Friday, April 23, 2021

Six Questions for Joshua Fagan, Founder/Editor-in-Chief, Orion’s Belt

Orion's Belt wants works with the elegance and introspection of literary fiction, combined with the wonder and strangeness of speculative fiction. From our website: "Orion’s Belt is a literary speculative-fiction online magazine. We specialize in the strange and poignant and awe-inspiring, stories that have a cosmic scale and intimate personal stakes. Currently, we publish fiction only, one story per month. All stories must be 1200 words or less.” Read the complete guidelines here.

SQF: Why did you start this magazine?

Joshua Fagan: From the time I read H.G. Wells and Tolkien in middle school, I’ve been dazzled by science-fiction and fantasy. One summer, I practically lived in my local library, reading nothing but speculative fiction: old and new, formulaic and inventive. I loved the vivid descriptions of alternate worlds, but more than that, I loved the opportunity to imagine the inner workings of societies and the people within those societies, and I’ve carried that love with me ever since. Speculative fiction allows us to analyze ourselves and our societies in a way that’s not possible in purely realistic fiction.

In my experience, there’s still a tendency in literary-fiction circles to view speculative fiction as lesser, as though it were a neglected sibling. Conversely, in speculative-fiction circles, I’ve observed a tendency to focus primarily on the plot and only secondarily on the writing itself. Craft and form are as important to me as plot, so I’m trying with Orion’s Belt to bridge the gap between literary fiction and speculative fiction. Certainly, there are magazines that do this well—Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Strange Horizons come to mind—but there are very few flash-fiction magazines that do this adequately.

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

 JF: When I think about the speculative stories I most enjoy, the stories I still think about years after I read them, there are a few components that come to mind. The first is technical craft. You don’t have to be F. Scott Fitzgerald for your story to grip me, but there should be some flair, some lyricism, some magic. A story isn’t a scientific research paper. For science-fiction, the focus shouldn’t be on getting every scientific element exactly right. For stories based on myths, the focus shouldn’t be on perfectly replicating every detail of the original myth. Rather, the focus should be on polishing the prose until it shines. This could mean making the prose baroque and elegant, as in Tolkien, or it could mean making the prose sharp and succinct, as in Le Guin or Butler. There should be evidence that time was spent on the story on a sentence-to-sentence level.

In terms of the narrative itself, I want characters who have to make difficult decisions. There should be stakes. If a character wants to accomplish a certain goal, I want to know and feel not only why they want to accomplish this goal, but how devastating it would be for them if they don’t accomplish it. There should be risk involved. I’m reminded of a thought experiment that poses the question of whether Superman is really brave when he saves someone from a rushing train, considering he’s not in danger. I want characters who make—or perhaps, fail to make—brave decisions, meaning decisions with consequences, decisions that involve sacrifice.

My third parameter is more amorphous, and that is strangeness. One of the strengths of speculative fiction is how it allows us to access worlds—and thus states of being—normally beyond our comprehension, and I prefer fiction that takes advantage of that potential. A story that takes place on Mars or in a mystic forest shouldn’t feel the same as a story that takes place in contemporary New York City. A writer should ask themselves why their story needs to be speculative fiction instead of realist fiction, and for me, a significant part of the appeal of speculative fiction is how it estranges us from the familiar. This estrangement can be terrifying or beautiful, but it should be present.

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

JF: I have difficulty accepting stories that are nothing but plot and action, stories that offer little atmosphere or psychological introspection or philosophical insight. Worse for me are stories that strike me as insincere. Cleverness is fine and appreciated, but there should be a heart hiding beneath the artifice. While I love formal experimentation, it shouldn’t exist for its own sake. It should serve some greater dramatic purpose. Stories that are nothing but irony and jokes, with little of substance beneath the façade, are unlikely to grab my attention.

SQF: What do you look for in the opening paragraph(s)/stanza(s) of a submission?

JF: As a writer, I speak from experience: opening paragraphs are the most difficult paragraphs to write. I once rewrote an opening paragraph fourteen times in order to ensure it laid the groundwork for the story to follow. Opening paragraphs are particularly vital for flash fiction. A novel, or even a long short story, can recover from a tepid or perfunctory opening paragraph, but a flash-fiction story cannot. An opening paragraph is a miniature submission in its own right: it must convince the reader that the remainder of the story is worth their time. It must establish a distinct voice while introducing us to a world and a set of characters.

Though I have a relatively high tolerance for exposition dumps in novels and longer stories, there’s no place for them in flash fiction. There’s not enough time. Every sentence should immerse the reader further in the story. Does the reader immediately need to know a piece of information? If the answer is no, don’t include it in the narrative. This is especially relevant for writing an opening paragraph. It is the writer’s opportunity for unveiling the story; not just what it is about plot-wise, but who the story will be following, what their struggles are, and what is the story’s perspective on those characters and their struggles.

SQF: Many editors list erotica, or sex for sex sake, as hard sells. What are hard sells for your publication?

JF: I have nothing against explicit sex and violence as long as they’re not extreme. R-rated scenes are fine. I’m not squeamish. Hardcore erotica, or stories featuring extremely graphic violence, will likely not be published by Orion’s Belt. Additionally, lengthy descriptions of sex and violence will decrease a story’s chances of being accepted simply because of the constraints of the flash-fiction form. These lengthy descriptions have their place in longer fiction—Carmen Maria Machado, for instance, is a great example of a writer who does erotic content intelligently—but in flash-fiction, there’s simply not enough time. I’m not going to accept a 900-word story if the writer spends 500 words on a sex scene or a description of a mutilated corpse.

The hardest sell for me, however, is second-person narration. There are smart and emotionally impactful stories that use second-person, but 99% of the time, it becomes a too-cute gimmick that detracts from the core of the story. I’d like to kindly advise writers who specialize in second-person to take their stories elsewhere.

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

JF: What, from your perspective, is the future of speculative fiction?

Speculative fiction is finding more acclaim and acceptance than in previous decades. While speculative fiction has been extremely popular in the United States and Britain since the end of World War II, it’s rarely attracted significant critical attention. I don’t wish to overgeneralize; there was, of course, philosophical and celebrated speculative fiction in the past, from Wells and Bradbury to the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, but in general, speculative fiction was rarely afforded the same level of respect in highbrow circles as realist literature. That appears to be changing, thankfully. Fantasy stories win bevies of Oscars and Emmys, a development that would have been hard to imagine only a few generations ago. Even highbrow literary circles have demonstrated an increasing respect for surrealist and magical realist elements in recent years.

This, from my amateur perspective, has much to do with the increasing strangeness of our times. From climate change to COVID-19, our world increasingly resembles the alien worlds of speculative fiction more than it resembles the worlds of conventional realist novels, and our tastes are changing accordingly. I wouldn’t go so far as to say literary fiction and speculative fiction are merging, but they’re certainly closer together than they have been in recent memory. It is my hope that this magazine, Orion’s Belt, helps facilitate the continuing crossover of literary and speculative fiction. 

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

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