Monday, August 5, 2013

Editor Q & A: Suzannah Windsor, of Compose, on Starting the Journal, Submissions, and Full Plates

Over the past six months, I've been getting a new view, from the other side of the desk, as creative nonfiction editor for the new online journal Compose. We're now in the middle of reading, selecting, and editing material for the Fall 2013 issue (the journal's second).  Founder and editor-in-chief Suzannah Windsor (you may know her as founder of the group blog Write It Sideways), took a few minutes to talk to me about her journal start-up experience and plans.

Lisa Romeo:  To date, about fours months into the process of inviting submissions for future issues, what has surprised you the most -- pleasantly or not -- from the editor's seat?

Suzannah Windsor: I have to say I was surprised by the number of submissions we received in the first month, because I assumed things would be a bit quiet in the beginning. I've also been pleasantly surprised at the quality of the submissions; the majority are polished and professional, even if not quite right for us. While we've received some submissions from newer writers, many are MFA graduates with several publications already under their belts. Others have collections of short stories or poetry forthcoming or published by small presses. It's lovely that we're getting a combination of new writers, emerging writers, and established writers all at once, and it's encouraging that they're interested in working with us, in particular.

LR: What has the experience been like for you in setting up the journal, establishing submission guidelines, creating the editors' roles, and more or less mothering the whole enterprise into existence?

SW: It's been a whole lot of work and plenty of trial-and-error to get where we are today. Many of the problems or inefficiencies we've faced have been things that couldn't really have been anticipated until they happened, so we've had to think on our feet. The biggest challenge has been just getting everything in place and running smoothly. There's a big difference between starting a literary journal and building a successful literary journal, and that's both an exciting challenge and an incredibly daunting task. Even when I think I've gotten ahead of my to-do list, there's always plenty more I could be doing.

LR:  If I'm not mistaken, Compose has editors who live on three different continents. Was that your intention, to infuse the editorial decision-making process with an international world view, or just coincidence?

SW: At the moment, we're divided between the United States and Australia, but if you count our home countries, we range from the US to Canada, Australia, Cuba and Dominican Republic. It wasn't at all intentional, but I do think an international perspective is an advantage. Because we're an online publication and our readers are from all over the world, we want to be able to provide them with a culturally diverse reading experience.

LR:  Surely with your work on Write it Sideways, and your own personal creative writing, as well as a busy family life, you had a lot on your agenda already. So what was it about the idea of an online literary journal that spurred you into action? 

SW: I'll admit—with four children (including toddler twins)—I am committed-to-the-max at the moment. But, I'm also aware that in a few years all of my children will be in school and I'll suddenly have a lot more time to commit to my work. Between now and then, I'd like to build up my writing and editing experience as much as possible. Compose has been a good step toward gaining that experience, but it's also something I've wanted to do for a long time because of my love for reading and writing short fiction. The journal is both good experience and a passion project.

LR: Is there anything you are planning or hoping that Compose can do that other online literary journals are not doing?

SW: I hope we'll be known for featuring established voices alongside emerging ones, because I know from experience how exciting it is to see your work published in the same issue as a writer you admire. It can give a struggling writer a real confidence boost. Aside from that, I hope that we can consistently publish quality work and simply be known as a great read. Whereas some journals are only read by the writers who submit to them, I want us to reach a much wider audience. 

LR: Can you give my readers who are writers any submission tips either for Compose in particular, or for online journals in general (or both)?

SW: When someone submits something that is obviously not a good fit for Compose, I have a good idea that they haven't done their homework. First, always read the submission guidelines thoroughly. Most journals have similar guidelines, but some prefer to have a cover letter with a short bio included, some don't accept simultaneous submissions, and some even want a statement about why you believe your work fits their vision. 

Second, read at least a few pieces from the journal to get a good feel for what they publish. A piece that's perfect for The Missouri Review most likely won't be right for Caketrain. Each publication has its own aesthetic, so take note of genre, style, tone and length.

Third, don't submit until you're sure the piece is ready. We've had several pieces withdrawn shortly after submission, with the writers saying they need to make some changes. Not only does this indicate to us that the writer submitted too soon, it's also a bit of a hassle from the editors' side if they've already started to read and consider the piece. Let your work sit for a week or two after you think it's done, and you'll probably find it could still be improved.

LR: Here's something writers wonder about and debate. When you see that a writer has sent a simultaneous submission, does that make you read it and respond quickly so that you don't chance losing a great piece; or does a simultaneous submission make you think it may be out at a large number of other journals, and there's a good chance it will be withdrawn, so it falls to the bottom of your list?

SW: I really don't think it makes a difference either way unless I think the piece is something we'd really hate to lose. I don't read submissions in full until the senior editors are ready to accept something, but I do get a sneak peek at everything when I assign pieces to editors for reading. So, if I were to see something that captivated me enough in the opening lines and compelled me to read the entire piece right away, I'd probably get the editors to read and vote on it right away. But, I would do the same whether the piece was explicitly labeled as being a simultaneous submission or not. Unless a journal's guidelines state no simultaneous submissions, I think we all expect them nowadays.

LR: There's been some push-back lately among print journals about the proliferation of online journals, some of which seem little more than an individual collecting submitted poems, stories and essays, and putting them up on a blogging platform with little editorial development and scant readership, amounting to a publication credit line on a resume or CV that's hardly more credible than a personal blog or amateur site. Thoughts?

SW: I completely agree. There are thousands of these sites, many of which I assume are read only by the people published in them. Let me say that our process bears no resemblance to these sites, and neither does our product. I often hear from our readers how much they're enjoying our first issue, which means we're already reaching and connecting with people. When a submission comes our way, it receives multiple reads and opinions, and almost every long-form piece we've accepted goes through at least one careful revision with a senior editor. 

Writer Eva Langston, a contributor to our Spring 2013 issue, has said “The editors encouraged and supported me through the process [of editing my story]. I was amazed they put so much time and energy into my dinky two-page story. And yet, I was glad for it. They had me change 1% of my piece, but it made the story 100% better.” 

Still, I hope people don't confuse these amateur sites with some of the longer-standing online journals that publish excellent work but are simple (and perhaps dated) in their design. On the other hand, there are plenty of good-looking sites that publish unpolished work. Design is nice, but content has to be the end focus.

LR: You decided from the start to include the three major genres – fiction, poetry, nonfiction – as well as artwork, feature articles, interviews and book excerpts. Some journals start out with more limited offerings. What made you want to present the full spectrum right from the start, and in retrospect was that a difficult way to begin?

SW: Yes, it was ambitious, but I figured—why tiptoe our way in? If the perfect editors hadn't presented themselves in each genre, I might've just stuck with poetry and fiction, but things have worked out really well in that respect.

LR: What do you hope a reader takes away from each issue of Compose?

SW: If everyone who reads our journal could go away remembering just one piece, and have that piece come back to them again and again—a particular line, an image, a conflict—then mission accomplished. Many of the pieces from our first issue have had that effect on me, changing my life in some small way. Also, because the majority of our audience are writers as well as readers, I hope they'll come away from reading Compose with a renewed desire to write.

You can read another interview with Suzannah at Review Review. The submissions guidelines for Compose are here.


Amy Morgan said...

Wonderful interview Lisa. I loved the first issue and am looking forward to the Fall. Compose is on my "to do" list of submissions, but wanted to wait to review the first few issues. :)

drew said...

Always great to get an "insider" perspective. Thanks for offering this interview, Lisa.