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Editor Interview: Noctua Review

Q: Describe what you publish in 25 characters or less.

A: Clever, concise & moving

Q: What other current publications (or publishers) do you admire most?

A: We're fond of magazines that publish poignant short fiction, like American Short Fiction and, annually, Glimmer Train. Journals like Zyzzyva and Zoetrope, that are willing to take risks with what they select, also hold a special place in our hearts.
On the more conventional side of things, you can't go wrong with the literary powerhouses: Kenyon Review, Boulevard, Crazyhorse and Rattle. University publications like the Colorado Review and Virginia Quarterly are doing great stuff, as well. Our editorial staff has a diverse and ever-changing taste, but we always appreciate quality and depth over flair.

Q: If you publish writing, who are your favorite writers? If you publish art, who are your favorite artists?

A: We're most drawn to fiction writers like George Saunders and Karen Russell for their inventive, fantastical set-ups, paired with their obvious wit and satire. Writers like Z.Z. Packer. Aimee Bender, Philip Roth and Lorrie Moore are generating wonderfully understated stories with powerful prose. What they say and how they say it are certainly things we'd like to see from our submitters.
Poets we admire: Anne Sexton, Stephen Dobyns, Donald Justice, Bill Knott, Tom Lux, Madeline DeFrees, Heather McHugh, Tony Hoagland, Robert Hill Long, Paul Muldoon, Louise Gluck, Sylvia Plath, Frank O'Hara, Marge Piercy, Billy Collins, Richard Siken, Allen Ginsberg, Dorianne Laux.

Q: What sets your publication apart from others that publish similar material?

A: Noctua has a relatively small staff. Our largest number so far has been six editors, and our Editor-in-Chief is very hands-on throughout the process. As a university journal, we have the opportunity to regularly offer a paid contest, with no fees attached for submitters. This means that we receive a very diverse pool of submissions from writers all around the world. Any themed issues are determined at the beginning of the academic year, selected by all the editors. If our submissions call doesn't match what you're writing right now, check back in a year. We've pivoted from un-themed issues to experimental to neo-Americana; we're not afraid of a little caprice.
It's important to note, too, that our staff is composed entirely of MFA candidates, writing and submitting their own work to journals when they have time. We're familiar with the process on both sides, and we strive to treat all of our prospective contributors with the same kind of respect and compassion that we would like to receive for our own work. So go ahead and get in touch, ask a question! We want to make sure that we're publishing the best stuff year after year, and part of finding those perfect fits for our journal means being accessible.

Q: What is the best advice you can give people who are considering submitting work to your publication?

A: Read the guidelines. Read them again. Seriously, guys.
Due to our rotating staff and changing themes, we don't think it's absolutely critical to read previous volumes to get a feel for what we're looking for. (Though we still think they're worth reading for entertainment's sake!) All of the information for a successful submission will be in the guidelines, and we update them every year. We just ask that writers send us work that they're happy with; work that's been allowed to ferment for a while--sending out something you just wrote three minutes ago is never a good idea. Overly didactic, pornographic and pedantic pieces will have an uphill battle with our readers.
And please understand that curating a literary journal is more art than science. Many of our rejections aren't because a piece isn't worth publishing, it's because we're looking for the right "fit." If that's infuriatingly abstract, it's because it's unclear for us what exactly does the trick, so to speak. There's no way to know which piece will stick with us, assert itself as we try to go about our day, make us think and consider what we've read long after we've put it down. There is no formula we can share.

Q: Describe the ideal submission.

A: The ideal submission will follow our guidelines, first. We only accept submissions through our Submittable account. For poetry, include no more than 3 poems, uploaded in one file. For fiction, submit only one story (maximum 4000 words).
Short stories and poems published by Noctua use no more words than they have to. We're interested in more than minimalism, but do not use twenty words when twelve are necessary. The same goes for poetry. We appreciate efficiency and economy, and a depth of narrative. We don't like the overuse of "very".

Q: What do submitters most often get wrong about your submissions process?

A: Because our staff is so small, it's tempting to look for ways to quickly cull our rather significant slush pile. Not submitting the correct file type is one of those things that will get a submission rejected out of hand. We've gotten a few file types that are "unopenable" or corrupted. We make an effort to get in contact with submitters about these issues as often as possible, but sometimes that's not feasible.
And even though we ask for a "brief" bio, we've gotten a few bios that are more substantial than the submission itself. One writer said "thanks for giving my poetry a chance to move you." That made a few jaws drop.
Poets: If you give us three poems as individual submissions rather than grouped into one file, we're only reading the first one you submit. Again, guidelines!

Q: How much do you want to know about the person submitting to you?

A: We don't consider your list of previous publications (whether long or short) to be any indication of a writer's caliber. Noctua prides itself on the fact that it's been the first publication for many of its contributors. Good writing is good writing, no matter what stage you're at in your career.
That being said, the cover letter is important. We want to include your information in the issue if you're a selected contributor, and the cover letter is the best place to give us your short, third-person bio. You'd be surprised how many writers ghost us once we've accepted their pieces! And, while we hate doing it, we have gone to press with just a contributor's name listed on the bio page.

Q: If you publish writing, how much of a piece do you read before making the decision to reject it?

A: We read poems all the way through, every one in the submission. We try to read stories all the way though as well, though sometimes we can clearly tell it's not for us by the end of the first page.

Q: What additional evaluations, if any, does a piece go through before it is accepted?

A: Batches of submissions are assigned to genre editors, who select the pieces they think might work. Those contributors are sent notifications that we're holding their work for further consideration, while rejections are issued on a rolling basis. All editors read and comment on our "maybes" before a final decision is made.
Most often, we have similar opinions on the fiction and poetry we get, but if we're on the fence about anything, the editor-in-chief makes the final call.

Q: What is a day in the life of an editor like for you?

A: For whatever reason, we've determined over the years that the best time to take submissions is as soon as the initial holiday crush begins. We open our Submittable in early October and remain open through January 31st every year. That means we're usually reading through midterms and finals, whether we're writing our own papers or grading our students'. We try to break everything up into manageable batches, but as the submission period closes, we can get hundreds of stories and poems per month.
We're adamant, though, that every piece will be looked at by an editor. Pieces that we're seriously considering can go through as many as five readers.

Q: How important do you feel it is for publishers to embrace modern technologies?

A: Just about every literary journal is phasing out physical, mailed-in submissions. This is important for a number of reasons, most importantly the fact that digital copies are a far more eco-friendly, sustainable solution. Noctua only accepts pieces through our online submission form (Submittable), but we're available to answer questions through our website and dedicated email.
Digital subs are just as friendly for writers as for our planet, though. Most journals are better able to accept simultaneous subs, as online withdrawals are immediate. No more fretting about whether a third of our journal might have been accepted elsewhere while we've been compiling accepted works. We can also devote more readers to our slush pile as there are no physical manuscripts to be distributed.
Noctua is also working to ensure that digital copies of our publication are available online. While there's no denying the satisfaction a writer gets from holding his of her printed work in their hands, sharing his or her contribution can be as easy as linking to our journal's URL. We're also making space for our contest's honorable mentions online, where they can be published as featured contributors. This means we're better able to highlight all the stellar pieces we receive each year.
I think it's in an artistic person's nature to cringe at social networking, but it's been invaluable as a means to meet other editors/writers and drum up interest in our little-known, small-but-mighty journal.

Q: How much do you edit an accepted piece prior to publication?

A: Authors do get to prove any and all edits made to their accepted works, though our editors will obviously be more adamant about some changes than others.
We're not interested in making substantive edits to the stories and poems we publish. If there's something significant that needs to be changed in the narrative of the story or poem, it probably wasn't ready to be sent out. Basic proofreading and some line editing are more common, though a story with a number of grammatical errors will have a harder time selling itself to our editors.
Contributors whose works need the latter kind of edits will be put in contact with an editor from their genre. They'll work together to make sure that the pieces we publish will be in the best shape they can be by the time we go to print.