The Launch of 7th Quark Magazine: A Conversation With Alex Keegan

by Claire E. White

Award-winning British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan
Photo of Alex Keegan
Author and Publisher Alex Keegan.
is the publisher and editor of the new British literary magazine, Seventh Quark, which launches in January, 2005. He is creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture, Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books) which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel. His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He has also served as a judge in numerous writing competitions. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal and has a devoted online following of his no-nonsense, expert advice on all aspects of writing.

We spoke with Alex about the launch of his new magazine, 7th Quark and why he feels that a new voice is needed in the literary magazine market. He also discusses what he finds appealing about short stories, the most common mistakes he sees in writing contest submissions and what kinds of submissions he is looking for at the 7th Quark.

What prompted you to launch 7th Quark?

Frustration with the market, a market (at least in the UK) which seems to aim at the safe, the bland, the forgettable. I want to shake the market up. I have seen so many stories turned down by editors of smaller magazines only to go on to win thousands of dollars in commissions or prizes. There seems to be no middle ground between the very small presses and the likes of New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly.

How did you come up with the title for the magazine?

As you know I write a lot of craft articles. I think my last article for the IWJ was my 35th there! I had written a much longer article on finding the true, core, story, and in it I had talked about "quarks" (there are six), sub-atomic particles. The seventh is the light, the special spark we seek to write an important story.

What do you hope readers will get from 7th Quark?

Cover of 7th Quark Magazine
Too many UK literary journals, and most internet journals are written "just for" writers and often are filled by better beginners, intermediate writers. The result is a very high percentage of forgettable fiction. So my first aim was to try to get (a) quality (b) readability. To do that I asked some top, top authors for their help. Already George Saunders, Steve Almond, Alice Elliott Dark, Gina Ochsner have offered us stories and articles, as well as British writers Simon Brett, Peter James and Whitbread Award winner Jim Crace.

Second I want the magazine, though highly readable to be an educational resource for developing writers. So I don't want it to be elitist, narrow "MFA-Literary" or impossible to get in to. So the brief was to have a couple of pages for young writers, a section for a promising newcomer, winners of 7th Quark Short-Story Competitions, winners of top competitions by other organizations, and, of course the best stories from top writers. The idea is to have a range, and to show new writers that there is a range, from here, through here, all the way to O. Henry, Pulitzer, Booker and even Nobel winners.

Third we don't want fiction to be swallowed whole. We want argument, criticism, discussion. If a reader reads X and thinks, "Huh?" we want to publish that "Huh?" and see discussion of craft and art. We also hope, if we get the permissions, to publish the occasional failed piece with detailed criticism of why it failed and how it might be fixed.

You have worn a lot of literary hats in your career? How you do balance writer, author, writing instructor and now publisher? How much does it help to be first a writer and then a publisher? Does success in writing necessarily lead to excellence in teaching and/or being an editor or publisher?

When I first began Boot Camp I did so because before that I would get "help me" letters from beginners (heck I wasn't that far from beginner myself) and I'd respond. I found individuals were tying up massive amounts of my time but I was repeating so much of myself. Surely, I thought, what I should do is organize these people so they help each other guided by me. In Boot Camp I still critique 90% of the work, but we learn not form being critiqued but learning from giving critiques. The success of Boot Camp has been very gratifying with 63 First Prizes.

But much of that attitude is going into Seventh Quark. Read the best writing, argue about it, don't accept stuff you just don't get, ask why is it good. Work hard, write a lot, submit a lot, enter competitions. Examine all markets (so Seventh Quark will feature the top genre writers too). And so on.

I hope that 7th Quark and Boot Camp will complement each other.

What I see happen to developing short-story writers is that they move from beginner to intermediate, and may well have plenty of success. I did. Then, as they finally begin to believe, they stretch, they write deeper, reach further only to discover that they can become too good (or too challenging) for the market they developed in, but maybe not good enough or lucky enough to break into the ultra-competitive top magazines.

Now what? Do they cut back the heavier stuff just to get accepted or spend years finding it almost impossible to place their best work? I have personally experienced this, and know other writers who have had the same experience. So as a publisher I hope to do my bit to redress the balance.

I have been told by too many editors of magazines (not supported by grants or universities), that they depend on their subscribers (beginning and intermediate writers) and lose subscriptions if they print more challenging material.

The result is that developing writers see bland, safe forgettable writing as the mountain-top. They write like that and thus produce more of the same in a mind-numbing vicious circle.

Too many British editors give the reader what they want. That's wimpish. I have said in the first edition that a literary editors job is not to give people what they want but to show them possibilities.

So, in answer to your question, my perspective as a writer says the market is skewed. We have barely readable journals at one end (boring and bland) and barely readable journals at the arts-subsidized end (heavy and elitist). There should be journals out there that have real quality without ivory-tower attitudes, MFA-incestuous writing.

Does success as a writer mean ability as a publisher or teacher? No.

I know I can teach because people keep paying me to do so, because Boot Campers have won so many awards or gone on to write prize-winning novels. But I suspect that's because of my let's-cut-the-crap attitude and the energy in Boot Camp. If I teach at a conference I expect at least one person to complain bitterly about me. Too many wannabe writers go to lectures or seminars, not to hear anything new, not to be open to change, but to hear affirmation, confirmation that what they are doing now is OK. When they look at their results, their record of publication, that should tell them, "Hang on, maybe I'm doing something wrong here, maybe I should change..."

Often the first thing we have to do to get better is admit we are ill, or doing things wrong. Do we really read, do we really write every day no matter what? Do we really critique? Do we submit something every week? Or do we hang in a few places, say something vague and bland about other stories (who cares?) and just wait to hear our own praised?

I may well fail as a publisher. But if I do it won't be because I'm wrong, but because people have too much inertia. I have ploughed way more than I can afford to launch the magazine ($20,000 at the last count) and there is no chance of making a profit in the first year and probably not the second.

But here is a question for those who coast, those who never seek change. Grab the nearest literary journals. Without opening them, how much of the journal did you read? How many stories can you remember? Doesn't that prove to you that something is wrong with the market?

Is the 7th Quark open to submissions? What kind of stories are you looking for?

"We are looking for Quality, Bravery, Edge and readability. We want to publish what the other markets won't. Most of all we want readers to read us, not merely buy the journal and put it on the shelf."
Ah, here's the kicker. Seventh Quark is open to subscriptions. Why does everybody want to submit but so few want to subscribe? I have been guilty of this in the past. I send off my stories, but did I buy the magazine?

Yes, Seventh Quark is open to submissions, but if you want to submit but don't want to buy the magazine then there is a £5/$10 reading fee. if you are a subscriber, then we will read one story or three poems per issue without charge. That is we prefer submissions from subscribers. or to put it another way, we wish to encourage people to become subscribers and read the magazine!

About one quarter of the magazine will be commissioned. One quarter will be filled by 7Q competition winners and there will be other winners, of other comps, and at least one craft article, letters, criticism, and our "breakout" feature. So it's going to be tough to get in to the magazine. Why not subscribe and submit for no charge? Buy a magazine for £5 or so and submit for free. or don't buy a magazine and pay £5 to submit. It's a no-brainer. We are looking for Quality, Bravery, Edge and readability. We want to publish what the other markets won't. Most of all we want readers to read us, not merely buy the journal and put it on the shelf.

I understand that you will accept genre submissions, which is unusual for a literary magazine. What factors went into this decision?

Ray Bradbury, Jim Thompson, Chandler, Hammett.... Alex Keegan for that matter! It does not follow that "genre writing" cannot be quality writing. Thomas Harris's Silence of the Lambs isn't schlock. I think it's true to say that the vast majority of genre writing is crap, but the best is very, very, good.

I understand there will be some exciting contests in the Seventh Quark? Please describe the different kinds of contests. How do the entry fees work?

Seventh Quark has to survive and one of the best and fairest reciprocal arrangements is writing competitions. Aspiring writers have another opportunity to compete for money and publication, the journal gets a surplus to help fund the next issue.

Subscribers may submit a standard submission without a reader fee, but if they are entering competitions with what we hope will eventually be large prizes, then there is an entry fee.

Non-subscribers pay an entry fee too, but after the first round of competitions, non-subscribers will pay double for their first story and get a copy of the magazine in return.

So for example Subscriber £5, Non-Subscriber £11 (but a copy of the magazine with the competition winners in).

As an experienced contest judge, what is the most common mistake you see entrants make?

Oh heck. How long have you got? This needs an article in its own right. But the easiest way to answer the question is that 90% of competitions entrants don't read. They obviously don't read the work of the judges, they don't read the journals running the competitions, and mostly they don't read their own work carefully enough. Well over half the entries in a competition arrive unfinished with typos, spelling errors, rough sentences and the like. it's as though entrants are merely "buying a lottery ticket" and hoping. Would they do the same with a job application?

The Internet has really opened things up for literary magazines internationally. What audience are you hoping to reach with the magazine? Do you envision a primarily British audience or are you reaching out to American, Canadian or Australian audiences as well?

If I can dream it would be that 7th Quark sets a standard that stretches beyond the read-by-writers-only market and fills a niche behind the big five and the U.S. University journals. I'd hope that we succeed, not for my own sake (though I'd like to get that $20,000 back!) but so there would be other journals like ours, in the US, Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand. I guess that means anywhere in the world, including the non-English-speaking world as I presume the gaps in the market are the same whatever the language.

No, I don't presume a British audience. I'd like a large (huge!) international audience and I hope to fill the magazine with stories from all over the world, including good translations. It's inevitable that the first issues will be subscribed to by Brits but we have subscriptions already from Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Prague, Luxembourg, France, Ireland, Scotland and the U.S. For some reason we've had three subscriptions from Nebraska!

What has been the greatest challenge so far in launching 7th Quark?

"In truth, If I could publish like Alice Munro (one of my heroes) I wouldn't even think of writing novels. I think a great short story is beautiful, moving in a way a novel never can be."
The cost. We intend a very highly-professional magazine in terms of content and look. We have established our own print-house (One Finger Press) and opted for control in the first year. As subscriptions rise we will go out to digital printers but I know a number of publishers and editor and they all hate being at the mercy of commercial outfits. If there's any rich donor out there... Time. But I suppose that goes without saying. Basically I've given up a few months of my writing time to proof the covers, the stories, arrange competitions, contact authors...

On a more personal note, how would you say you have grown as a writer in the last ten years?

I used to desperately seek publication as affirmation. So, I avoided the deeper personal stuff or the more far-reaching stuff because I thought about "placing" it. Now, having the confidence that 300+ publications brings, I write (when I'm really writing) from deep in the gut, and if it's too raw or too tough or too unpleasant to easily place, I do it anyway.

I place a lot of stuff even now, but it's just the "OK stuff", stuff I whistle out in Boot Camp as part of the dynamic there. This is one great issue I have with the market. I can pop out "easy" and place it in a jiffy. What does that say about the market?

The stuff I'm most proud of takes ages to find a home!

You have won really an astounding number of short story contests. Are you most comfortable with the short story form now? Do you feel that writing short stories has an effect on you as a novelist?

I love the short-story. I think it's the highest art by far, better than poetry, better, much better than novel-writing.

In truth, If I could publish like Alice Munro (one of my heroes) I wouldn't even think of writing novels. I think a great short story is beautiful, moving in a way a novel never can be.

The toughest thing for a good short-story writer is that you become so adept at shrinking word-count. A good 2,000 word short can have more information than a baggy 20,000 novella. So writing something 100,000 words long isn't difficult in terms of generating words, but what would have been that long for me once-upon-a-time I would now manage in a fifth of the word-count!

**Alex Keegan's blog can be found at