Thursday, September 17, 2009

Editors Describe Process of Reading and Accepting Submissions

Editors Describe Process of Reading and Accepting Submissions

Panel discussion of Natural Bridge
by Steve Schreiner, Mary Troy, Angela Hamilton, and David Carkeet

Below are the opening remarks of four Natural Bridge editors at a panel discussion of the history and philosophy of the magazine for the university and local community. The panel, sponsored by the UM-St. Louis Center for the Humanities, was held on March 5, 2001.

Steve Schreiner (Founding Editor and Editor of Natural Bridge # 1, 2, 3, 5, 12, 18, 20):
The first time a selective literary journal accepted a poem of mine, I had the feeling that something had gone wrong. Not that I thought a mistake had been made; I was too excited to feel undeserving. But I felt distinctly that life had just gotten harder. I was young still and the promise that I had poems to publish registered in my mind as a burden. At once I felt an unwelcome ambition. I spent a self-conscious afternoon wondering who to tell and pretending nothing had changed. But I knew as I went about my tasks with a distracted mind that writing, which I very much enjoyed, had gotten more complicated and more demanding. I felt responsible to poetry, in some way, whether I was up to it or not. I felt that I had gotten a job, a part-time one, but a job nonetheless.

Of course, my psychology, which is another subject, might have kicked in. One good publication deserves plenty of rejection, I was likely to think. But publishing is that aspect of writing that ought to happen to serious people, and it should make the demands you place upon yourself that much greater.

There are right ways and wrong ways to go about publishing.

As a wrong way, take for instance my first poetry submission, which happened to be to The New Yorker. I was barely away from home at college in my first year, I had been writing almost a whole year, and I knew how much I liked the poems I read in the magazine. I remember typing up my latest poem, which I sent by itself with a note asking for comments. Can it be that I enclosed an SASE? In retrospect, there was nothing wrong with trying The New Yorker. But it was pretty much my only target, that and the student magazine.

The more correct way I learned later. Choose your magazines carefully. Know what's published in the magazine, hold the magazine at the library, at the store, or at home, and read at least enough poems to be able to make a short list of your own pieces to consider sending, or to conclude, No hope, no hope.

Publishing—let me amend that to say submitting, which is the only way one seeds a successful career in writing—submitting is hard work. I'm impressed by the number of people who have seen our guidelines and seen our magazine and only then submitted work. It is not the case that Natural Bridge has established a type of taste or a literary aesthetic, except to the extent that a number of us agree on what's likeable, readable, lasting, publishable. We're also editors and all have a testimony of taking a piece from almost-ready to ready for publication, by working with an author and by virtue of how much we like the possibilities we saw in the work.

A remark on rejection: You had better not ever get used to it. There are now too many magazines to allow a single, most desirable one to stand in the way of a career. I have told many students, because I've experienced it myself, that one publication is almost as good as another. I'm not talking The New Yorker—we all want to appear on coffee tables, though some of us will be advantaged by not writing for The New Yorker. Finding the right places to place your work is all-important. Being accepted, perhaps even more than being read, is what we're often, at least at the outset and for time to come, trying to achieve. One editor at one magazine who sees the strength in your writing, and you just might have to resign yourself to a lifetime of trying.

Mary Troy (Guest-Editor of # 4, 11, 19):

Natural Bridge is a nationally circulated literary journal. It is an integral part of the MFA in Creative Writing Program and is published by the program. We call for submissions, read and discuss and accept or reject stories, poems, and essays, edit the work, work with the authors, proofread, produce the journal, and see that it is distributed. No one associated with UM-St. Louis--faculty, staff, or student---can be published in it. Natural Bridge is indexed in the Index of American Periodical Verse and The American Humanities Index.

Our MFA students who have had at least two semesters of workshops are the first readers of all work that is submitted. They do this as a class, which is offered every fall and spring semester; thus the unusual submission dates of July 1-Aug. 31 and Nov. 1-Dec. 31, which are roughly the two months before the classes meet.

Steven Schreiner, a poet on the MFA faculty, is the founding editor. The other MFA faculty--Dave Carkeet, Howard Schwartz, Jennifer MacKenzie, Eamonn Wall, and Mary Troy--are senior editors. That is, we normally meet and discuss what the students and the editors have chosen and help narrow it down, though the editor always has final say, and those of us who read prose--Dave Carkeet and Mary Troy--also work on copy editing and proofreading. We often rotate a guest editor in Steve's place to teach the class for a semester and select the material, along with the students. I was the first guest editor, for number 4, and Dave Carkeet is the guest editor for number 6; Eamonn Wall will be guest editor for number 7, and our visiting writer for spring of 2002, Lex Williford, will be the guest editor for issue number 8. Though the journal is always a miscellany, the guest editor sometimes calls for a special focus, interest, or theme in his or her issue.

I advertised number 4 as a largely prose issue, and you can see that it is. The eight students in the class and I read more than 800 submissions for the issue. Because of how we advertised, we got very few poems to choose from, but we did publish eleven. Mainly we were deluged by prose works, which shows how hungry prose writers are for publication--most journals publish only four to five stories and essays and forty or more poems in each issue. And, to our great delight, most of what we received was very good. The way my class worked was that all students took home twelve to fifteen pieces from the slush pile each week. They would report back the following week with comments: "This one has a wonderful opening paragraph," "This one builds to a climax too quickly," "This one has a disappointing ending," "This one made me laugh out loud and I read it twice." Things like that. Short pieces were at times read aloud for the entire class, and some students were so excited about what they had read, they brought in enough copies and we all read those pieces for the next class or over break. I also grabbed stories form the slush pile and reported on what I had read. After a story had been read by three readers, and three readers decided it was not for us, we put it in the reject pile. If a story had been read by three readers who liked it or were unsure, it kept going around until five people had read it, and then I read it. I also read all that was in the reject pile to make sure we were not sending some gem back. I trusted the class, was impressed by their insights and careful consideration of each piece, but knew I had more experience reading and writing than they, so the final word was mine. I must say, though, I did not ever find anything they decided to reject that should not have been.

We sent rejects back at the end of each class, using a printed form, but some of the rejects with flashes of brilliance or fascinating subjects were encouraged by a note to send us more later. Or one of us would simply underline the "Thank you" in "Thank you for submitting." One gem almost got sent back, but the first reader who had rejected it came back to class to report that she had dreamed of it, had gone about her workday obsessed by it, and thought we should reconsider it. She found it, then read it out loud to us, and we agreed–it was too good to send back. I also read all pieces that the class was still undecided about after five readings and either sent them back or put them in the accept pile.

After eight weeks, we had read everything and had a book of about forty-eight stories, eleven essays, and twenty-five poems that had made it so far. I copied this book, and because it was spring break, we had two weeks to read it. Then we got down to serious discussions of the merits of each story, essay or poem. We worked on this book for five weeks, various members of the class arguing that a piece should be included or excluded. We did not always agree, and in fact I know of one class member--out of eight--who claims that none of her number-one choices made it into the book. One story that did get in was one I was all alone in liking, and I never did get any of the class members to give it more than a grudging OK. The class is not exactly a democracy, nor was it meant to be, but it is a collaboration. One woman argued for a story that only two others ever came around to liking, but I was one of them, so it is in number 4 as well.

Since I am not a poet, I was a voice but not the final say on the poetry. For that, we had the senior editors come in, and all the students--mainly prose writers in this class--agreed that that was one of our most informative discussions ever, for even the poets did not agree on the work.

Because we had so much prose to copy-edit (sixteen stories and four essays), five of the better readers in the class agreed to help me over the summer. The five each took two writers and under my minimal supervision corresponded with the authors, suggested changes, and asked questions. They also proofread what they had edited. This was a valuable experience for those who could do it.

The journal editing classes are valuable for our students, all writers who themselves are submitting and publishing. They can see how work is discussed, what makes the difference between something that is almost accepted and something that is accepted. They learn, too, that no matter the work and care and discussions--and I think we give pieces more attention than many journals--the process is still subjective. One story that made it into our first accept pile was one we all liked, but we finally agreed the ending was wrong, that the author had veered away from his own subject in a dishonest way. We rejected the story after much discussion, but the author wrote later to tell me it had been accepted by Ploughshares. I like to think our comments helped with that acceptance. Or it's possible we were that much more astute than the Ploughshares editors. Of course, we could have been wrong.

Angela Hamilton (a recent MFA graduate who began working for Natural Bridge as a student/editorial assistant in the first Literary Journal Editing class and later served as Managing Editor):

Although in 1997 I found myself beginning the MFA program here at UM-St. Louis, I was always scared to death of writing. The idea of my newly cultivated voice disappearing abruptly and forcing me to drop out of the program was always in the back of my mind. When I came to realize that part of becoming a serious writer was to submit my work endlessly, and ultimately get published, I began to wonder if maybe I was in the wrong place. Submitting--an important moment in the career of a writer. But just thinking about that word submission, its other meanings--obedience, resignation--made me feel like I was laying myself on the line, begging for rejection and frustration. This is what I had to do?

I began working at Natural Bridge as an editorial assistant in 1998. My first night there, I saw boxes and boxes of submissions, people like me . . . people not like me, submitting stories, essays and poems, hoping for a reading, an acceptance, their name in print. I lost hope in the idea that my writing would eventually be welcome by many publications, that my name would somehow become known in the writer's world.

I'd often envisioned an editor's office of a literary magazine--stacks of submissions up to the ceiling and only one envelope on the desk--a piece by Updike or Oates, maybe. My essay was number 757 in stack 12A, in the northwest corner. But nobody knew that. What was going to happen to me? Six months later I'd get not a rejection slip from the magazine, but a subscription form. Hi, friend, we haven't heard from you in a long time. Would you like to subscribe again?

Say it isn't so! Well . . . it's not. Or I should say, not necessarily. In becoming a full-fledged staff member (which basically means I no longer have to pay tuition to work for Natural Bridge), I have seen differently.

At Natural Bridge, I'd noticed that pieces began to lose their authors' names. It was no longer Wakoski's poem, but the poem about the wild rose, or the essay about teeth by Virgil Suarez, maybe? That image I'd had of the large lake of submissions with the big names buoyed at the top and the small names, my name, sludge at the bottom, faded.

Essays and poems would be passed back and forth again and again. At night, while I tried to go to sleep, I could hear the echo of another's voice, "Angela, can you just read this one more time? Tell me again what it is about this piece." In other words, assure me or . . . dissuade me. To be a reader for a literary magazine is to fall in and out of love again and again, to be surprised, to become ashamed with what you love when no one else does. And how is it that you may defend your love for something every day? How many jobs require this?

So what am I trying to say? That I, as a writer, am not the sludge at the bottom of the lake? I am not fish food? Well, yes. And no. It was important to learn this when I began working for Natural Bridge, but it was even more important for me to see the office light on well after dinnertime, hear a conversation about an essay which lasted longer than a break in between classes, and see that people like Steve, Dave and Mary want what is best--want even the fish food if it speaks to them.

The editors now have faces; they are more than just a printed name in the front of a magazine. They drive cars that break down, eat fast food, drink coffee to stay awake, and, even sometimes, they watch television. And they do love good writing and they admire the writers who produce it, and at times, yes, it is even sweeter when we all are truly taken with a piece of writing and discover that the author's name is not one that we recognize.

As a writer, I understand the submission process a bit better now. It is not simply the lake of names, but maybe to me it has become a road with dozens of intersections with signs like, timing, tone, theme, space and the often dreaded guidelines.

I'll stand at the edge of that old lake and I will throw myself in again and again.

David Carkeet (Guest-Editor of # 6):

I want to say a few words about the author-editor relationship. This is based on my experience as a senior editor through the first five issues of Natural Bridge and as the guest editor for the issue now being put together by me and some of our MFA students in the Literary Journal Editing class. This current issue is a "heavily prose issue," emphasizing personal essays and fiction; the contents will be settled by May or June, and it will be out in December. There will be about twenty prose works in it, roughly two-thirds of them personal essays: memoirs, travel pieces, and meditations. The fiction we've accepted so far is mainstream literary: strong characters, articulate and original language, and plots that are always, at least in part, like nothing else you've ever read.

A manuscript ultimately meets with either acceptance or rejection, but there are different varieties of each. There is the unconditional acceptance, with very few "suggestions" (we love this and can't wait to publish it); there is the acceptance with lots of "suggestions"–but because the work has been accepted, we can only suggest the changes and hope that reason and our good taste prevail. There are conditional acceptances–we will publish this if you change the title, eliminate these three paragraphs, and clean up the last paragraph, which is a little confusing.

There are likewise different kinds of rejections. The best rejection is a request to revise the piece and resubmit it. In this case the work falls too far short for acceptance, and the effort to get it there should be expended by the author, not the editors. Try again, we say, and be mindful that we had these problems with this version, and get it back to us by such-and-such a date, when we plan to review a number of such works. Revise and resubmit–"R&R" in my filing system–awkwardly imposes a moral burden on the editor: the author did what we said to do, she did all this work, so we've got to take it, don't we? But I try to forestall that by building into the letter definite, clear warnings: we still cannot guarantee publication. If we reject the work, of course it is a blow to the author, but we take comfort in knowing that we have probably improved the work and its prospects for publication elsewhere, and someday the author may come to believe that too.

There is also the detailed letter of rejection that explains why the work was turned down. I write only one such letter for every thirty or forty works we reject. I write it because the work deserves it. I try to point out how the work is strong, I say I hope someone else takes it, but it didn't quite make it with us, and I say please try us again next time with something else; a beginning writer is more likely to receive such a letter than an established one. There is the form rejection with a "Try us again" scribbled on it–this is also very high praise, not just from us but from any magazine. Then there is the form rejection with nothing on it, absolutely nothing. I have received many of these in my lifetime and never understood why it has to be this way. Now I do. The volume is murderous. When an editor puts a piece of mail in the outgoing box, whether it's an acceptance or a rejection, it feels like the conquest of Everest, and simply adding a few words to the form rejection letter feels as impossible as doing twenty pushups on top of Everest once you've arrived. Besides, the too-hasty comment, meant well, can be dangerous: "I liked this but not quite enough emotional engagement for me" could send the author into months of rewriting before he submits it elsewhere, and what if that wasn't the single most accurate criticism you could make of the piece? What if you've become a little confused since first reading it on Monday, and here it is Friday, and you've read twenty-five other pieces since then? No, better to say nothing.

Editors accept and reject, but they also edit, or at least we do. Line-editing focuses on factual accuracy, interest, clarity, and ease of reading. By "interest" I mean does the work consistently hold my interest, or does my interest flag in places. If a sequence is unclear so that I don't know if A preceded B or B preceded A, the author will want to hear that. The good author will gasp and say, Thankyouthankyouthankyou let me change it. The same for a pronoun reference: does this "he" refer to your lover or to the mortician? Omigod thankyouthankyouthankyou. As for ease of reading, some authors are clunkier than others, and sometimes, for the sake of the content, you put up with a little clunkiness instead of rewriting every paragraph. But other kinds of clunkiness can and should be repaired.

When it was brand-new, Natural Bridge sometimes went out of its way to edit not-quite-publishable pieces to publishability. As our submission numbers have increased, there has been less of this simply because so much work is coming in that is virtually ready to go to press. This semester, for our sixth issue, we've turned down several works that we would have been happy to publish a few issues ago.

Magazine and book publishers vary widely in their degree of line-editing. For reasons of cost, there is generally less of it than there was twenty-five years ago, which means that writers are supposed to take care of these things on their own, or with the help of trusted colleagues; it also means that published writing is a little sloppier than it used to be in the domains of both beauty and accuracy. At Natural Bridge, we believe in close line-editing but always, of course, with constant authorial consultation. Writers with prior publishing experience are always a little surprised at the degree to which we presume to improve their prose.

When my first novel was accepted a little over twenty years ago, the editor was both a positive and negative model for the editing profession. He took the book, which was deeply flawed, on instinct, on a flyer, and I'm glad he had the power to do that. But as a line-editor, he used a sledgehammer instead of a blue pencil. He cut for speed but at the cost of clarity. Once he cut a setup to a joke, a good joke, even though the joke followed the setup by some fifty pages. I pointed out his error, which he did not recognize as such: "Just how carefully do you think people read books anyway?" he said. For twenty years that sentence has rolled around in my brain. My answer then was the same as it is today: "very, very carefully." We at Natural Bridge edit with that principle in mind.

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