October 31, 2011

Impressionist

In earlier posts I made one, simple statement: I am not, in any way, an experienced editor.

And being a novice, I worried; what can I expect from the Versal submission and reading process?

I waited–as one waits for a message to appear from the looking glass of a magic eight-ball–for the submission manager to show me a sign.

Finally, it did, and when it did, it was sudden. The submissions poured into my inbox in a flood. It all came as a bit of a surprise, in fact. I was excited, of course, and opened the first story sitting patiently at the top of the reading list, and dove in with considerable aplomb (and a large cup of coffee).

Maybe it was the cavalier attitude I was employing–I don’t know–but halfway through reading the first story, the gravity of the whole ordeal stuck me. Here it was in my document editor: a piece of work someone sweated over. A piece of work that is, in a way, pleading for acceptance. A story that, maybe, deserves the drop of an ax. Work, in any case, that deserves all of my attention.

I sat back from my computer and stopped reading. It wasn’t that I hadn’t considered these notions: but it was reading the work that made all these what-if scenarios into a paralyzing reality.

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In my own way, I am a lot like the writers who submit to our journal. We, the writers, trust an editor with our work. We submit, and we hope for the best. We rewrite when the rejections become too monumental to ignore.

This feeling of camaraderie I felt towards my fellow writer seemed to be the origin of the first problem I faced as an editor; I simply felt guilty sitting in front of my computer judging someone else’s writing.

How can I choose what is acceptable work to pass on to my fellow editors? What makes me an expert? How can I be a judge when I so often receive rejection after rejection? What if I made a mistake? What if the stories I rejected were the right ones?

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I read the 10 stories waiting in my inbox in one long sitting on the back porch of my friends house in Auburn NY.
Coffee was replaced by beer.
Lunch was replaced with dinner.

After the first reading, I was not able to reject a story. Not even one. I couldn’t convince myself that was the right thing to do.

In the beginning, I felt most comfortable reading; nothing more.

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Editing for Versal isn’t about polishing a story. It is about curating.

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I took the easy way out by rejecting the weakest stories up front–the ones needing hours of work, or when it was obvious that the author had not read the journal, and submitted work that was completely inappropriate. Soon I would have to make real decisions.

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Yet, there are a lot of stories that seem, at first to fit with the journals aesthetic. The work seems challenging, uses language in a new way. But maybe it doesn’t fit. That is where choosing gets difficult: a gray area, where something in a story brings something new to the editors table and throws a monkey wrench into the works.

At some point in time, no matter what has happened with the journal historically, the pieces I will help choose are the future. There is a choice: a decision relying on taste.

The question, having confronted my initial reluctance to reject or accept, had evolved: What do I want to bring to the editors table?

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I read the stories again. Twice. Three times.

Versal, being the journal that it is, receives some challenging work.

I understood the stories in a way. But not all of them.

And this was a bit of a struggle. I was frustrated that some of the stories seemed too difficult for me.

We have a second reader for this very reason, but due to reasons of pride, I hesitated sending the hardest stories on.

Robert, the head fiction editor for Versal, told me early on that, to be a good editor, I would have to to use my gut reaction, and embrace my lack of understanding sometimes. Send the story onto another editor if there were still lagging doubts–he said. In essence, swallow pride for the greater good of the journal.

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Good work is in the details.

And many of the stories submitted to Versal are good.

When a final decision needs to be made, however, the piece with the most work put into it, where every piece falls into place, that’s the the story I’m going to choose.

In the first 20 odd submission I’ve read, I’ve found myself faltering over a twitchy piece of dialogue, a cliche or a poorly written sentence. That is when the decision is easy.

These little mistakes, more often than not, are enough to reject a piece.

A writer submitting to Versal, or any journal–and I include myself in this–needs to consider whether the story they’ve created has had enough work put into it, is a precious stone that should be put on display.

There are too many great writers who do put in the extra time and work. They proof read. They read the journal before submitting.

If we, as writers, are not doing this, are not taking this extra time when competing with the thousands of others out there submitting everyday, we’re competing with ourselves.

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