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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?