Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Interview: Kaolin Fire

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Kaolin Fire is a conglomeration of ideas, side projects, and experiments. Web development is his primary occupation, but he also develops computer games, edits Greatest Uncommon Denominator Magazine, and occasionally teaches computer science. He has had short fiction published in Strange Horizons, Tuesday Shorts, Escape Velocity, and Alienskin Magazine, among others.

Thanks for agreeing to do the interview! First off, is your name really Kaolin Fire?

It is (Kaolin Imago Fire), though that's threatened to get me into trouble at times (I've had one editor tell me they almost threw my piece out of slush for ignoring their "no pen names" rule).

What made you decide to become a writer?

It just seemed to happen to me, time and again. My mom encouraged me with writing poetry at an early age (first memories of such around age 6 or 7), and I remember writing on and off for classes or outside of classes since then. There were a number of years when I forgot about writing entirely, but it picked back up more seriously in college. A close friend got me into an online writing group and that and others like it have kept me going since.

I've always been an avid reader, and grew up in a family of readers--we'd have piles of books borrowed from the library to choose from every week--so that probably played a large part in it as well. I'd read any chance I could take, outside of tinkering with computers.

An editor?

This I fell into by way of writing, and by way of web development. Everyone needs a web developer, and if they don't think they do, they don't understand what they're missing.

Someone in my first online writing group had kind of a windfall and decided to drop a chunk on putting out a magazine. I did the web design and development to support that--making it so a dozen writers from all over the world could collaborate on selecting and editing pieces. Some of us had been critting each other for half a decade by then, but it's amazing how different actually having to select pieces for publication is. It takes it to another level, and I think that experience has really helped me see my own writing in a properly critical light.

Is it true that you work with 5 monitors, and it's still not enough?

It's definitely not enough, though the number only bumps to 5 when I've got my laptop hooked up--and it's a bit of a strain to see in comparison to the four others on my desk. The primary is 1600x1200, left and "upper right" are 1280x1024, and "lower right" is currently a 1600x1200 CRT. They're spread over two computers, and I use a software KVM called Synergy to manage them.

My current "dream" is 6 1600x1200 LCDs in a 2 tall, 3 wide grid. I also want them to put off less heat.

I tend to be working on 3 to 5 projects at a time, and any given project can easily take up 3 monitors on its own (doing a book cover, for instance--one for PhotoShop, one for browsing for reference photos, one for keeping notes--or running a 3d program, or so on).

How did you get involved with GUD Magazine?

Some time after our friend's venture ran out of steam, a few of us got back together and sought to address issues that we felt had cropped up. We wanted more individual control over each issue, a different aesthetic, a stronger purpose. We'd moved forward with our lives, some, and had some money and a lot of time to devote to the idea. Some of what we brainstormed was a lot more "in your face", but it's always been about blurring the boundaries between genre and non-genre, understanding the negative stereotypes each get and trying to raise the bar for both.

And then of course I sat down and built the website, and the initial two designs--though I was very lucky to trade a professional designer for our current one. I did a brief retrospective regarding the website designs mid-2008: http://www.gudmagazine.com/blog/archive/2008/6/8/a-website-retrospective-two-years/

What does your current role in the magazine involve?

Not foremost, but most fundamental, I keep the magazine running at a technical level. I manage the domain, the server it's on, massage the website periodically. One of the main maintenance bits I do on the website, outside of posting new pages for different sales/events we try and updating the color scheme a touch for each new issue, is adding various statistics; we've got a public page of them at http://gudmagazine.com/subs/stats.php but we have others, too, showing us how well each issue is performing, how our mailing list is doing, and such as that. I also attempt to streamline the submission and editing processes as we hit recurring snags. The last thing I did there was make the website spit out RTFs of our contract for each piece, so that we didn't have to edit them manually.

I also tend to function as the magazine's front man online--if you see GUD Magazine on twitter, facebook, myspace, gather, etc; chances are, it's me. I'm frequently checking out new online social venues, seeing if I can build a buzz or a conversation. I also poke my head in at a half dozen writing boards somewhat regularly, just to promote.

On that note, I'm also pretty much in charge of all of our advertising. I do a few long-running campaigns through Project Wonderful, but am also on the lookout for good "synergies", random opportunities both online and in print. I keep dreaming of being able to get a real radio spot together; or a billboard on a busy highway; or a tv spot. But we'd have to be doing absurdly better to risk something like that. Some of the more out-of-the-way things I've talked myself out of include advertising on pizza boxes and at gas pumps. Possibly the most out-of-the-way thing I _have_ done is put links to or ads for GUD in some of the flash games that I develop. Oh, or the "What GUD Monster" are you quiz ~ We haven't done an ad buy that was over $100, and I'd say our average spend is a few hundred dollars a year.

And then we're getting into the real nuts and bolts of the magazine. The way we have things set up, whoever is "instigating" an issue runs slush--generally puts an eye on every piece submitted, or at least sets the rules for what other people can reject. We rotate instigator-ship to give each other a chance to recover from that, and to keep the tone of the magazine shifting a bit (though we have a shared dream, as it were, that we're all working towards). It would actually be kind of interesting to see how many pieces I've rejected over the course of the magazine (I'm a junkie for statistics), but that's one I haven't gotten around to implementing.

Of course, we'll all jump in and comment on anything that the instigator is uncertain of. The instigator also generally figures out issue ordering, handles contracts, and blurbs. Our amazing copyeditors (Julia Bernd and Debbie Moorhouse) step in after acceptance, work everything into a standard format, fact check, and discuss any "big picture" problems they see with the contributors. After two or more sets of this, the instigator comes back in and approves/rejects any minor edits/suggestions and does a bit more tinkering--and that version, cleaned up, gets sent back to the contributor for approval. It's a little more awkward when one of our two primary copyeditors is also the issue instigator, but it still gets done.

Once the copy is cleanproofed and accepted, our layout guru (Sue Miller) sets it out in InDesign; and more recently she's been doing some creative tinkering with the covers, which I've really enjoyed. She does the full cover layout, including author names on the back, blurbs, etc. This then goes back to the contributors for one last approval before we move to print.

Which brings me to shipping and distribution, which I'm also largely in charge of these days. Once Sue confirms the proof copy, I get a large number of boxes; with Issue 4, Julia Bernd and Michael Ellsworth (Consulting Editor) came down for a "shipping party" to get review copies, contributor copies, and subscriptions out. I try to go down to the post office once every week or two to ship out new orders. We also ship bulk to re-mailers in the UK and Australia so that follow-up orders can make it out more quickly to Europe and Oceania and surrounding areas.

What do you look for in a story?

All the usuals, of course--a good hook, good conflict, writing that pulls you through it, characters that drive it, an ending that caps the piece or even heightens it. The main question I'm asking myself as I read is--do I really care? I have to be enjoying myself, first and foremost--and I enjoy all the above, plus a certain sensibility for rhythm and imagery. Don't knock me out of the story with bad grammar, bad spelling, painful turns of phrase, off-key tones.

If the story is doing something I haven't read before, that's a bonus, but if it's doing something I've read in a different way, that's quite plausible too. When I'm done, if I've made it to the end, if I haven't been disappointed by the ending--and there are so many stories, brilliantly written, that just haven't been thought out well enough for the end--then the next question is how badly do I want to share it with people? I can be glad I read something but not think it had "that certain something" strongly enough to share it with anyone else.

That's where it helps to have a few other folks to bounce the story off of--see if they'll see something you missed; we all have different backgrounds to draw on. Then it's a matter of weighing the backgrounds and trying to judge what "the audience" will think.

How about in a poem?

For me a good poem is the essence of a story--metaphorically as if you took a plain sheet of story and folded it into an elegant bird. Word choice, imagery, characters, plot or vignette, it all has to be there, just tighter.

That said, I think it's very important for a poem to be understandable at first blush. If you can't connect with it, why would you bother trying to tease out any other treasures from it? And I'm okay if it only has that one level, if that level is painted well enough, has something new or notable.

What are the challenges in running and promoting GUD Magazine?

We were rather blessed to have found each other and found a common vision--there are amazingly few kerfluffles between staff, and all smoothed over quickly. The main challenges in running GUD revolve around money--it's a very expensive hobby that we'd like to better support itself down the road. As for promotion--we're not as good with that as we'd like. Nobody has any particular expertise on that front. We do what we can, but we could use more hats, especially those that didn't get tangled in our primary problem (the money).

We've run many sales and promotions, and the only one to date we've had a positive ROI on is our "pay what you want" sale. I'm not sure if it will still be going on when this interview is published, but some initial stats on it are available here: http://www.gudmagazine.com/blog/archive/2009/11/23/black-friday-2009/ -- and I'll try to link back any follow-up posts. My original plan was to end the sale roughly December 7, 2009, but I may continue running it as long as it seems to bring in more and better sales than otherwise.

Our most expensive promotion to date was just prior to our "pay what you want" sale, and may have contributed to its success. With "30 days of GUD" we gave away one PDF each day of September to a randomly selected tweeter that included #gudmagazine in their tweets. And at the end, we gave away a Kindle 2 to (an also randomly selected) winner from that pool. http://www.gudmagazine.com/blog/archive/2009/10/1/30-days-of-gud/

In your opinion, how does GUD Magazine stand out from the other speculative fiction publications out there?

I think we lean more "literary" than most; we care about the written word as much as we do about the story itself. That doesn't mean every story we publish is going to look like it came out of an MFA program; or that we'll turn down something that uses plain or standardly embellished language, but it is one predilection.

When you're reading a story in GUD, you don't know which way the fantastical element will go--or if it has one at all. I like to think that makes each piece feel a little more real, a little more "possible".

Is there a trend that you see in the fiction/poetry being submitted and actually published in the magazine?

I really don't pay enough attention to notice trends until I notice a trend of people mentioning a certain trend. Color me behind on whatever it might be.

When it comes to your fiction, what are the stumbling blocks you've encountered breaking into the industry?

The worst stumbling block is time. If I spent more time on my writing, editing my writing, etc., I would have a lot more published. I can see the improvement when I work at it, but I don't work at it nearly enough.

What I'm worst at, beyond that, is plotting. I'm still trying to osmose a proper understanding of it in such a way that it comes out well in my stories. My early writing all too often ended with some variant of, "And then [he/she] died.".

How do you find the time to write and edit and still keep up with the day job (and Twitter!)?

And so. :)

I have a very flexible day job (though it rides me like a rough mistress, at times); and a very understanding wife. Editing (the magazine) is a group effort, and we cheer eachother on. Writing I have to trick myself into. There are a few places I hang out that do weekly flash challenges and the like, and that's how I get most of my writing done.

Does your programming skills have any impact on your fiction?

They used to, but I've slipped away from more hardcore science-y stuff in recent years, gone for the more malleable magic realism or straight out fantasy, where you can make up just about anything you like so long as it's interesting, and feels believable, consistent, etc.

I have a few things I'd like to dust off and re-explore, but technology changes so much that even while I keep abreast of it, anything I wrote would not be able to. I've been enjoying Cory Doctorow's works, lately, in this vein. He knows his tech, but still talks about it so "loosely" it could almost be anywhen (just not now; but a little later when x, y, or z was solved).

How has the Internet affected you as a writer and as an editor for GUD Magazine? Would there be a GUD Magazine if there was no Internet?

I honestly have some trouble imagining a world without the internet. I've been on it in some fashion, being social, programming, since I was 12 or 13. Do I admit my age? That was back around 1990 or so. And before that I was already BBSing. My college career was, if not sideswiped, at least severely distracted by the dotcom boom, which had me learning perl and HTML "on the job"; bouncing from contract job to contract job.

I don't think there would be a GUD without the internet. I don't even know if I would have gotten back into writing without it--that's where all of my "writing buddies" are, except a very few--and those I only connected to through the internet, as well.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Write and crit. Write, crit, and read the sort of stuff you want to be writing--and read stuff outside what you want to be writing. And then write and crit some more. Don't stop writing. Don't stop fixing.

Advice for aspiring editors?

First advice: Don't. Really, don't. It's hell. :) But: Be sure you know what you're doing. Then: try slushing with some other mag. Many are open to it, especially if you have some background writing. Make sure you really love it. And make sure you want to do your own thing, that you're railing against the limitations of whatever mag you've tried slushing with. Make sure your significant other(s) and job(s) are willing to deal with this other life.

Expect defeat; but don't let that stop you.

Anything else you want to plug?

I could go on for years plugging my stuff, but this really has gotten absurdly long, so I'll just pick out a few categories of "things I do" ~

Book/magazine covers: http://erif.org/art/covers.php
Computer games: http://erif.org/code/games.php
Web development: http://www.handbrewed.com/

Oh, and writers might want to check out ~

http://writersplanner.com/ (to track and plan submissions)
http://twitfic.com/ (a forum for discussion/promotion of twitter fiction)


Anonymous said...

Great interview!

Anonymous said...

What a revealing interview.


kaolin fire said...


Ulp. ;) :)

Anonymous said...

Very Niiiiiice. :) (Borat Voice)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Great interview! I have only two monitors, so I envy the use of five. Thanks for the glimpse into your world, Kaolin.

Unknown said...

It is always great to learn more about someone you have met online. I have happily just subscribed. Looking forward to getting my first issue in the mail.

Mike Griffiths