A friend of mine is a stage actor and as such a freelancer by nature. He’s been talking to a business coach, whose raison d’etre is to help people make the most of their careers. When the talk fell on how to put together a play for the public, she wasn’t impressed.
“What I don’t understand about theaters,” she said, “is why they spend an enormous amount of resources putting on a show without finding out what people really want to see.”
She’s got a point. You won’t find a professional business putting thousands of dollars into a product without scrutinizing the market first and asking: is there a market for a new product, or can we create one?
Which is why I’m now committing myself to writing a series about short story magazines. About what kind of fiction each magazine prints, which tone it has, if they have a specific focus on plot, worldbuilding, characters, politics, etc. Every editor has a vision for their magazine, and if your writing fits that vision, you have a better chance of hitting the sweet spot. In theory, at least. You’re still competing against hundreds of stories every month, so there are no guarantees, but margins count.
For this episode, I’ve been reading Deep Magic. And as it happens, they just reopened for submissions.
The magazine’s About Us page says the Board consists of Brendon Taylor, Charlie N. Holmberg, Dan Hilton, Jeff Wheeler, Kristin J. Dawson and Steve R. Yeager. I’ve been reading the Spring and Summer 2020 issues, which have Brendon Taylor and Jeff Wheeler respectively signing the editorials. I suppose other editors might have picked other stories, but the stories in the two issues share enough similarities for me to pinpoint some tendencies.
What they say about themselves
“The name Deep Magic pays homage to C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. From June 2002 to June of 2006, Deep Magic was a monthly e-zine operated by a nonprofit organization founded by three friends who had a mutual love of SFF and a desire to promote clean writing within those genres. Deep Magic is now a quarterly publication that pays professional rates for SFF short fiction, relaunched by the same three friends, with help of other industry professionals who join in Deep Magic’s mission to create a safe place for minds to wander. If submitting a story, please see our submission guidelines. We will consider stories within any sub genre (epic, paranormal, steampunk, etc). The best way to get our attention with your submissions is to create great tension in your story.”(Source: https://deepmagic.co/about-us/)
‘Clean writing’ and ‘a safe place for minds to wander’ stand out, since they differ from the description of other magazines. The homage to C.S. Lewis made me wonder if that means Deep Magic publishes Christian fiction, but the contents of the stories aren’t biblical. And in the words of Brendon Taylor in this interview, clean mean stories that are free of graphic violence, sex and vulgarity.
It’s clear from the stories that the editors adhere to these guidelines. There are stabbings and fights, but no-one’s guts are spilled at agonizing length. There’s no sex or swearing in any of the stories either.
The submission guidelines also link to an article with input from Deep Magic editors and first readers. The topics here are hooks, tension, and endings, and though the comments are short, it’s clear from the two interviews that Deep Magic wants stories where something happens and the tension is high. Both links are worth following if you submit stories anywhere, not just at Deep Magic.
What did I read?
Each issue contains original short stories and novelettes as well as novel excerpts. Since the topic of this series is short stories, I’m going to leave out the novel excerpts, but they generally match the magazine’s style anyway.
Spring issue 2020 contains five original stories:
Before the Journey by AC Cobble
Seb Dreams of Reincarnation by Aimee Ogden
The Space Between by Larry Hinkle
Mama Cascade by Samantha Mills
Sorieul’s Eyes by Jeff Wheeler
Before the Journey by AC Cobble is a prequel to the author’s series about Benjamin Ashwood (which I haven’t read). I use the word ‘traditional fantasy’ elsewhere in this overview, but high fantasy doesn’t get much more traditional than this. The story starts in a tavern with a cast of a magician, a rogue, a swordsman and a princess/future magician’s apprentice. They even get a quest at the inn (slay the demon that’s harassing the nearby village). The story also offers an insight into the politics of the world and the use of magic, so the themes of this story are clashing empires as well as demon fighting and sword & sorcery. The story’s driven both by plot and the world it takes place in.
Seb Dreams of Reincarnation by Aimee Ogden is a science fiction story about a retired starship. That is, Seb used to be plugged into a starship with full control over everything, so when he returns to a life of not being connected to a ship, his world seems empty. So, what does Seb do next? The story has a clear plot – starts at the beginning and ends somewhere I didn’t quite predict. Since the plot is about the way Seb changes, the story was also the most clearly character-driven story of the selection. I’m not doing a review, but I definitely recommend this story, simply because I cared a lot about Seb.
The Space Between by Larry Hinkle is a short science fiction story with horror elements that takes us on an almost Uber ride into the unknown. Along the way it unfolds the rules of a world that isn’t quite ours. There’s a clear plot that goes hand in hand with scientific explanations of this particular world. There’s less focus on the characters, but then again, this is quite a short story that accomplishes a lot on only a few pages.
Mama Cascade by Samantha Mills most definitely doesn’t take us on a river cruise. Rather, it’s the story about a young woman and her relationship with the river goddess, shaped by the appearance of foreign (European?) invaders. The main character, Arwa, must learn from Mama Cascade in order to hold back the invaders and defend her people. I’m not spoiling the story by saying that things do not go as planned, and that’s part of the charm of the story – the world changes, the people change, and there’s no survival in staying the same.
Sorieul’s Eyes by Jeff Wheeler is a novelette set in his Muirwood world. Jeff Wheeler is the founder of Deep Magic, and delivers a plot-driven story in a world that isn’t explained in depth, but is obviously a world of empires, warlords, assassins and magic and as such another example of ‘traditional fantasy’. The main character is a kishion, a slave assassin, who’s forgotten his past after a magical ritual. He’s adept at killing, but when he meets Sorieul, a healer who knew him in his earlier life, new emotions start to wake in him. I have a feeling that there’s more of this awakening to be found in Wheeler’s novel, but in the short story it’s not explored in depth.
Summer issue 2020 also contains five stories:
Shackles by Michael Wisehart
One Way by Gerri Leen
A Tale of Two Thieves by Sarah C. Roethe
Blackheart by David VonAllmen
Standing with Centaurs by Jennifer L. Hilty
Shackles by Michael Wisehart is a fantasy novella set in a universe already established in one of Wiseharts series of novels. We follow Ferrin, a blacksmith, whose magic abilities are about to get him into trouble with a group called the Black Watch. The story is told as it unfolds, from the smithy via the local society of magic users, and Ferrin’s subsequent dealings with the Black Watch. It’s plot oriented rather than focused on the character’s journey, but we get to know Ferrin quite well along the way.
The story is pretty traditional, both in the way it’s constructed – we start at A and go on to the ending – and in its themes. Magic is a thing in this world – some people, like Ferrin, use magic in their everyday tasks, and others seek to use people like Ferrin for their own purposes. The technological level in the story is horses and blacksmithing, so the world should be familiar to readers of high fantasy.
One Way by Gerri Leen is a science fiction short story which dares to experiment with form. The main character, Lydia, is on an exploration mission, and her life support is failing. She has a deep understanding with the spaceship’s AI, Vesta, and she seems to be going to her death voluntarily. The rest of the story is played out in reverse, telling us what happened weeks and months prior to the first scene, and how Lydia and Vesta came to be where they are.
A Tale of Two Thieves by Sarah C. Roethe brings to life Anna and Kai. Anna is a thief and sometime mercenary, who rescues Kai at the beginning of the story, and Kai turns out to be 1) a decent chap with a lot of integrity and 2) not quite up to surviving in the wild on his own. Kai’s good heart gets them into trouble when they come across a band of ruffians, who have abducted a bunch of women to sell into slavery.
The worldbuilding, again, is traditional – a rural setting, a roguish character and her moral counterpoint, and a quest. Things go from A to B and the focus in the story is on the action rather than the characters. The author, however, manages to show us quite about her character through their actions, bringing out their different natures in a way that benefits the story.
Blackheart by David VonAllmen is a swashbuckler, no doubt about it. A lively pirate plot on the high seas to steal the storm magic from Lord Buckworth’s fleet. The writing and dialogue is snappy and the pirates are as piratey as can be expected. A good story embedded firmly within the pirate genre.
Standing with Centaurs by Jennifer L. Hilty takes us to a university in a future, where aliens go to college with human students. It’s a story about prejudice and overcoming it, and as such it’s in the vein of traditional YA stories in high school or university, only with aliens playing the role of the outsiders taking the brunt of prejudice.
What to make of it all?
The stories all live up to the mission statements listed by the editors above. They’re clean; there’s killing and violence in several stories, but none of it is visceral. The single horror story isn’t a blood’n’guts tale either, working through buildup rather than jump scares. The pirates in Blackheart are all short a limb or five, but it’s described with humor and exaggeration instead of pain.
It’s also clear that there’s a focus on plot in every story. Characters change in some stories, in others they pretty much stay the same, but they all have a problem that they solve (or not) by the end of the story. Something happens to the characters.
As for genres and sub-genres, four of the ten stories are set in what I’d call high fantasy worlds, where swords, rogues, magic, and powerful kingdoms play a role. But while the worlds all have a medieval feel to them, they’re set apart by how magic works in each world.
In ‘Before the Journey’, the magic we see is traditional fire magic (though there may be other kinds in that world). In ‘Shackles’ the main character has the ability to control metal, while other people can do other things. And in Sorieul’s Eyes, magic is used to heal and change emotions. ‘Mama Cascade’ isn’t high fantasy as such, but it has magic too, divine and transformative and part of nature. In ‘Blackheart’, magic’s a power to be hoarded and used by anyone who has access to it. Only ‘A Tale of Two Thieves’ doesn’t have magic.
With the ‘Magic’ in the title, it isn’t a big surprise that magic plays such a big part in the fantasy stories. My takeaway from this is that ‘Deep Magic’ editors love magic, and that they prefer stories about powers that goes beyond what you’ll find in a D&D spellbook.
Four of the stories are science fiction, in two of which scientific concepts are an inescapable part of the worldbuilding. The other two science fiction stories are a little different, in that one is a horror story examining multiverse theory, and the last one is basically a college story with an alien cast. None of these stories are examinations of scientific principles, so if you have a hard science fiction story, you’d probably have better luck sending it to Analog. But if your SF story has science, plot and character, it might find a home here.
To sum up
If you want to sell a story to Deep Magic, it would be a good idea to be inventive with your magic. Build a good plot, keep up the tension and make sure the story come to a logical end. Don’t make the story contingent on blood and guts, but don’t be afraid of putting in both action and major consequences for the characters either. Finally, a sweepingly grand story is probably better than one with a narrow scope.
I hope this will be of help to someone else out there. If so, you can also find my article on Beneath Ceaseless Skies here.