August 30, 2012

Fellowship of Short Fiction: a Shock Totem round table discussion

I discovered Shock Totem a couple of years ago, when (I think it was) Cate Gardner brought the site to my attention through a tweet or blog post or something. I've since had a blast from not just reading the fiction published under their banner, but also participating in their flash fiction contests. This year marks ST's foray into not only publishing short fiction through their magazine, but a re-release of James Newman's The Wicked. Their fifth edition of the magazine was just released this summer, so I thought it was the perfect time to corner a few of ST's alumni and ask them a couple questions. Enjoy.

K.Allen Wood is the publisher and lead editor.

Mercedes M. Yardley is a minion of the slush pile and nonfiction editor.

JohnBoden is an editor, author, and interviewer.

Nick Contor is also an editor, as well an author.

What’s your opinion on the state of horror and dark fiction these days, particularly when it comes to short stories?

K. Allen Wood: Well, on one hand, I have read some fantastic short fiction in recent years, some of which we’ve been lucky enough to publish in Shock Totem. Off the top of my head, I’m talking about stories like Lee Thompson’s “Beneath the Weeping Willow,” from issue #4, or “Wanting It,” from issue #3. Stories not in Shock Totem would include “Dr. Adderson’s Lens,” by Natania Barron; “The Reverend’s Powder” (technically a novelette), by Erik Williams; and “The Last Stand of the Elephant Man,” by Jennifer Pelland (or the entire collection it comes from, Unwelcome Bodies, which is brilliant).

But then there’s the other hand, which is clutching the dreaded self-publishers. There has never been anything wrong with the act of self-publishing; it’s the majority of the writers doing so that has been the problem. Today, though, they’re no longer “publishing” their work in the ghettos of the Internet: the fan-fiction forums or poorly built websites full of ads and viruses and purple font on fluorescent green backgrounds. No, today they’re publishing right alongside everyone else, and they’re shoving it down our throats on social networking sites. Because they are Big Deal Writers now, of course. Thus we, the readers, find ourselves bobbing for chocolate in a pool of turds.

So I guess my opinion comes down to perspective—which seems to be dictated by how much time I spend on Facebook and Twitter on any given day.

Mercedes M. Yardley: I think that horror and dark fiction have gone mainstream. We’re seeing little girls in pink skulls and boys pretending they’re zombies before they even learn to talk. I don’t think society shields their kids the way we used to. I also think there is a resurgence of the short story. There is so much media that clamors for our time, and I think the average attention span is shorter than it was before. Short stories that can be easily read online helps fill this need. I see this as a perfect storm for horror.

John Boden: I hear a lot of people who claim the genre is dead or dying. That the short story form is becoming a lost art. I don’t see the evidence to support this theory at all. At ST we read tons of stories, metric tons. While they are not all stellar or of award-winning caliber, a lot of them are decent.

I think that the digital beast has certainly changed the field, for good or bad would depend on who you speak to. The reading tastes of the general public still seems to be media dictated. How the hell else would Fifty Shades of Gray be a household blockbuster?

Nick Contor: It’s a transitional time, away from traditional publishing and more toward DIY publishing with print on demand and e-books. It’s a double-edged sword because it has allowed a glut of material to be published, but there’s not yet a good mechanism for sorting the good from the bad. On the one hand, it has allowed good publications to put out a quality product while lowering costs, but it has also allowed people with a less discerning eye to put out a shoddy product.

I’d like to see more people spending time honing their craft and allowing them to develop as a writer before they publish, and also a greater emphasis on the fundamentals of writing such as grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc.

With five issues of Shock Totem, plus the Holiday Edition, do you think ST has effectively staked out its territory in the short fiction landscape?

K. Allen Wood: Definitely. But again, it all depends on perspective. We’re on a slow burn, I think.

I was talking to Darrell Schweitzer at Necon recently, and he was telling me that he’s been talking Shock Totem to friends and colleagues (he has a story in our upcoming issue), and few have ever heard of us. And it’s true. I know it. It is somewhat surprising given how many copies we’ve sold—close to ten thousand—but I’d wager that the reason we might fly a bit under the radar is because I never wanted to strictly pander to the small-press readership, which is what a lot of writers and publishers do. That works well for some, of course, but it’s a limited audience...

And it’s also an audience made up of a lot of writers, and the sad reality is that for many of them their interest in Shock Totem only goes so far as to find out how easy or hard it is to get published by us. They’re our biggest fan until they realize kissing our asses isn’t going to be their ticket in, then they disappear and never mention us again. We’ve delayed issues for not having enough quality content, while other so-called publishers put out ten anthologies and half-assed reprints in just as many months. Who’s going to get more attention in that scenario? Sadly, not us.

Knowing this, we’ve pushed Shock Totem beyond the boundaries of the horror small press, and we’ve been successful. We may not be the most talked about publication around, but we’re not going away any time soon.

Let’s put it this way: When John Skipp and Jack Ketchum tell you that Shock Totem is great, they mean it, and we’ve earned that praise the hard way, the honest way.

Mercedes M. Yardley: I’m surprised by how many people have heard of us. Strangers come up and start talking about the stories they’ve read in Shock Totem, and that’s very cool. I think we’re insidious and we’ll slowly spread our tentacles over unsuspecting folk, sure.

John Boden: I’d like to think so. When Ken hatched the diabolical plan for ST and asked us along, there weren’t many markets out there. Shroud, Necrotic Tissue and a few others in the print realm and some e-zines—which, ironically, is what we set out to be. Now, with a few years and all those issues under our belts, the number of short fiction avenues is probably about the same. As for quality ... I guess that would be up to the readers to judge. I do know we are noted for consistent quality—Jack Ketchum and John Skipp as well as many others have championed us on this merit. We hope to continue flying that flag for our duration.

Nick Contor: I hope so. We have tried to put out a quality product in every aspect. Whether or not we’ve succeeded is up to the reader, but most reviews have been positive, so I like to think we’re building a fan base and a reputation for putting out a good magazine. Every magazine has its own style, and we might not be for everyone; but as long as the quality is there, I think you’ll find an audience.

What has been the biggest eye-opener while working with Shock Totem? Did you have a preconception that was shattered, or learned something you never saw coming?

K. Allen Wood: The negativity surprised me. (Says the guy who has just given two very cynical answers.) I wasn’t prepared for it, and I had to thicken my skin real quick. This genre means a lot to people, especially those writing within it, you know. I get it now, but at first it was like a sucker punch to the jaw.

Mercedes M. Yardley: The biggest thing for me was learning that magazines are ran by regular people. Gasp, I know! I thought editors were gods, or something. I felt like I was submitting stories and hanging my hopes on a star. Now I realize that stories will resonate with somebody or they won’t, and rejection isn’t that big a deal. I’m more patient because I realize that editors are really performing a labor of love. They don’t have to get to my story right now because they have lives. Actual, real, honest-to-goodness lives, and the magazine doesn’t always come first. And it shouldn’t, so I need to cool my jets.

John Boden: God as my witness, that would be the slush. I had no idea! I knew that stories were submitted to magazines and they chose what they liked, but the sheer volume of it ... I had no inkling. It is daunting and sometimes difficult to keep your judgmental focus sharp.

I also found it heartwarming to be received as warmly as we were by some folks who I have admired in the field for a long time. Getting to interview John Skipp for issue #1 is one of the high points of my adult life. Seriously.

And I get to do this with some of the coolest people I know. I don’t count Ken, Nick, Mercedes and Sarah among friends, they are extended family. The dynamic we have forged could never be replicated.

Nick Contor: I had no previous publishing or professional writing experience, so everything was new to me. The thing that surprised me the most was the low quality of many of the submissions. I’ve tried my hand at writing off and on for thirty years, and never felt my own writing was “good enough” to submit. It’s probably still not, but I’m miles ahead of a lot of the people who submit stories to us.


  1. As an editor myself, I agree with a lot of this. As a writer, I'd have to say that things might not play out like editors like to imagine. Someone who is excited about your publication and does some free advertising for you based on this enthusiasm is probably not as cynical as you might think. How do you separate genuine ass-kissery from anyone who shares a link here or there because they actually like the stuff? Then when they disappear on social media (which you make a point of saying does little to nothing in the long run anyway), it's probably more likely that interest simply wanes. Sure, conspiracy theorists might say this is based on comparing the quality of the output of a new issue with the writer's rejected material and some grumblings of "They wanted that and not this? What the fuck??" (right or wrong, so much is subjective), and interest is always going to wane if it's not returned, but this dwindling enthusiasm is probably just proportionate to everything in a writer's life. At Flywheel, we get people who pass the word along furiously before and after acceptances, too, only to vanish into the ether once they see their name in lights. All of them hopefully go on reading, rejected and accepted alike, but you can only tap into that short launch window of free labor to peddle your goods when any relationship is new, no matter how it turns out, whether the writer is disgruntled or vindicated. Maybe the key is to romance new ones at all times.

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  3. Oh, I'm not making a blanket statement here, and I think that was clear. I am fully aware that life plays a role in some instances.

    Shane McKenzie, for example, used to be an active member of our forum, participated in our flash contests, but he hasn't visited our forum since last October. Of course, he's now running Sinister Grin Press, which by all accounts is headed toward being one of the top publishers in the genre.

    So no, I don't think everyone who is initially enthusiastic and then "disappears," so to speak, was just kissing our collective ass.

    I'm referring to this sort of thing, which happens time and time again:

    Hello Shock and everyone in the forums. Great magazine. The story selection is great and your editor is spot on. Thank you for bringing such good fiction to the table for us. I'll be happy to read in the background.

    That guy posted that on our forum, but also said similar things on other forums I am a member of, as well as Facebook, Twitter, etc. He claimed to be a huge fan, praised the fiction (though never giving any specifics, of course), said the editors are awesome, and so forth. Yet every single time he called us Shock or Shock Magazine.

    I don’t need to be a genius to know he’d never read a single line from our magazine. He had no idea we weren’t called Shock Magazine. Not a clue. And that’s the kind of person I’m talking about. He was blowing smoke up our ass, right until he realized it wasn’t going to benefit him.

    But this sort of thing happens because there too many publishers out there that play the same game, dish the same sort regurgitated nonsense right back at people. And like I said, who’s going to get more attention in that scenario? People gravitate toward crowds.

    I should note that I am no way bitter. Haha.