Stay in the Game: An Interview with The Masters Review

07/17/2017

The Masters Review was founded seven years ago by Kim Winternheimer in service of new and emerging writers—specifically to acknowledge how hard it can be for developing artists to break into the literary market.

This summer, The Masters Review is hosting a Short Story Award dedicated to celebrating new talent. In addition to this, they offer workshops, an extensive online platform, and an annual print anthology. I had a fantastic time talking with Kim over the phone last week—here are some highlights from our conversation:

When you’re reading submissions for The Masters Review, what makes a piece of writing stand out?

I talk about this all the time with Sadye Teiser, our Editorial Director, and we do a series called Notes from the Slush after a big submission round to address it.

Since we work with many new and emerging writers, we see a lot of work that’s really raw. On a craft level, readability is very important for the first round. I’m a big sentence-level person so I love having access to the sensibility of a writer via their sentences.

The hardest part is having to decide whether to applaud something that’s been done before but is being done really well, or something a little newer or more experimental. The latter might have some technical flaws but it’s fresh and you can tell that the story’s heart is in the right place.

Sadye and I also talk a lot about interiority. We appreciate stories that are character-based and doing the work to fully earn their conclusion, to earn their narrative arc. Although I think every editor has their personal preferences, it’s really important to read work as objectively as possible. You might not like something topically but you should try to identify what the author was setting out to do and assess how well that’s being done.

What advice would you offer writers who are just starting to send their work out?

I would just say keep submitting. We have to decline so much really strong work and we have writers who have submitted to us as many as 10-15 times, or multiple times a year. Those become names editors recognize, remember, and appreciate seeing more from. I think the worst thing you can do is submit to a publication that you’re really interested in, where you think your work is a good fit, and be rejected, once, twice, three times, and stop.

Try to use rejection as the next step toward gaining the submission. It’s such a shame when someone disappears from your radar and you were really excited to see the next thing they were going to send your way.

Do you end up publishing some of those folks?

One hundred percent.

Who are some of the most memorable emerging works or writers you’ve worked with?

I was so proud of ‘Red’ by Katie Knoll– it was our Short Story Award winner last year. Her piece stood out immediately – it’s strange and just so beautiful. It will appear in Best Weird Fiction and was a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Awards.

We’re also really excited for Ruth Joffre. Kelly Link selected ‘Night Beast’ as the first-place story in our Fall Fiction contest – it’s the title story of Ruth’s collection, which sold to Grove Atlantic.

I have favorite pieces from the printed books as well, by writers that I think have it and will continue to publish and do well. That’s the thing – sometimes you publish a writer and it’s a one-off. And there are others we publish where you can tell there’s real momentum behind their work and that they’re ready for their moment.

You’re a story writer yourself. Are you able to find time for your own work?

It’s a challenge. I spend a lot of time with other people’s voices, trying to connect writers with agents, to give emerging writers a really strong platform for their work. We want The Masters Review to be an exclusive place for publishers, editors, and agents to look for really strong writing because everyone we publish is new or emerging. We want this to be like a lily pad that they can jump off of on their way to representation or before their story collection or just to give them some real visibility so they’re not fighting for space among more established voices. Ultimately, that’s a huge effort to even just coordinate.

For example, our flash contest just ended and the winner is being published on PEN America’s site which is so awesome. Poets & Writers is recognizing the full list of winners and honorable mentions, and then we’ll be promoting it in our library and our own newsletter.

I’m proud of that since it’s definitely something that I would have wanted for my own work. And although I haven’t had much time for personal writing lately, I totally love what I’m doing.

Outside of contest periods, you offer a tiered submission system where writers can pay for feedback. You’ve mentioned a tremendous demand for this service. This is interesting, because at Submittable we often hear from people who oppose submission fees entirely.

Part of what helps us pay writers, have judges like Kelly Link and Roxane Gay work with us, be able to put content on the website, etc., are some of those fee categories, like the feedback option.

That said, we never close New Voices. It’s always free to submit and it’s open year-round. We publish regularly from it, and we always pay for those stories. We offer up to $200, and that’s the exact same pay rate we use for any work we solicit from an outside writer.

In the past, you might support a literary magazine by buying a subscription and reading it. But the amount of time in the day it would take to read every publication that you want to be a part of is astounding. It’s awesome if you buy a subscription but even I know I have a stack of Crazyhorse, Conjunctions, and Glimmer Train from two issues ago that I have yet to crack because there are so many other demands on my time.

The Masters Review doesn’t have a paywall. Everything you want to read is free. And we try to share a lot of educational material, like craft essays and interviews. I do think there are publications that are managing submission fees poorly and that is a total disservice to writers and to journals that are ethical about it.

The term “emerging” is so open, the idea being that you’re emerging into or beyond something. When you have “emerged,” where are you and what does it mean to cross that line?

I think there’s an initial horizon, the new writer who is thinking, ‘I’m going to get my novel published or my story collection published.’ Everyone’s fighting to cross that line but then there’s a lot of whitespace after.

If your first book doesn’t do well, I think you may need to prepare yourself for the long game of sticking with it and continuing to write. That can be so hard and I think for a lot of the big publishers, one way they handle the business is a bit of spray and pray. They think ‘we’ll buy all of these and one of them will hit well and then we’ll support that.’ That may work for them but it certainly isn’t servicing or supporting the writer which is why presses like Coffee House and Graywolf are so wonderful.

I have a good friend who got a dream deal in the form of a large advance, but the process turned out to be really difficult, not like she had imagined at all. And if you had rewound that tape and spoken with her when she was signing papers, it was a completely different reality than now, when she’s struggling to find motivation to write. The process took her spirit a little bit, and I think that happens a lot.

I’m curious what advice you would give to other literary journals and magazines trying to succeed in a packed market.

The Masters Review runs a really lean business so we can stay afloat, so we can pay our writers and our judges and some of our team. I think the grant system is really wonderful. We got an awesome grant from Oregon’s Literary Arts. I would advise looking into those avenues.

I also think it’s really similar to being a writer – you’ve got to just stay in the game as long as you can. I don’t think you have to come out of the gate with this really complicated system but if it’s something you’re passionate about, you’ll find a way to make it work.

We do hold our contests, which helps support us, and summer workshop, where we are partnering with editors from The Paris Review,  American Short Fiction, Kenyon Review, and Tin House. This also serves to build our brand. I think the key things are creative ideas and staying in the game.

How do you get such great judges?

People always wonder about this and the truth is, we just ask them. I think we’re really thoughtful in how we approach our judges. All established writers were new writers once and I think they know what it means to have an endorsement from a writer they really respect.

Who do you like to read?

I love to read the stuff that we publish just because so much work goes into it and I love to read the work of my friends who are writers trying to make it in this industry. That’s really exciting to me. I also really love speculative fiction. I grew up fascinated by science fiction and crazy weird fantasy.

This style seems very much in the public and literary conscious right now.

Sadye and I talk about this, too. We’ll have, for example, a bunch of speculative stories, and we’ll need something really traditional, like a domestic story about a relationship. You never want to be one-note. There are certain trends I’m fascinated by. One year we had like 10 stories about drownings and now we’ve seen a lot of stories where people are jumping off buildings. So I don’t know—it could just be coincidence or maybe something about my own personal awareness is cluing into it.

What should people know about your current contest?

It’s really exciting—we’re working with four new agents and the prize is larger now, at $3000.
This >contest is one of my favorites because as a staff we get to select the winner. There’s also something special about being a part of the process and watching the stories go through and reading them three separate times. It feels like we’re able to really celebrate our unique perspective.

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Note: The opinions expressed by interviewees of the Submittable blog are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Submittable.

Kim Winternheimer’s work has appeared in Tin House online, Lightspeed MagazineLittle Fiction, and The Rumpus to name a few, but her passion is in her role as the Founding Editor of The Masters Review.

Rachel Mindell

Rachel Mindell is a content creator and strategist for Submittable's Marketing and Product Teams. She also writes and teaches poetry. You can find Rachel's creative work here: rachelmindell.com