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Publication News: Cantilevers

For me, April was like trying to stuff sweaters into a dresser drawer. You hope for space, for future sweaters, but the current ones you own won’t have it. Your sweaters expand their chests and stretch out, refusing to let you close the drawer all the way.

I’m typically not a busy person in the sense that I have to get in the car and go do things. Weeknights are for exercising and relaxing. Weekends are for catching up on sleep, plotting stories, and the occasional outing. But not this month.

April grabbed me by the shoulders and sang loudly in my ear, declaring that my life this month would be full of adventure. When my MFA pals read their theses in a small graduation ceremony, I was there, trying not to sniffle with pride in the audience. I got autographs from voice actors and bought way too much Sailor Moon merch at a local anime convention. A new friend from work whisked me away on a Friday afternoon for Hibachi, the both of us ignoring the traffic jams and crazy drivers for the sake of good food and a show.

But probably the most epic event this month had to be going to my alma mater, Florida Southern College, as the Guest Author for their literary journal.

You might remember the post I wrote a while back about what I learned by serving as a fiction editor on two literary journals. In my undergraduate years, I climbed from being a staffer to the literary editor of Cantilevers: Journal of the Arts.

Being invited back years later as Guest Author was surreal. Something like coming full circle. My days of introducing Cantilevers’ Guest Authors and Poets are over. Being on the other side was just… amazing.

The Unveiling Ceremony took place on a Tuesday night. I was in the basement of the new English building, one that I hadn’t had the pleasure of using before graduating (though, as nice as the new building is, I’m glad I took my classes in the old one. It had undeniable character, haha).

Getting to see some of my old professors was amazing. And a little tearful. Going to college was my first time being away from home, and FSC’s English Department was like a second family to me. Even though my old friends and fellow students had long since graduated, the current students were delightful. I loved the energy and excitement at the event. I can’t explain, even now, how immediately comfortable I felt when I walked up to the podium to read my published short story. It was like being at home. I guess this is what school spirit feels like, haha.

Being Guest Author meant that I got to judge best poetry and best prose in this year’s issue. It also meant submitting a story of my own to be published. I had written a new story for Cantilevers called “Elsewhere,” inspired by Victorian post-mortem photography and mermen.

You’re probably not surprised.

I was actually inspired by a particular photo of two sisters. The one standing in the photo is dead. I was curious about the dead sister, of course, but the story only came when I considered the living sister’s feelings. How did it feel to pose next to her dead sister? What did she think of her sister when she was alive? But there always has to be some magic, so you’ll find stolen pearls and a fishy vagrant thrown into the tale.

Cantilevers is only printed and distributed for FSC students at this time, but I’m sure you can see this story again. One day… or else squint really hard at the picture to see the beginning, haha.

The best part of the night was getting to talk with the students. Honestly, hearing that they loved the story, along with sharing some healthy geeking out about magical realism and Eisley, kept a smile on my face for the rest of the week.

Having studied the craft of fiction in grad school, I find myself at war with the lessons I learned in academia and what the “real world” is looking for in good (sellable, perhaps) fiction. Even as I was reading “Elsewhere,” my MFA brain was chattering and poking holes wherever it could. So when I got to talk with the students afterward, I was both in awe and thrilled by their kind words and enthusiasm for my story.

The goal is always to become a stronger writer, to tell my stories better. While my MFA program did wonderful things for me and my growth as a writer, the truth is that lessons come from everywhere.

Some lessons lead you to a better way of writing, while others are here to remind you that, yes, you’re doing it right. Relax. Fall in love again with whatever you’re writing and don’t let your inner editor rob you of that.

In other news, April’s minutes and hours have been sucked up by moving. Every evening, I’d come home from work, pack more stuff from my old room into boxes, and shuttle it over to the new house. Me and ‘rents have chosen to move into a cozier house; it’s much smaller, but has a lot of character and charm – something that the old house lacked, for all its space.

The movers finally came this week, so the past two days have been a whirlwind of shifting furniture around and finding new places for everything. Since I couldn’t rest unless all my books were shelved (or on the floor next to my bed – I’m not that neat), I tore open our boxes and ended up getting all my books shelved during the first night in the new house. And then my mom and I finished reshelving her books in the library the next day. Nothing says “finished” like books all back where they belong. Once that was done, the rest of the house came together.

When I said the house has character, I meant it. My parents are obsessed with non-colors and I had been living in a sea of eggshell-white for far too long. So my new room is my favorite shade of blue: a powdery, hazy lake-like blue. And with my white furniture, the combined effect makes me feel like I’m stepping into some enchanted space. I can’t wait to write stories here.

What I Learned From Being a Fiction Editor

Drinking tea is becoming a serious habit for me. I've been steadily going through my hoard of mostly unused spice and fruit teas, staining my mugs and floating away in the hazy afterglow of sugar and murk. Have I drunk enough tea to fill an ocean? Maybe. But then, a curious thing happens when you develop a habit like this: you start caring about what you're drinking your tea in.

Which leads me to a discovery and a serious case of nostalgia.

My former graduate professor, John Henry Fleming, gifted both past and present Saw Palm staffers with fantastic mugs. I hadn't used mine until now; it spent the beginning of the summer on a high shelf with other lonely mugs. With all the tea drinking, I finally made it up there - and seeing the glossy literary journal cover on the mug brought back a flood of memories.

I have been a fiction editor (twice!). And I'd like to think that I learned a few things along the way.

When you're a writer, you know that one of the first steps in getting published is to make those opportunities happen, usually by submitting your short stories or poetry to literary magazines. You'll find some amazing journals and mags along the way, some you may even subscribe to in order to devour the stories inside. You'll also accumulate a healthy amount of rejections. Don't eat too much ice cream when you get them - and don't be so quick to rage against the editors who sent them to you.

Rejection letters sting, no matter how long you've been writing, but what helps me get past them is remembering my time on the other side.  

When I was a freshman, I joined my college's literary journal, Cantilevers: Journal of the Arts, as a wet behind the ears staff member. The following year, I became the one and only literary editor. My duties included collecting and organizing all fiction and poetry submissions for the journal, developing an evaluation system (this was before Submittable existed, mind you) for choosing what pieces go in, and writing up rejection and acceptance letters. If an argument broke out over a piece, it was my job to be the deciding vote (though, more often than not, I rather left it up to our adviser. She was much better at that). Since we were a small organization, I also worked closely with the Art Editor and Managing Editor.

In graduate school, I served on a team of fiction editors for Saw Palm, the graduate literary journal that focuses on publishing Florida-specific prose, poetry, and art. The best part about this experience was being part of a large, reliable staff where everyone worked together to produce the new issue; although there was much work to be done, having more people on staff than my undergraduate experience made the work fun (and manageable). For us fiction editors, Submittable was our best friend; the site made it easy for us to make decisions about each submission and share them while balancing crazy grad schedules, haha.

Check out these lovely covers!
It's hard to sum up the eye-burning hours of writing and printing rejection / acceptance letters (and licking the envelopes), evening pizza parties, developing grammar pet peeves, and learning when exactly, by the clock, my patience runs out. But I can think of three:

1) Formatting Matters. Nothing physically hurts the eyes (brain) more than opening up a submission and finding the rules of writing physics forgotten. No indented paragraphs. Comic Sans font. Dialogue punctuation? Nonexistent. No matter how seriously you take your job as fiction editor, it's almost impossible to keep your cool when you find one of these stories. Even more so, it's harder to read past the first paragraph. I told my students this all the time: make sure you edit your stories before submitting. If you don't understand formatting, simply open up any book the universe and observe. You'll be glad you did.

2) Learn to Compromise. Part of the challenge of being a fiction editor is that, obviously, you're not the only person deciding what pieces are going in the next issue. There's usually co-editors, or regular staffers, or higher up editors with enough time to look over your shoulder. Whether you get together in person or communicate over the Internet, there's going to be a clashing of opinions. You may think that the story about a talking palm tree should be accepted, but Beth thinks that it's cliche. Staffers take sides. Many a meeting turned into a courtroom, editors battling it out with clever words and heating arguments. If you feel strongly about a piece, stand up for it - but be ready to defend your position. As a writer, know that the decision to reject or accept your piece isn't easy; yours may have been one that was debated over (and congrats to that!).

3) Pizza Parties. Or rather, having some fun. A lot of work and money go into creating an issue of a literary magazine. When you're a staffer, certain times of the year get clogged with work and it's hard to remember that the people you work with are your friends. Saw Palm was really great at maintaining that balance; we told jokes during meetings and held events that kept us excited about the upcoming issue. On Cantilevers, the other editors and I lightening the mood whenever we could - especially after keeping the staff in a classroom, evaluating submissions for eight straight hours (anyone would get a little punchy...). Sometimes, even the best of us needed to be reminded about why we were here: our love of words and art brought us together and we're here to promote the talented writers, poets, and artists that grace us with their submissions. Pizza parties don't hurt.

Question Time! Dear readers, have you ever been a staffer / editor on a literary magazine? Newspaper? Yearbook? What advice might you add?