June 15th, 2006

Editorial Musings--Issue 2

Hey Folks,

This month's issue of editorial musings features an interview with Chris Cevasco.

BIO: Christopher M. Cevasco is the editor/publisher of Paradox: The Magazine of Historical and Speculative Fiction. His own fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Allen K's Inhuman, The Leading Edge, Twilight Tales, Flashquake, Simulacrum, The Horror Express, Dreaming in R'lyeh, and Lovecraft's Weird Mysteries. He's had book reviews published at Strange Horizons, and he recently sold four poems to Dark Wisdom. Chris will be attending the 2006 Clarion East Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Workshop. He and his wife live in Brooklyn, NY, with a puffer fish named Spiny Norman.


1. What made you decide to start your own magazine?

My primary motivation in creating Paradox was a perception that there was a gap in the short fiction market. In addition to being an editor and publisher, I am a writer, and I tend mainly to write stories that are very steeped in history. The more purely historical, the harder it is to find markets for these tales, and often even my historical fantasy work comes back with a rejection slip indicating that the story was just a little too heavy on the history for the magazine's target audience. I realized that if I was experiencing this problem, other writers must be as well, and that's when I started thinking about creating a magazine that would cater to those writers.

And I hoped it would also generate interest among readers who enjoy historical works. Historical novels abound, but there was no print magazine of which I was aware exclusively dedicated to short historical fiction in either its mainstream or genre forms—at least not in the English language. Now there is.

2. Some people may be curious as to how they might start their own print magazine. Can you tell us a little about what those initial phases of starting your magazine entailed, before you released the first issue?

With the advances in personal computer technology over the past decade, it's now quite feasible to be able to do all of the design and layout of a magazine on a home computer. The actual printing/binding of the magazine is another matter, and I had to shop around for a while before I settled on an offset printer who inspired confidence and who offered reasonable, competitive rates. Actually, the printer I used for the debut issue turned out to be a disaster in a thousand different ways, and I ran screaming from them. But I found a new company beginning with the second issue, and I've been happily using them ever since.

Another one of the early hurdles was getting word out about the magazine—both so people would start placing orders and subscribing, and so authors would start submitting their work for consideration. For the latter, sending information about the magazine to the various market resource sites was indispensable—sites like Ralan.com. I designed a website for the magazine as well, so that people could access writers guidelines, place orders, preview the content of upcoming issues, etc., and the site eventually expanded to include an online discussion forum. I contacted various online bookstores to list the magazine in their inventory—it's available through sites like ProjectPulp, Clarkesworld Books, and Shocklines.

Then I had to give some thought to distribution—a real Catch-22 for a new publication with a limited (1000-copy) print run per issue. Because I'm not printing 250,000 copies of each issue, my print cost per copy is much, much higher than that of more widely circulated magazines. When I add the distributor's cut to the equation, it means that every copy of the magazine I sell in a brick-and-mortar bookstore actually loses money for me. I still like to have some magazines on the shelves just for PR purposes, and so I do have a professional distributor—Ubiquity Distributors which operates out of Brooklyn—getting the magazine out to bookstores and newsstands across the country, but I've kept this very limited in scope, and I haven't even tried to approach any of the major chain stores like Barnes & Noble.

In terms of the rest of the process, I basically learned as I went along what worked and what didn't. I'm still learning.

3. You once told me that you don't have a slush reader. Does being the publisher and the sole editor of the magazine ever get overwhelming?

There are certainly periods during which it feels like there are too many tasks to possibly get done in the time available, but somehow I've managed to keep from drowning. I guess it all comes down to me being a bit of a control freak—it's difficult for me to delegate authority, and when I do, I fret over what's being done. So to the extent that it's overwhelming, I can only blame myself. And in some ways, it's been an incredibly rewarding experience wearing all the different hats normally worn by an entire staff of editors and personnel; I've gotten to learn each aspect of publishing a magazine intimately through first hand experience—editing, design and layout, accounting (okay, that's actually no fun at all), advertising, distribution, etc.

4. Who are some of your favorite authors, both in and outside of the genre?

It might sound like a bit of a cliché, but the two authors who have had the biggest influence on me and who continue to be my very favorites are J.R.R. Tolkien and H.P. Lovecraft. Discovering them was like being struck by lightning twice, and the impact they've had and continue to have on me, as a writer and otherwise, are manifold. I've also recently become a huge fan of Gardner Dozois's writing—I'm frankly awed by the way he uses language so seemingly effortlessly but with such profoundly beautiful effect. His short stories are brilliant, and his short novel, Strangers, is one of the best—perhaps the best—science fiction novels I've read. Other genre writers that are among my favorites are Connie Willis, Lucius Shepard, Piers Anthony, Robert Jordan, Joe Haldeman, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Poe.

Unsurprisingly, I'm also a big fan of historical fiction. I particularly enjoy Bernard Cornwell's novels. I'm currently about half way through Gary Jennings's epic Aztec, which is a truly amazing book. And (some might say bizarrely) I find myself drawn to long historical accounts of the British Isles written during the Middle Ages. Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th-Century Historia Regum Britanniae is something I return to again and again . . .

5. What sorts of stories would you advise writers to send to Paradox? What sorts of stories should they avoid sending along?

Well, as set forth in the Paradox submission guidelines, all stories submitted to Paradox must have some integral, real-world historical/mythological context. As long as that requirement is satisfied, I'm open to anything—time travel, Arthuriana, alternate history, horror, historical fantasy, etc. And of course I welcome submissions of straight-forward historical fiction with no SF/F content.
I typically include at least one alternate history tale in each issue, and I'd like to include even more, but oddly enough, I don't get nearly enough of these tales sent to me. I think this might be because writing that sort of tale is actually very labor intensive if it's done right. The writer not only has to understand the historical period in which the point of divergence takes place, but he or she has to research any number of political, religious, and social trends that took place in the decades or centuries following the point of divergence in the real timeline so as to come up with plausible ways in which the divergence event impacted those trends in the alternate timeline. Then, on top of that, you need to have a good story to tell—and that means something beyond simply showing the reader the divergence.

In terms of what not to send, the guidelines state that I'm not interested in seeing any vampire or were-animal stories. I actually enjoy a good vampire tale or a werewolf tale, but I just feel there are enough markets out there already printing (or even focusing) on these types of stories, so it would be somewhat redundant for me to include them in Paradox. I'd rather focus on other types of stories. I also state that I'm not interested in stories about anthropomorphic dinosaurs, because while those can be fun, they typically feel too whimsical (almost Disney-esque), which is not really the tone I'm going for with the magazine. Apart from that, however, I hesitate to set any firm restrictions.

6. Personally, I love to blab on and on about my slush discoveries. What about you? Any stories you've discovered that you'd like to mention, either forthcoming or already published?

I'm quite fond of all the stories I've published in Paradox—after all, I decided to publish them! But just to narrow down the field a bit, I'll interpret your use of the word "slush discoveries" to mean stories by first time authors—writers who sold their first piece of fiction to Paradox. One writer who comes to mind is Rita Oakes, whose grim, Napoleonic era war story set in Spain, "By Bayonet and Brush," was featured in the debut issue of the magazine. The story subsequently received an honorable mention in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, and Rita went on to sell fiction elsewhere, including to the anthology, The Many Faces of Van Helsing, edited by Jeanne Cavelos. A second very powerful story by Rita, about the Roma people in the immediate aftermath of World War II, appeared in Paradox #6. Wendy A Shaffer is another author who made her first fiction sale to me—an Arthurian piece, also featured in the debut issue of Paradox. Since then I've come across her fiction elsewhere, including her wonderful "Portrait of an Unidentified Angel" a couple of years ago in Realms of Fantasy. I've actually published a little over a half-dozen first time authors in the past nine issues of Paradox, and I think every one of them shows incredible promise. It would not surprise me at all to see big things in the future from all of them.

7. You've started your own print magazine at a time when print magazines in speculative fiction seem to have an uncertain future at best. Despite this, I know that your readership is growing, so you must be doing something right. What advice would you give to anyone that is thinking about starting his own speculative print magazine?

Be patient. And be prepared to lose money—at least initially. Also, don't expect to ever make any money publishing a literary magazine; breaking even should be the realistic long-term goal. Starting a speculative print magazine has to be a labor of love.

8. What is your favorite part of working on the magazine?

The best thing is probably getting to spend my time immersed in a creative process that focuses on history and writing—two areas that have long been near and dear to my heart—and having the satisfaction of seeing a finished product with each new issue of the magazine.

9. What are your pet peeves as an editor?

I don't have many, but I guess there are a few. Failing to read the submission guidelines is a main one. There's nothing more annoying than reading through a submission and realizing part-way through that there's absolutely no historical context to the story—stories of far future science fiction, high fantasy, etc. Other pet peeves: writers who insist on trying to submit electronically when I only accept print submissions (and who then become irate when I remind them of this); writers who ask if I'd be willing to look at a rewrite of a previously-rejected story even though I state in my response letters that I do not consider unsolicited rewrites; etc. You get the idea. Probably the same pet peeves that most editors have.

I suppose one pet peeve that's more specific to Paradox is one I already alluded to. My main reason for rejecting alternate history submissions is that the writer has failed to understand the story cannot be about the point of divergence—simply showing the reader a scene in which JFK dodges the bullet or in which the South wins a decisive battle such that it proves victorious in the U.S. Civil War. The divergence point should never—and let me repeat that—never be the point of the story. The divergence point is something the writer needs to work out in his/her mind, and it has to be the basis for the world that is used as the setting for the story, but that's it. It’s simply a jumping off point, something the reader learns about during the course of the story, or perhaps actually witnesses in an early scene, but the story itself has to be about something else taking place in the world that is brought about by the point of divergence. Otherwise all the writer has done is come up with an idea for an alternate history without actually following through with it.

10. On average, how many submissions a month does your magazine receive?

It actually varies wildly (not sure why), but typically it's about 75 to 100 per month.

11. What percentage of your submissions is historical fiction vs. speculative historical fiction?

When I first opened to submissions back in the autumn of 2002, the overwhelming majority of submissions had speculative elements—something around 90% of them, I'd say. Originally I was open to the possibility of publishing a handful of purely speculative (i.e., non-historical) tales to sprinkle in among the historical ones, and I did in fact publish a few of these spread out over the first few issues, but I soon decided that a tighter historical focus made more sense in terms of establishing the magazine's identity. Now, as a more narrowly focused market and as more historical fiction writers are finding out about Paradox, those submission numbers have shifted to something closer to 65% speculative, 35% non-speculative.

12. What percentage of historical fiction vs. speculative fiction would you say is generally accepted/published?

Well, the magazine is published twice per year, and each issue features between six and eight stories (depending on the length of the stories). Typically in an issue with seven stories, two will be purely historical, three will be speculative historical, and two will be on the fence—stories that might or might not be speculative depending on how the reader interprets the story. So how that all breaks down into percentages . . . well, I'm sure to get the math wrong, so I won't hazard a guess.

13. How much time do you put in each week on the magazine?

That really varies depending on the time of the year. I have a regular day-job from 9 to 5, so the magazine is like a second job that begins each night when I get home and spills over into the weekends. It's sometimes hard to find time to sleep. Generally, during the two months leading up to the publication of each issue, I have to focus on the magazine exclusively in my time off from work, but the rest of the time, the only Paradox work I do is handling e-mail correspondence received through the Paradox website and reading and responding to submissions to keep up with the slush pile—something I can mostly do on the train as I commute to work each day (I've got about an hour train ride in each direction, which is ideal for reading the slush).

14. Do you have additional editorial aspirations?

At some point in the future, I'd like to do a best-of-Paradox anthology. And I have a few other ideas for anthologies, collections, and chapbooks floating around in my mind, but nothing solid as of yet.

15. I know that you also write speculative fiction. Has your editorial work helped your writing at all?

I definitely think it has. I try to provide some specific feedback on every submission received (even if it's just a quick sentence about why the piece didn't work for me), and the process of having to read all those stories with a critical eye and then having to articulate the problem with the story has forced me to be similarly critical when I sit down to write my own fiction.

Big thanks to Chris for a great interview. Since the link is provided, you should all feel free to check out the Paradox website. And it goes without saying that you should you subscribe if you like the magazine. Chris is doing a wonderful thing for the speculative community, so let's give him some incentive to KEEP doing this. Also, I posted a while back that AZTEC by Gary Jennings is an amazing book, but now you've heard from the expert. So check that out too! And tune in next month when I interview . . .???