Mikaela Shea: How did you and Robin establish The First Line?
David LaBounty: Right after college, a friend of mine, Jeff Adams, and I came up with an idea to help with our writing. At the end of each letter we sent (this was many years before email), we would include a sentence that the other person had to use to start a story. The story had to be written immediately after reading the sentence, you had ten minutes, and you had to stop after one page. But it had to be a full story.
This went on for several years. Some of the stories were published, some were barely worth reading. It got to the point where we would challenge each other with increasingly difficult sentences, and the fun part was taking the sentence in a direction the other person didn’t think possible.
During this time, I was messing around in the zine world, and I began to realize how few publications there were for new and even established writers. I had an idea to start a lit journal, then picked a graduate program willing to teach me the basics of running a publication. When I got out, we moved to Texas and Robin and I thought about what kind of journal we wanted to start. I knew in order to stand out, we needed a hook, so I went back to our old letter writing exercise. I asked Jeff if he wanted to join, and The First Line was born.
MS: How has the journal evolved since conception?
DL: When we first started, we didn't have much to go on. Glimmer Train had started a few years earlier, and I liked what they were doing. I was really into Story (just before it died). I wanted to look like a zine (like Temp Slave, a zine of mostly nonfiction essays about work), but read like Story.
During our third year as a stapled publication, I realized that we might actually make it, but if we wanted to grow, we needed to "grow up." But I didn't want to go glossy - no money for it - so I went back to the journal I worked on in college (which was a language and literature journal, not a literary journal), and borrowed their look.
Over the years, we've thought about changing, especially now that we are running out of cover colors, but readers and especially book store owners love the "brand" of the journal. It's simple, yet it stands out on the shelf.
MS: Do you have careers outside of the journal and press? How do you balance your time?
DL: Robin is an ex-social worker, now substitute teaching. I'm an editor for a Fortune 100 company. There's plenty of time to run a press, if you plan well and forgo a social life. It makes it easier living in a suburb/city of Dallas. Not too many distractions. If we lived in Chicago or NY, or were still living in DC, I don't think we'd be able to focus on a press.
MS: Are there other editors or staff aside from you and Robin?
DL: Not formally. If we have a story that's on the fence, or one we can’t decide on between us, we have some readers we can turn to. Also, if I have a few bucks lying around, I will get a copyeditor to go over the final proof.
MS: How are the first lines chosen? How often are they chosen through contests?
DL: In the beginning, Jeff and I would take turns coming up with the first line (every other issue). When Jeff left, Robin jumped in, and we work on the sentences together. Usually, in late August, we get together and write down sentences we like, then fight over which ones we will use.
We've held a few contests, usually at specific milestone—10th anniversary, 15th anniversary. We held a contest at the Decatur Book Festival and a sixteen-year-old girl won with, Working for God is never easy. Loved that sentence.
MS: What has been your favorite first line?
DL: Dang, that's tough. If forced at knife-point, I'd say:
When my brother, Andy, went away to college, he left me his fishing pole, a well-read copy of The Wind in the Willows, and a stack of Playboys.
MS: How often do writers submit the four-part stories? How do they usually turn out? How often do these get published?
DL: We get maybe twenty four-part story submissions a year. In the early years, we let people use up to six sentences, and we printed several stories that went three issues or four issues. That got unwieldy, so I quietly put an end to it by being a real hard ass when it came to selecting serial stories. The first two years in our new format, we did a four-part story, then we went four years before we published another. (That particular four-parter was actually republished in a book teachers used in their writing classes.) We published a four-parter in 2009 and 2010. We reprinted the 2009 serial, with an extra chapter, as the book Mid-Life, last year (that was the only time I took a single story and asked the writer to write three more stories, which he did throughout that year. Very risky, but I had faith in the writer, and the end product was fantastic.) This year, we had two writers submit four-part stories and we actually accepted just two of their stories for publication. They were strong stand-alone stories, and I didn't want to lose them. So, you never know what happens when you submit a four-parter to us.
MS: How many submissions do you typically receive per issue?
DL: We receive anywhere from 200 to 400 submissions an issue (I think our lowest was 160). Not a lot, which makes reading for an issue easier than reading for most journals.
MS: How do you know when something doesn’t belong in your magazine? And how do you and your staff handle rejections? Personal letters? Nonspecific replies?
DL: We really pay attention to the second sentence. For us, that's the writer's real first line. If that second sentence is an extension of the first, and it makes me head toward the third, I'm happy. That said, I do not stop reading until the last line. If someone is going to send a story that starts with our first line, I need to stick with it until the end. And some stories that have rough beginnings but great endings have made it into the journal. There are diamonds in the rough, and sometimes it's an editor’s job to help polish a story for publication. If I stopped after the second line or the first paragraph, I may miss something great.
As for rejections, if you send us something that doesn't start with our first line, you'll receive a curt "dear author" rejection. Otherwise, we respond with your name and the title of your story so you know that we read it. For the ones that were close or that we liked or that had some good elements, I will add a little note at the end, and close with a "please try us again."
MS: How long does it take, on average, to make a decision on whether to accept or reject a story?
DL: A day or two. We usually reject most stories after the first read. The ones we love we set aside to read the next day to see if they still hold up. Then we collect the maybes and the almost perfects and read them again. We may read a story four or five times before we decide, but everyone knows two to three weeks after the issue's closing date.
MS: What happens when you and Robin disagree on whether or not a piece should be in an issue?
DL: Ha! We used to scare the kids. Now they just know it's TFL time. I'm the romantic. I read with my feelings. Robin is the realist. She'll rip a story apart for the slightest tense shift and logic mistake. We work well together, even in our arguments. And when there is a dispute where neither will budge, we go to one of our readers for the tie breaker.
MS: Do you feel that choosing a specific opening line weeds out people who aren't serious about writing or do some people simply slap the first line on an already written story?
DL: I think the opening line weeds out many people who aren't serious about writing, but we still get our fair share of those submissions. We do receive stories where the first line is just slapped on, and some of those stories are great, but they are easy to reject because I just say, "Your story was good, but we just felt the better first line was…" and it's usually the second line of the story. (One such story I rejected, I liked so much, I accepted it for another literary journal—sans our first line.) I know, over the years, we've selected stories that people have had written but then worked our first line into the plot. If the stories are fantastic, then I'm cool with that.
MS: I noticed that in the Winter 2011 issue, there were two stories about mothers who don't love their children and two folktale type stories. Do you often receive similar pieces for each first line? Is it difficult to choose between two similar pieces?
DL: Yes, we always receive similar stories. In some instances, we’ve seen stories that are almost carbon copies of each other. In those cases, we automatically reject both (or all) stories, no matter how well-written—and we explain that to the writers when we send out the rejections. Sometimes we receive a batch of similar stories and we will pick the best, most representative of that group. As for the winter issue, I’d consider “Shining Son” more a fable and “The Drought” speculative fiction. A thin-line distinction, but it helps me sleep at night.
As for the stories where mothers don’t love their children: in one issue, I had to write in my letter from the editor that despite the first lines and stories we choose for each issue, we love our mothers very much. TFL issues are riddled with mothers. In fact, in the winter issue, except for the first and last story, each tale speaks to motherhood in some way. Sometimes there’s a serendipitous connection in the stories we select, even if there is just a theme or a phrase that you can trace through the issue.
MS: In The First Line, I noticed that many endings aren't tied up in a bow, especially in the Winter 2011 issue. Do you have certain opinions on what an ending should do?
DL: As for endings, they should be satisfying, but they should also inspire the reader to continue the story on their own, if they would like. What happens next? is not a bad question to contemplate.
Often, writers do not know how to end their stories. We see many people try and force an ending, adding a paragraph or two more than they have to in some desperate attempt to tie up all the loose ends or end on a clever note. I’d say almost half the stories we publish, we have to “recommend” where a story should end.
MS: Death is a difficult issue to write about well in a short story, yet I've seen a lot of examples of this in The First Line. In the Winter 2011 issue, there are deaths in The Shining Son, Nature's Burden, and The Drought. Do you think death is difficult to pull off in a short story? Are you often impressed by what submitters are capable of doing and doing well?
DL: Humor is hard. Death is easy. (Humor in death can be delightful, if done well.) What I don’t like are first person stories where the narrator dies at the end. That rarely works. Narrators that are dead… I’m okay with. (I have to be. We have one such story in the new issue.) I am always impressed with what writers can do.
MS: Did you expect the first line, "It had been a long year," to produce an issue with such a serious tone? (I actually brainstormed for that first line and my idea was not an upbeat one).
DL: Yes, we knew “It had been a long year” would be a darker issue than most. But I held out hope someone would turn the sentence on its head, give me some humor with such a serious beginning. However, humor is hard to write, and no matter the first line, most people send us serious and dark stories. There have been several issues where the first line is ripe for humor, but we rarely see a well-written story that makes us laugh (or even giggle).
MS: Was putting “Leap,” the most (and possibly only) hopeful story at the end of this issue done on purpose? Why?
DL: Yes, I put “Leap” last because I wanted to end on a slightly upbeat note. Ending a collection of stories with a touch of hope brings readers back for the next issue.
MS: How do you decide on the order of the stories?
DL: Putting together The First Line is like putting together a mix tape. Luckily, the premise of the journal draws readers to the next story because you want to find out what the next author did with the first line, but there is a method to our madness. You don't want to start off with a downer, and you don't want to put similar stories together. You want to follow a heavy story with something light, and a novella, with a flash fiction (if possible). I like to start off with my favorite story and end with something funny. If I don't have something light-hearted, I'll end with a longer story. The rest we assemble by feel.
MS: What are the worst kinds of submissions?
DL: People who send stories that don't start with our first line (or they change the first line). People that don't take us or their writing seriously. Submissions about the writer having problems writing a story for The First Line are particularly annoying.
MS: Do you have any horror stories of working with difficult writers/submitters?
DL: Most writers are pretty cool. I've had a few get snippy about our contract, and though we have been known to accommodate writers, one person was such an ass, I withdrew our acceptance. I've also accepted writers who then tell me that they had already sold their story elsewhere. That drives me insane, though it doesn't happen much anymore. I had one rejected writer question my judgment, then go on to tell me that they were making hundreds of thousands of dollars writing and that I had no idea what I'm doing. That person sent me a story that didn't start with our first line. You just have to shrug and move on.
MS: Do you have any tips for those wanting to start a literary journal?
DL: A literary journal is like a child. It takes an overwhelming amount of patience and time. Money helps.
MS: Are there any genres or subjects you won't publish?
MS: Would you ever consider putting the journal or excerpts online?
DL: We've posted a story or two in our day, and I was impressed with the hits (sometimes in the thousands), but when you compare that to time spent on the page, it doesn’t add up to actual reading time. Our podcast, TFL on Tape, gets some decent numbers (several hundred an episode).
MS: What are your feelings toward online literary journals?
DL: If you asked me about online magazines a few years ago, I would have been more than happy to point out their faults—and I sold several stories to these sites in the early days of the Internet. I’ve soften on my view of online magazines over the years, mainly because there are some well put together sites out there.
The computer—and the Internet—made it possible for a guy like me to start a literary magazine. But posting online, with the ability to change on the fly, and using programs that make it easier to collect submissions but removes editors from actually doing the work, that’s a little too easy for my liking.
MS: Do you have any advice to submitters to your journal?
DL: Write what you want to read. Don't write to the editorial staff. We don't want writers picking up a copy of The First Line to see what we publish. If you are true to yourself and the writing is excellent, you have a good chance of being selected, no matter the style, genre, or subject-matter.
Filed under: Interviews