Insider Tips is a recurring series in which members of our reading panel and editorial staff share advice about submitting to Hippocampus Magazine. Each Insider Tips Q & A column reflects the opinions of the individual interviewed, not the magazine as a whole. We hope you find this helpful!
This month: Advice from Nathan Evans, of our reading panel.
Why do you read for Hippocampus Magazine?
I remember being very flattered to be asked to join the reading panel, shortly after my piece was published in the first issue of Hippocampus. I felt really indebted to Hippo because, prior to that, I’d struggled to find anywhere where my writing felt like it fitted in. And it would be easy to say that’s why I read for the magazine – because they published me, or because they asked me, but actually there’s more to the answer than that. The reason why I read for Hippo is because I really believe in what it’s doing and the sort of writing it seeks to publish and promote. As a writer of creative nonfiction myself, I’ve been increasingly frustrated with what looks like a conspiracy across literary magazines which says that your experiences only have validity if you change some names and add some details before submitting them and pretend they happened to somebody else. I happen to believe that nonfiction can have just as much merit, if not more so, than fiction. In fact, it’s easy to write beautiful fiction because you can just make things up and say whatever you like. To capture the beauty of things that really happened is, I think, just as much of a talent if not more so and it’s one that isn’t much recognised in literary magazines. I think good writers of creative nonfiction are almost like the photographers of literature – taking the detail and images of everyday life and using them to make you see them, the world, or yourself in a completely different way. I read for Hippocampus because that’s the sort of writing I want to discover and to help other people discover.
Let’s start with the positives. Describe what type of submission screams “YES” when you are reading through pieces. For example, what elements make it a solid piece?
To some extent, reading submissions is a bit like when you’re house or apartment hunting. You can have a big checklist of things you want – location, size of the rooms, number of bathrooms, proximity to a decent takeaway – but actually, when you step through the front door of a place that’s right, you just know. For me, reading submissions is a bit like that. Usually on a first read through the “Yes” either comes very quickly or not at all. Since that’s absolutely no help to anyone looking to submit to Hippo I guess the characteristics which, after the fact, make me realise why I’ve said yes include the following: a likeable, compelling narrator who has a distinctive voice; an ability to paint a picture either of a place, a person or an experience; a story which tells me something about the narrator, or human nature, or me; a handful of killer sentences which make me think “oh, I wish I could put things that way”; finally, and I can’t stress this one highly enough, a beginning, a middle and an end.
What is the most common mistake–or mistakes–you see writers make in those submissions on which you decline?
I think I’d go for two. The first one is one I’ve alluded to in the last answer. I see a fair few pieces that either start awkwardly or end awkwardly, or feel like they don’t really end at all. I think this is particularly a problem if you’re submitting a memoir extract – you need to bear in mind that although your memoir has a full, complete narrative arc the extract of it you are sending in needs to be equally self-contained. Think about why you have picked this section of your memoir – is it pivotal? Does it properly stand alone so that you don’t need to have read what leads up to it? I think the endings of pieces are very important and I do think it’s something people tend to find difficult. This is as an issue in essays, too, and it’s just as critical there – an essay really does need to wrap up and make you feel like the writer has taken you on some kind of walk round their head. The other common mistake I see is too much detail. I think one of the fine balances in writing, especially creative nonfiction, is between telling too much and not telling enough. I don’t have a problem with telling over showing per se, but I do think it needs to be used sparingly. What, for me at least, elevates nonfiction and makes it “creative” is that decision about how much and what to share. I need enough to be able to visualise the characters and scenes you are telling me about, but I don’t want exhaustive detail. You have to leave my imagination with something to do so I feel part of the story you’re telling me. If you want to tell me more, tell me more about what’s going on inside you, because that’s not something I can supply myself.
Can you give us an example of a piece on which you voted YES, and that has already been published in Hippocampus–and tell us why you voted to accept this piece?
Yes – so a good example is “Scarcity” by Kim Liao, which [is in the December issue]. I loved this piece the moment I read it, for lots of reasons. First of all, it’s so cleverly written – it tells us so much about how people can be the same yet different, how the scientific and artistic mind can have a lot in common and yet be worlds apart. It tells us just enough, but not too much, about the relationship between the narrator and Dave. It made me think about my own relationships and how much I really know about other people. It does all that and it clocks in at just over six hundred words; Kim really understands how you can say a lot without throwing word count at things. The ending is beautiful and understated, but draws things to a close. And it has those killer sentences, too – I loved the concept of “Intention Valley” and the pairing of “For this and so much more, I am so grateful. And so much more than grateful.” is natural, neat and satisfying.
Without giving away revealing details (like title) can you illustrate a specific example of a piece that you felt was ALMOST there, but needed some work? What was the issue and how could it have been better?
I sound like a broken record by now, but there was a piece in the submissions queue recently that I really liked but I felt as if the first and last pages had somehow got detached from it when it came through on Submittable. That, in a nutshell, was the problem with it. The first sentence, first paragraph, are what make people decide whether to sit down and buy in or hit the red X in the top right corner of the screen and go elsewhere. Getting someone’s undivided attention – especially on the Internet – is harder and harder and first impressions are very important, so it’s not an opportunity to waste.
Now that you’ve been reading for Hippocampus for a while, have you been surprised by anything–good or bad?
I have been very impressed by the quality of things in the queue, and wowed that people can write so skillfully about lives – experiences, relationships, families – so different from mine and draw me in so I feel as if I’m there and want to know what happens next. I’m also struck by how many different ways there are to write about universal themes, all of them fascinating and engaging. That also tells me that Hippocampus really is on to something focusing on creative nonfiction. The other thing that surprises me is the popularity of writing about writing. This seems to be a very common trend in literary magazines, not just in the submission queue for Hippo, and I don’t get it at all. This is very much my personal view, but I tend to think of writing about writing as something people do when they’re playing at being writers. I’ve always thought that real writers are too busy writing about Stuff – about life, about human behaviour, about people – to write about writing. Of course, the irony of saying this in an interview where I’m writing about both reading and writing is not lost on me.
Based on your experience reading for Hippocampus and what you see accepted, rejected–and debated–what advice do you have to those looking to be published here?
Some of it is the generic advice that anyone who reads for, or edits, a magazine would give – read the magazine. Have a look at the sort of pieces and themes that get published. It doesn’t mean you have to write exactly that sort of thing, but it does give you some idea whether your writing will fit in Hippocampus. And it’s not the be all and end all that it does, we see a lot of pieces which are excellent in their genre but just don’t belong in the magazine. My other piece of advice would be not to forget that at the root of it writing is all about telling stories. So tell a good, interesting story in your own distinct voice the best that you can – do that, and I’ll really look forward to reading it.
For literary agents the rumor is chocolate. What delectable treat, for you, is bribe-worthy?
Unfortunately, I am completely incorruptible. The writing is the only delectable treat I’m interested in. [This is a complete lie, by the way. I’d vote yes to the Twilight saga if you gave me enough Belgian chocolate to sink a battleship.]
Finally, what is your favorite Hippocampus piece as of today’s date?
The hardest question comes last! Aside from mine (because if I don’t like them, who will?) my favourite piece so far has been “Everlasting Gobstoppers Aren’t Really Everlasting” by Kel McIntyre Marthe. The structure of it is very clever – experimental without losing the reader, and the way she weaves all those different threads together is so skilful. I love the way she meditates on things that are permanent and transitory without beating you over the head with the theme of the piece. I hope she submits something again soon.