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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? 

AWP 2012: Chicago

Before going to AWP, I had never been to the Midwest. 

My traveling experiences had been severely limited to the East Coast, more specifically New York, Jew Jersey, and Pennsylvania - all places where my family is. I have been to England and, for a day and a half, France, but for the most part, America has been largely unexplored for me. As a family, we never went on road trips. We never drove for hours in one direction, not really caring where we ended up. Everything was planned down to the smallest detail. In my family, the familiar is good. Safe. 

However, as sick as I am of Florida weather, I was ecstatic to have found out that the conference was in Chicago. I had it on good authority it would likely snow while I was there. I hadn't played in the snow since I was a little girl. I couldn't wait to have my hair blown about in the windy city, to feel my bones ache from the cold, to feel tingly when stepping inside a warm building. Yes, I'm weird like that. I practically daydreamed about the horrors of winter with a big smile on my face. 

Prepping for Chicago was another ball game. Because it doesn't get cold here, stores don't sell winter gear. I spent hours in shoe stores (so not kidding) trying to find boots. It was January and flip-flops and sandals were already pushing out the fleeting Florida shopping season of boots. I stared in horror at the boots with high heels - instant death for me, I imagined. Finally I found a pair of plain black boots. I remember telling my mom that the tops of the boots were tight  - not very comfortable. She laughed at me and said, "You really don't remember, do you? They have to be tight to keep the snow out." 

Well, not my fault. I was a kid when I had been bundled up in boots and jackets and rolled around in the snow like a careless puppy. It's been so long. 

EXCLUSIVE SCANNED PHOTO of me as a wee one, rolling around in the snow like a carefree puppy. I actually went looking for the photo after writing that simile... and I'm happy that this photo actually fit. 

Looking for a coat... well, that was something. My dad tried to get me to wear his old winter jacket that he still had from when we lived in New York. I put it on and my arms were lost in the sleeves. The jacket went down to my knees. There was no way I was wearing that to Chicago - I had to look "cool," haha. I ended up going with a bright blue pea coat from Forever 21 that my parents were skeptical about. They said that there was no way it would keep me warm... but I remained firm. "If I'm going to freeze," I had said, "I'm going to look good turning into an icicle." I also packed my dad's jacket just to make them feel better.


I'm glad I made that decision because in Chicago, everyone looked very comfortable and stylish in their winter garb. There were pea coats everywhere! (A rare find in any Florida stores, trust me). I proudly held my head high against the tear-inducing winds and almost skipped down the street in pure happiness. I hadn't been bluffing. I felt at home in the cold weather. My body may not have remembered the feel of boots or the stuffiness of many layers, but it remembered cold. And I adjusted pretty quickly to it even with my thinned-out blood.

Interestingly enough, the people of Chicago were fascinating - so much different than the way Floridians are. The people I met seemed genuinely friendly, eager to help, and had all around warm personalities. It feels strange to type such a statement, almost as if I had dreamed the whole thing up. I remember being surrounded by those smiles and cheerfulness in Chicago, and being so stunned that I apologized for little things like not putting my train ticket in the scanner correctly. I actually felt worse that I usually did about not knowing something - being a tourist - because people were so quick to help me. It's an odd feeling that sticks with me still.

I didn't get to see snow until the morning I headed back to the airport. I was walking over to the train station, lugging my suitcase behind me, when all of a sudden I noticed a flurry of white stuff drifting down from the sky. I wasn't sure what it was at first, and turned to my mother and said, "Did a bird just smash into something? Look at the feathers."

Yeah, I said that.

In Florida, birds smashing into walls is a regular occurrence. So much so that some glass walls have stickers on them so that birds will be able to recognize the walls before they try to fly right through them. Don't even get me started on the hawk that broke through the mesh in my backyard last summer. Yep. So I thought, at first, that was I saw was the last remains of a recently squashed bird.

My mom gave me an odd look and said, "No, Kim. It's actually snow."

I looked up with my mouth hanging open as the flurry rained down, light as soap bubbles. Some snowflakes landed on my coat and melted right away. We waited for the train for at least fifteen minutes and, the entire time, I kept my eyes on the falling snow. "It's beautiful," I said.

My mom burrowed deeper into her scarf and replied, "It'd better stop before we get snowed in at the airport."

Ah, ever so practical. We were fine. The snow melted long before our plane even arrived. A safe flight home.

Because of the conference, I hadn't been able to sight-see. Mainly I stuck to the streets in the area where the two major conference hotels were. As I mentioned in my last post, I did wander around the eight-floor Macy's after a long day at the conference. The most amazing floor was the dishware one, ironically enough. The displays were just pretty. Very much like the tourist I was, I took pictures of the displays and dodged the employees. I also ate a lot of delicious food and saw some wonderful paintings.

Kim's Mini-Food Adventure

My first legit deep dish pizza. It was outstanding! We put olives, tomatoes, and peppers on it - a bit of an odd mix, but it worked well in the end. The pizza was very fluffy and thick; it really was like eating a cake. Now that I'm back in Florida though, I'm dying to have more... but no one makes it here ;_;

Bread Bowls! This was the perfect lunch for my first full day in Chicago - it warmed me up right away.

Pad Thai. 'Nuff said, right? I came back twice because it was so delicious. 

Flatbread Pizza! Now, I've had flatbread pizza before, of course, but  eating it in Chicago is different. The bread is thick, soft, and fluffy here, so it makes the pizza taste fresh and full of flavor. I'm used to eating tasteless, cardboard bread - the water and dough don't mix to well in FL (I know I keep bashing Florida, but, well, come eat here and then we'll talk). 

Art Institute Chicago

I love museums - even the cruddy, local ones with dubious things encased behind glass. So I had to go to the Art Institute Chicago. The building, while impressive, doesn't look too big until you actually start wandering around inside. I couldn't believe how many rooms there were, all splitting off in different directions, and random hallways that seemed to make sense but then, really didn't. After stomping around at the conference that morning, my feet were aching by the time I trekked through the museum. I had to stop frequently on benches to give my legs a rest while admiring the paintings.

The collection was huge, but my favorite parts were the Impressionists and the Decorative Arts exhibits (a fancy term for beautifully crafted items found in the home). I'll end my post today by sharing some photos from the museum - a great way to end my time at Chicago before the flight home.