SQF: Why did you start this magazine?
Andrew Mitchell: I started Outlook Springs for two reasons: one, I wanted to create a space for writers--both new and established--who experiment with form, language, and genre; two, I wanted to create a magazine that experimented right alongside its featured writers in terms of structure and design, a magazine that played with the idea of what it means to be a "literary journal." The first issue was centered around the fictional town of Outlook Springs. In addition to all the incredible fiction, poetry, and non-fiction we published, we included advertisements for fake businesses, articles about the comings and goings in town, etc. The second issue was modeled as an In-Flight magazine for a spaceship fleeing a post-apocalyptic earth. Design-wise, Outlook Springs strives to surprise, while still keeping the focus firmly on the writing we publish.
SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a submission and why?
AM: I’ll focus my answers mostly on the fiction/non-fiction side of things, though in some ways I think the answers are applicable across the board:
1.) Language: Language--surprising language in particular--is the gateway into any piece of writing for us. We're looking for sentences that speak to a specific character and/or authorial consciousness. Even simple, familiar stories can be exalted by an emphasis on language at the sentence-by-sentence level. Often, this sort of hyper-attention to language can complicate narrative in interesting ways by, say, making a sad piece slightly funny or a funny piece slightly sad. That's one of the (billion, trillion) things writers like George Saunders and Kelly Link are so good at: using language as a means to propel the story in bizarre, fascinating ways.
2.) Stakes: This is especially important with fiction and non-fiction. What do the characters want? How do they go about getting (or not getting) it? Why is the story being told now? Etc.
3.) Risks: There are plenty of good, competent stories in which the writer follows some mental equation to move the reader through the story and toward an epiphany--a brief introduction, followed by backstory into some childhood trauma, followed by a lobster that becomes a metaphor for that trauma, etc.--but sometimes these stories sort of vanish from our minds after reading. Outlook Springs wants work that we can't quite shake, work that takes chances: language-wise, plot-wise, form-wise (heck, all three!).
The bottom line to all of this, of course, is that we often don't know what we want until we read it. That's part of the fun: discovering pieces that surprise us and show us fresh ways of telling a story.
SQF: What most often turns you off to a submission?
AM: The biggest turn-off is a character with no stakes who is trapped in a story in which he/she thinks a lot about the world without acting on that world in any meaningful way. We get a lot of stories that give us an opening scene--three or four sentences--before moving directly into pages upon pages of backstory. For the most part, I want to stay with the characters in scene. Backstory can add a nice pressure to character decisions, but it shouldn't hijack the larger narrative.
SQF: Do you provide comments when you reject a submission?
AM: Sometimes we do, sometimes we don't. The truth is (and I know this an excuse a lot of places use, but it's true) we receive hundreds--thousands--of submissions, with more and more pouring in each Reading Period, and with our very small volunteer staff of editors and readers it's just not possible to comment on every story/poem/essay. That being said, we do make an effort to respond to writers whose work we like or find interesting. Everyone at Outlook Springs is a writer, so we know what a grind it can be to send submissions, wait wait wait, and then get a rejection. And I know we've missed some great work--work that's been snapped up quickly by other journals and gone on to win a bunch of awards, etc. We're learning as we go, too, and trying to get better. Our hope is that writers will keep submitting, so yes, we do our best to encourage that.
SQF: If Outlook Springs had a theme song, what would it be and why?
AM: "The Bottomless Hole" by The Handsome Family. It's a strange, funny, haunting song. And a bit sad, too. It's very much the aesthetic we strive for.
SQF: What's one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?
AM: Do you notice any patterns or trends in the submissions you receive?
Lots of the stories we receive take place in familiar haunts--bars, coffee shops, a therapist's office--which isn't necessarily a bad thing (those are all places real people go!) but which is noteworthy, I think, as these sorts of pieces run the risk of blurring together before they even get a chance to get going.
Also, we've received hundreds of stories hampered by what I'll call Dip-the-Foot-in-the-Water Syndrome: stories that sort of meander in the beginning before finding direction a couple pages down the line (though by then it's too late). I think this is just a matter of writers going back and revising the beginnings of their stories and really taking a hard look at things once a full draft is down on the page; however, this step seems to get skipped sometimes. Starting a story can be so difficult, so daunting, and as writers we often have no idea where the hell we're going, so we have our characters think and ponder for a couple paragraphs until we can figure out how to get them into a scene. Again, this is fine and natural, but we seek stories that hit the ground running. It doesn't need to be full of plotty fireworks--a bank robbery, an affair with a Martian, a bank robbery mid-affair with a Martian--but it does need to grab us by the collar right away and say, "Shut up and listen.”
Thank you, Andrew. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.