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Adventures in Editing (or What I’ve Learned About Writing, by Editing)

I’ve been reading for Coach’s Midnight Diner for about three months, but it has already been a great experience, far more rewarding than I first anticipated. In early December, the Diner team had a conference call with Coach Culbertson and he set up an online system for us to rate each story (from 1 to 10 stars) and leave comments. As of last night, 41 stories have been submitted and I’ve read more than half of them. (Submissions tentatively close May 1, 2008, and from what Coach says, they really start to roll in as the deadline approaches.)

Anyway, it’s been illuminating to see the process from the inside out. If you’re a writer, you know what it’s like to labor over a story, polish it, mail it to your favorite publication. . . and then hold your breath. I’ve received my share of rejection slips and, as a result, have struggled through the ensuing funk. So the thought of serving that up to others is not something I relish. Nevertheless, that’s the job of the editor — not to serve up rejections, but to find stories and authors they can champion. And, by the looks of it, they’ll be some good ones in the next issue. Which means that a lot of authors will feel the funk.

I wanted to jot down some of the thoughts I’ve had during this process, some of the things I’ve learned about writing from reading so many different stories, and some of the nuances of submitting stories to a publisher. Mind you, this is my first editing gig so I’m on the front end of the learning curve myself. Nevertheless, if you’re a new or aspiring author, you may want to keep some of these things in mind before you punch the Send button.

1.) About cover letters — Lots of publishers don’t require cover letters. Nevertheless, they can be an important part of the process. I read all the cover letters and, in many cases, they will give you a heads up to the caliber of the author writing it. No, I don’t necessarily mean a long list of previous publications. Sure, that helps. But it isn’t a necessity. Thus far, my favorite story was submitted by an author who cited only one publishing credit in two very brief paragraphs. So a long cover letter, or a long list of publishing credits, isn’t a necessity.

What will hurt your cover letter far more than an absence of publishing credits, is poor writing. One author’s cover letter to the Diner contained three grammatical errors. Three! Typos and bad grammar IN YOUR COVER LETTER will almost guarantee you a quick exit, at least, a skeptical read. Another turnoff, for me, is when an author really drums up their story: “A thrilling tale of disco zombies,” or “Read this with the lights on,” or “This was a real inspiration.” Uh, maybe the reader should be the judge of that. Needless to say, a short, punchy, well-worded cover letter is enough.

2.) On not following guidelines — Apparently, this happens more than you’d think. Coach has already rejected some stories on the grounds they violated blatant submission guidelines. No hardcore sci-fi and No sword and sorcery seems pretty clear to me. So when you get a story like “Pluton Battles the Veggie Women of Saturn,” you don’t need to read on. While the Diner seeks to be “a hardboiled genre anthology with a Christian slant,” preachiness is not allowed. Perhaps that’s why I was so put off when one of the stories finished with a climactic homily on Hell and how to avoid it. Two stars was all I could muster.

3.) Nothing beats a good intro — We hear this stated so often, but it’s so true. For some, it’s the first paragraph, the opening hook, or the first three pages. For me, by the first page I can pretty much tell whether or not I want to read on. Sure, some stories take a while to get going and you need to give them a chance. But when it comes to short stories, the author must cut to the chase. Nancy Kress, in a very helpful little book, Beginnings, Middles & Ends, says this:

The truth is, you have about three paragraphs in a short story, three pages in a novel, to capture that editor’s attention enough for her to finish your story. With busy editors, the biblical prophecy is, alas, too often true: ‘The first shall be last.’ Does this discourage you? It shouldn’t. It’s just a fact of literary life. . . Once you know that you have just three paragraphs to create a good first impression, you can spend your time rewriting and polishing that opening until it convinces and editor to keep reading.

As much as I’d like to give an author the benefit of the doubt, if they haven’t done something immediately to pique my interest, chances are my interest will never be piqued.

Personally, I don’t need drama to keep reading. What I’m looking for is a.) Tight writing and b.) A promise of drama (or mystery, suspense, blood, seduction, or psychedelia). As I said above, amateurish writing is the thing that immediately kills a piece for me. So getting your literary chops down and applying them to the first page of your story is essential to keep this reader reading.

4.) A story written with the eye of an editor — Think, for a moment, about this unusual person who sits behind a desk for long hours, consuming large quantities of caffeine (or carbonated beverages), reading story, after story, after story. They want to be challenged, surprised, and forced to turn the page; they want to see something that rises above the status quo, that defies convention. They are tired, picky, glazed over and jaded. And your job is to rouse them.

The best stories are the ones that need the least editing. I’m surprised how many authors believe their job is to just get the story out there; the editor’s job, they think, is to clean it up. No, no, no! This freak wants to do as little work as possible. A story must be pretty damn good for an editor to go back to the author and ask for a rewrite. If you can’t deliver a product that requires minimal, if any, changes on the part of the editor, don’t send it. But the story’s good, you say. It may be. But it’s rare that a good story can survive poor writing. Sure, there’s plenty of good stories told poorly. But when you’re jockeying for position amongst other authors, a poorly told story won’t survive the cut. And the more work you create for an editor, the less chance that editor will bother.

Anyway, I’m guessing every editor develops their own eye. Mark Bertrand edits for Relief Journal, and his article How I Acquire Fiction is an excellent primer into the process (and much more succinct than this bloated entry).

As an editor, my turn-offs include clunky writing; mean, scary fonts; single-spacing and poor formatting in general, especially double-spacing between paragraphs, which is an HTML convention inappropriate on the printed page; stuff that doesn’t sound good when read aloud (oh, yes, I’ll be reading your piece out loud); undeveloped or abandoned plot lines and characters; narrators with stilted voices; authors who send me three or four stories instead of picking their best; first drafts, and any other signs of inexperience or inattention. You would be surprised how many writers don’t bother to format their manuscripts correctly, even forgetting to put their names on their work! Writers, it is so easy to avoid these problems and they really do make a difference in how an editor perceives you and your work. Take your work seriously, revise carefully and bring a certain narrative flair to the process, and you will have a much better chance of catching the editorial eye.

Mark may not be quite the “freak” I referenced above, or consume large amounts of caffeinated liquids, but he’s seen far more stories than me (in fact, some of his selections have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize). As such, I’m inclined to heed his advice.

So there’s some random thoughts on the process. It’s been time-consuming, a bit challenging, and a lot of fun. Either way, I am learning lots about writing, by editing.

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{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Brandon Satrom February 20, 2008, 4:09 PM

    Mike,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to share your experience and these tips! I certainly plan to take them to heart!

    – Brandon

  • J. Mark Bertrand February 20, 2008, 4:13 PM

    Oh, I can get my caffeine on with the best of them, Mike. This is great advice — and a testament of the value an editorial stint can offer writers. The thing you don’t really appreciate until you’ve worn the editor’s hat is the sheer volume of reading, and the irrational frustration that sets in when authors seem to put less into their submissions than the editor would have to in order to make it ready for print. Anything you can do as an author to minimize the “drag” — to make your submission as polished and potent as you can before sending it in — is going to be appreciated by editors.

  • anonymous February 21, 2008, 12:02 AM

    So I take it that you didn’t like “Pluton Battles the Veggie Women of Saturn.”

  • Mike Duran February 21, 2008, 12:23 AM

    Brandon, thanks for visiting and leaving a comment. Mark, perhaps we can pound some caffeine together over submissions some day. Thanks for the link, also. And anonymous: “Pluton Battles the Veggie Women of Saturn” is a fictional title. No one subbed such a piece. But if you were thinking about subbing a similarly titled piece to Coach’s Midnight Diner, don’t.

  • Linda Gilmore February 21, 2008, 2:04 PM

    Thanks for this, Mike. It spurs me to keep polishing so the story I want to submit will stand out.

  • Nathan Knapp February 23, 2008, 5:24 PM

    Thanks for the post, Mike. Posts like these are invaluable. 🙂

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