think people can make the mistake of thinking that good dialogue has to be super-realistic but this isn't true. Good dialogue operates in a sweet spot between realistic and unusual. Good dialogue whispers of conflict, rustles with tension. Good dialogue is oblique. And, very importantly, good dialogue is minimal. It uses as few words as possible. This is true with all writing of course, but it's even more important in dialogue. The best advice I've ever read about dialogue came from Sol Stein's Stein On Writing: Imagine your characters are actors in a play and they've just taken to the stage. But they're only seeing the script for the first time as they do. And the catch: They both have a completely different script--but they don't know that.

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

PE: I have a pet hate for passive voice and excessive adverbs. They irritate me. Let me be clear, though, both passive voice and adverbs do serve a function. They have their place, particularly passive voice. A well-placed adverb is very effective. But when they're overused, they destroy a piece of writing. And the worst thing is to see an opening paragraph littered with them. As stated before, the opening paragraph is where you pull the reader into the story by their collar, so it should, by and large, be active and economical.

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

PE: Yeah, sometimes. I hate, hate, hate, hate rejecting submissions. I dread it. Which is funny because I have to reject about 96% of them every three months. So, I try to reject in a friendly way, and I will sometimes say something I liked about the piece and encourage someone to resubmit if I liked their work but it didn't have a home in this particular issue, because here's the thing: so much of what is submitted is really good, and in wildly different ways. Every submission has something good about it. But there's only so much we can publish, which is very little, and it depends on emerging themes. So, I like to say something nice if I can. Did I say I hate rejecting?

SQF: If you could have dinner with any three authors (living or dead), who would they be and why?

PE: Denis Johnson. My absolute favourite writer. I'm an atheist but if Johnson is a religion, I'm a disciple. That man can write. He more than writes. He plunges a hand through your chest and slaps your soul, and he does it with his own ribs pulled apart, baring his naked heart. Also he has the most unique and evocative voice of any writer I've ever read. And on a personal level, I relate to every word. Also, considering his revered short story collection, Jesus' Son, which he described as being 'recorded' based on his experiences rather than written, and with all his hardcore journalism in war-afflicted parts of the world, he would have some damn good stories to tell over a meal. Although, now that I think of it, I get the feeling he has a weird dislike of vegetarians . . .

Daphne du Maurier. She was a seriously badass lady. Her stories are, apart from being superb, utterly freaky, and even brave. She wrote what she wanted to write and didn't give a damn what anyone thought of it. She attacked gender roles, traditional notions of sexuality, marriage, romance, traditional writing. And she was a huge influence on everything that came after. Du Maurier is horror, but she is everything else too. That's why she'll never die.

E.E. Cummings. My favourite poet. His poems are so unique and strange and the visual aspect is such an important part of them. He would have a wealth of information to dispense over a meal. I'd keep his wine glass full to keep him talking and I'd hoover up every word.

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

PE: If Into the Void was to be represented by a song, what song would it be?

Pink Floyd - Shine On You Crazy Diamond.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Six Questions for Henry (Publisher) and George (Managing Editor), Unsung Stories

Unsung Stories publishes literary and ambitious genre fiction. As well as novels, we publish short stories up to 3000 words long every two weeks. You can sign up to the mailing list to get a free eBook and find our submission guidelines here.

As for what this means? We operate a very broad policy on genre, as long as it’s in some way speculative. We love the hardest of SF, all heights of fantasy, the weird, the darkest of horror and everything in between. The trick is that dragons, spaceships and monsters are all great things but too often people forget that they were metaphors first. Whatever your story, it’s most important to us that it’s well-written and exploring something in a meaningful way.

SQF: Why did you start this magazine?

US: Unsung Stories came out of our real love for genre fiction, the liminal and ambitious work, the books that refuse to be classified. There are a relatively small number of publishers doing SFF in the UK and whilst they all consistently put out excellent work we saw a gap, which we wanted to fill.

It’s maybe best defined with an example – Dark Star by Oliver Langmead. This is SF noir set on a planet with no light, a moody as all hell tale of corruption and redemption from the darkness. It’s hugely atmospheric, intensely visual and entirely compelling right up to the last page. It’s also an epic poem.

It’s an undeniably excellent book, as the reviews testify, but it’s a very strange thing to pitch to a publisher. A debut author with an SF epic poem? Imagine the marketing team trying to make a campaign around that.

We don’t think like that. For us, that lack of conformity is one of the best things about Dark Star. It makes it unique, and we are delighted to be publishing Langmead’s second book in 2017. The same is true of all our authors: their work is distinct, excellent and very difficult to categorise, and that is something we celebrate.

We carry this philosophy on with our short stories, searching for the strange, ambitious and unconventional. Good writing isn’t about conformity.

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

US: The first thing that will get our attention is a strong style. That’s a hard thing to define because it’s a personal thing but it includes good and appropriate use of imagery, rhythm, pacing, choice of language and many more things. It’s easier to nail what goes wrong, things like baggy phrasing, redundant action, irrelevant details. When it’s good, it’s pared down to the essential and every word has a specific impact.

The other two are tied together, and they are the idea and the message of the story. Genre fiction lives or dies by the quality of the idea, so it’s important to avoid rehashing familiar tropes. Zombie stories have been squeezed dry, quibbling over vampire lore isn’t original. Some ideas that got our attention were multi-dimensional experiments on Facebook, talking bread products, chalk monsters drawn on pavements, a boy who eats books, the future of the dummy cosmonaut, Ivan Ivanovich, rewilding robots and more. Take a look at what we publish, see how they evolve themes, see places from new angles.

All of which leads us to the message. The story absolutely has to have a point. It’s not just entertainment for us, we want stories that make us think, ask us to look at an idea in a new way. The style and idea are skills, essential ones which can be learnt and refined – the message of the piece is what brings the story to life.

And all of that applies to flash fiction as well, no compromises because it’s shorter.

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

US: The most common reasons we turn things down are baggy style and clichéd ideas. If we read the first paragraph, or sentence, and are noting things like redundant phrases, inaccurate metaphors, repetition (unless it’s for a good reason!), or even worse, spelling mistakes, it’s very hard to win us back. Really focus on making every sentence lean, essential. Challenge every word for its right to be in the story.

Clichéd ideas are the other most common offence – you can have a wonderful style, but if you use it to tell us about some beefy dude with a big sword slaying an evil wizard we’ll be moving on pretty quickly. It all comes back to asking yourself what the point of the story is – if you know, the clichéd ideas most likely won’t seem fit for purpose.

SQF: You also publish books of 30K+ words. What mistakes do authors make when pitching their manuscripts?

US: We publish a few books a year so it’s worth mentioning that we are really very selective about novel submissions. As for mistakes? The biggest one is sending it before the work is ready.

We’re writers ourselves, so we know how important and exciting it is to submit your book, but the truth is that it probably won’t be ready until you’ve been through at least five drafts and who knows how many readers – more if it’s your first novel. It’s a slow process, but you only get one shot, so make sure it’s a good one. Get as many opinions as you dare, be ready to kill your darlings, listen to feedback even if – especially if – you don’t agree with it. Leave it alone for a few months and come back to it. Read it out loud to yourself. Make sure it’s perfect.

Don’t agonise about the covering letter, and don’t oversell yourself. Mostly proclamations of talent, promises of success and the like come across as arrogant. It’s all about your work; don’t tell us what we’ll think of it. The best letters we receive are modest, concise and informative. It’s perfect to tell us a little bit about yourself, briefly pitch the book and give us any publishing credits (and we don’t mind if you don’t have any either, we all start from the same place).

Finally, read the guidelines carefully. They are there to help you, and us. And if we’re closed that means we’re closed. It doesn’t mean we were secretly hoping you would query us, or send in your book anyway. It means we’re not accepting submissions!

SQF: Who are some of your favorite authors?

US: Patron saints are M. John Harrison and Ursula Le Guin, with disciples including Iain M. Banks, Douglas Adams, Nina Allan, China Miéville, Margaret Atwood, Philip K. Dick, Mikhail Bulgakov, Sylvia Plath, John Fowles, Shakespeare, Octavia Butler, Joseph Heller, Lavie Tidhar, Craig Thompson, Rupert Thompson, Alan Moore, Warren Ellis, Joe Sacco, Thomas Ligotti, Kathleen Jamie, Ramsey Campbell, Rebecca Solnit, Benjamin Myers.

That’s some of them…

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

US: How can authors help?

So the thing is that there are a lot of short fiction markets out there. They’re opening – and closing – all the time. But the ones that really succeed do so because people know about them, think about them, and read the work.

I’m willing to bet that most of the people reading this will write and submit more short stories than they read. I get why, it’s time consuming researching every market properly and the time can be better spent honing your craft. It’s just that this logic leads us to an ever growing cloud of short stories which no one reads.

Every indie press has exactly the same problem and the most powerful thing that you can do is to share the work. Your story, a friend’s story, just one you liked – tweets and shares, blog posts, even the humble +1, it’s all a boon to us. We love spreading good news about people we have published as well, so let us know when that happens and we’ll do the same for you! This is especially true of anything on Amazon as well – common wisdom these days is 30-50 reviews is the tipping point for a book – your reviews make a concrete, tangible difference to us.

Essentially, all the hard work in the world from an indie press doesn’t mean a thing without your support, that’s the irreducible truth of it. So if you love it, tell the world, stick five stars on it, get excited when we get excited - share it.

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

Friday, November 11, 2016

Six Questions for Erin O’Neill Armendarez, Editor-in-Chief, Aji Magazine

Aji magazine is an online literary magazine publishing poetry, short fiction, essays, art, photography and graphic design. Read the complete guidelines here.

SQF: Why did you start this magazine?

Erin O’Neill Armendarez: Aji magazine was started as a commercial free space where writers and artists from around the world could publish their work, and our editorial and graphic design staff could enjoy the creative energy of selecting the most appropriate stories, poems, essays and images for each issue.  We are not affiliated with any institution, profit or not-for-profit, so we can publish whatever we want.  The freedom is exhilarating.  We hope to publish issues that are relevant and stimulating for educated lay readers, not just those coming from MFA programs, although we certainly believe that those programs do tremendous work in fostering excellence in writing and in supporting writers and artists in the U.S.

Our editorial staff is made up of reviewers with advanced degrees, most in English, writing, and literature.  We are not a group of dilettantes seeking to market ourselves, nor are we a vanity publication.  We are a group of professionals who are working to create a high quality creative space online.  We have learned a great deal, all of us, from our work on the magazine.  As long as it’s fun, we’ll keep doing it.

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

EOA: Our staff reviewers prioritize different things, but as Editor in Chief, I make final selections, so let me cut to the chase and articulate as best I can here what I look for.  First, I look for a story that has no implied bias against any particular group (surprisingly, many do).  It doesn’t have to be “politically correct,” but it should show some understanding and respect for humanity by creating characters that are complex and carefully drawn.  Some writers do not know the difference between a character driven story and a plot driven story; others do not know the difference between a short story and a novel or novella.  Genres may blend, but in general the story should focus in on a conflict within or between one or two characters and that conflict should be skillfully developed toward the writer’s purpose, and it shouldn’t be overtly didactic.  That said, a writer is free to break those rules so long as he or she writes something that engages readers from beginning to end.

In a poem, I first have to be convinced that a writer knows what he or she is up to, precisely—this varies widely with writers, but there should be some element of some sort of consistency and control.  Poems should be careful and nuanced.  We get many poems and stories that are heavy with cliché.  They are heartfelt, but that’s not what we choose to publish.

Aji doesn’t publish stories or poems that are written for niche groups, while on occasion we do appreciate them.  If a story doesn’t seem a good fit for our magazine, then we look for something else that does.

Finally, I look for writing that is well-edited.  Many writers send unedited work to the magazine.  Our reviewers are all volunteers, and we don’t do free copy editing for anyone except the occasional international author writing in a second language. Writers should strive to send us their final, edited versions.  What we will accept is what we will publish, and we don’t want to publish unedited work.

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

EOA: As Editor in Chief, the thing that turns me off the most is the gratuitous portrayal of human suffering for shock value.  I am also annoyed—we all are—by writers who ignore submission guidelines, refuse to send bios, etc.  Those who have not studied their craft, haven’t read much, and have little appreciation for the value of editor and reviewer time, try our patience.  We love to publish the sincere novice, even when he or she breaks the standard conventions unknowingly.  I personally send a message to each person who submits, and do my best to show respect for each writer or artist.  I expect to be approached with the same respect. Most writers are amazingly gracious. Those who are not really stand out because they are the exception, not the rule.  

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

EOA: As a general rule, no.  However, there have been times when I felt strongly that a writer or an artist might truly benefit from a suggestion as well as some positive commentary.  In those cases, I have taken a bit of extra time to share my thinking.  If a writer asks for criticism, to the degree that time allows, I will always offer it.

SQF: What magazines/zines do you read on a regular basis?

EOA: I read very eclectically whatever I can find, what’s on the shelf in Hastings or Barnes and Nobles.  I read The Best in American Poetry and The Best American Short Stories every year—I read Blognostics (I have a good friend who publishes there), Agni, Red Rock Review, North American Poetry Review.  I browse NewPages listings here and there, as well as art blogs and pages and the poetry sites maintained by the nation’s most respected foundations and organizations.  I am a poet, so my main interest lies in reading poetry.  As I have a full-time teaching job at a community college, my time is limited much of the year, so at this point, reading is a luxury.  I’d love to read more.  I read batches of new poems sent to me by colleagues and friends, and those are my favorite things to read.

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

EOA: You didn’t ask about factors that impact selection beyond the quality of work.  We do have a limited number of pages we can get out, so sometimes, all else being equal, I have to go for diversity in terms of the writers and artists we include as well as in the genre, style and approach to balance the magazine.  This means the work that didn’t make it into one issue might make it into another.  I honestly appreciate in our hectic time that anyone is out there writing, painting, taking photos, etc. and hopefully offering his or her work for our consideration.  There is merit in everything we review and read.  Rejection doesn’t necessarily mean “not good” in our opinion.  It sometimes means “not right right now.”

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

Friday, November 4, 2016

Six Questions for W.F. Lantry, Editor, and Kate Fitzpatrick, Managing Editor, Peacock Journal

Peacock Journal looks for beauty.

Have you ever been so attracted to something, you just wanted to be close to it? You just wanted to exist within the same space? Or have you ever seen something so beautiful you thought it might be a door to another world? And all you desired, with the entirety of your being, was to pass through that door, into that other place, and just exist there for a little while? It’s not a separate reality, it’s a heightened, more intense reality, fuller and more complete. Write that and send it to us. It’s really difficult. It’s far easier to write gritty and pedestrian. But try it. Send us something about water and wind and light and the interplay of harmonies between them.

Peacock Journal publishes poetry of up to 60 lines, fiction and creative nonfiction of 500 to 2,000 words, translations, photography & art, and audio works. Read the complete guidelines here.

SQF: What was the impetus to start Peacock Journal?

Peacock Journal: Kate’s a singer. Actually, she’s not just any singer, she’s a coloratura soprano. If you could sit and listen to her, even for a few moments, you’d be amazed. Literally stunned. Or, as William Carlos Williams said, “Shaken by her beauty.” Not merely the physical, the beauty of her voice. And there are many other beautiful experiences in the world. Far too many to count. A single candle in a dark room, azure wings flitting from one branch to another in Boquete, Panama. Think of your own experience. You have thousands of beautiful moments. Can you write about one of them with clarity and gravity and purity? Can you experience the beauty fully, without shame, without turning your face away? We want a journal filled with those moments. There’s nothing like that out there. So we started one.

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

PJ: It goes without saying we look for beauty. Apart from that: clarity, dignity and brevity. For clarity, we mean not letting too many shadows intrude. James Wright talked about “the pure clear word.” I still think that was his way of coming at Flaubert’s “le mot juste.” It’s incredibly difficult to be clear and exploratory at the same time. But since the focus must remain on the reader, clarity is the first consideration. Dignity, in this case, means not veering off course. People like to jump off the pathway into the curbside gutter, but we’re so accustomed to that now, we wonder if there aren’t other means of exploration. Much as we love to splash in mud puddles, perhaps it distracts us from more invigorating things. Brevity is the most eternal of qualities: many things in few words. We are the laziest of editors because we have the laziest readers. We want everything you’ve got on one screen. Give us your diamonds and sapphires, not vast expanses of dry desert waste.

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

PJ: We’ve tried to keep the guidelines to an essential minimum, specific but open. But sometimes contributors don’t read even those. Sometimes they don’t put their full name in the form, or include a real bio. Sometimes they even forget to attach their work. But the worst, the absolute worst, is crazy formatting within the pieces. Everything has to be translated into HTML. There are some things you can do with a word processor that you cannot do with web code. Kate was downstairs minding her own business when she heard W.F. shouting at his screen, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” Last week he spent 3 hours trying to format one writer’s work. He got as close as he could, and sent out the proof page with apologies. The author wrote back and said, “Don’t worry about it. I just get a little over passionate with the tab key.” So, to paraphrase Edna from The Incredibles, “No Tabs!”

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

PJ: There are several categories. Some things we have to decline with the nicest possible words. It takes time and courage to submit to a journal. We don’t want to diminish anyone. In other cases, the writing or art is perfectly wonderful, but the themes will be wildly inappropriate for the journal. In those cases, we try to enter into a dialog with the contributor. And we’ve found that often they end up sending us work that harmonizes with our vision. And there’s another category, where the piece is perfectly lovely but there’s just a misstep or two. Those times we’ll simply ask the contributor to reconsider that particular part of the path. Were William to receive such a message, there would be howls of rage and dismay. But most contributors are more reasonable, and have come up with their own changes, which are often better than anything we could have suggested.

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

From Nabakov’s Paris Review interview, “The Art of Fiction #40”:

INTERVIEWER: What have you learned from Joyce?
NABOKOV: Nothing.

It’s amazing how easily people go astray. How they’ll have a perfectly fine impulse, and for one reason or another, often as a result of self-focus, they’ll insert something which diminishes the flow. Maybe one of their friends told them their main character needs motivation. Or maybe someone in a workshop told them they needed to add a little grit. Don’t listen to those people. Key changes are one thing, but going out of tune is quite another.

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

PJ: Why do you do this?

The first answer to your question is: ‘We do what we do.’  Or, maybe, ‘We do this because it is what we do,’ which is slightly different. It’s like Sisyphus with the rock. The rock is his thing, and he’s happiest when he’s doing it. All that simply to say, it gives us a great deal of joy bringing this thing into the world. Not just the having done it, but the doing of it each day. The daily activity of creating beauty. And there’s joy in it even though it’s a tremendous amount of work. Frustrating, real, difficult work. So we ask ourselves the same question, “Why are we doing this?”

But there’s also this other thing. We have built connections with people we never imagined we would meet. These connections inform and enrich our lives in meaningful ways. And contributors meet and interact with each other through the journal. It’s as if we’ve cultivated a garden which has drawn other gardeners, and they find a place for conversation and interaction around the central fountain.

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