20 December 2013

Traditional publishing research: Big Fiction Magazine

This month my learning about traditional publishing takes a new turn in this interview with Heather Jacobs, editor of Big Fiction Magazine. I met Heather at Wordstock this year and was impressed not only with her authenticity but also with the quality and beauty of the magazine. After only a few minutes of conversation I was able to bully her into agreeing to do an interview for the blog - yay! (And by "bully," of course I mean, "I asked if she'd be interested, and she said yes.")

Big Fiction publishes two issues a year and specializes in novelettes (7500-15K words) and novellas (15K-30K words). The magazine also hosts the Knickerbocker Prize contest each year, judged by a guest judge, with publication and cash prizes for first and second place winners. This year's guest judge is David James Poissant. You can find out more about the contest, including submission guidelines, here.

And now, before I slip into any folderol, here's the interview.

*trumpets & applause*

SHA: What got you into this business? Why run a lit mag, and why a print lit mag (as opposed to online) in particular? 

HJ: Let me answer the "why print?" question first. I just really dig anything that has to do with print. I'm a font freak. I'll walk around looking at signs, going, "Hey, that's Emerson!" or whatever. Print seduces me. Letterpress especially. I apprenticed, briefly, with Gray Zeitz of Larkspur Press in Kentucky, and I have been taking lessons - working on personal and Big Fiction-related printing projects - with Lynda Sherman of Bremelo Press here in Seattle, who also does my covers. It's a passion for me. I want Big Fiction to contain quality literature, and also be artful, a keepsake. As Lynda says, it's all about honoring the writer and the reader. I enjoy the design process as much as I do the editing. Why not online? I've thought about it, but I don't think the novella form lends itself very well to online reading (although it's seeing a resurgence with e-readers). I'd miss Lynda's print shop too much. 

As for what got me started - it was just a lark, really. I've always wanted to be on the editing end of literature - I think it's my biggest strength, an ability to dig in and find good writing, and work to bring out its best qualities (I hope!). And why I keep going . . . well, I feel a responsibility to the writers I've published so far, and to those volunteers and readers and reviewers and contest judges and everyone who has believed in Big Fiction and trusted me with their reputations. I am deeply grateful for their interest in my little project. Big Fiction is bigger than me, and I love that.

SHA: Based on what I saw on the website, you only accept unsolicited submissions once a year, for the Knickerbocker prize. But am I reading that wrong? Do you accept unsolicited subs year-round or during certain months or...?

HJ: The only submissions open this winter /spring are for the Knickerbocker prize. But I do read unsolicited work with no fee (or perhaps in the future a small fee to cover admin costs, but so far I haven't had to do that). I don't know when the next open call for subs will be, but probably next September. I definitely want to keep reading unsolicited work. 

SHA: To what extent do you take into account a writer's previous publishing credits when considering whether to accept their piece for Big Fiction? Why?

HJ: I only consider previous publishing history as an afterthought, and, of course, as a mark of professionalism; otherwise, I don't care if you've been published in The Paris Review, or in journals I've not yet heard of, or if this is your first publication. I've published authors with several novels under their belts, and I've accepted work from writers with only a handful of credits. I'd love to discover someone who's never been published before. But generally, writers who are professional and whose work I like have some kind of publishing history, just because it's what they do, and they're good at it. On the other hand, I've read submissions from writers who are published often, in big lit mags, or in book form, and yet I don't connect with their work for whatever reason. These writers won't make it into Big Fiction, and certainly not on the merits of their previous work alone. I look at the writing, not the writer; great writers can churn out less-than-stellar work on occasion, and the unknown writer can also come up with something brilliant out of the gate. You never know; that's why I remain open.

SHA: What kind of work are you drawn to? To what themes or styles do you gravitate?

Heather Jacobs
HJ: This is a challenging question to answer. Also, it's what writers most often want to know, and rightfully so. But how can we adequately explain what we love? To accept a piece for Big Fiction, I have to fall in love with it. Because I work closely with authors to polish their work before publication, I need to know that I can personally enjoy reading the story three, four, five times. I need to be able to connect to it as a reader and an editor, and, in some sense, as a writer as well. I learn an incredible amount from the writers I work with.

So what makes me fall in love? Usually the first thing I notice about a piece is the language. I'm drawn to prose that's robust, natural, surprising in its imagery, full of texture. I like "lyrical" prose (though this term is overused), but not if it's flowery. Language for its own sake turns me off. Sometimes the best writing is very spare. Other times a more complex, dense language is called for. I don't know; the story itself demands its own way  of speaking. I try to be open about style. I've published Yuriy Tarnawsky, with his intense descriptive language and almost mechanical precision. I've published Mylène Dressler, with her long sentences and infectious rhythms and rich historical context. I've loved it all.

But it's not all about pretty words. I have to find the story compelling. After all, I want readers to be entertained! Narrative drive is important to me. One of the pitfalls of the novella form is that it tends to sag in the middle. If I find a story that moves and keeps moving all the way to the end, that's a big bonus for me. I like to think of "story" rather than "plot"; I can be pulled through a narrative on the strength of a character, a voice, an intriguing situation or atmosphere. Something needs to happen, though. But this is a basic thing that all fiction writers know. You can't make a story without some kind of trouble or conflict.

Finally, although I enjoy irony, I do find myself most drawn to honesty, vulnerability, and sincerity in fiction. I hope that's not too sentimental of me. That said, there has to be an edge to it; stories that are too "nice" or quaint - no matter how endearing the characters might be - just don't turn my crank. I want to read stories that put me slightly outside my comfort zone. I don't shy away from darkness in fiction. Look at Steve Yates' piece, "Sandy and Wayne," in the first Knickerbocker Prize issue. There is some serious darkness there, but also an almost soaring beauty to certain moments in that story. Love, love, love.

SHA: Do you tend to stick to contemporary fiction, or do you find yourself equally drawn to genre? Or maybe "literary genre," which is how I've heard some of Ursula K. LeGuin's and Margaret Atwood's work described?

HJ: I adore Ursula K. LeGuin and Margaret Atwood. If I came across anything that approached the imagination and serious literary quality of their work, I would be very happy. For a slightly more genre-related piece that has appeared in Big Fiction, see Mike Meginnis's "The Dale Machine." What convinced me about this time- machine story was the desperate humanity at the core of the central character. That and the story's humor, daring, and inventiveness. There were some really lyric moments too.  But in general I don't go for genre at first. It has to have those other literary qualities I talked about, and then the genre is beside the point. 
Cover of Big Fiction issue 4 - so pretty!

SHA: The submission period for the Knickerbocker Prize opened on Dec. 15 (submission guidelines here). What's the brief history behind this prize and how do you find/select your judges? 

HJ: The brief history behind the prize is . . . I knew I needed to do something to help offset some of the costs of producing the magazine. I'm certainly not trying to take advantage of anyone, or getting rich off of it. It's just another way to help Big Fiction continue, keep it alive, so that the authors who are published can be part of an ongoing, vital magazine. I also wanted to be able to add some prestige and additional prize money for the winners of the contest. Having a judge, like a guest editor, also lends some diversity and legitimacy to the magazine. Lauren Groff was my first thought as a judge for the inaugural Knickerbocker Prize. I am a huge fan of her work, and her aesthetic is close to my own heart. I knew she'd do a fantastic job. And apart from being extremely talented, she is one of the most generous human beings I've ever met, hands down. Basically, my process is to get in touch with writers I admire, and just ask! The worst they can say is no. And so far people have been very receptive. The current judge, David James Poissant, is excited to be working on this project. I'm just so grateful, again, for the folks who have taken an interest in Big Fiction and want to support what I'm doing with it.

SHA: You mentioned during our conversation at Wordstock that it's easy to get submissions but super difficult to get subscriptions. My own experience is that I work a lot and then I try to squeak in writing, and any free time I have I spend with friends and family, which leaves zero time for pouring over lit mags, even though I feel guilty about not doing so. But honestly, it's hard enough to find time to research markets, much less actually read them. And then there's that whole thing about not really having any money, which makes it really difficult to support the markets I do love. So that's my sob story. What are your thoughts on the subject? Who's your target audience? Why should writers, who are notoriously poor, invest in Big Fiction? (Not to put you on the spot or anything.) What are the repercussions when writers don't invest time and money in lit mags and journals?

HJ: I don't think finding readers for the magazine is quite as dire as I made it sound! Building a subscriber base takes time. I'm with you, though, about limited time and money. Because I have limited funds as well (and limited space in my home), I tend to rotate my subscriptions. Every year, I try to pick three or four magazines to subscribe to. If I really love one, I'll keep subscribing to it year after year. But I try to spread the wealth. That's all you can do, really. As for why people should subscribe to Big Fiction? Well, try it, and if you like it, subscribe! I want to get the magazine into the hands of people who will really enjoy it. If you don't like what I'm making, that's okay, I'm not going to try to sell it to you. If you do connect with it, though, it is good to show your support in a concrete way. I'm very grateful to my subscribers, and my authors as well, who all have been great supporters of what I'm doing. I think we know what the repercussions are when writers don't invest in journals. That's where new writing is coming from, where your "competition" is, and where you, as a writer, will someday find your work in print for the first or fifteenth time. Of course writers need to support the little magazines as much as possible.

You can support Big Fiction Magazine by liking it on Facebook and subscribing for $24 per annum. And of course don't forget to submit to the Knickerbocker Prize contest before March 15, 2014!

1 comment:

  1. SHA;
    You don't have "zero time for 'pouring' over lit mags", you have "zero time for 'poring' over lit mags". The last time I poured something over a lit mag it was saturated by liquid and was ruined. So I spent another hour or so poring (from 'pore' - to read carefully or study minutely) over other lit mags.