Aug 212010

Okay, this topic evolves out of the comments attached to the “What I think” post below. Court and Gary and others are frustrated with the current literary scene, finding it difficult to get a toehold in terms of publication. The idea here is to try to establish a forum for NC readers and lurkers and the editors we have in the community. Vivian Dorsel is the publisher of upstreet. Robin Oliveira is the fiction editor (hopefully she can join in). I edited fiction at The Iowa Review during my stint at the Writers’ Workshop. I edited Best Canadian Stories for over a decade. I’ve judged innumerable contests. We can start here.

This is me talking from my experience as an editor, not as a writer or a teacher. Years ago, when I was at The Iowa Review, I easily received 50-70 stories a week, from writers like Joyce Carol Oates down to complete neophytes. The magazine then published four times a year, with 4-6 slots for short stories, at most 24 stories could find a place in a year (so, yes, obviously LENGTH makes a difference, a fact of life and economics). I suspect the odds are a lot worse now with the proliferation of writing programs. Typical for editors at this level, I was not paid well (the English Department gave me a research assistantship) and it was a part-time job. Most literary magazine editors and readers make nothing. With those kinds of odds you can afford to have a hair trigger rejection finger. You read so many awful or mediocre manuscripts (let’s be honest here) that it gets easy to say no to perhaps 80% of those 50 or more stories a week. Most of those stories you don’t even read past the second page. A cliché, a lame sentence, or a grammatical error automatically knocks them out. (Also sending clips and a c.v. along with that 3-page cover letter guarantees rejection—sure signs of an amateur.) It’s a simple as that. Ask yourselves a) How perfect is my first page? b) Is there enough panache and intelligence evidenced in my first two pages to make me stand out from the herd? After the first 80% of the stories (or essays or poems—it’s the same) get turned down, the work begins. The next 19% are the stories you come to loathe because they are often earnest and competent and second-rate to the core. These stories have plots that start up pretty decently and characters that move through their paces the way they should and they express the regular story-like emotions. But they are ordinary. They have no panache, no real surprises, no blazing excitement. Often you have to read right to the end of these stories because, you know, you’re rooting for the author, hoping against hope that he or she will pull off the terrific ending or suddenly bring a character to life. Sad truth is they never do. And the other sad truth is that there will be enough stories with panache, surprise, intelligence, and delightful linguistic turns, etc. that you can safely reject this 19% as well. The final, final sad truth is that even with that 1% of stories left to read, you know you’ll have a hard time filling the magazine slots with stories you really think are first class, superlative, all the way through—they are so rare.

There really is a perspective trick here. From the writer’s point of view, here is a story he has rewritten 20 times over three months, polished and perfected, and he looks out at the current scene and sees all the schlock that gets published here and there, and he thinks, My God, I am going to save the publishing world with this story! Editors are going to greet me as the saviour! And then that envelope or digital submission shows up at the editor’s desk along with 200 other equally earnest and brilliant (from their author’s perspective) submissions (and there will be MORE tomorrow!). Think of it. Two hundred Messiahs a day! But from the editor’s point of view it’s a triage situation, wave after wave of awful to pretty good stories, all looking about the same after a few months on the job, most of them DOA.

This shouldn’t discourage anyone, except those who want an excuse. I don’t think it’s ever been different. To stand out for an editor you have to be very, very good. And not just very good in spots—all the way through the text. That’s the key. Competent and nice aren’t enough. Tryers go to the end of the line. Stories need to ring with truth, linguistic pizzazz, mystery, life, passion and excitement from the first word. This isn’t to say that there aren’t bad editors, sycophants, people led by fads, provincials, people driven only by marketing models and bottom lines. And lots of schlock gets published—although that’s mainly because certain kinds of schlock actually sell well to an undereducated market that likes schlock (yes, honestly). And, yes, editors often lean toward established names, partly because those established names have figured out how to separate themselves from the herd (not just because names sell). And some magazines and editors have preferences in terms of style (e.g. avant garde or conventional realism)—we all have different tastes. But most editors are trying to fill their magazines with good exciting writing. It’s not a conspiracy.

But it is awfully hard to get published, to get started, and even to keep getting published over a lifetime. The art is difficult and long to learn, and the competition is brutal. And there certainly have been cases when editors have missed a work of genius (scary thought). And, yes, if your work is eccentric, or out of the mainstream in some way, editors will have an even harder time deciding if you are really good or not. And there certainly are cultural troughs and bents that militate against certain kinds of art (classicism yields to decadence and vice versa over time). All this comes and goes, lean times and fat (pretty lean right now). The main thing is to learn to write well and drive yourself with a realistic sense of how good your work has to be to attract an editor’s attention. The rest is in the hands of the gods.


  63 Responses to “News from the Dark Side, the Editor’s Perspective”

  1. What you’re saying is the opposite of what I expected. I expected that you would say we get hundreds and hundreds of really great stories every year, and unfortunately, we can only publish a few of them. Meaning that those selected would mainly be there as a matter of luck and / or previous reputations.

    But you’re saying that in fact, there are very few very good stories out there, and in fact, a lot of the stories that get published are not very good – are even “schlock”. That the superlative is in fact very very rare.

    If that’s the case, that only the most superlative stories get published, then I am happy to play by those rules. The corollary being, if a story is truly superlative, then it will, almost as a matter of fate, get published.

    If this is true, then I’m happy to play by these rules. The world already contains a number of superlative short stories and is groaning under the weight of schlock. It doesn’t need any of mine added to the pile.

    I can live with editors leaning towards those who already have reputations. After all, they’ve probably already earned them.

    What is hard to stomach is the thought that the short stories by unknowns that get published in the best / most prestigious litmags are there because of luck or – and this is the worst – connections.

  2. I recently gave a lecture at the Pacific University MFA in Writing program. The lecture was meant to be something about what upstreet is looking for (echoing the question that Vivian mentioned as a comment in a previous post that provoked this post), but I turned it into a craft lecture about first sentences. Why? Because after reading approximately 3,000 short stories for upstreet, and the thousand when I was an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine, I can generally now tell by the first sentence whether or not the writer is going to be able to carry his or her story through to the end. I was not always this prescient, and to tell the truth, I wish weren’t now, but I have learned over time that all of what Douglas says above is true. Most of what I receive—and I’ll be kind here—is from new writers who lack an understanding of the basics: story structure, sentence structure, characterization, imagery, plot resolution, etc. A smaller percentage begin well but blandly, then fall apart in the third paragraph. Very rarely, a story begins well—conflict in the first sentence, character and emotion vibrant and engaging—and I begin to get excited.
    Before I go any further I want to state that I, as an editor, am dying to find a fabulous story. I am aching for it. I open every new file on my computer hoping against hope that my socks are about to be knocked off by some dazzling original writer who has crafted a story of insight, heart, soul and wisdom. I am rooting for this writer to carry me to nirvana. And I need a good story, because I, along with my fellow editors, am crafting a book for readers, and I want those readers to have the best reading experience possible. It is my responsibility to make certain that the readers are going to be thrilled, enlightened, charmed, seduced and swept away.
    So, here I am, reading the rare story that begins well, hoping against hope that I am in competent hands. The writers sails through the good beginning, plies the treacherous narrows of the middle, but then somehow fails to understand what his or her story is about, and so is unable to bring that craft home, marooning me on the shores of disappointment.
    The good story is indeed a rare, rare thing.
    So, why the first sentence craft lecture? Because a good story is tightly crafted, and it shows that at the first sentence. If you look at first sentences in really good stories, you will see that the kernel of the story’s conflict, mystery, problem, and desire is planted in the first sentence. I can’t give my whole lecture here, but as an example of what I mean, I hope that Sherman Alexie won’t mind if I reprint here the first sentence of WHAT YOU PAWN I WILL REDEEM, his 2004 appearance in Best American Short Stories.
    The first sentence is also the first paragraph:
    “One day you have a home and the next you don’t, but I’m not going to tell you my particular reasons for being homeless, because it’s my secret story, and Indians have to work hard to keep secrets from hungry white folks.”
    What is at work here? The narrator has a secret, and he’s not going to tell, or at least that’s what he’s saying now. He’s also setting up a conflict between the reader and the narrator. In addition, he is introducing the issue of racism. He draws a contrast between himself, a homeless Indian, and the reader, who are hungry white folks, already subverting reader expectations. (It should be the homeless Indian who is hungry, but no, it’s the white folks.)
    This is just one example of how much a writer can and should do in a first sentence. Now, I’m fairly certain that it took Mr. Alexie a while to create that stunner, but I’m also fairly certain that it came after multiple revisions in which he was thinking about drawing his reader in, conveying meaning, and embedding in his diction the conflicts he had come to understand in his prior drafts.
    A well-crafted first sentence is not only a promise to a reader, but it gives the writer the way home.
    And an editor can usually see that.

    • Robin,

      No argument. My concern is that some writers — and readers and reviewers and critics — might take your advice too far and force an esthetic of frank, explicit conflict, of clear action and resolution. I.e., excite from the start or forget it. Here are two of my favorite opening lines:

      It should be possible to build a pagoda of crispbread, to think of nothing, to hear no thunder, no rain, no splashing from the gutter, no gurgling around the house. Perhaps no pagoda will emerge, but the night will pass.

      From Max Frisch’s Man in the Holocene

      I saw him only for a moment, and that was years ago. Boston had been beaten by the White Sox. It was a night game, and when it was over, as the crowd, including myself and my friends, pushed with that suppressed Occidental panic up the aisles toward the exit ramps, he, like the heavy pebble of gold that is not washed from the pan, was revealed, sitting alone, immobile and smiling, among the green seats.

      From Updike’s story, “The Blessed Man of Boston”

      Frisch’s lines are especially bland (but well crafted). In neither is there clear conflict or even the suggestion of action. Nor is much revealed about character. (Actually in Frisch’s case, there is, but it’s very subtle and it takes pages for this to be seen.) In Updike’s story, the guy is just sitting. Readers, on first look, might be baffled and bored. But if we give both authors a chance, allowing them a chance to unwind, at a pace that fits their characters and material, and put our expectations aside, we might find much revealed — and much necessarily left ambiguous and uncertain. This is what thrills me.

      • Gary, I think you misunderstand what Robin and I mean by bland, dull, quiet openings. These openings you use as examples are indisputably gorgeous and any editor would fall down on his knees in thanks. What you are missing is the actual experience of reading hundreds of really bland, dull, quiet openings. There actually is a difference between good writing and not so good writing and when you read a lot of submissions this becomes very clear.

        • I would go through our rejected stories and give you examples of those beginnings, but there are ethical issues.

          When I started reading submissions, I was truly surprised at what some people are willing to send out to journals. The standard advice is that writers read the journals to which they are thinking of sending their work before they submit. Either these people never read litmags at all or they’re so tone deaf that they can’t tell the difference between what is published and what they write.

          • I’m not doubting you, Vivian, but it just seems hard to believe that with the massive proliferation of MFA programs and general uptick in the number of aspiring writers out there as well as the billion or so writing-advice sites out there, that so many of the stories that come in to you could so patently bad. I would have thought a bland sort of mediocrity would more be the rule.

            Any chance you could give us a sort of pastiche of a typically bad opening, of the kind of which you are talking?

    • Funny you should mention that Sherman Alexie story – out of the hundreds of short stories I’ve read over the years, that is one that stuck, that has always stayed with me. Thanks for re-reminding me of it.

  3. Ah, The Dark Side. Well, here we go.

    Since most of the people who will read this are probably not familiar with upstreet, the magazine I publish, I’d like to begin with a few facts: upstreet is a 224-page, 7×8.5-inch annual literary journal that publishes fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry, with an author interview in each issue. There is no artwork other than the photograph of the interview subject. If you’d like to see what the prospective buyer sees on the newsstand, there is a picture of the current issue, upstreet number six, on my blog (

    To put things in perspective, these are the submission numbers for upstreet number six: 1,331 stories; 398 essays; 1,952 poems. These all came into upstreet’s online Submission Manager system between September 1, 2009, and March 1, 2010. The published journal, which came out in June, contained 9 stories, 7 essays, and 26 poems. My interview with Sue William Silverman took 16 pages, plus the photo page.

    189 of upstreet’s 224 pages are available for fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. The rest is taken up by the front and back matter (contents, contributors’ notes, etc.), and the interview. In number six, fiction took up 97 pages, creative nonfiction 58 pages, and poetry, 34 pages.

    The people who decide what goes into upstreet are the three genre editors and myself. For upstreet number six, the poetry editor worked alone, the CNF editor had one additional reader, and the fiction editor two additional readers. Once a genre editor decides whether a given submission is a yes, no, or maybe, that decision is transmitted to me. I send out the e-mails declining the ones that they have decided not to take; I almost never second guess them. The yeses and maybes are almost all shortlisted. It is very unusual for us to accept something in the first three months of the reading period. As I have said before, the quality of submissions tends to improve as time goes on. (I have no idea why this is true, but it is my experience in 14 years of editing two different journals.) Unless something is absolutely wonderful and we are concerned about losing it, we hold it until later in the reading period. This is one of the reasons it takes so long to get notified of acceptance. (Be glad if you don’t hear immediately; the early notifications are almost always rejections.) I am, of course, speaking only about upstreet; I’m not sure if this is true of other journals.

    I’d like Robin Oliveira, who has been upstreet’s fiction editor for four years, to talk about her experience (with both upstreet and Narrative Magazine). I’d also like Rich Farrell, who will be upstreet’s creative nonfiction editor for number seven, to give his views, based on his experience with Hunger Mountain and the Howard Frank Mosher Story Award. I’m hoping that Harrison Fletcher, who was upstreet’s CNF editor for four years, will decide to join us, also.

    This may be stating the obvious, but the bottom line for submitters, I think, is this: When you submit to a literary journal, whether or not your work will be published depends on (1) the amount of space available, (2) the number of submissions the journal receives, and (3) the tastes of those who read the submissions.

  4. Robin’s post caused me to page through upstreet number six, looking at first sentences. Here’s some of what I saw:

    I’m pretty sure I heard the shot that killed her.
    –David Jauss, “Depositions” (fiction)

    At dusk, Frank opened the windows wide to his boys’ room–floor-to-ceiling windows that swung open like barn doors.
    –Jay Kauffmann, “French Windows” (fiction)

    We haul our boots on in the basement stairwell that smells of snow and manure, the treads of our soles caked with muck, the barn smell that follows us everywhere, sweet and damp even through winter’s steady death.
    –Amy Monticello, “Winter” (creative nonfiction)

    My friend Linda and I come from a town named after a suicide.
    –Robin Underdahl, “The Lovely Maiden Jumps into the Waters” (creative nonfiction)

    “I know where the family money went.”
    –Annie Breeding, “The Downfall of the Reynal de St. Michels” (fiction)

    In the cramped stairwell, Irene and Amy bicker over whose turn it is.
    –Jessica Ullian, “Sabato Sera” (fiction)

    In my black-and-white photography class, my professor forbids us to take pictures of children and animals.
    –Nina Feng, “The Barest Shapes of Light” (creative nonfiction)

    I was just waiting for this Santa Claus-looking motherfucker to put his hand on my leg.
    –Peter Stenson, “Well” (fiction)

  5. I just want to add that editors, who are people after all, make mistakes. And there are reasons beyond quality or taste for stories, essays or poems to be rejected. When I was at The Iowa Review, we once got about three issues filled ahead and decided to stop reading submissions altogether–for a few weeks, all I did was open up the submissions and send them back with a standard slip saying we weren’t reading. I myself went through a run of magazines shutting their doors on me–I think three rejections in a row said they couldn’t publish me because the magazine was shutting down (I know, I know–it was just a trick to get rid of me). And, as Court suggests, there is sometimes a bit of luck involved, and sometimes even favouritism. Some people do put themselves forward and make contacts and network–although, really, there is nothing wrong with that, when you think of it.

    All this is true, but the general experience of editing is pretty close to Robin’s account–the rest exists pretty much as exceptional cases.

    • There have been times when we had to reject something we liked just because there wasn’t enough space. When this happens, I tell the author that his/her story has been on our shortlist since we read it, and other things being equal, it would have gone in. The authors that receive this kind of rejection are disappointed, of course, but always very pleased to know their stories were shortlisted. I get e-mnails thanking me for the nice rejections I send.

    • Well, I can understand their wanting to get rid of you, but shutting down the magazine is a little drastic… 🙂

    • About contacts and networking: upstreet has a poetry editor with a lot of good contacts in the poetry world, in NYC and elsewhere. Jessica asks the first-rate poets she knows for work, with excellent success. I receive more compliments on the quality of upstreet’s poetry than I do for either of the other two genres.

      We try to read blindly, but this noble intention is undermined by the authors themselves, who don’t follow the guidelines. About a third of the manuscripts we receive have the name and contact information of the author on them. The point of the Submission Manager system is to keep me from having to check every submission and remove the names, so the readers do see this information. It probably doesn’t really matter, though, because most of them are people we don’t know. The readers don’t see the cover letters. I see everything, of course.

      • There’s nothing wrong with networking, but that’s not what I mean. I mean when by virtue of knowing, say, an editor at a highly prestigious litmag, a story gets published and goes on to great renown, primarily (as far as I can tell) because it originally appeared in a highly prestigious litmag.

        I’ll name names if it wouldn’t be considered bad form. 🙂

        Vivian – a more mundane question – all those thousands of submission – do you read them off a computer screen? Use a Kindle or iPad? Surely you don’t bother to print them all out …?

        • We can consult the CEO of Numero Cinq as to whether it would be considered bad form to name names. As for me, I’m curious. 🙂

          The editors and assistant editors read the submissions on the screen. I think in some cases they will print out a story or essay if they feel they want to read in hardcopy. We’ve been using the online system for two issues. In the beginning, I took both paper and e-mail submissions, then limited it to e-mail. At that time, I was printing them and mailing them to Seattle, Denver, and Brooklyn. Submissions have increased during these six years, and the online system definitely makes things easier for me.

        • Court, You don’t need to name names. Especially, as this is only as far as you can tell, as you say. Do you really mean to say an out-and-out terrible story can become famous simply because and only because it’s published in a prestigious magazine? That doesn’t seem credible. Even in this slimy world.

          But human nature is human nature, and I am sure mediocre stories sometimes do get published as a favour or so someone can get laid. This sort of thing happens in every other field. You expect the whole publishing industry to be a bunch of ethical nuns? Even nuns aren’t that ethical all the time.

          The fact remains that most of the time things happen in a straightforward manner much as Robin and Vivian and I describe it.

          • Okay, I’ll refrain. And no, the story I am thinking of is not out-and-out terrible; it’s actually pretty good. Anyway.

            Well, continuing in an onward process of naivete-shedding, that’s why I’m here.

            I do believe that, for the most part, the cream will rise, as has been described here. And, as I said somewhere else on this thread in which I’ve already said far too much, I’m very much okay with that.

          • I do think that an editor will sometimes publish the work of someone he/she knows, or of someone who is well known, even though it is not that writer’s best work. It can be very difficult to reject a friend, as Robin and I have both had to do. (One of my two best friends in the MFA program stopped being my friend because of it.) And, there were two other stories that we agonized over–by people who were not personal friends, but whom we knew in a more professional capacity. We ended up turning them down. It was hard to do, but the stories just weren’t good enough.

  6. You’re right, Court. Most of it is boring mediocrity, but sometimes it becomes more extreme than that. The word is definitely out that an arresting opening is important, and that can lead writers to do things that the rest of the story just doesn’t live up to. I wasn’t thinking so much of the first sentences when I made that comment. In many cases, the language is pedestrian, the syntax is clumsy, and the writer just doesn’t know how to tell a story. Here are three opening sentences where the writer obviously believes he has a first sentence that will capture the editor’s interest (I hope none of the authors follow this blog):
    –I sat at my desk working hard at not working like everyone else that has an office job in an office park with office parties and office sex.
    –The night it happened I’d been up drinking, watching porn and smoking the cigarettes I robbed off the old lady.
    –Joe and Sam were fourteen—what more reason did they need to tie Billy to a tree?

  7. I am recalling an e-mail Robin sent me that said, “I just read a story in which the author actually used the phrase ‘loin area extremity'”

    • Thanks for these samples, Vivian. I can imagine the tripe that might have followed in the wake of these openings … evidently it is not the case, then, that pretty much everyone who submits to a litmag can do write competently (thanks largely to MFA programs). I imagine I would have stopped reading after the first sentence, too.

      In fact, in perusing online fiction, I often do stop after the first sentence. So I think, brutal as it is, it is fair to judge a story by its opening lines.

      • upstreet does get a fair number of submissions from people with MFA degrees. In fact, we get a lot of submissions from people who teach writing or English, either at the high-school or university level. Sadly, not all of these people write as well as one might expect.

        • Re: Vivian above, rejecting friends: I’m glad to see that sometimes it works both ways!

          • Full disclosure: Just so we’re clear—possibly few of you have looked at my submission guidelines lately: Here on NC I ONLY publish my friends and my children and the children of friends and my former students. I have turned nepotism and cronyism into positive values. 🙂

  8. The sheer numbers have to have some kind of influence, if not at Upstreet, then elsewhere. But this is life now, for writers and reviewers.

    The thing that sobers me, but brings me back to reality and puts me at ease with myself and the world (somewhat) is that the people who make it in writing work like the devil and are obsessed. They keep writing like crazy, they keep submitting, and they don’t give up. I think this is right — Bobbie Ann Mason got one of those famous nice letters to keep trying at The New Yorker — and they took, I think, her eleventh story! (from memory — I once got a note from JEA to keep trying. No luck so far. The NY slush pile must be a mountain now.)

    This isn’t me.

    I reviewed books for a newspaper over 30 years ago. I got to go to a locker and pick out the book I wanted to review. They probably need a warehouse for these books now. I got to keep the books, whether I reviewed them or not. I remember picking out one of Stephen Dixon’s early novels. I didn’t think much of it at all and was probably right — didn’t review it. But man, that guy wrote and wrote and wrote. I’m not a fan and haven’t read that much, but he has built a pretty good reputation.

    I also had a brief stint at The Three Penny Review, when it first started out, and for the first issues they had —

    about 5 submissions for stories during that time!

    None any good. This has changed of course.

    Let’s face it, too, and I’m as guilty as the next guy. When so many submit, and we do it in droves, we just want them to publish our damn stories and don’t care anything about the editors or the magazine. Do we read them? (Be honest — and Vivian sent me two copies which I still haven’t gotten to yet. Coming!)

  9. I’m very much a rookie at this, and I know Gwen also reads at Hunger Mountain (we’ve exchanged stories a number of times about ‘maybe’ submissions), so perhaps she could chime in as well. That being said, I think I’m more inclined to read at least one page before I can decide. As a slush-pile reader, we only have to handle 5 stories at a time, with no time constraints. I suspect I’ll be doing a lot more efficient reading in a couple of weeks when upstreet submissions begin. I’ve seen a lot of really bad stories at HM. I’ve also seen a few that were okay, which I did forward to the fiction editor. It’s easier to do this a reader because I’m down at the bottom culling off that 80%. I’d love to know what the fiction editor at HM sees after her readers have had their go at the pile. It might be interesting to know how editors respond to the stories kicked up from the readers. Are the readers doing their job? What type of story gets sent up?

    Some of the stories I’ve seen simply haven’t been edited. I’ve seen spelling errors and grammar errors in a number of submissions. I find this fascinating, that a weak story to begin with wouldn’t at least be sparkling clean. Probably the strangest thing though, are the sumbitter’s comments. On the submissions manager at HM, the readers can read the author’s ‘bio’ or comments. Many horrible stories were submitted by writers who have a significant publication record. Not the New Yorker, but not the Rotary Club newsletter either. I try to read the author comments after reading the stories, and I’ve been surprised more than once by where these writers have been published. I should say that this isn’t the norm, but it happens at least once every 5 stories.

    It will be fascinating to see this from the CNF side. I think I’ll be looking more closely at first sentences and first paragraphs.

    • Thanks, Rich. It’s really helpful to get your impressions while they’re fresh. Before you get grumpy and cynical like me.

    • Yes, Gwen, please chime in.

      • I have grown less tolerant in the months since I began reading for HM, and, like Rich, I avoid reading the submitter’s comments until I’ve read as much of the story as I think I need to read to get a first impression. At first, I read the whole story every time. Now I read a page or two and keep reading only if I want to see what happens next (or if the story’s really short). If I don’t care what happens next, why should anyone else? Then I’ll look at the comments and if there is a list of publications or some sort of credential that seems impressive I’ll read some more (maybe I missed something, after all, I think). By the way, I admit I admire the likely unpublished submitter who simply says, “Thank you for your support of artists and their work.” If I wanted to read the whole story but felt a little unimpressed afterward, I’ll forward to Rich or Tony or someone else. If the credentials were more impressive than the story, I’ll forward to another reader.

        Once I forwarded directly to the fiction editor with a yes (vs. a maybe) because I liked the story and it delivered all the way through. I forwarded two to four stories as maybes to the fiction editor that came to me or were forwarded by others. That’s from a total of about 50 stories I’ve read during my first six or so months as a reader. Sometimes I fear that what stands out is only the “cream of the crap” and isn’t that good at all, and sometimes I fear that I’m judging everything by the standards of the best authors, the ones I’m reading to learn how to write. In the end, I would rather judge too harshly, esp. when I have other reader/writers to support my second-guessing nature.

    • For the last issue, there were two fiction readers. What they did was send all the Yes and Maybe stories to Robin, and all the No stories to me. I checked out every one of those before rejecting them, until I was sure that they weren’t going to reject any gems. This took a couple of months, and then I was able to confidently reject what they sent me without reading any of them first. Robin can address what she thought of the Yes and Maybe stories they sent her. I know that she forwarded some of them to me as rejects, and some of them went on the shortlist.

      For the next issue, there will be three assistant editors for fiction, which should be very helpful.

    • I would expect you to see much the same thing at upstreet as you’ve seen at Hunger Mountain, only less of it, since I’m sure HM receives more submissions than upstreet. Also, as you can see from the submission numbers from number six, the volume of CNF submissions is much lower than that for fiction or poetry. I’ll be interested to hear if you think there is a difference in quality, one way or another.

  10. Great first sentences, from James Thurber’s “University Days”:

    It wasn’t that agricultural student but it was another a whole lot like him who decided to take up journalism, possibly on the ground that when farming went to hell he could fall back on newspaper work. He didn’t realize, of course, that that would be very much like falling back full-length on a kit of carpenter’s tools. Haskins didn’t seem cut out for journalism, being too embarrassed to talk to anybody and unable to use a typewriter, but the editor of the college paper assigned him to the cow barns, the sheep house, the horse pavilion, and the animal husbandry department generally. This was a genuinely big “beat,” for it took up five times as much ground and got ten times as great a legislative appropriation as the College of Liberal Arts. The agricultural student knew animals, but nevertheless his stories were dull and colorlessly written. . . . His editor finally got pretty much annoyed at the farmer-journalist because his pieces were so uninteresting. “See here, Haskins,” he snapped at him one day, “why is it we never have anything hot from you on the horse pavilion? Here we have two hundred head of horses on this campus — more than any other university in the Western Conference except Purdue — and yet you never get any real low down on them. Now shoot over to the horse barns and dig up something lively.” Haskins shambled out and came back in about an hour; he said he had something. “Well, start it off snappily,” said the editor. “Something people will read.” Haskins set to work and in a couple of hours brought a sheet of typewritten paper to the desk; it was a two-hundred word story about some disease that had broken out among the horses. Its opening sentence was simple but arresting. It read:

    “Who has noticed the sores on the tops of the horses in the animal husbandry building?”

  11. On nepotism and cronyism as positive values: Well, of course they’re positive values *here*, DG. The people you’re acquainted with constitute a superlative group, don’t you know.

    • The Numero Cinq crowd is as scabrous and piratical a bunch of outlaw adventurers as I have ever known, but I do think they are all superlative.

  12. We didn’t get a picture for this Dark Side post. May I suggest:

  13. This was sure interesting to read through, although in a personal sense irrelevant to me, because I don’t know how to write good short stories, it is a form of writing I can’t do, like the cliche about short stories being like sprints and novels like a marathon. I am a marathon writer.

    And I have never edited anything outside my own work.

    But I have known a few editors and a few agents, and the same criteria and the same problems raised here about stories applies to novels, they say.

    One of the best agents in the novel business — Molly Friedrich — told me once that she could not possibly, even with ardent desire, read much into the thousands of submissions that appear in her office. She gives the ones she does attempt, at most, the first page, but her instincts have usually already told her what’s going to happen by the end of the first page after only the first few lines. The hair begins to tremble on the back your neck, and progresses to full-fledged shaking with each line, and you know before going further that if the writer can do this, the writer can go all the way.

    So if you aren’t getting up to speed until page 2 or 3, and even if you are fucking brilliant and shattering from then on, a lot of agents and editors aren’t going to know that — maybe it’s their loss, but so it goes — because the neck hairs weren’t starting to stir in the first paragraph or the first sentence.

    Molly was, by the way, my first agent, and she sold my first novel for an unusually high advance, based on only 60 finished pages (with no outline or even a scheme for the rest) based on this, she told me (the opening paragraph):

    “My name is Jan Roberts. I live in Warren, Iowa. He is kidnapping me. Would you please call the police?”

    Continuing on a tangential matter. I believe the publishing business has changed significantly since around 1990, and that probably coincides with the sudden explosion of life lived in Cyberspace. Although that doesn’t matter. If you’re interested in the source of my opinion, besides it coinciding directly with my real personal experiences as a published novelist for 30 years, you could read “The Time of their Lives,” by Al Silverman, which is subtitled: The golden age of great American publishers, their editors and authors.

    After you read that (and much of what’s in it reflects my earliest experiences as a beginning novelist), compare it with what we all know of publishing in 2010. It is really different, folks. And not for the better.

    I have said before, at least on my literary blog, that I am glad I had the experience, even though it came right at the end, of that world of publishing, and if I were 25 years old today and starting out writing novels, I probably wouldn’t; I would find some other to express my literary urges.

    I think contemporary book publishing is essentially a Hollywood thing. It survives on blockbusters (which almost always are created with an idea of dumbing down to the widest audience), and for show, trickles out a few little books created by one shot writers (because they are only going to get one shot, thanks to BookScan) who are interchangeable — there will always be ten thousand other first novelists following along.

    Finally, as an aside, during a lunch in NY about three years ago with my then editor and my current agent, the question arose about the size of the advance for my first novel, in 1981. When I produced the number, my agent shook her head and said, “Well, you can be sure those days are long gone.”

    Yes, they are.

    • If anyone’s curious . . .

      John Aldridge maps out the literary scene in “The New Assembly-Line Fiction,” from his book Talents and Technicians (you can probably get a used copy cheap at Amazon). He exaggerates and the book is about 18 years old, but the problems he describes have only become more intense.

      One problem all the houses have is that it’s hard to promote a book and get anyone’s attention. Aldridge laments the loss of the public critic, literary people who once wrote to a general audience in popular magazines.

      I haven’t read many Oprah titles, but I give her all the credit in the world. Attention from her has led to many readers (and sales). She’s not a literary powerhouse, but her interests are not slick and facile.

      Aldridge also writes miserable criticism in that book of everyone from Carver on up — he has his biases.

      • I don’t know where Aldridge got his idea of what goes on in an academic writing program, but what he describes corresponds not at all with my VCFA experience.

        As you say, though, it was published 18 years ago; I have no idea what was going on then.

        • It doesn’t match mine at VC either. But I’ve heard this complaint elsewhere and seen and read evidence. Several have weighed in against Iowa, for example. Note the comment in the P&W article in the Doug’s post about low residency programs and VC (wow, who’s the poet who wrote this thing?):

          (3) MFA students must remain on guard against sacrificing their unique aesthetic, political, and cultural perspectives on the altar of consensus, as MFA programs are ideally for a for an exchange of diverse opinions, not hothouses for groupthink or aesthetic dogmatism;

          Years ago I sat in on the MFA program at UNC-G and saw this groupthink in spades.

          But Aldridge is glib and there needs to be a counter-argument. There are few places where writers can get this kind of practice and support.

          VC has several advantages. The workshop is only a small part of the program (I question these, though it’s a good ritual). Instead, there is much more focus on the student/mentor relationship, which is quite close.

          Also VC has a large number of mentors who show great variety in interests and approaches. Many programs only have a handful.

          And of course we have great mentors. (I am mindful of someone in a black helmet holding up his hand and getting ready to squeeze.)

          • Ah, Iowa. I just attended the VCFA Postgraduate Writers’ Conference, where I was in Martone’s short-story workshop. He told us about the fiction workshop he just taught in Corfu for Iowa students, at Robin Hemley’s invitation. (There were also cnf and poetry workshops.) He asked the students what, in their view, would constitute success as a writer, and they uniformly responded: publication of a story in The New Yorker, or of a book by Knopf. Nothing less.

            At the Postgraduate Conference, where the workshops consist of five or six students, Martone uses a cross-sectional approach: the first day, we discuss the titles of all six stories; the second day, we do likewise with the first sentence/first paragraph. Then on to the middle, and the end. There is no gag rule, and no one is in the “hot seat” on a given day. Participants are discouraged from making prescriptive comments, and encouraged to describe what the story is (rather than what it should be), and their reactions to what it is. The effect is remarkably noncompetitive and far less stressful than the usual workshop. (All students have a one-hour individual manuscript conference with Martone.)

            Martone said that when he used this approach with the Iowa students in Corfu, he was met with what amounted to a rebellion. His experience was that they just couldn’t handle a nonjudgmental, noncompetitive discussion.

            I thought this conversation was over, but this blog appears to continually spawn new topics. Maybe it’s just that I can’t shut up. 🙂

  14. Donigan says: “if I were 25 years old today and starting out writing novels, I probably wouldn’t; I would find some other to express my literary urges.”

    Doing what?

    • Good question. I’ll think about it on my way out to lunch. Supposedly there’s a place about half an hour’s walk from here that makes authentic Naples style Margarita pizzas. I’m on patrol.

      • Pretty good pizza, considering that Buenos Aires does not offer very many versions of really good pizza, but Naples it ain’t.

        I thought about it a little, Court. I would be 25 and confront the future ahead, and not be looking back in wistful longing for a past that has disappeared, or is quickly disappearing. I think that means I would be a Cyberspace story-teller of some sort, and not waste my time trying to be an old-timey print story-teller.

        Because I am way, way beyond 25, I’m even older than Doug, I am not cognizant of the ways of Cyberspace story-telling, but it must exist, because story-telling always has and always will be a part of human needs — just the format evolves (or devolves).

        It is easier to be old and at the end of an era, or to be young and at the beginning of an era, than it is to be in the middle with foot in both eras. I think you are in the nasty middle.

        • I think I am. Which doesn’t mean I have to be stuck there. What ever cyberspacey story-telling entails.

  15. It occurred to me that, when describing the upstreet submission-evaluation process, I stopped at the shortlist stage. I’d like to wrap this up by completing the description. There is a shortlist for each of the three genres, and the editors go through them periodically and weed the lists down. After all the submissions have been read, and there have already been several acceptances in each genre, I ask each editor to give me a rank-ordered list, with some leeway at the end (i.e. more items than it will be possible to include). By then I have reformatted the shortlisted items, so that I know exactly how many pages each one will take in the finished issue. I then put the book together, trying the best I can to balance genres and keep to the editors’ preferences. Sometimes I shift things around a bit, depending on length; i.e., I may include a 4pp essay instead of the 7pp essay the editor prefers, just because it fits better. If I have a page or two that needs filling, I’ll usually fill it with a poem or prose poem. This is the stage at which the crapshoot aspect of the process comes in. I’m sure the poets would be thrilled to hear that whether their work is in or out depends on if I need to plug a hole.

    Now you know how the content of one literary journal is determined. I’ve enjoyed this discussion very much, and I’d like to thank those of you who participated for your interest and enthusiasm, and, of course, Douglas for starting the whole thing.

    • Vivian,

      Much thanks for all your comments. The process has become so impersonal that it’s good to know there are human beings on the other side. It’s also good that we see the process, mechanical as some of the details are.

      Maybe one day someone will come up with a program that weeds out submissions . . . .

  16. Donigan’s description of Molly Friedrich’s visceral response to a good book submission corresponds directly to my experience when reading a good story submission. The hair on the back of my neck does indeed stand on end; I hold my breath, having to remind myself to breathe. And when the end comes, and it is good, I am usually breathless.

  17. This is most interesting post and comment stream I’ve come across in a long time. I’ve just turned in what I hope will be my penultimate revision to my editor at Poison Pen Press. It’s a small house with a narrow specialty (crime fiction), but the editorial process makes me feel like I’m back in the era of Maxwell Perkins, with a detailed line-by-line attention to detail in the edits that reminds me more than anything else of my experience with the editor of this magazine, back at VCFA. Beyond the critical dialogue (and occasionally, the shouting match) that bristles through the comments on the text, I’m acutely aware of my privileged position. Somehow my book advanced to this point, through a process of relentless revision, backtracking, false moves and reversals. It didn’t even start out as a mystery. It was a ‘slush pile’, un-agented submission. The only lessons I draw from all this experience are, amuse yourself, and don’t give up.

    • Thanks, Steve. It is a great comment stream. I have neglected to keep bringing it back. I shall not forget again.

  18. This was a fascinating read. If it interests you – if not, no matter – here’s a neophyte’s perspective.

    As a neophyte I am hesitant to submit much, but for two reasons. 1) I have high standards that I don’t often meet; 2) I have high standards that a lot of shlock doesn’t meet.

    A journal running shlock doesn’t inspire a writer. That sounds like an excuse, but it’s not – I do try to submit my best work, now and then. And I am aware of my own naivety and of the complexity of the market.

    I tend to tell myself (and, most often, do find) that the published shlock is still better than what I’m coming up with. So, fair enough.

    As a neophyte the concern for me is not so much “how will my genius become recognized?” but rather “how will genius become recognized in general?” Because good stories are just good fun as long as you have another job, so my concern intellectually is how the new partly-digital markets will organize and stratify themselves. This seems more complicated than the question of how I’m going to get published (answer: work really hard and try not to go crazy).

    One Story is hit or miss in terms of genius but at least their constructed exclusivity ensures I read their finely crafted stories regardless.


  19. Now I understand why I shit myself every time I’ve sent something your way.
    But truly, any rejection or editing you have done for me is a favour. Thank you, always.

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