Interview: Apex Magazine (Jason Sizemore and Lesley Conner)

Apex Magazine is a Hugo-nominated magazine that’s been publishing dark, speculative short fiction since 2005. There’s a yearly subscription drive each October, but the 2016 drive closed prematurely because of the uncertain political climate. Although the political climate remains uncertain, the subscription drive needs to be successful for Apex to remain funded.

As part of the subscription drive, Apex editor-in-chief Jason Sizemore and managing editor Lesley Conner agreed to do an interview here at Sibyl Moon. We talked about the best way to hook a reader, how to write effectively in second person (important to so much IF!), and how to bring readers into your world without losing them in the details.

(Disclosure: I joined the Apex first reader team in June 2016. However, this is not a paid position and I will not benefit financially from the success of the subscription drive.)

Carolyn: Hello Jason and Lesley, and thank you for agreeing to this interview! You’re actually the first people to be interviewed on Sibyl Moon.

Lesley: Thank you so much for having us.

C: Sibyl Moon is a blog about game development, especially interactive fiction, and Apex Magazine is a dark speculative fiction magazine. The key connections between IF and static fiction are narrative and writing, so let’s talk about those.

Hundreds of stories are submitted to Apex every month, and in order for a story to be published in Apex, it really needs to stand out of the crowd. What are your recommendations for hooking a reader right away and convincing them that they must read a story?

Jason: Incredibly, we receive 800 to 1200 submissions a month. In order to get the attention of our slush readers (because after a couple of months, they’ve seen it all), my managing editor Lesley (who has a keen eye for parsing out the great from good), and me, your story must feel fresh and original.

This doesn’t exclude stories that might owe something to classic works like “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce or Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” Nor does it disqualify you if your story lands solidly in a trope. It means the voice of the piece needs to be unique. Your take on the trope is interesting. The plot makes sense, your characterization is strong. And most importantly, it must have a strong thematic thread.

Lesley: As you said, hundreds of stories are submitted to Apex Magazine each month, and standing out in all those words is key to getting accepted. Because when you’re reading anywhere from 40 to 100 stories every month, that’s what they can all start looking like, just words. Stories that are accepted have to be more than that. They have to demand the reader—multiple readers! The slush reader, me, and Jason —sit up and take notice!

How? Well, there isn’t one sure fired way, but there are a few things that can help:

  1. Have an amazing opening line. – I won’t call it a hook because I’m not looking for a gimmick or something flashy for the sake of being flashy, but having a great first line is key to breaking readers out of their slush reader trance and making them pay attention.
  2. No info dumps! And for that matter, no long descriptions of things that aren’t relevant to the plot! – If you’re a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan, then you’ll remember the episode where Willow is a vampire in an alternate reality. There’s this moment when she cocks her head to the side and says “Bored now,” and it is great and I’m over here geeking out! The point is, if vampire-Willow is in my head saying “Bored now,” then I’m going to start skimming. If I’m skimming, I’m most likely going to reject the story because that’s the point when our readers will check. Keep the reader engaged. Don’t give them the chance to get bored and to start skimming.
  3. Create a rich and interesting world – I know that 3,000 to 5,000 words doesn’t seem like a lot of space for worldbuilding, but believe me, it can be done and done well. Rich Larson and Damien Angelica Walters are both pros at creating these amazing, unique worlds in short word counts. Every element of the story, from the language the characters use, to pacing. to crafting specific details, all goes into creating these immersive worlds. If you aren’t familiar with their writing, go check them out. Both have a lot of fiction available online for free and you will learn a lot about worldbuilding in small word counts.
  4. Stay away from tired story lines. – If you feel like you’ve read this story before, I have read this story several times before. Write a story that is unique and original. Something that will make readers sit up and think Wow, this is new!

C: Most static fiction stories are written in first person or third person, but interactive fiction is traditionally written in second person. Do you have recommendations for writing effectively in second person?

Jason: You hear many writers and editors discouraging others from writing in second person because nobody likes to read it. And, to be fair, many readers will outright state they won’t read anything in 2nd POV so the causation exists for the advice. However I do feel the advice and distaste is unfair. The reason for the 2nd POV hate is that it is so difficult to write. Here’s where static fiction authors can look to IF for how it is done.

Interactive fiction immerses the reader in the world and gives them real consequences for their reading choices. It gamifies the activity of reading. Static fiction in 2nd POV must provide this immersion, but using different methods.

Static fiction writer can mimic the structure of IF. Interactive fiction uses a decision tree. Although not as pronounced, static fiction does as well. Readers follow the path of most interest. As a static fiction writer, you decide this for the reader, and if done well, your story will function emotionally the same as interactive fiction.

Lesley: For a lot of readers, second person can be very jarring because we don’t see it done all that often. And many times when it is done, it isn’t done particularly well. The entire time you’re reading the story, it’s like there’s this big neon sign hanging above it that just blink You. You. You. Over and over, and for me this makes it incredibly difficult to actually immerse myself in the story and get past the perspective.

My biggest recommendation would be go out and read a lot of stories written in second person. Good and bad. Figure out what makes a second person perspective work in a story. What makes it fail. Once you have that figured out, implementing that in your own writing is the logical next step.

If you’re looking for a place to start check out “Fall to Her” by Alexis A. Hunter in Apex Magazine issue 87. Beautiful second person perspective story.

C: One of the tricky things about writing IF is that the protagonist usually has far more information than the player does. Static fiction has a similar problem, especially speculative fiction, because readers need enough information about the world to understand the story. What are a couple good ways to help a reader learn about world and backstory without wrecking the pacing?

Jason: Too many stories start with setting. Unless you’re writing high fantasy, this is probably not a good idea. I tell writers to ease readers into a story by posing a scenario/situation that entices the reader to continue. A funny example of this recently appeared as a meme where inserting “and then the murders started” makes the opening of every story better! It’s not a hook, but a question of “what murders” and “who is murdering” and “why are they murdering” and so on.

You introduce setting by the direction of your plot and the action of your characters. You enrich the setting by well-placed short expository dumps.

Lesley: For me, the best way to convey information about the world and backstory is through dialogue. Not only what the characters say, but how they say it. Dialects, using abbreviations, how formal or informal they are with the person they’re conversing with—all of these are indicators to world and backstory.

C: One last question, for everyone here who writes static fiction as well as IF. Some topics and themes crop up routinely in speculative fiction and are definitely overused (zombies, for example). What are some underused topics and themes that you’d like to see writers explore?

Jason: You’ve nearly stumped me with this question, Carolyn. If I provide topics/themes, then it likely means I’ve seen it pretty often!

I would like to see stories that address issues on a more micro level. I love regional-based work. I’m a huge fan of southern Gothic, Appalachian ghost stories, and crime stories set in the Pacific northwest.

Lesley: This is a really hard question to answer; one that Jason and I have discussed. There really isn’t an answer that I can give you because it’s such a fluid thing. Yes, there are definitely some topics/themes that we see over and over again. Zombies, vampires, carnivals/circuses … I have read countless stories with those. But for me to say I want to see more sea monster stories, or stories about houses that move through time, or whatever … well, then our submissions may get flooded with those and all the sudden it feels overdone.

And what about the zombie/vampire/circus stories? The thing is, I will tell you I don’t want to read another vampire story, I will tell myself I don’t want to read another zombie story, but if one comes along that is unique or that feels new or that is just so well written that I have to pay attention to it, then Apex Magazine could still end up buying it, no matter what I’ve said. “Blood on Beacon Hill” by Russell Nichols in Apex Magazine issue 78 is a great example of a vampire that was so well done it felt new.

Write the stories that speak to you. Forget about topics and themes or what you think publishers are looking for. Create a wonderful world full of well-developed characters having interesting conversations. The rest will take care of itself.

C: It’s been great talking with you. Thank you for your time!

Apex releases new issues the first Tuesday of every month. The content is available online for free, so you can poke through the back issues and read “Razorback” by Ursula Vernon (one of my favorite authors in general), “Lazarus and the Amazing Kid Phoenix”, by Jennifer Giesbrecht (one of my favorite stories in Apex) or “The Love It Bears Fair Maidens”, by K.T. Bryski (the first published story I personally retrieved from the submissions pile).

Apex is a SFWA-accredited publication that pays authors and artists fairly for their work, but for this to continue, the subscription drive must succeed. To support the future of Apex Magazine, sign up for a subscription!

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