Friday, December 2, 2022

Six Questions for Mark Teppo, Editor, Underland Arcana

Underland Arcana publishes fiction from 1,000 to 5,000 words. “We like these stories to be mildly speculative, fantastic, mysterious, and/or horrific (if you prefer genre tags).” Read the complete guidelines here.

Mark Teppo: I'm about halfway through my annual reading period as I answer these questions, which I think is an interesting time to be reflecting on what I like and don't like about submissions. Generally, I prefer not to get too specific about the guidelines because I find that it unnecessarily channels the submissions. For instance, back in the day when I did XIII, the first Underland Tarot anthology, it was framed around the Death card and I was looking for stories of transformation. The first market listing that picked up the guidelines was one of the horror aggregators, and as a result, I got inundated with "skinwalker" stories over the next few weeks. These types of stories are, to me, the low-hanging fruit of the guidelines and weren't something I was seeking. Instead, I got them all out of the way right up front. Hooray! 

SQF: Why did you start this magazine?

MT: Following XIII, we did a second Major Arcana anthology. This one was XVIII, the Moon, and the book launch party was supposed to happen the day after the world went into lockdown. Needless to say, that book never found its audience. I love the idea of transforming the tarot into a series of anthologies or collection of stories that are thematically arranged, and while we were all sitting at home, I pivoted to the idea of doing the Minor Arcana through a seasonal journal. And so, Underland Arcana is an attempt to produce a living tarot deck of stories that are mapped to the cards. 

I intend on turning the website into a thing that will play tarot with you, giving you readings where the cards will be interpreted by related stories, but I need at least three years of stories before that can be fully realized. And so, while the world spins and fractures, I'm quietly building a library of strange and wonderful stories. 

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

MT: Voice, confidence, and a bit of the "I'm going to trust that you can keep up" vibe from the author. I don't mind competent and functional writing, but if that is all that it has going for it, well, my brain turns off. I get bored. I start skimming. Worse, I start wandering around the house, thinking about snacks. There are many, many more stories in the queue (as well as books stacked around the house), and I need to read engaging things. 

Look, there were two things I know I didn't want to see when I first launched Arcana: flash fiction and stories that went all Cormac McCarthy with their punctuation. But then I got Jon McGoran's "Dog Sitting" and "Stephen O'Donnell's "Landfall," respectively, and I was all: "Well, so much for those restrictions." But if I had explicitly said "no," then I never would have gotten those stories. In both instances, the writers wrote with such assurance and strong voices that I set aside my own preferences. 

It's not so much: "Hey, do you want to come by and have a beer? We could, you know, make BBQ or something. Or not. Whatever you want, really. If you want to come by.” Rather: "Yo. BBQ later. My great-aunt's recipe. I'll have ice. You should bring some beer." 

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

MT: A lack of awareness of the Shunn Manuscript Format. Bill Shunn has done us all a great service by making this, and yes, it's hoop jumping, but for crying out loud, it makes parsing a story easy. And I've got a lot of stories to read. 

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

MT: Two things. The first is a thing I used to do which made a well-practiced and much-published author (who I was collaborating with at the time) roll his eyes often, and that is writing a paragraph backwards. Don't write all the set-up for the hook and then give us the hook. Start with the hook. 

The follow-up to that is once you've given me a hook, don't tell me a bunch of stuff that isn't related to that hook. If Davy hooks a sea monster in the pond in his backyard, I don't care what he's wearing, or what the weather is like, or if he's using a spurious spinner with an elaborate tie made out of ostrich feathers and greased giblets. I want to know if Davy is going to land that thing and whether it is going to eat his dog or not.  

More simply: Each sentence should answer the question asked by the reader in the previous sentence.

SQF: If you could have a meal with three authors (living or dead), who would they be and why?

MT: Anthony Bourdain, Umberto Eco, and Donald E. Westlake. Because it would last all night and would generate at least a dozen movie or book ideas, but none of us would remember any of them in the morning. Nor would we care. 

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

MT: How should an author prepare to write for your market? 

I recognize that the guidelines for Underland Arcana are somewhat nebulous, which can be frustrating for an author who is attempting to discern whether a market is good for them. Generally speaking, a writer should familiarize themselves with a market just so they know if it is a reasonable match for their work. In most cases, this is pretty self-evident. And in other cases, like Arcana, it's a little complicated. Fundamentally, however, the best preparation is to have confidence in your work. If it feels like a fit, then step forward and share it. If it isn't a fit, that's okay too. Try again (and definitely try that story somewhere else).

Every editor wants to thrill their readers with stories, and readers of a publication like the editor's taste in material, even if they can't always anticipate it. As authors, we get caught up in the "I'm going to make a sale!" mindset, and that's certainly reason enough to do it, but for an editor the thinking is "I'm going to provide content to an audience who is eager to see what I curate." 

Now, given that this is a tarot-influenced project, it would be easy to think "Oh, hey. This story is totally a Three of Swords story. I'm going to mention that in my cover letter." (And some do.) But what the writer doesn't know is how many Three of Swords stories I already have. Why put that in my head before I've even read the story? Instead, consider the suits: Coins, Wands, Swords, and Cups. What are the emotional correspondences to those suits? What are symbolic correspondences? Does thinking about these things (or researching them) give birth to a story idea? Great. Write it down. Send it to me. Don't tell me what card you're thinking of. If I buy it and pick a different card, we can argue about it later over beers, and in doing so, might understand some nuances that neither of us had considered. And that, frankly, is what all of this is about anyway, right? Telling stories and having stories told in return.

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

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