Friday, July 9, 2021

Six Questions for Rowan Rook and Geri Meyers, Editors, All Worlds Wayfarer

All Worlds Wayfarer publishes flash fiction (100-1,000 words) and short fiction (1,000-5,000 words.)  “We're looking to highlight an often unseen side of speculative fiction: we want to encounter characters so vivid that our souls slip into their bodies, themes that challenge and move us, and language that makes us swoon.” Read the complete guidelines here.

SQF: Why did you start this magazine?

Rowan Rook: The idea for All Worlds Wayfarer came to me when I noticed a trend during college: speculative fiction wasn't taken seriously as literature by many professors and students. I remember one professor disallowing speculative fiction because he "wanted students to focus on character development instead of magic and dragons and all that escapism." This irritated me (and I chose to disobey the rules and take the hit to my grade) because the idea that speculative fiction inhibits character development shows no actual understanding of the genre. By allowing authors to place characters in worlds tailored to express their struggles and triumphs, and explore everyday issues from new angles, the storytelling tools speculative fiction offers are infinite. It allows characters and worlds and plots to tie together in unique ways, unbound by the limitations of reality. For similar reasons, speculative fiction is also a powerful vehicle for theme-driven fiction (despite a reputation as escapist). So admittedly, some of my original motivation was spite. I've vowed not to let spite be a primary motivator in my life, but in this case, I realized the anger came from a place of passion. I leaned into that. I believe speculative fiction is a powerful thing, and those stories that don't easily fit its stereotypes—even those that subvert them—deserve a voice, as do the marginalized authors who often gravitate to this style of fiction. I write it, myself, but I realized that by helping other authors get their work out in the world, I could make a bigger difference than by only publishing my work. I also hope we can eventually expand enough to pay authors what they deserve. Authors in general deserve more respect than they receive in the creative and publishing world.

Geri Meyers: Rowan and I met through Camp NaNoWriMo and have been friends in a Discord writing channel ever since. One day I expressed a desire to be the one choosing who gets published, so that I could pick the stories I personally like and give opportunities to writers who might not be published otherwise. Rowan saw what I wrote and told me about his idea to start a speculative fiction magazine, and asked if I would be interested in working on it as well. I was extremely interested, and All Worlds Wayfarer was born.

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

GM: The top three things I look for are emotional connection, character development, and clarity. I want to feel what the characters are feeling, I want all of my senses engaged, I want to experience their fear and excitement, their anticipation, feel their love and their despair. I want to know who they are, understand how they see the world around them, and I want to learn what they’ve experienced that built them into the people they are. Those things bring me deeper into a story, so I can experience it more fully. I love beautiful, poetic prose, but I prefer it to be clear. If it’s too dreamy or abstract I lose track of the story and have to reread, and that brings me right out of it.

RR: My answer to the first question probably gives it away, but the top three things I look for are:

  1. Strong characters: That is, characters who grow in meaningful ways throughout the story (or who meaningfully fail to grow); characters with arcs intertwined with the plot and the setting; characters with wrenching internal conflicts or powerful drives or unique voices.

  2. Interesting themes: It's not just the characters who I like to see change, though. One of our taglines is "When our readers come home, they should return ever so slightly changed for having made the journey." That means the stories we publish need to have an impact, need to leave lingering thoughts and emotions in readers' minds. I don't necessarily want preachy stories, but I do want stories where it feels like the author had something to say—something that came from inside of them instead of from formulas or tropes.

  3. And something less tangible: This one is hard to describe. I don't know if it really has a name, though I've seen many creators talk about the same thing using different terms: Giant Sparrow, an indie video game developer, calls it "touching the sublime;" a poetry teacher I once had called it "poesis." One way of describing it might be that it's when all the elements of a story combine in this way that's electric—that's almost like music. Oftentimes, the words themselves are like music too. In a way, it's craft, but it's also more than that. It's when you feel the writing in your body as well as visualize it in your mind—when your mouth falls open, when you want to close your eyes, when the hairs rise on your arms. I wish there was an easier way to define it, but it's that sense of wonder and spark of magic I look for when I read stories. While I don't know if something that resonates with me in that way will necessarily resonate with others in that way, finding that spark is what makes searching through submissions worth it.

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

RR: The first thing that popped into my mind, likely because we see it a lot even in otherwise strong submissions, is fatphobia. Other prejudices also sometimes sneak in as microaggressions or noninclusive world-building (for instance, a gender essentialist world where men and women have differing magical powers, but that doesn't take into account nonbinary or trans or even gender non-conforming people). From a craft point of view, an issue that turns me off is when there is either too much world-building or too little. This is hard to give examples of since it's so subjective. I need enough detail to feel grounded in the world and understand the context of what's happening to the characters, but not so much that I start losing sight of the characters and plot in a sea of terminology. Lastly, and this one is entirely just personal taste: Comedic stories and very romantic stories tend to be hard sells for me.

GM: The things that most often lead me to decide on a declination before I’ve even finished reading a submission are explicit, drawn out sex scenes, fat shaming and other hateful themes like racism, ableism, and homophobia that are not presented as problematic, and the amount of editing a story will require. While we have published some stories with sexual content, we prefer fade to black scenes if sex is important to the story line. Hateful, discriminatory themes should be handled with care and compassion. The world is full of racism, homophobia, ableism and shame over aspects of ourselves that we can’t control. I don’t want to read stories where the story itself perpetuates any of these themes. I have insisted on declinations for stories where I could see no way to edit them out. We don’t always see them all—we’re human, too—but we do our best to publish stories that won’t make our readers feel badly about themselves over things they can’t change. When it comes to editing, we provide the All Worlds Wayfarer magazine free to read online so we don’t make a lot of sales, and so don’t get paid ourselves to do the editing. I work a full time job among other time constraints so we have to make hard choices when it comes to stories we like but still need a fair amount of work.

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

GM: I want to be drawn into the story immediately, preferably through an emotional connection to the characters. I tend to find that too much set up and overview at the beginning of a story distracts me and I lose interest. There are exceptions, of course, but I much prefer when a story grips me and drags all of my senses into the main character’s world right from the beginning.

RR: That's a hard one. I want it to pull me in, but I don't think there's any one, specific thing that accomplishes that. It can be a strong voice—but that strong voice can be straightforward and sassy or obscure and poetic. Instant stakes can pull me in, but so can a unique image or an intriguing question. The best way to sum it up might be to say that I want the first paragraph to make me feel something, whether it's wonder or fear or curiosity.

SQF: I usually ask if there are any themes/topics/genre that you’d like to receive more of. I’m going to reverse that and ask if there are themes/topics/genre that make you cringe when you see them in the submission queue?

RR: If a story is billed as satire or romance, I'm not particularly excited. That doesn't mean I can't be won over. We have published quite a few romance stories, after all, but those stories need to tap into their speculative elements in interesting ways to fit here. I feel similarly about stories with very sexual themes. Stories that rely on real-world spiritual ideas (such as religious figures or fortune-telling) are also a hard sell for me. My own spiritual beliefs (I'm a very weird Christian) make them tricky for me to navigate at times, as does knowing that readers' own spiritual beliefs will hugely affect how these stories affect them. Similarly, there are a few specific themes that are hard sells for me: "technology is entirely bad" (it's caused problems, for sure, but it's also empowered accessibility, global connectivity, and creative independence); "religion is all good or all bad" (I believe religion can be important and impactful, but I also believe it's important to acknowledge the harm religion has caused); and, well, hopelessness. We've had to turn down a few excellent stories because they were straight-up nihilistic. We perhaps publish more dark and sad stories than light and happy ones, but we also want to leave readers with a sense of meaning, not meaninglessness. The only thing that truly makes me cringe, however, is if the story's core concept sounds prejudiced in some way—for instance, unnuanced stories about magically "curing" disabilities and the sort of noninclusive world-building I talked about earlier sometimes pop up in speculative fiction. Then again, even stories I didn't expect to like have subverted my expectations and surprised me. I try not to judge until I've read the story.

GM: Dinosaurs and Christianity (especially stories centering on Christian holidays). I have a phobia of dinosaurs—you cannot convince me that Jurassic Park isn’t going to happen one day. That being said, we don’t decline stories about dinosaurs just because they have dinosaurs. I just make Rowan read them first, and I trust her opinion on whether we should decline or I should take a look. Stories centering on Christianity or with heavy Christian themes are a hard sell for me. I was raised pagan with Wiccan leanings and tormented for it throughout my childhood and teen years, so stories centering on these themes are often just not interesting to me. We do accept stories with these themes, though—we’ve had some great stories with angels. We give every story a fair chance to wow us. 

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

GM: A question that might be helpful is “How important are your submission guidelines when it comes to accepting or declining a story?” 

We posted our guidelines for a reason, and we very much appreciate it when people follow them. We aren’t super strict about some of them: not everyone remembers a third person bio, and people often forget to include content warnings. A missed bio won’t stop us from publishing a piece, but if I start reading a story with no content warnings and get blindsided by something I really wish had had a content warning, it definitely leaves me less inclined to keep that story over another piece. It’s a breath of fresh air when content warnings are included, especially when the story includes difficult subject matter. We want our readers to be immersed in the stories we publish and experience a wide range of emotions and face challenging subject matter, but we want those who need content warnings to have them so that they can enjoy reading in safety. We have word count limits that are firm. If we receive a story that is 6000 words, we won’t be reading it. It will be declined for being over the word count. Those are only a few of our guidelines, but I can’t stress enough how important it is to read submission guidelines before submitting, and that authors should do everything they can to follow those guidelines.

RR: I sort of alluded to this earlier, but one topic I'm really passionate about is the treatment of authors in the publishing industry. I feel that publishing systemically undervalues authors, despite authors literally being its lifeblood. Traditionally published authors see so little of the money their books make, and most publishers' marketing budgets go to select debuts or already popular authors. Self-published authors get little respect and have to deal with companies that sometimes take advantage of them with fees and unfair algorithms. I’ve seen agents and editors post semi-anonymous jabs at submitters on social media. Inboxes full of authors' blood, sweat, and tears are called slush piles. I've also seen authors called arrogant if they so much as they actually like their own work, or if they value their own creative agency. I really want All Worlds Wayfarer to be different, and I'm proud of the relationship we've built with authors so far. One of our core tenets was treating all the authors who submit to us with respect, whether we accept their stories or not, and recognizing how our subjective tastes and visions tie into the selection process instead of acting like arbiters of some mythical objective quality. Similarly, when we request edits, we make sure they are just that—requests. We make sure authors know they have the final say in all matters regarding their own work. We also strive to be a comfortable place for marginalized authors to submit to by doing our best to be mindful of the ways stories can be interpreted and the impact they can have, by aiming to make our submission requirements accessible, and by prioritizing OwnVoices works. That's not to say we're perfect in these regards or don't make mistakes. For one, we would love to be able to pay authors more money. But I'm proud of the progress we've made so far, and I hope we can one day make a positive difference in the publishing field.

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

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