Saturday, March 15, 2014

EDITOR INTERVIEW: Brian Lewis of "Spark: A Creative Anthology" Speaks About a New Contest, New Publication, & Writing

This marks the second installment where I look at quality publishers who support writers and the writing industry. Last month we had Grey Matter Press, who supports their writers through some serious marketing efforts (UPDATE: Grey Matter's books currently occupy 4 of the top 6 selling horror anthologies on Amazon). This month, we take a look at the Empire & Great Jones Creative Arts Foundation, a registered non-profit and publisher of fiction, creative non-fiction, poetry, and art.

I've had the pleasure of working with them on their series Spark: A Creative Anthology and a newly founded YA line entitled Ember: A Journal of Luminous Things. My novella Dead Dog was featured in Spark Volume IV and will also be reprinted in the inaugural issue of Ember, something I'm very pleased about. I had written Dead Dog with the intention of creating a story people of all ages would enjoy. I kept the timeless voice of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes in the back of my mind while writing, and while my story fails miserably in meeting Bradbury's standard, I am happy to find that people of all ages are responding to it.

Anyway, I've witnessed first hand how Empire & Great Jones supports writers. Three things in particular have blown me away.

1: The editors of Spark personally respond to submissions - for a paying market (Spark is semi-pro), this is rare, especially for rejections. According to, Spark is ranked among the most personable fiction and poetry markets available. From a writer's POV, this is amazing. Most paying markets spew form rejections with the regularity and intensity of Old Faithful. And there's nothing worse than waiting six months or more for a response to a submitted manuscript only to receive a faceless rejection. Spark, on the other hand, tries to offer a constructive reason as to why something was rejected. With the right attitude, a personalized rejection can help a writer learn and grow immensely.

Consider the inverse: I recently waited 816 days for a response from Mixer Publishing, another semi-pro publisher. Every time I queried the status, the editor promised he would read it ASAP and respond. After months of being strung along in this manner, I gave up, ultimately receiving no response to my submission whatsoever. None, zero, zilch. That equates to a lot of wasted time on my part.

2: Recently, when receiving payment for Dead Dog, I was paid double--yes, that's right, double--the agreed upon sum. At first I thought it a mistake. But in the note attached to the payment, it was explained that fundraising efforts had allowed them to pay authors more for Spark: A Creative Anthology Volume IV. WHAT?!? Maybe this is the cynic in me, but I believe most publishers wouldn't do a thing like that. Not when I had already signed a contract agreeing to less. While this shouldn't be expected for all of their publications, it's certainly a good sign of intentions.

3: Contests. Paying contests. Paying contests that you don't have to pay to enter. Paying contests that are judged by accomplished members of the field that you don't have to pay to enter. This, sadly, is another rarity in the writing world. Too many publishers exploit authors in an effort to monetize their own underfunded business plans, using hopes, dreams, and promises of a big payday to lure writers in. These types use a lottery-like model when holding contests, and I'd like to think writers and publishers have higher standards than the lotto. (What has 6 balls and screws the unfortunate?)

Well, these guys do have higher standards and require no fee to enter. With judges like Ken Liu, Brad Torgersen, and Brittani Sonnenberg reading the entries, you'd be crazy not to enter.

There are many other reasons Empire & Great Jones deserves recognition, and we get into some of those things in the interview with owner/editor-in-chief Brian Lewis.

I'll start with an easy one: If you could be any anthropomorphic creature, what would you be?

Wait, that's the easy question?

I think I'd like to be something small and fast. Insects are out, just because it's too likely I'd be eaten or squashed before I could demonstrate my ability to think, talk, and feel—you know, to be anthropomorphic. I'm not a cat person, but at the same time, cats have been well-regarded in literature and even worshipped at times throughout history, so that would fit well.

On the other hand, something a little less incongruous with my character would be a big, lumbering animal. A bear. Or, more specifically and to give a nod to my home state, a California Grizzly Bear. Plus, bears have the benefit of already being somewhat anthropomorphic, so it satisfies your question both literally and figuratively.

Not all my choices are land-based; I might also choose whale or dolphins, because not only are they very fast in the water—despite being big, or in the case of whales, very big—but everyone knows that whales and dolphins are way smarter than humans. It's true, because I read it on either Wikipedia or

If it sounds like I would only choose to be a mammal, that's only because I haven't yet listed iguanas. If I could be any anthropomorphic creature, I could also dig being a talking iguana, because iguanas are just cool, man.

Fables are an ancient form of storytelling that usually focuses on a theme or moral and can even account for historical and cultural events. Would you agree that modern fiction does the same basic thing? What influences do fables have on modern storytelling and can we learn anything from, say, Aesop or Hans Christian Andersen?

Modern storytelling definitely does that—or should, in some form, and therein lies the rub. Much great modern fiction and literary art is great description; is great setup; is beautiful, poetic language ...

But it isn't "storytelling."

What fables have always done, and the reason they are worth dissecting, is to present a character with a problem, describe the series of actions that character takes as a result of that problem, and then concludes with a description of what happened to the character or how the character changed internally because of those actions.

The "lesson" part of that is often implied: "If you, Dear Listener, are faced with a similar problem and take similar actions, you can expect the same result."

Modern fiction is not constrained by that story arc—nor should it be. Categories like "vignette" and "memoir" are often just a series of adept descriptions of a single scene, character, or lifetime, with no correlation or implication of causation between actions and outcome. The reader is left to sympathize with the characters or not, to extrapolate what they—the reader—would do in the situation or not, to draw conclusions or not.

But it isn't "storytelling."

Storytelling, even in modern writing, is inherently tied to the process of problem, actions, result. It's critical to guide the reader toward an emotional connection with the characters so that the resolution of the story—which does not have to be a "lesson"—feels meaningful to the reader on the character's behalf.

That's what we can learn from fables in general, and from the master storytellers like Aesop and Andersen specifically.

You always manage to land some great judges for your contests--Wolverton, Liu, Tobler, Sonnenberg, Torgersen. Are they given guidelines on judging or do they work independently?

First, I have to point out that the participation of these celebs is a testament to their genuine goodwill and kindness and not the result of any great qualities or qualifications on my part. I've said before that this is the most amicable, collaborative, good-natured industry I could have chosen to be a part of. Writing is an art more than a science, and so there are no trade secrets to protect; the things which can be taught (mechanics, components of a good story, etc.) make every writer better through the teaching. For everything else, when these Big Name Professionals help someone new succeed creatively, they are usually paying forward some amazing help they received when starting out.

Everyone wins.

Getting back to your question, we have our general judging criteria posted at and linked from every contest. Guests and staff judges are given those criteria to keep in mind as they read. However, we also encourage the guest judges to take advantage of their experience and intuition, and they often provide insights into talented nuance that we might not have picked up on.

The other great thing about the guest judges is that they actively participate—we have a final online discussion that everyone's invited to. These are fun and casual and sometimes lead to great moments like a staff judge saying to Ken Liu, "Hey, your story was one of the required texts for my college class. Really enjoyed it." Ken was flattered, and the whole chat was full of those kinds of delightful interactions.

I do tend to give the judges' comments and votes more weight than my own. This has worked out very well so far, and has brought us wonderful and unique winners like "The Vandalists," which was picked primarily by Kij Johnson and E. Catherine Tobler. Without their contributions, I wouldn't have revisited it to see what they saw, and we would have missed out on a great selection for Volume IV.

Spark is known for personally responding to every manuscript they reject. Which is amazing from a semi-pro market. Due to time constraints, very few publishers send out anything but form letters, even when they accept a manuscript. How does Spark manage to do it?

Volunteers! We have a growing staff of more than 30 volunteers with various levels of experience—MFAs, PhDs, creative writing students, even editors of other publications. Every one of them volunteers her or his time to read several submissions and take notes before passing them on to me. That means by the time I read a piece, I have notes and reactions from as many as four different people to help me make a decision based not only on what I'm looking for but also an understanding of how readers with different tastes might react.

It's very rare at this point in our growth for a submission to receive an impersonal response. Less than half of one percent of responses are "form letters" now, and if that happens it's usually because the submission was sent to the wrong market (we've had cover letters addressed to "Dear Clarkesworld" and others, which is simultaneously flattering that they consider Spark and Clarkesworld to be in the same league and insulting that Spark wasn't worth updating the cover letter for) or the writing is so far from anything we would consider that it's clear the author didn't read our submission guidelines. At all.

Every one of the volunteers on our staff is worth calling out by name, but I'm going to mention two in the context of your question. D. Laserbeam, our senior staff reader, expertly manages our submission queue, assigning pieces to staff readers to keep things moving forward—with nearly 2,500 submissions to date, not counting contest entries, that's no small feat. Then, to help me compile staff notes and send diplomatic responses to readers, George Wells is our Writer Liaison. He's actually the one who sends out the majority of our responses now; at least five for every one I send myself.

I could not keep doing this without awesome volunteers, and those are two of the most critical people on the team in terms of selecting work and sending personal responses.

One important thing to note about Spark's volunteers that drives our commitment to providing feedback: we're all writers. We know what it's like to send work out and have it rejected with no explanation. Was it a matter of taste? Was it a problem that can be fixed? While it's true that our goal is to publish writing worth reading, we strongly believe that we can get there by cheerleading and supporting talented writers. Helping them understand our reaction means they can actually answer those questions themselves to determine whether Spark is the wrong market for their work or whether we've identified areas for improvement.

Every new business, no matter how well planned, hits unexpected speed bumps along the way. What unseen challenges did you face when starting Spark?

One of the first was a mistake in understanding what ways the writers I was trying to support were and were not willing to contribute to the project. I started out with a small contest entry fee and both a "free" submission window and a late submission window with a couple-dollar submission fee.

I had been familiar with James Macdonald's campaign against deceptive and often predatory vanity publishers, but my interpretation of his "Yog's Law" didn't include me. "I'm not a scammer, and that should be pretty obvious," I thought. What I didn't understand was that by asking for a submission fee, even a small one, I was painting a public image that invited distrust.

I really want to find a way to break even—I'm still the primary funder of the project, and I can't keep it up indefinitely—but serving writers and doing good is important to me. It's not worth the ill will and suspicion that arose from my early missteps (or the pennies they might have brought in). I no longer have any entry fees for contests or submission windows with fees, and I never will.

The second big challenge was in figuring out where the limits of my skills and talents are.   I'm a pretty smart guy; by day I'm a senior software security engineer for a global company. I thought I could figure "marketing" out on my first try, and I definitely couldn't. But from that, the lesson I learned was to delegate, to let go of controlling and managing every aspect of Spark, and to surround myself with smart people who share my passion but who have experience and knowledge in areas I don't. That's why, for example, we now have a volunteer Marketing & Social Media Coordinator in addition to the Senior Staff Reader and Writer Liaison I mentioned earlier.

What made you decide to branch into another anthology series?

I've actually been planning the companion series to Spark since very near the beginning. Even with its goal of reaching a broad audience by selective editing of language and content, Spark is intended for adult readers and writers, maybe as young as late high school.

However, the goals and approach of Spark apply just as well to younger readers and writers, too. Not only are there individuals in that group who show potential to become good writers, there are even some who already display amazing talent. These people are every bit as deserving of support and encouragement as the writers who currently send their work to Spark.

I knew the timing for announcing the parallel anthology was right based on a couple of things. First, we have worked hard to refine our reply process with Spark so that we are consistently giving honest and direct feedback but being as diplomatic as we can be. Writers are passionate and emotional by nature, and that's even more true when adding in the vulnerability of youth. I felt we needed to master the feedback process with adults before we started the inevitable task of rejecting work that bright-eyed and hopeful younger writers have poured their hearts into and pinned their hopes and dreams on. There's going to be a lot of stuff we say "No" to, but we can do it in a way that invites the author to improve and try again.

The second thing that let me know it was ready was my own kids. I've been talking with the oldest four—ages 8, 10, 11, and 13, all writers and storytellers at different levels—about this anthology for the past nine months. Our name for it in discussions has been "Junior Spark: A Creative Anthology for Youth" to show its diminutive connection to Spark. I've received a lot of good feedback, and also a fair amount of enthusiasm for the idea.

During this time, my 13-year-old daughter has been working on a story with workshop-style critiques from a writers' group of her peers. It's very similar to any workshop I might participate in, but I confess that I'd been thinking of it as a fun-but-not-that-serious  dabbling that might someday lead to a grown-up interest in writing. Last month, I asked her for details about her story, and she gave me a synopsis—very imaginative, with a lot of thought and planning behind her description. Then I asked how many words she'd written on it so far. She opened the document on Google Drive—click, click, click like a pro—and did a word count: just over 22,000 words.

Twenty-two thousand words. That's when I realized I'd been going about this wrong. There's nothing "diminutive" about the connection between the anthologies; nothing diminutive about writers in that age group—other than, perhaps, their age.

I scrapped the pejorative "Junior Spark" title and did some informal polling for better suggestions. I compared the suggested names to existing publications and available domain names. The result of that was our recent official announcement of Ember: A Journal of Luminous Things. The anthology is now open for submissions, and the guidelines are posted at The first issue is planned for release in October 2014.

Other than audience age, how will Ember: A Journal of Luminous Things differ from Spark: A Creative Anthology?

Not only the reading audience but also many of the contributing writers will be in the middle-grade-to-young-adult age range. While that obviously implies content that is appropriate for that group, the overall model will be the same. I will be inviting younger volunteers to participate as "slush pile" readers, and the first of those is the writer-daughter who showed me the error of my ways. The final print format may be also be adjusted—size, colors, etc.—but otherwise, there will be very few differences.

In a discussion we had, you mentioned that ". . . I want this to be something high-school/middle-school kids participate in and can be proud of. . ." Are there a lot of young writers out there and how do you plan to get in touch with them?

Yes! There definitely are a lot of young writers. I was a young writer; I attended the California State Summer School for the Arts on a Creative Writing scholarship, and there were high school applicants from all over the state even then, more than two decades ago. My daughter's writing group is just one demonstration that young writers still exist and show even more talent than I did at the same age.

There are a few ways to reach out to these writers. One is through their parents: a surprising (or not that surprising) number of adults who are writers have kids who are writers. The first accepted piece for the new anthology—we had one within days of launching!—came with the comment, "Now I just have to convince my son to write something for Ember."

High school and middle school English teachers are in a unique position to recognize writing talent, so we will be doing a lot of networking with them as a regular activity of the journal. For example, it was my high school English teacher who made me aware of the Solano County Reading Association and the California State Summer School for the Arts.

Social media certainly plays into our plans as well; as more and more 13- to 18-year-olds spend time online, it's a natural way to directly invite them to contribute. (Ironically, fewer and fewer of them spend time on Facebook, citing the influx of "old" people like me.)

Finally, there are great organizations like SCBWI whose members can help connect younger writers with Ember, and gaining their support is an important part of our plan.

What's in store for 2014?

So many exciting things! Themes and cover artists for Volumes VI and VII have been selected.  We'll be compiling and releasing Alexis Hunter's "By the Gun" as a collected novella; it was previously serialized in Spark's first four volumes. A special one-off anthology—a "secret" project up till now—will be released in November, featuring work from Travis Hubbs, Richard Thomas, George Wells, Tabitha Mwangi, and several more.

We'll be releasing Mika Hillery's nonfiction "The Story of a Mother" as a standalone work so that it can be purchased separately from Spark, Volume III. This piece is the heartbreaking but powerful story of Mika's son Christian, who was diagnosed in utero with Potter's Syndrome. Christian spent about ninety minutes with his parents between his birth and his death.

We'll be releasing hardcover editions of all the volumes we've printed so far, and we're working to have them ready by the Salt Lake Comic Con "FanXperience" April 17-19, where we'll be hosting a vendor booth.

And I'll personally be joining Bryan Thomas Schmidt for his weekly SFFWRTCHT ( April 9th at 9pm Eastern/6pm Pacific.

And that's just what we've planned so far.

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