Saturday, September 14, 2013

Review: Crowded Magazine

Crowded Magazine is a science fiction / fantasy / horror magazine out of Australia, which pays pro rates (0.05 AUD / word) and selects stories based on a crowd-sourced slush-reading process.

Disclosure #1: I submitted a science fiction story on their latest round, and it wasn't selected. To be honest, it wasn't my best work; I don't necessarily think it ought to be published. Had it been, I would have pocketed one hundred Aussie smackeroos and smirked at the poor taste of the SF-reading public. My purposes in submitting it were: To gain access to the slush, and thus some slush-reading experience, to see what sort of stories would be submitted to a magazine like this, and what would ultimately get published. So this review is not an exercise in sour grapes.

Disclosure #2: I read a total of 91 pieces of slush in this latest round. To my pleasant surprise, the editors decided that this was a worthy enough effort to earn me "a year's subscription to Crowded Magazine, starting with the second issue...." As you will see, this review is largely positive. If I did not like the magazine, I probably would have just kept my mouth shut. A positive attitude from me toward a publication cannot be bought, but must be earned, through good writing and decent production standards.

Disclosure #3: Even though my attitude toward this magazine stems neither from sour grapes nor bribery, I still cannot pretend to be wholly disinterested. I would like to submit to it again, on a future round, with a better story next time. For that to be possible, their business model requires that they have enough paying subscribers. If I can contribute slightly toward that, so much the better.

First a note about process: I found the experience of reading 91 pieces of slush eye-opening and salutary for my own writing process. That is despite the fact that I gave most pieces I read only one or two stars (on a scale of four). A brief guide to my methodology:

  • 1 star: Could not bear to finish it, or it was so short that I could not help finishing it, but wish I could go back in time to prevent myself from ever having read it.
  • 2 stars: Severely flawed.
  • 3 stars: A good read; either had a few small flaws that could be addressed in the editing, or just was too slight or cliched to rise to the level of 4 stars.
  • 4 stars: Greatness. (I think I gave this rating only once or twice.)

I did not always write comments to go along with my starred reviews; that depended more on what else I had going on than on my attitude toward the story. When I did, however, it helped me gain a better level of awareness as to the flaws of my own writing. For example, at the end of one story I found myself annoyed that a lengthy subplot had been included for no apparent purpose other than as build-up to a pun. Recognizing that I had done that, albeit with a shorter build-up, in another story I was editing, I got rid of the joke and improved the story.

In terms of my likelihood to even begin reading a story, let alone finish it with a favorable attitude, I had a definite rank-order preference by genre: SF, horror, fantasy, in descending order. That does not necessarily correspond with my preferences in published fiction, which I partially articulate in this bit on fiction and ontology, but it was largely the case in the slushpile.

As to the comments on my own story, they fell into three categories: favorable and insightful; critical and insightful; critical and clueless. Of the three categories, the second--critical and insightful--was best represented. The "crowd" was more useful to me as a writer than many (by no means all) professional or semi-professional editors. More literary publications should experiment with methods like this.

Turning from the slush to the published work, I find myself noting that, of the pieces published in the second issue, many of them I do not recognize as pieces I had read in the slush. That may be due in part to the fact that the editors instituted a two-track submission process, wherein one could either send a story directly for their consideration, or submit to the crowd. As both a writer and a data geek, I do hope the editors will publish statistics on how many of the published stories came from each track. It also could be that some of the stories were ones that I had read, but that enough time had lapsed that I had forgotten their details, or that the editors had worked with the writers on improving them, or that some of them had never been in the slush but were never read by me because they had been lumped in, under the "fantasy" heading, with trite sword-and-sorcery trash.

Regarding the stories themselves, I can certainly say that, even if not all are to my personal taste, they do all surpass my submission. But so as to not seem to damn them with faint praise I should say more. In terms of quality of prose style, Crowded is one of the most consistently readable genre fiction publications I have seen. It compares favorably to several that pay better and follow a more traditional editorial process, yet which veer wildly from works of genius through overwritten purple tapestries to dismal panderings to numbskulled in-crowds. Were it not for the fact that my copy is PDF, and thus has no cover, I could say that I read it "from cover to cover in one sitting."

I'll conclude with brief, spoiler-free notes on the stories themselves:

  • Alan Baxter, "Roll the Bones": Solid combnation of SF and noir. If his other work is this good, I'd be honored to share a TOC with this author any time.
  • Jason Michael Gruber, "After the Hourglass Empties": Doesn't pander to readers with belabored exposition or the tying up of loose ends. Not sure if the payoff is worth the work, but I need to re-read and think a bit more about it.
  • Ruthanna Emrys, "The Jester's Child": A touching bit of transhumanism.
  • Tracy Canfield, "House Cats": I like the pacing and the balancing of revealing-concealing, but any story set among blue-bloods, whether set in the past, present or the future, faces an uphill climb with me. A rare case of a story that might have been improved by a Faulknerian "we".
  • Stewart Horn, "Eastern Promise": I'm a sucker for anything with recognizably Scottish voicing, though said voicing also means that the late Iain Banks will be involuntarily called to my mind--which is not a fair comparison.
  • Gaie Sebold, "An Empty Room": Cutely creepy.
  • Tim McDaniel, "Yes - and Also I Really Did Need to Buy Cadmium - Cadmium, I Tell You!": Two main characters, one well-drawn, the other a touch cartoonish for my taste. But the dialogue is crisp.
  • Tory Hoke, "The Baby Mimic": I love the first sentence, and the rest of the story holds up from there. In my opinion, the best in the issue.
  • Daniel Barnett, "Miss Rahl": Not to my taste. Might be more appealing to hardcore horror fans than I found it.

If this sounds intriguing to you, I encourage you to subscribe to Crowded Magazine. A subscription, or submission of a story, will also get you access to the slush--which is a masochistic pleasure of its own.

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