science experiments on your keyboard

Guest post by Pidgeonholes editor-in-chief Nolan Liebert

I am a scientist. Sure, I’m a writer. An editor even. But those are the things I do when I’m Superman. Most of the time, though, I’m Clark Kent, except my day job deals with computers. So, first and foremost, I am a scientist. I experiment, with software, with hardware, with the grease on my bike chain, with the food in my kitchen.

Experimentation is a natural part of my life, but moreover, I see it as a necessary part of life, and an even more necessary part of sudden fiction.

When I’m reading through submissions for Pidgeonholes, I love to see experimental work. Not just because it’s exciting. Not just because it’s one of the types of fiction I specifically mention in my submission guidelines. I love to see it because it means somewhere in this digital world people are still trying to push the boundaries of art.

Escher said, “Only those who attempt the absurd will achieve the impossible.”

Any scientific experiment is based on what has worked before and how we think the results could be verified, disputed, or even improved upon.

The fact is, some experimental pieces that don’t work.

When I’m reading through Pidgeonholes submissions or checking out the work on other zines, sometimes I’ll come across a piece that simply doesn’t make sense. Stories told entirely in numbers, pseudo-code that doesn’t work, pieces so absurd it would take an MFA years to unravel.

And that’s okay. Without pushing and crossing boundaries, any art form will stagnate. However, it’s important to remember that if you’re seeking publication your audience is no longer just you. It includes other writers and readers of various abilities of comprehension.

If you want, you can read some experimental works that have inspired me recently. Rose Lemberg has a haunting longform poem that alternates voices and is carefully crafted to include multiple styles. Or impose yourself on the communiques of a unique patient as imagined by Sea Sharp. At the end of a long day, you may want to spend some time getting your emotions tied up with a hybrid piece about a porn star/mother.

Galileo said, “See now the power of truth; the same experiment which at first glance seemed to show one thing, when more carefully examined, assures us of the contrary.”

While Galileo was certainly not talking about fiction, his words can still be applied.

With sudden fiction, much like with poetry, much is left for the reader to interpret. It is missing or is incomplete or even contains incorrect data. And these gaps, these holes in interpretation, are the foundation of building an experimental piece. I love stories that I can read over and over again, unpacking and parsing the clues the author has left me. A work that speaks to me in this way, that calls me back, is a victory for the author, for me, and for the readers I aim to deliver excellent literature to.

So, get out there and write experimental fiction and poetry. Make your lists and letters and cuneiform translations, write your obituaries in Anglish, create hyperfiction that crosses multiple websites and styles, write the story of a house using CAD software. Be surprising. Work towards mastering your craft and you will find success.

Oh, and if you use any of the above ideas, I’d love to read them!


Nolan Liebert edits Pidgeonholes, a weekly webzine of experimental and international writing. He also volunteers as a reader for freeze frame fiction. He writes short fiction and poetry that can be found littering the internet. Interacting with authors, both new and established, is important to him, so feel free to harass him on Twitter @nliebert or @pidgeonholes. You can read more about him and his work at http://nolanliebert.wordpress.com/.

things I’m tired of seeing in lit mag submissions

Guest post by Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine managing editor Nathaniel Tower

An editor of a literary magazine has to put up with a fair amount. Among the struggles we must face on our daily quest for literary greatness is repetition. I’m not simply talking about the monotony of reading submissions. Rather, I’m referring to the fact that, at times, it feels like every submission is exactly the same.

When lit mag editors are asked what frustrates them the most about submissions, the responses are typically the same: submissions that don’t follow guidelines, submissions riddled with typos, submissions with a blatant disregard for the aesthetic (whatever the hell that means) of the lit mag in question.

As a lit mag editor, these aren’t the things that bother me the most. Writers who don’t follow guidelines are the easiest to reject. They waste the least amount of my time. What, you didn’t use the proper format? Okay, here’s your rejection slip. That took two seconds of my day. Submissions filled with typos don’t take much more effort. Okay, this isn’t ready for publication; here’s your rejection slip. Maybe a minute on that one. And those stories that show an obvious disregard for what our lit mag publishes? Yeah, we can usually reject those after a few sentences.

But that only makes up a tiny fraction of the submissions we receive. The vast majority of submissions take a lot more care and time. And I’d be lying if I said all these submissions were worth our time.

So what really grinds my gears (besides clichés, of course)? It’s the utter repetition that seems to plague the writing community, that seems to prevent 97% of writers from having their own original thoughts, ideas, styles, and whatever else makes up a piece of writing.

Our humble little lit mag has received close to 15,000 submissions since we opened our virtual doors 7 years ago. While that’s nothing compared to what The New Yorker gets in a month, that’s a lot of stories (especially given that we actually read everything that comes into our queue). With all those stories, it’s not surprising that we’d see a lack of originality from time to time. After all, there’s only about 12 different stories that can be told (and roughly 1.2 million different ways to tell those 12 stories*).

Among those 15,000 stories we’ve received over the years, there are a few things that stand out that make me never want to read another story for as long as I live. Before I share the things I’m absolutely sick of seeing from submitters, please know that any of these things can be done well. For example, we’ve probably received 500 stories that in some way involved the devil, God, or a re-interpretation of a Bible story. For the most part, all of these stories are exactly the same. However, we recently received a devil story that excited us so much that we accepted it (no small feat given our current acceptance rate of about 3.4%). Did this author sell his soul to the devil to get this acceptance? Perhaps, but we won’t hold that against him. We don’t care so much about how the story comes to be so much as we care about the content of the story.

Without further adieu (yes, clichés need to die a billion deaths), here are the things I’m absolutely sick of seeing in submissions.

  1. Death Endings – For the love of everything that is sacred about literature, stop killing off characters in violent or sentimental fashion in order to achieve an ending. Characters die in approximately 12% of the submissions we receive. 99% of these deaths are pointless and make the story worse. Character death is not a substitute for a satisfactory conclusion.
  1. Opening with sex or masturbation – Nothing turns me off faster than a story that opens with a masturbation or sex scene. I’m all about being thrown directly into a scene, but sometimes there needs to be some literary foreplay. If there’s an erect penis in the opening line of the story, I probably don’t want to read it. Interestingly enough, these stories are almost never sexy.
  1. Sentimental cancer stories – Yes, nearly everyone has been affected in some way by cancer. I’ve had family members die of cancer. It’s been at least five years since anyone said anything new with a cancer story.
  1. Stories that open with light streaming through the window – How many stories can begin with some type of light bursting forth through a hunk of glass? Apparently there is no limit. At least 15% of stories contain some type of light coming through something in the opening paragraph. There are often dust motes thrown in there for good measure. Please, no more dust motes.
  1. Stories that begin with someone coming out of a dream or end with someone realizing it was all a dream – You’d think that all dream stories would have been banned from the universe by now. It seems as if many writers haven’t gotten the memo. I’ll personally kill the next character that wakes up from a dream at the beginning of a story. And ending with a dream? Well, that’s even worse. You might as well just call the story “Nothing Happened At All” and leave the rest of the document blank.
  1. Alzheimer’s stories – Like cancer stories, only worse. These writers all pretend they understand exactly what it’s like to have Alzheimer’s. The worst offenders are those stories told in first person from the point of view of the Alzheimer’s patient. If I could forget one thing, it would be Alzheimer’s stories.
  1. Cheating significant other stories – Whether the cheater is a man or a woman, these stories generally pack as much punch as an empty bottle of sugar-free Hawaiian Punch. There’s almost always a scene where someone is packing a suitcase, as if we’re supposed to feel some sort of relief at this newfound freedom from the tormented relationship. The only relief is when the story ends.

Machinegun bonus – Here’s a quick list of other things I’ve seen way too much of:

  • Devil/God stories
  • Bar/diner stories
  • References to Nietzsche
  • Abuse stories
  • Stories of thwarted creative genius
  • Bad things happening to trust fund kids

You might be reading this and thinking there’s nothing left to write about. Well, if that’s what you think, then you’re right. If these are the only ideas you can come up with, then please stop writing forever. Or try to write a story that combines all of them. A husband with Alzheimer’s awakens from a dream that tells him his cancerous wife is cheating on him with a trust fund kid who loves Nietzsche; she is masturbating next to the husband in bed as light bursts through the window and dust motes settle on her convulsing body; in the end, she brutally murders her lover for no reason whatsoever. That story might actually be worth reading. Oh, and make sure someone gets drunk and the devil talks to God at least once.

 

*These estimates do not reflect any actual calculations. The actual number of stories and ways those stories can be told may vary slightly.


Nathaniel Tower is the managing editor of Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine. Over 200 of his short stories have been published, including several that violate the aforementioned guidelines. He currently lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and two daughters. Visit him at http://nathanieltower.com.

artist interview: luke spooner

Our next interview is with our artist, Luke Spooner. His work has appeared in all of our volumes so far. Luke creates art under two names: Carrion House for his darker work, and Hoodwink House for children’s books. He believes that the job of putting someone else’s words into a visual form, to accompany and support their text, is a massive responsibility as well as being something he truly treasures. Find out more at his website, carrionhouse.com, or on his Facebook page.

freeze frame fiction: Apart from the cover for the experimental volume, all of the illustrations you’ve done for us have been linked to a specific piece of flash fiction. What is your process for translating a story idea into an illustration?

Luke Spooner: For freeze frame fiction I take a very relaxed approach to translating each story. I usually get some tea brewing first, get a note pad and pen, a comfy place to sit and get down to reading through them with as little distraction as possible. As I go I note down any details that strike me as visually useful—so things that mention colour, atmosphere or lighting. I also note down the tone of a story, (is it somber, eerie etc.), as well character and setting aspects. I also attempt to chart the story and list important events so that I’m able to refer back to particular parts of a story if any of the ideas are a little foggy by the time I get to sketching and need that little extra kick to get them going. By the end I have the catalysts I need to give the piece its aesthetic, where it needs to be set, who it needs to involve and sometimes I even have an idle doodle or sketch in the corner of a page to act as a starting point. From there I feed back to the editor and we agree on the best ideas before moving into the actual design stage. I actually try and read each story alongside other stories that need to be illustrated for the same volume. Although they’re all by different authors and contain very different narratives, I believe that they are part of that particular volume for a reason and that can’t be taken for granted. By reading them alongside each other they can often create a dialogue that informs the overall ‘look’ of an entire volume’s illustrative content and any opportunity to capitalize on that is one that an illustrator really shouldn’t pass up.

fff: Do you prefer creating illustrations for specific pieces, or more general projects (i.e., for covers)?

LS: Both cover illustration and those created to support very short fiction, like flash fiction, require one image (usually), and in both respects it has to act as an all-encompassing image that shows even a casual viewer what they can expect if they choose to follow up on that initial glance. It sounds bizarre to say but I think there’s less pressure when you’re asked to provide a series of illustrations for a whole story. Obviously it goes without saying that the workload is often considerably higher but the pressure of communicating a message is spread out across multiple images and diluted significantly in the process. Each image ends up representing a particular moment or character rather than a whole narrative, and one image can often back up another one in the sequence so there’s a lot less riding on that initial ‘one off glance.’ It’s a case of safety in numbers really. Plus—if someone’s looking at the interior illustrations then there’s a good chance that they’ve gone beyond that decision of ‘do I pick it up or not?’ so your job is no longer to entice people in but to keep them involved and make good on whatever promise the cover has made.

fff: I know you enjoy working on art for darker fiction. Dark or not, do you have a favorite genre to illustrate?

LS: I think horror is definitely my ‘go-to’ genre when it comes to illustration because of what I personally indulge in during my spare time, but I think it’s also due to the honesty it implores from those involved. I respect nothing more in this world than straight up honesty. As a person that effectively gives physical form to other people’s stories for a living, I can assure you that being honest is a lot more difficult than lying. Through the dark subject matter provided by clients I get to explore the truly dark recesses of other people’s minds and it’s during those stages of reading and note making that you see some serious home truths played out in front of you. I’ve had clients exploring their fears, their phobias—even their personal secrets and guilty pleasures—through their own characters, and being given the opportunity to help manifest that sort of honesty in an image is quite frankly an honour. It’s of course a daunting task, wrapped up in a huge responsibility, but it’s still an honour at its core.

fff: What is your favorite illustration project you’ve ever work on (excluding us, of course…)?

LS: I honestly don’t know. That sounds terrible but I can’t say for the life of me which one rises slightly above the others in my memory because they are all so diverse. A band’s CD packaging for example is a completely different experience to an anthology cover and its accompanying interior illustrations. Then if you subdivide just those categories by the range of clients that request them then you get an even bigger spectrum of characters, work ethics and approaches. The range and diversity is often baffling. Brilliant, but baffling all the same. 

fff: Who are some of your favorite artists—classical or modern, especially those doing work like yours for fiction magazines? Who would you say have been some of your artistic influences?

LS: When I was in artistic education (we all are really from the word ‘go’ but I mean it in the formal sense) I had a list as long as your arm of people I aspired to be like, or have careers comparable to. It included the likes of James Jean, Edward Gorey, David Lupton, David Hughes Sho-U Tajima, Hiyao Miyazaki, Ralph Steadman, Gerald Scarfe—the list quite literally goes on and on. Over time a lot of them have had their influence on me diluted, but only in the sense that I’m no longer constantly referring to them for tips on how to draw this or that a certain way. Obviously it still happens from time to time and I’m often caught idling flicking through a book of my favourite artists’ work, or doing a little sketch version of my favourite character or scene by them, but since I became a full-time freelancer, I’ve spent more time exploring how to further myself as an artist and really understand what I’m artistically capable of, instead of doing my best to imitate others. It should be understood though that I’m not speaking ill of this form of artistic pursuit in any way as it often forms the ground work of how any artist gets started or realizes they have an artistic urge or curiosity—they see something they feel a connection with, imitate it and in turn learn from it, and in the process reveal something about themselves.

fff: Are you an avid reader, of novels and/or short fiction? What do you read for fun?

LS: I am. I actually read a huge variety of things. I read graphic novels, short fiction, comic books, full length novels, epics, classics… I don’t really have any prejudices when it comes to what I look for in a good read although I do think that reading anything should eventually lead to an enrichment of self or a furthering of your own appreciation or understanding of something. To give an actual example of this: I recently finished reading Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ and jumped straight into Ernest Cline’s ‘Ready Player One’ after a quick jaunt through an anthology of Japanese ghost stories and Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel ‘Seconds.’

However, although this variety is present in what I read, I hate anything that’s clearly been made with the singular purpose of making someone, somewhere money and not much scope in its creation for anything else. Something that’s essentially disposable and devoid of any artistic merit is something that I have no desire to involve myself with. It usually makes itself known in a piece through a lack of escapism or real immersion and it’s a very sad realization to be on the receiving end of. I feel the same way about film, music and video gaming—and even in my personal work. If I’m just there, as a reader or as a contributor, to fill someone else’s pockets, then I will very quickly bow out and move onto something worth my time.


Check out Luke’s work in volume iii and the cover of our special experimental volume now. Also, consider purchasing volume i or volume ii in ebook today to see the rest of the work he’s done for us.

author interview: ani king

Our second interview is with Ani King, author of Your Elegant Noose, which appeared in our second volume. Ani has a lot of black and grey shirts. She always means well, but ask her herb garden how that’s been going. She writes short stories and flash that some people enjoy, and she can be found at thebittenlip.com.

freeze frame fiction: What inspired you to write this piece? Considering the subject matter, I’d guess that’s probably a more personal question than it would usually be.

Ani King: I really struggled with situational depression in high school, and a bit after, but nothing like some of the deep and sometimes terminal depression I’ve seen with others. On a very personal level I have witnessed the way that medication can both help and harm, and this felt like a way to acknowledge that, unpopular as it is as an opinion, not everyone can or will be saved from depression, regardless of the effort.

fff: How long have you been writing? How has your writing changed since you started?

AK: I’ve just come off an unintentional ten-year hiatus, but before that I think I always scribbled little things here and there. I once wrote a really compelling story in which I ended up with Joey from New Kids on the Block. I was twelve and he just didn’t yet know how much he loved me. More recently I wrote a novel in about six weeks, sort of out of the blue. And it was just terrible—I’ve since completely scrapped it, but if nothing else it opened a floodgate. So I was looking online for writers’ workshops or groups in my area and found Scribophile.com. From there I started really writing in earnest, and a lot of the feedback on my first few works was painful to read, but oh so helpful.

fff: Would you consider yourself a flash fiction writer, or do you tend to focus more on other things (poetry, longer fiction, etc.)? What is it you like about flash fiction?

AK: I write a lot of flash, have recently taken up poetry, and have a handful of larger projects to ignore. Flash though is what I think helped me find my stories. There’s something about that word limit that really forces me to distill what I’m trying to say to its most potent form. And reading flash is one of my favorite things—it’s like eating the most incredible, dense chocolate truffle. There’s so much in that one bite, sometimes so many layers that you don’t think about, but it’s satisfying despite the size.

fff: What draws you to write literary fiction? Do you ever venture into genre or more speculative areas?

AK: I have a real fondness for speculative fiction. Hard sci-fi, high fantasy—I don’t write it particularly well because I always try to over explain things. However, I can safely say that Margaret Atwood is my cross-genre spirit animal and she’s shown time and again that you can write incredible literary sci-fi, without making either genre carry the work.

Without trying to define literary fiction, I think it’s that tighter focus, or closer lens, that makes it so appealing. Magical realism in particular is my favorite form of literary fiction to write and read. You have those elements of the unreal, but they’re incidental details rather than being upfront.

fff: How did you choose the numbered list format for this piece, rather than just writing it as a traditional narrative? You have a piece in our experimental volume, too. What do you enjoy about experimental fiction?

AK: The numbered format was something I was playing with for a different sort of piece, but the idea of setting the story up in thirteen sections, similar to a hangman’s noose, made sense. It seemed to stand out as a unifier more with the numbering. This was probably my first foray into non-traditional forms for flash, and was basically a gateway drug. Experimental fiction is so addictive. Good experimental fiction will make you think, and will subvert the form it uses so that the story and the form are well-wed. Great experimental fiction can take a form and just turn it on its head so that the story and form are necessary to each other.

fff: Who are some of your favorite authors—short fiction writers and novelists?

AK: I’m pretty obsessed with Catherynne Valente and Margaret Atwood, and have recently discovered that Tin House pretty much has me pegged as their demographic of readers as far as their novel releases. Kelly Link (Get in Trouble) and Julia Elliot (The Wilds) have recent short story collections that are incredible reads. Oh! And Neil Gaiman is my go-to when I’m too hungry to choose a book and just need something right away.


Want to read Ani’s story? Considering purchasing our volume ii ebook.

author interview: alex shvartsman

Our first interview is with Alex Shvartsman, author of Putting It All Together, which appeared in our first volume. Alex is a writer, editor, and game designer living in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and son. Check out his recently released short story collection, Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma and Other Stories, and find out more on his website.

freeze frame fiction: What inspired you to write this piece, or where did the idea come from?

Alex Shvartsman: There have been so many stories of building virtual worlds, I liked the idea of cobbling together the real world from inside of a simulation. I enjoy writing about the singularity, and the concept of people trying to re-create some version of the ‘real’ world from memory really appealed to me.

fff: When writing flash fiction, do you plan the story out, or just write and see what happens? How about with longer works (short stories)?

AS: Flash fiction stories fit inside of your head, whereas the longer works occasionally need planning. No matter what length story I am writing, I have a couple of rules: before I type word one, I must know how the story begins, and how it ends. If I don’t have the ending planned out, I don’t set out to write the story. Which isn’t to say that the ending might not ultimately change, because something better comes along, but there has to be a specific conclusion and I write each scene with reaching that conclusion in mind. The world gets flashed out along the way as I discover interesting bits and characters and asides as I write.

fff: I know that you have a crazy amount of publications to your name—over 60, according to your website. How long have you been submitting fiction to magazines and anthologies? How many rejections have you amassed, ballpark figure?

AS: I should probably update the website as I’m now approaching 80 original short stories sold! I started writing in the spring of 2010 and received my first acceptance about six months later. I’m an aggressive submitter and I don’t give up easily on my work–some stories have sold after 20+ submissions while others found a home on the first outing–but I tend to sell pretty much everything I write. It’s not all laurels and roses: I collect massive amounts of rejections along the way! I post a round-up of my sales, rejections and other numbers on my blog at the end of each year. Ballpark, I’d say I’ve collected close to 600 rejections since 2010, and about 200 acceptances (including reprints, podcasts, translations, etc.).

fff: As a seasoned veteran, what advice can you give to those just starting out with the submission process or with only a few publications to their names?

AS: Research the markets. Read a few issues of each publication you submit to regularly so that you have a firm grasp of the kind of material they’re after. Don’t become discouraged by rejection: it stings, but it’s the normal part of the process. The editors and slush readers aren’t the enemy–they’re rooting for you to succeed! Don’t ever submit to non-paying markets.

fff: What is it you love about science fiction?

AS: I love the versatility of the genre. It may not be the right fit for every tale, but its ability to transport the reader to places and situations they never imagined possible is incredibly powerful.

fff: Who are some of your favorite authors—short fiction writers and novelists?

AS: When it comes to flash fiction, my favorite author (and one who should be required reading for anyone attempting to write in this format) is Fredric Brown. He was brilliant and isn’t nearly as well-recognized for his accomplishments within genre as other great authors. Otherwise my tastes are quite varied: from Neal Stephenson to Simon R. Green, from Mike Resnick to Joan Vinge, from Ken Liu to Ken Liu (he gets mentioned twice, because he’s awesome as both short story writer and a novelist). There are always more new favorites: over the course of the last year or so I discovered works by Xia Jia and Tatiana Ivanova, both of whom possess unique and very different voices.


Want to read Alex’s story? Considering purchasing our volume i ebook.

our experimental volume is live!

In case you haven’t heard, our first special issue is now live on the website! It’s nine stories, all told in experimental narrative forms.

There’s a lot of variety in this volume: from humorous to literary, from a math quiz to a story written in computer code—and even one told through shopping receipts! There’s something for everyone, so please stop by and read.

https://freezeframefiction.com/read/v1-flash-fiction-experimental/