Interview with Jason W. McGlone from Pencilhouse

We decided to do some homework by personally signing up for Pencilhouse’s patreon to send a story into the their wheelhouse. Why do this? Well, honestly, we wanted to make sure that we weren’t about to promote a service if it sucked, even if we love its founder on a personal level (for example, I would never recommend anyone try my mother’s meatloaf). It sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Free editing on up to ten pages (or $6/month if you’re a Patron)? And, well, since you’re reading this, you can guess how it went. There was a survey asking what kind of things I’d like them to focus on, and–after about a week--I received 2.5 pages of very in-depth and insightful feedback along with a pdf of handwritten more specific edits (for reference, my story was a ten-page little sci-fi piece). As someone who has taken multiple workshops with Gotham City, SmokeLong Quarterly, Second City, and loved them all, I have to say, services like Pencilhouse might be the future. Learn more about how it came about, where it’s going, and decide for yourself with our interview with Jason W. McGlone.

What did the road look like from when the idea for Pencilhouse was born up to where it is today? Was there an event that triggered it or was it more of a slow accumulation of ideas that evolved into Pencilhouse?

I’d say it’s been an accumulation over the last couple years; the idea for Pencilhouse was actually born out of Zero Readers’ evolution.

I did three issues of ZR in 2021 and while working on those I started thinking about what it might look like to write feedback full-time separately from publishing other folks’ work. The answer to that question very quickly started to look like our feedback program—a group of volunteers coming together to read and comment on peoples’ work. Pencilhouse officially came into existence in March of ‘22, and our feedback program began offering services in May of this year and we’ve been growing little by little since—lots to be excited about!

And where are things headed? Do you have more ideas you’re looking to implement or will you focus on shoring up the current offerings?

Feedback is what sits at our center, so that’s where the focus is going to stay for the foreseeable future. We’re currently working to expand our volunteer base, which will allow us to broaden our submission calls each month. Our primary focus is on maintaining and building that up a little at a time, but the long-term hope is to be able to hire people to provide cross-genre critique on a full-time basis, with a reasonable turnaround time. We're not there yet, obviously, but that's the dream destination.

We’ve also begun offering regular live events for patrons (such as the Chill Subs demo in October, and the Olney Magazine Q&A in September!). Our next event is November 16, and it’ll be an accountability writing room—essentially a way to offer some structured time for folks who wouldn’t otherwise have that time available to them.

In the coming year, we’re looking to take that concept in-person, on a local level. KYEO!

You’re a non-profit but also have a Patreon where people can support what you do. Could you break down a bit the benefits of becoming a patron (and the cost) for people who might be interested?

Thanks loads for bringing up the Patreon!

While we do offer feedback to the public for free, we also have a Patreon with two support tiers. Our $2 “I just want to pitch in a little bit” tier gets patrons access to our regular biweekly-ish newsletter and admission to our regular events (as well as our undying love).

Our $6 tier gets patrons those things AND the ability to send us work for feedback at any time over the course of the month, regardless of submission caps.

Both tiers get thanked in the next Zero Readers print omnibus, which should be available for pre-orders before the end of ‘22.

Who is providing the feedback for people who submit and what kind of vetting process are they put through? Is there training of sorts? Are there different editors for different genres?

We have a growing team of volunteers (we’re up to around 25 right now!) of varied experience who write feedback for us monthly. The vetting process is relatively simple—we want people with workshop experience. That experience can come as part of one’s educational experience, or as part of a personal workshop group. Having publications is something we read as a positive signal, though I’d say that it’s not an absolute necessity to have pubs under your belt. We’ve seen a fair number of readers for lit mags apply, as well as MFA students.

As for genre—volunteers do get to control the genre they read; I leave that totally up to them. Some folks only read poetry or CNF or Fiction, and some are totally versatile. We haven’t really drilled down into specific genre writing (e.g., SF/F, Romance, et al), but never say never!

In the event we’ve applications from folks who might not seem ready to provide the level of feedback we offer, I’ve reached out and offered to work with them on their critiquing skills—we’re still small enough that this is feasible to offer. We don’t have a super-specific training at this time, but we do provide a Volunteer Handbook that outlines what we look for in specific terms.

As to your question about providing training, here’s a scoop for ya: a “How to Write Feedback” workshop is something that’s in the works for us. Our intention is to offer this on a free/pay-what-you-can basis, and to offer it as part of volunteer onboarding beginning in the second half of 2023

Who is the team behind Pencilhouse? There are a lot of faceless writing services, platforms, etc out there and I think people would be interested to learn more about who brought this idea to life, and who is behind the scenes.

Thanks for asking this question. I’ve been handling most of the forward-facing things about Pencilhouse so far, but we do have a small board that pitches in a lot behind the scenes and occasionally in the scenes! They’re Jill McGlone, Elishia Chamberlain, and Ashley Warlick. Bios here: pencilhouse.org/staff.

Your main page says, “YOU DON’T HAVE TO GET AN MFA.” As someone with an MFA could you break down what you wanted to say with this? (I took that in an MFA you have a community of people who workshop your work with you, but that’s what you do, so no need, but lmk if I am wrong there.)

For sure! I also have an MFA and really loved the communal experience, but it’s an unfortunate fact that by design, MFA programs simply aren’t accessible to everyone. Also, a lot of MFA programs I’ve come across over the years have seemed to focus increasingly on getting people into “the industry,” or on preparing prospective grads for life in academia. I’m not super-interested in either of those aspects of the writing world.

Instead, I’m interested in the act of writing and thinking about what that takes. I prefer to focus on the writing process; that’s the part that’s supposed to be enjoyable, and I don’t think that gets noticed or celebrated enough. There’s really a pretty low barrier to entry to actually doing writing; we frequently lose sight of that.

Getting better or even ‘good’ at writing, however, takes a lot of work, and I don’t think people should have to sacrifice their living, their well-being, or be forced to take out a 30-year loan in order to feel like they’re improving at their craft.

At the basest of levels, it’s also just true: you don’t have to get an MFA to write. I fully recognize that foregoing a writing degree means that you miss out on most of the things a writing program has to offer, but many of those things don’t have to happen within the confines of academia. That’s an area where Pencilhouse thinks it can pitch in and provide support and services for folks who might not have those traditional academic routes as accessible to them.

Could you walk us through the process of what happens once a submission comes in, to when it gets back to the writer?

Sure! We operate on a monthly cycle & open for public submissions around the beginning of each month. We’ll collect enough work to distribute to our available volunteer critics, and that’s when we’ll close submissions to the public. That’s totally driven by available workload, number of available volunteers, etc.

From there, we route submitters’ work to our volunteers, who read and comment on the pieces they’ve been sent, usually around the 3rd week of the month. Pencilhouse then sends that commentary back to the writers. Our aim is to get folks’ work back to them before the first of the next month; it’s typically a far quicker process than that—sometimes just a few days, but typically in the 14-21 range. Pretty simple, all told.

You’ve also launched Zero Readers as a companion publication to Pencilhouse—seeing as you’ve tried to innovate already by providing feedback through Pencilhouse, what kinds of innovations are you thinking for Zero Readers? Especially—and this is my opinion—when there is a lot of re-inventing the wheel going on out there.

You’re right that we’re looking to do a little bit more with ZR. We’ve been offering full feedback on all submissions since just about the beginning. Submitters and contributors have been really supportive and have seemed pretty happy with the feedback they’ve gotten, both from ZR & Pencilhouse.

I’m in the middle of laying out our 2022 print omnibus now and we’re simultaneously regrouping to mull ideas about how to wind ZR into Pencilhouse’s operations a little more closely. I’ve got some ideas, but nothing specific I can share at the moment—keep an eye on Twitter & IG (@thepencilhouse at both)!

In terms of the indie lit landscape in general: you’re right that there’s a lot of reinvention happening, and I think that’s super-important. Boiled down to the barest of fundamentals, a literary magazine is a really simple proposition: editor reads submissions, publishes the ones they like. Everything else is improvisation, decisions, execution and effort. There’s a ton of room for creativity and reinvention; I’m of the mind that it’s really cool to see mags/journals/pubs/presses doing interesting things with their mags, whether that’s driven by form or content or some combination of the two.

Where did the name ‘Pencilhouse’ come from?

‘Pencilhouse’ was genuinely one of the first things that popped into my head and pencilhouse.org happened to be available. I’m so sorry this couldn’t be a more enthralling response.

Is there anything I haven't asked about that you'd like to share with the Chill Subs community?

Only that we’re super-grateful you thought of us and reached out, and that folks can find out how to support us at pencilhouse.org!