Friday, November 30, 2012

Six Questions for Zak Block, Editor, The Squawk Back

We're essentially open to all styles and genre... generally disinclined to publish what some might describe as straightforward 'genre' pieces though I hate this term it's useful, I suppose: a piece of writing that relies too heavily on the tropes of a genre I hate, when it's much more judicious to submit pieces of  writing that rely too heavily on the tropes of genres I like. But this raises another interesting question which is, why would I publish something like "The Love Swarm" by Tim Schumacher, which is pretty much straightforward dystopian sci-fi, but then ignore another submission perhaps undertaking humanistic themes in the style of literary fiction...The reason is that in addition to feeling that that piece is one of the best things we've ever published, I think it has more to say about the human condition than a lot of 'literary'-seeming short stories I've read. Which all sounds like a circumlocutious way of saying 'we like things that are good'--so it pretty much boils down to: we like good bad things and bad good things. Learn more here.

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

ZB: 1) If they're good, 2) if they're good and 3) if they're good. First either one of my assistants or I will check to see if it's  good, then I'll deliberate its goodness for a longer period of time, and finally I'll agree, with myself, that it's  good. I also consider attributes like: 'absolute genius,' 'boundless innovation,' 'blistering incisiveness' and 'staggering insight.'

SQF: What are the top three reasons a submission is rejected, other than not fitting into your answers to the above question and why?

ZB: That's a deceptively simple question... ideally the first reason would be that we like it but also can find no reason not to like it, and somehow feel confident that we'll like it in the future--obviously since we can't know this, and we're often wrong, and we're also a weekly, there's a large variable for regretted decisions; and we can't simply base it off of gut instinct: I think you can read something and convince yourself it's not terrible depending on whatever mood you happen to be in. Personally I know my tastes in literature are broad and mutable: I could be reading Alain-Fournier and then stumble upon a submission somehow reminiscent of that style, publish it and  then only discover my error several weeks later. Considering all of this, often the second reason for rejecting or not rejecting a piece is if a quorum of editors in collaboration with myself agree to it being publishable or not; and then of course I'll publish virtually anything from someone who might be able to help me in my career.

SQF: Which of the following statements is true and why? Plot is more important than character. Character is more important than plot. Plot and character are equally important. 

ZB: I'm not sure. Either they're equally important or not important at all; sometimes you come across a great piece of writing where neither figures significantly. I'm very much a proponent of that there aren't any rules for writing, even if there are "laws": the latter being few, such as, it must be coherent--then again that might be debatable as well because many authors have played with this idea and often incoherence is employed as a narrative device--whereas rules, like the kind we're taught in High School English classes, of minor round, flat major, rising and falling actions and all of that sort of thing aren't really all that useful or even tenable. That isn't to say that a given piece might not be weak of character or weak of plot and not appealing to us for that reason...but I suppose each piece has to be judged on its own terms.

SQF: What advice can you offer new authors hoping to publish their first submission?

ZB: Well, in terms of the 'practical,' I'll say: it's very important to be sure the piece is DONE before you submit, because there's nothing more annoying than receiving revisions, upon the original submission, after we've edited, proofread, chopped and screwed it up. That might be a general piece of advice, but it's especially true of us because I don't think we've ever not changed at least one or two things about a piece before publishing it. Which raises another issue: it's important to be flexible and not adopt an obstinate and pigheaded position on 'changing a single word' of your writing--this happened recently with one of our publications--and bear in mind that most changes or omissions applied to your piece by the editor of a publication with a specific vision, taste, aesthetic uniformity, what have you, isn't trying to suppress your revolutionary ideas but is simply helping to trim from  your piece the fat that would make it otherwise unappealing to him or her/his or her audience, etc. Of course you believe every word of your piece is god's own decree, but I charge you to find me one loving mother who'll concede that her child is a bit ugly and could use some airbrushing.

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

ZB: If you're asking what I've learned as a writer, I suppose it's to be open to criticism, or open to rejection as a form of criticism. Obviously to be a writer you have to be solipsistic to a certain degree, but it doesn't pay to be closed off to the idea that you've had a poor idea, or written something which could be improved, etc. Also I've come to appreciate the importance of editing and, though it is a cliche, I feel now more than ever that writing is re-writing; and there might be some vague romantic notion of William Faulkner spilling out As I Lay Dying in six weeks without changing a single word of it, but we all can't be god I suppose.

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

ZB: I like to be asked how I'm feeling, and the answer is usually 'awful.'

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

NEXT POST: 12/3--Six Questions for Michelle Elvy and John Wentworth Chapin, Editors, A Baker's Dozen: Thirteen Extraordinary Things

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