Friday, May 14, 2021

Six Questions for Kristen Simental, Editor-in-Chief, Five South

Five South publishes short fiction, flash fiction, and poetry. All genre are accepted. Works of hate, pornography, or pedophilia will not be considered. Read the complete guidelines here.

SQF: Why did you start this magazine?

Kristen Simental: I'd written an interview for Inscape Magazine with poet Adam Clay, in which he mentioned Typo, the journal he and a buddy started in college and were still running. It was a low-key project they worked on as they had time. It sounded great. I'd just finished putting together the Inscape fall issue, was about to start The LARB Publishing Workshop, and I don't know…everything coalesced. I talked to my friend Cass and asked him if he wanted to be poetry editor for this new project I was starting, Five South. He agreed and here we are. Magic. Magic and many sleepless nights. 

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

KS: What we're looking for can only vaguely be described as "you know it when you see it." Curation is part personal preference, part knowing what the current trends are, as well as a willingness to sidestep the trends and pick something entertaining, has an emotional impact, or transports us. If I can get a little dreamy here, I think we're all chasing that feeling we had as kids when we read that one story that turned us into writers. For me, it was Ray Bradbury's "All Summer in a Day." At seven years old, I was filled with a sense of wonder and possibility. It's a mysterious, unquantifiable quality that I'm not sure many people can articulate. We hear nebulous words like tone, voice, and mood, but what does that mean? 

This question can never be answered to complete satisfaction because it's subjective. I grew up reading Bradbury, Beverly Cleary, Laura Ingalls-Wilder, E.B. White, and Lucy Maud Montgomery. As a teen, I read the Beat Poets, Bukowski, classic literature, and occasional counter-culture novels like Lolita, The Graduate, and A Clockwork Orange. In my 20s, I was into pulp fiction and vintage science fiction. So, I guess that's what I'm looking for. All that. It's a feeling. It's like asking someone why you love your partner. The generic answers are: they make me laugh, they're reliable, intelligent, etc. The real truth is they give you a feeling. They make you feel good, challenge you, provide you with something no one else can. As Captain Kirk once said, "Sometimes a feeling is all we humans have to go on."

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

KS: During our last reading period, we came across many submissions that started great and ended on a record scratch or felt incomplete. It's as if the author was in the zone, looked up, saw the word count closing in on 1000 and slammed the brakes. This demonstrates a lack of vision and planning. I've learned from experience, being a pantser only gets you so far. Once you type "the end," your work is just beginning. 

Broadly, pieces that appear incomplete, unrevised, or hurried. On another note, my latest pet peeve is fancy dialog tags. I'd be perfectly happy never to see "she retorted" ever again. 

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

KS: Somewhere between "It was a dark and stormy night" and "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." All we want is something that begs us to keep reading. 

One of the best popular openings in recent memory is, "Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much." Rowling does a lot in a short amount of time. Dursley is an odd name. She could have used Anderson or Smith, but she chose something unusual. Dursley sounds like the word "dirty" to me. From the get-go, we know the Dursleys are going to be interesting people. They specifically live on Privet Drive. Our interest is piqued because these curious-sounding people now live on what sounds like a very prim and proper suburban street. These small details add heaps of information. If they lived on Main Street, we'd have a very different perception. 

Rowling next places an added emphasis on the house number. She could have just said, "Mr. and Mrs. Dursley live on Privet Drive." The number four shows an intention, a specificity, but it also tells us this takes place in a part of the world where they label houses this way. Not California, that’s for sure. It also illustrates a persnicketiness. OK, where are we going? They're proud to say they were perfectly normal. Because she calls it out, we now know they're not. She adds, "thank you very much," to seal the deal and make them sound extra snobby. These people are not as ordinary as they think they are. Rowling has convinced me the Dursleys are in for a rude awakening, and I want to find out what it is. 

It's a bit like when your friend or partner says, "The worst thing happened at work today!" Humans are curious and built for exploration. An opening paragraph should take advantage of that innate curiosity. It should ask questions the reader wants to answer. Who are the Dursleys, and what the heck is wrong with them? With Dickens' opening, he taps into a universal truth. Best of times and worst of times. We've all been there. Let me compare your best/worst time to my best/worst time, and if yours is worse, I'll feel better about mine. With "dark and stormy night," we're already conditioned by movies, TV, and literature to assume only bad things happen on dark and stormy nights, so what's this one going to be, and how bad is it going to get? This is the promise all writers make to their audience: "I know a secret, it's interesting, let me tell you about it." 

SQF: You recently published your second issue. What advice can you offer others who are considering starting their own publication?

KS: Take business, marketing, design, and editing classes. One of the biggest misconceptions about running a journal is that it's just reading and picking good content. If you're accepting submission fees, it's a business. Like any commercial venture (whether for or non-profit), a literary journal has many fast-moving parts. If you bring in staff, want to pay people, plan events, or merely maintain a newsletter, you have to be a good manager. A commander must know every bolt, every weld in their ship. 

Most of us went to school to reinforce what we're already good at: the artistic or mechanical side of writing. Most of us are already good readers. We get taught how to research and write papers, but never how to balance a budget, do market research, design a functional and nice looking website, write contracts, edit, proof, create a workflow, hire and fire people, or any of the numerous little tasks required to run a business. 

I know that sounds icy, but if you don't treat it like a business, it's just a hobby. Hobbies are great fun, but they cool off after a while, which is why so many lit mags disappear overnight. Business and marketing know-how isn't a guarantee for success, but it gives you an edge. It also helps manage the stress of figuring it all out as you go, allows you to anticipate pitfalls, and navigate what is basically American Ninja Warrior meets The Fire Swamp in The Princess Bride. Running a journal or magazine is always more work than you think it will be. 

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

KS: Jim, you're doing The Lord's work here. You're helping to unravel the mysteries of submissions for writers, and I wish I'd had this years ago. It's essential to understand how subjective the selection process is, and this site showcases just how different we all are. Even though trends and good writing help a piece stand out, it comes down to personal taste. You can be the greatest writer on the planet, but if an editor or agent was jilted on the altar and hates romance, it's not your fault. Even so, as a writer, it's important to keep learning and hone your craft like any good craftsperson. It's a lifelong journey. Each acceptance and rejection is part of the process, but it's also a numbers game. Not everyone buys a lotto ticket and wins a million dollars the first time. It happens, but it's extremely rare. Writing and submitting is a (sometimes painful) exercise in patience a lot like marriage. It's not all great sex and laughs. It's more complicated than anyone ever anticipates, but the benefits outweigh the struggle. And like marriage, if you want it to be successful, you have to put in the work. And maybe get some counseling down the road when things get rocky. 

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

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