Same Day Results: A Lit Mag With a High-Speed Turn-Around
Born in the island city-state of Singapore, Ian Chung recently graduated from the University of Warwick with a 1st Class BA (Hons) English Literature & Creative Writing, where he will be returning in autumn 2011 for an MA in English Literature. He is contractually obligated to become a teacher after that, but secretly wants to write a good science fiction novel. Or something with vampires in it, even though he might be a few years too late for that by now. Besides editing Eunoia Review, he reads fiction submissions for The Cadaverine and writes reviews for Sabotage Reviews, The Cadaverine, Drunken Boat and Rum & Reviews Magazine. Visit his blog The Warwick Diaries.
Interview by Priyatam Mudivarti
What is beautiful thinking?
In the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the word 'beautiful' is defined as 'having qualities of beauty, exciting aesthetic pleasure'. On one level, that's the sense I'm thinking about when I refer to 'beautiful thinking', writing that is well-formed, with a sensitivity to the cadences of the language and the manipulating of words. Still, I'm aware that not everyone agrees this is necessarily the primary measure by which good writing is to be judged. Yet the second definition given by Merriam-Webster reads, 'generally pleasing, excellent'. Now this broadens things up, since the criteria is no longer confined to aesthetic value. I guess what I'm interested in above all is writing that reflects careful thought, in which I can clearly see that the writer has taken pains to put the words together.
On your website, it’s mentioned that Eunoia Review publishes daily. How is your reading process different from traditional quarterly, half-yearly, or annual publications?
I started Eunoia Review in the final year of my BA, and like a lot of university students today, I spent (and still spend!) a lot of time online. It's really hard to be 'offline' these days anyway, with smartphones becoming seemingly ubiquitous. All this does mean that I'm able to check on submissions practically any time, any place, so long as I'm awake. So I'd say unlike publications that publish on a quarterly/half-yearly/annual basis, I don't have to set specific reading periods in which Eunoia Review is open to submissions, nor would I want to. Beyond that though, I think my reading process is comparable to that of other editors, apart from not having the luxury of getting different people to read for the different genres Eunoia Review publishes, since the publication is still a one-man operation so far.
Your magazine takes pride in committing to “very swift responses.” Could you please explain?
As far as possible, I reply to submissions on the same day that I receive them. As a writer, I know how frustrating it can be to send work out and then have to wait months to hear back from editors. If you have a huge slush pile to deal with, I think the decent thing to do is to stop accepting submissions until you've cut the pile down to a manageable size. It applies whether you're a print or online publication, although online publications obviously have less of an excuse for tardiness.
I'm well-aware that the only reason I'm able to maintain what Duotrope estimates is currently a half-day turnaround for submissions is that as a student, I don't work a full-time job, or take care of kids, or any of the other things that presumably get in the way of reading submissions for other editors. I think 'the other things' only go so far as excuses though, since Duotrope's statistics clearly show that there are other publications who make the effort to get back to submitters within a month. A month, by the way, is the buffer that I've actually put in place for myself under the submission guidelines from the start of Eunoia Review. After all, I'm not going to stay a student forever!
At what point do you feel that a story is worth missing your bus (or subway or carpool or bikepool)?
Where I live (Coventry, UK during term-time, Singapore during the holidays), it's really hard to catch the bus, at least during the times when people normally need them, so the short answer would be that no submission is ever worth missing the bus for! Honestly though, I think that point for me is when I realise all the elements are coming together in a submission. If it's poetry, there's fine control of the language. If it's formal poetry, then the form serves the poem, rather than being something that the poem has been forced into. That's rare though. Where form is broken or abandoned altogether, then I want to see that this choice hasn't been made out of laziness. A poet might think random line breaks are interesting, but frankly, if they are actually just random, they usually won't be.
When it comes to prose, I'm looking for a good hook, something that grabs me within the first couple of paragraphs, and then doesn't let up until the last one. I'm a stickler for correct punctuation and spelling (unless it's clear it's being deliberately misused for a purpose, again, something rare in my experience so far), so when I get that as well, I'll admit, then I might be willing to miss a bus.
Is there a theme in Eunoia’s published stories? On a larger note -- does theme, plot, epiphany, symbolism matter?
As Eunoia Review publishes on a daily basis, there isn't a specific theme that runs through the pieces. It's something I'd consider, should I move the publication to say, a monthly basis, but for now, I'm happy to schedule work as and when it comes in and gets accepted. As an online-only publication, I think the ephemeral nature of having one new piece go up each day is quite appropriate. At a broader level though, within individual pieces, I think things like theme/plot/symbolism definitely matter, but I'd say it's unrealistic to demand all of them, all of the time. Not everyone gets to be Shakespeare, so to speak.
Epiphany is a tricky one though. I had a tutor at university who spoke against poems that ended with a neat epiphany, and it's true, it's easy to put in a cheap epiphanic moment into your writing. It's also manipulative, and I think discerning readers will be turned off by that. These days, I think the epiphanies in poems and stories have to be earned.
How do you know that you've given the writer a fair chance before rejecting? Is there a second chance?
I make it a point to read every submission from start to finish. A single reading is usually enough to determine acceptances and weed out obvious rejections. If I'm unsure, I'll read through the piece(s) again, however many times it takes before I've made up my mind either way. Twice is usually enough though. I think there's inevitably a level of subjectivity in reading submissions, so what works for one editor might be a complete turn-off for another. What matters is being able to make your mind up and avoid second-guessing yourself. I treat every submission as a fresh start, so even if I've turned a writer down before, it doesn't mean I'll be any more hesitant when reading a subsequent submission from him/her. Likewise, prior acceptances don't count much with me.
Could “turning down a writer” be handled without a rejection slip? Perhaps, a suggestion for their next revision or a reference to another journal?
I genuinely wish I had the time to write e-mails back to every submitter with detailed explanations on what worked, what didn't, what they could possibly change before trying the piece with me again. I know there are editors who consistently make that sort of effort, and in my other capacity as a Fiction Editor at The Cadaverine, I do give fairly specific pointers of that sort. Then again, at The Cadaverine, the focus is on young writers, up to age 30, and that's partly why we're committed to providing that level of editorial support.
With Eunoia Review, if very minor changes would tip me from rejection to acceptance, I edit the piece myself and flag the changes to the submitter for their approval. Other times, when the piece has some way to go before I would consider it for publication, I make more general recommendations on what direction the writer could take the work in before resubmitting.
Where should unpublished writers look to first publish their stories? Should they choose tier-1, tier-II, tier-XII, Eunoia, or -- ? Why?
Resources like Duotrope have made it really easy for writers to find places to get published in, so there's no excuse for not doing your homework by getting out there and reading the publications you're planning on submitting to. In terms of prestige, I think ideally writers shouldn't be thinking so much in terms of how much recognition one publication has compared to another, but how well their own piece is a fit for that publication.
Of course, writers also want to build up their publication credits, so it's understandable if they want to get their work into the more established magazines. Some tend to be print-only though, so you need to think about how much exposure your work would actually get, whereas with online publications, which sometimes still get looked down on, your work is there for anyone with an Internet connection to enjoy.
The idea that publications can be divided up into tiers does bother me a little. It makes it sound as though some publications are publishing second-rate work, but that's okay because they're not top tier publications anyway. I think on both sides, editors and writers, we need to commit to publishing and sending out the best that we can, respectively.
I agree with your comments on “Tiers.” Apart from beautiful prose, what excites you more – complex stories set in a foreign land or characters struggling to find themselves or (you can fill yours here … )?
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say I get really excited by science fiction. I'm convinced that it is possible to stay faithful to the general tropes of science fiction but also marry them to startling, original ideas. I think it's one of those genres, simply by virtue of not needing to be tied to the here and now, where writers are freest to push philosophical ideas to extremes and see what the implications are for humanity. You could do that with what's classified by marketing departments as 'literary fiction', but I think it's harder because you need to create situations where your characters are cut off from the rest of mainstream society and its influences. Not that it can't be done though. Donna Tartt did it with The Secret History, so did all three of Sam Taylor's novels. It's just harder to get it right.
To return to the options you raised though, I'd go for complex stories. To cheat a little here, I'm going to say that complexity can be generated out of many elements in the story, and one of those could be the characters - their motivations, their struggles with themselves and with each other.
Eunoia publishes prose and poetry. What advice do you have for prose writers who like to dabble into or read more poetry?
At the risk of offending prose writers, I'm going to suggest that good poetry is harder work than good prose. If you think about it, prose allows you the option of using more words, so it seems that there's more that you need to organise and control in your writing. Yet poetry seems to me to be about the deliberate paring down of language, until only what is essential remains. I know with the rise of free verse and prose poetry, that's no longer applicable by default as a characterisation of poetry, but I think the underlying principle still remains. As Coleridge put it, prose is 'words in their best order', whereas poetry is 'the best words in their best order'.
In terms of crossing from prose to poetry, I'd advise writers to begin by imitating poets that they admire. By which I mean poets that they've personally read and enjoyed, rather than admiring because they've been told these are 'great poets'. It is perfectly acceptable for you to dislike a 'great poet', whilst acknowledging the qualities for which they have been praised. It just means those aren't qualities that appeal to you as a reader/writer.
There's a lot of poetry out there, ranging across the whole spectrum of forms or lack thereof, on practically any subject you'd care to read about. So I think anthologies are actually a good place to start. All the major publishing houses put these out in some form or other. The caveat here, of course, is not to fall into the trap of thinking that a poet is only worth reading if they've been canonised by a publishing house in this manner. Who you are as a writer, prose or poetry, is the sum total of what you've experienced and read, so it only seems sensible to keep reading.
You were asked this before and I have asked it before but I’m going to ask again -- what’s your best advise for a writer trying to get his/her first story published in a literary magazine?
Firstly, do your homework and read the magazine(s) in question. Blind, scattershot submissions will get you published eventually, I suppose, mathematical odds and all. You're more likely to be successful though, if you actually have an idea of whether your writing is a fit for a particular publication. I also think it's sort of quid pro quo. Why should the magazine publish you if you can't even be bothered to read what it's published previously? Next, read the submission guidelines and follow them. I'm fortunate in that I haven't had too much trouble in this regard with the submissions I get, but if you look at sites like SlushPile Hell, it's amazing the delusions of grandeur that afflict some writers. Of course, all the above advice assumes that you've re-read what you've written, and hopefully, have found things to improve in it and done so.
What next for Eunoia Review?
There's already quite a wide variety of work on the site now, in terms of form and subject matter. I'd like to see that continue. Currently, I'm enjoying a three-month break from university, so if anyone's thinking of submitting, now's a very good time. I might even start writing long, detailed replies during this period. Once I start an MA in October though, it's probably going to be back to short-but-swift, I'm afraid.
The daily format of Eunoia Review allows me to build up a fairly large buffer of posts, and anyone visiting the site can see when I've queued work until, so I'm not too worried about not being able to keep up with submissions for now. Somewhere down the road, I'm thinking there's a possibility I might want to switch the publication to a weekly/monthly format, maybe with themed submissions and issues, that sort of thing. It really depends on how much spare time I have once I start teaching. Even if all that doesn't happen though, I still think there's something appealing about the daily format. Or at least that's what a number of submitters have mentioned in their cover letters.
What I really want, in the long run, is to keep the look and feel of the site very 'clean', so that there's nothing to distract from the writing. I suppose when you come down to it, I want Eunoia Review to be one of those online publications that people can return to as and when they're able, without feeling guilty that they haven't read the whole of the latest issue.
Priyatam Mudivarti writes fiction at late nights, writes complex software code during the day as a freelance software engineer, and documents people's lives taking time-off as a traveling documentary photographer. He has earned his bachelors in Computer Science Engineering and is currently pursuing MFA from Pacific University. He is working on a collection of interlinked short stories and a novella, Yuti, set in India. He lives in Cambridge.