The Editing Process: Fiction

I haven’t been editing fiction for a long time, but even in the time I’ve been a fiction editor here at Superstition Review, some things have come to my attention about the role an author’s decisions play in an editor’s decision process. It’s so simple to say that good writing gets published and that bad writing gets rejected. However, with an acceptance rate of about 4% for fiction (probably higher than the standard acceptance rate) the fact is that a lot of good writing goes back to its author with a rejection notice. While there are a lot of factors that go into the editorial process and some of them are beyond the author’s control, there are some relatively simple things an author can do to increase the odds of getting published. As with everything, these are rules that can sometimes be broken, there only has to be a deliberate point in doing so.

This may have a different meaning than intended.
This may have a different meaning than intended.

Self-Editing

This is a quick one. If there are easy-to-catch editing mistakes (especially doubled-up
words and misspellings) it becomes incredibly easy to send that rejection notice. Make sure that it is clear to your readers just how important your own work is to you.

Nail that Opener

Throughout my time as a writer, I have often been told the importance of the opening line, and of that line’s innate ability to make or break a story. While the first line is not always the most important, there is a great degree of influence in those first couple of paragraphs. Let’s say the first page is not only pivotal in setting up the mood and direction of a short story but it is also the space where the author needs to prove that they are good at what they do. The opening is where the most polished writing needs to be. It may sound harsh, but if you have more than one or two problems in the opening then I am automatically going to assume that those problems prevail throughout the story.

Perspective

PerspectiveThe point of view from which a narrative is told is as important to a story as the writing itself. Most writers seem to understand that the role of first person is to provide the audience with a specific character’s insight and perspective on the world. During this particular submissions period, we received a lot of stories written in second person. We accepted one, but would have to think twice about accepting several. What really seems to be the problem is that writers are forgetting that the second person perspective requires two subjects. The first is the narrator and the second is the person they are addressing. It is when this second character is forgotten or poorly developed that this point of view falls apart.

Dialogue

Dialogue is much more like an iceberg than anything else; there is more going on beneath the surface than above. Also, much like an iceberg, not paying the appropriate amount of attention to it is going to sink you just as surely. I have two suggestions here on ways to improve dialogue. One sounds fairly straightforward, the other much less so. The first is sitting down and reading a couple of plays. Playwrights like McDonagh, Kushner, and Pinter are great examples of playwrights who know the importance of dialogue as well as the importance of what is left unsaid.

My other suggestion is to pick up and read some comics. Now bear with me a second, because I do have a reason for suggesting this. The Last ManThe thing about comics is that their dialogue makes up a majority of the written words on any given page. As such, the dialogue has nothing to hide behind. A bad line is separated from everything else and framed by a black line for all to see. There is no escaping it. Creative writers should do the same thing with their dialogue. Imagine it alone on a page and see if it stands up to that sort of individualized scrutiny.

One more note: dialogue tags (he said, she said) are the absolute worst, even more so when only two characters are present in a scene. Having characters constantly use pronouns in their dialogue is not any better.

Clichés

It’s one of the first lessons we learn as writers: avoid clichés. Luckily, most writers seem well aware of this fact. However, there are still what I call microcosms of clichés. This is when a specific subject starts to make up an alarmingly large portion of the submissions received by a magazine. This is a difficult thing to avoid and not entirely the fault of the author, but it does have a lot to do with whether or not a piece will be published. As an example, during this submission period Superstition Review received a lot of fiction pieces featuring cancer. Think of this as increasing your competition. Now, not only do you have to be one of the best writers submitting but you also have to have one of the best pieces featuring cancer.

Again, this is not really something the author has complete control over but there are some things one can do to try and avoid it. My first suggestion would be to watch being overly topical in the sense of broad problems that affect everyone. If it’s a subject on every news program and part of the collective mind then it is probably safe to say that it is going to find its way into a lot of creative writing. One way to overcome this is to talk about these subjects in a different way or to come at them from a different angle. Cancer is not the interesting subject, the way in which people deal with it is. In this case, the story need not be about cancer but can be any disease that compromises its host in the same way. Another suggestion is to watch the literary magazines that you are submitting to, if they are already carrying pieces dealing with a specific topic then try shopping a piece with the same topic someplace else.

Balance

It is hard to sit down and read something that is all action with no thought given to imagery or voice. Imagery, and the way an author describes the world in which their story exists, is a large part of what makes creative writing so unique and a large part of why people read it. Without it the writing is going to feel stale and lifeless.balance

There is the opposite of this as well. Though it is less common, the overuse of imagery/voice will kill a story just as quickly as having none at all. These stories are often jumbled and confusing, leaving the reader little frame of reference in which to find their way through a story.

Word choice is another part of this balance equation. It is very easy to miss the repetitious use of a couple of words, but nothing makes me question a writer’s ability quite so quickly. While it is sometimes necessary to repeat a few words, I cannot really think of a justification for doing it more than twice in a paragraph. Really watch out for those pet words.

Again, there is the other side of this as well and that is the thesaurus approach. This is when a writer clearly uses a thesaurus to generate unique words in their story. The words often come off as awkward and create a disjointed sentence. There is nothing wrong in using it occasionally when the right word is escaping you but, ironically, overuse is just going to drain a piece of its feeling of originality.

Guest Blog Post, Joy Lanzendorfer: Stuck

joy lanzendorferLately, I’ve been getting stuck while writing short stories. I’ll be working on a promising idea with a good set-up and characters, and suddenly I’ll hit a wall. I simply won’t know how to make the story work. What do I do with this thing? I’ll think. What happens next?

This is a lonely feeling. After all, if I, the writer, don’t know what happens next in the story, who does?

The Internet is not helpful. Do a search on this topic, and you’ll get advice like, “Try a prompt. Where does your character like to go on vacation?” But this problem I’m having is more than just plotting. It’s about figuring out meaning.

I write first drafts quickly and then take forever editing them. The first draft is a movie in my head, the interplay between the conscious and unconscious mind, and the joy of rampant imagination and wordplay. These drafts, as you might expect, are messy. They may or may not have an ending. They may have gaps with brackets that say [fill in details]. They may start one way, shift point-of-view or tense, and then go in the opposite direction. Editing is a process of finding meaning through untangling the first draft—who are these characters, what are they doing, why did I write that, and what is the point of this story, anyway?

Meaning is tricky. You’ve got to be careful with it. You don’t want to choke the life out of your story by imposing what you think you’re trying to say onto it. That’s a shifting landscape anyway, what you are trying to say. You may not know what you think or what you believe until the fiction shows you. Every time I have tried to write a story about a preconceived moral or the Truth About Life, the story hasn’t cooperated.

George Saunders recently told The New Yorker:

Early on, a story’s meaning and rationale seem pretty obvious, but then, as I write it, I realize that I know the meaning/rationale too well, which means that the reader will also know it—and so things have to be ramped up. Einstein said (or, at least, I am always quoting him as having said), “No worthy problem is ever solved within the plane of its original conception.” … These sorts of thematic challenges are, for me, anyway, only answerable via the line-by-line progress through the story. Trying to figure out what happens next, and in what language.

This seems to be the answer to my problem: not prompts, not tricks, not the addition of new characters, but “line-by-line progress through the story.” Some writers love the careful examination that comes with the editing process. For me, editing takes patience and time, and I’m usually short on patience and time. It also faith. You have to hope that something shadowy and mysterious—that part of your brain that knows why you wrote what you wrote—will come to the rescue and redeem this gobbledygook in the form of a worthwhile story.

And of course, sometimes it doesn’t. Stories fail. There’s always risk with writing.

In a recent interview with The Paris Review, EL Doctorow said that writing is “like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” This is true, but man, isn’t that kind of a terrifying drive? No wonder writers get so anxious and despairing. But I, for one, am becoming more comfortable with this particular brand of discomfort. You can get used to almost anything in life, I guess. You just have to put your butt in the driver’s seat and hope that the headlights won’t burn out and that the road will continue to emerge. In fact, don’t think about all the things that can go wrong. Even though you know that sometimes you will drive into a cow pasture and have to turn around and go back to the beginning, and sometimes you will have to turn around multiple times before you’re through, you just have to keep going until you reach the end of your journey and pull into a full, satisfying parking job.

And then, of course, you start down a new road altogether.

Meet the Review Crew I

Content Coordinator for Poetry and Nonfiction: Ashley Maul

Once, she was asked to list five books she’d bring with her on a deserted island and without fail her answer remains: Harry Potter and the Goblet of FireThe Scarlet Letter, a collection of Allen Ginsberg’s poetry, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Billy Collin’s The Trouble with Poetry. Her favorite reading reflects her own writing style – a combination of youthful fancy and shenanigans mixed with sarcasm and adult confession.

Like many students so close to graduation, she is unsure of where the future will take her, but she is very interested in the publishing industry and imagines a career that allows her to telecommute as an editor for a posh literary magazine or book publishing company. With a history in bookstore management and an avid thirst for reading and writing, there is little she can imagine that can combine her interests so perfectly.

Art Editor Arjun Chopra

Arjun started working with Superstition Review over the past summer as a guest contributor with his blog series, “Dispatches From Delhi.” Despite being relatively new to the world of editing/publishing, Arjun finds his position intellectually stimulating and instrumental in giving him his first glimpse into the actual working side of writing. He finds his work to be a comprehensive learning experience in meshing creativity with professionalism, an invaluable skill of those who strive to make a living through their writing, a skill he is glad to have the chance to practice.

When not in class, doing homework, or compiling graduate application materials, Arjun enjoys spending his free time reading novels and poetry collections, writing, watching movies, skateboarding, and listening to a wide variety of different music.

Advertising Editor Brooke Passey

Along with her reading load for class, Brooke tries to read one recreational book a week. To stay motivated she posts weekly book reviews on her blog brookepassey.wordpress.com. She also loves horseback riding and spends her spare time training and teaching riding lessons. In the 15 years that she has been riding she has only fallen off a horse once—when she was reading a book while sitting on her horse bareback. Although she loves both hobbies she has since decided to keep them separate. After graduation she plans on pursuing a career where she can use her writing skills during the day and her riding skills in the evening.

Fiction Editor Abbey Maddix

Superstition Review is Abbey’s first experience working with a literary magazine and hopefully the first stepping stone to a career in the editing and publishing world. She finds the position demanding but educational, particularly informative when it comes to thinking about her own future career as a writer. Her work centers on fiction of all forms, exploring genres and forms and her own limitations. She enjoys pushing the boundaries of her comfort zone and enjoys exploring the question “What does it mean to be human?” from both a literary angle and a scientific one.

On Abbey’s “favorites” bookshelf there are the works of Kurt Vonnegut, Neil Gaiman, Italo Calvino, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, although she’d like to expand her experience with contemporary literature. Although she has a difficult time understanding poetry, the works of Pablo Neruda and Tomas Tranströmer have managed to win her over.

Guest Blog Post, Monica Petersen: The Art in the “Shitty first draft”

SFDTaken from Anne Lamott’s essay in her book Bird by Bird, the “shitty first draft,” or SFD, tries to make the most difficult step in writing easier. The concept is simple: write everything you can all at once and get it on the page. In her words, “almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper” (25). Don’t filter yourself, or you will never get past the first paragraph. I have always hated writing my first draft out of fear of that it will be worse than a 5-year-old’s first book report. Even Lamott recognizes her fear that if something were to happen to her, she would never have the chance to go back and fix her SFD.

The SFD is important to me because it transformed the way I write. My first draft is supposed to be bad, so it’s perfectly OK if it is. The worse the draft is, the better actually because it means I have more to work with to make it perfect. After chucking everything onto the page, the ideas are there, and only need tweaking (or maybe entire paragraph upheaval) to get it where I want the work to be. The point is the SFD provides a starting place when you didn’t have one before.

After the SFD, I spend the rest of my writing time editing it, stripping the work to its barest bones, and building it back up again. I have a tendency to overwrite (and by tendency I mean 1000 words over the limit on a paper). My SFD usually contains at least double the words allowed and is plagued by repetition. My writing process consists of paring that overwriting down day after day to get it under the limit—condensing sentences, and clarifying ideas.

The same thing goes for my fiction pieces and this post. I can write pages of text, giving me paragraphs to work with. Because of all the prose I have, I can cut down the bad, horrible, and not-so-good stuff and allow the best float to the top. I can take out an entire scene to a story, or rework a character’s personality when I realize I want her to be angry with the world instead of happy to be alive. The SFD provides a canvas and base to build upon and create a better piece.

Have you ever used an SFD before? What other significant tools have you used to make your writing process easier?

Meet the Review Crew: Mai-Quyen Nguyen

Mai-Quyen Nguyen is a junior at Arizona State University, majoring in English with a concentration in Fiction and pursuing a certificate in Technical Communication. She is a Fiction Editor for Superstition Review, which is her first role at the online literary magazine. Not only is she seeking to gain experience with the editing and publishing industry, but she is also hoping to develop relationships and build networks.

Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area in California, she moved to Arizona to study nursing. However, her career plan changed when she fully realized her passion to write and edit. Language and words are multifaceted; people communicate through both spoken and written words and she wishes to affect the lives of others through her own.

What Mai-Quyen finds fascinating about writing is the bond it creates between the writer and the reader. Regardless of how deeply literature is read, people take away different meanings. Writing searches for the truth, a concept that humans sometimes find difficult, and Mai-Quyen seeks to find who she is through literature.

One story that has changed her life is “Recitatif” by Toni Morrison. She enjoys not only the works of contemporary authors such as Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Stuart Dybek, Jim Shephard, and John Irving, but also those of John Green and Ernest Hemingway. Inspired by Hemingway, Mai-Quyen is interested in exploring his theory of omission, or the Iceberg Theory, in her works.

Aside from writing fiction, Mai-Quyen likes to compose lyrics and on occasion, poetry. She grew up as a performer: she sang in her elementary school and high school choir, swing danced in elementary and middle school, acted during middle school, and took piano lessons for seven years. Although she is no longer committed to those activities, she continues to play the piano in her spare time.

After graduating from ASU, Mai-Quyen plans to apply to Columbia University to earn an MFA in Fiction. She aspires to become a book editor and a literary fiction author. She dreams to have her work published and read across the world, evoking a positive response on her audience who will gain valuable lessons from her stories.

Meet the Review Crew: Corinne Randall

My name is Corinne Randall and I am a Creative Writing (poetry concentration) major and Communication minor. This is my third semester working as an editor at Superstition Review. In the past, I worked as a poetry editor and I not only enjoyed the experience immensely, I grew from it as well. I learned about what it means to be an editor for a literary magazine and that is knowledge I will take with my throughout the rest of my career. I am now a nonfiction editor and am enjoying the different type of content I get to read every week.

Some of my favorite pieces of literature are William Shakespeare’s plays. I have always found them very interesting and I have taken a few classes on the subject. In addition, I enjoy reading books of poetry not only for my own personal enjoyment, but to further increase my writing skills within the genre. I have a goal to one day publish a book of poetry and I believe the best way to do so is to learn from those who have already done so.

Since this is my final semester here at ASU, I am thinking about what to do with my future after I graduate in December. As of now, pursuing an MA in Literature seems to be my main focus, with hopes to eventually teach writing or literature classes.

I look forward to Issue 10 of SR and I am honored to be a part of the process.

Meet the Review Crew: Ofure Ikharebha

Ofure Ikharebha is a social networking intern pursuing a degree in Linguistics with a concentration in English, and a certificate in TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages). Upon graduating, she hopes to either attend graduate school for a master’s degree or jump into a career in publishing, editing, or localization.

Ofure was born on the West Coast, but Phoenix is where she has spent the majority of her time growing up. As a child, she was always an avid reader and developed a burgeoning interest in literature and language; Ofure believes that this is all due in part to her parents having used “Hooked on Phonics” and an interactive alphabet desk. Oh, to be a child of the ’90s…

While many might find the “classics” boring, they are Ofure’s literature of choice. This interest was first cultivated in middle school after reading various works by John Steinbeck, George Orwell, and Ray Bradbury. (You’d actually be hard-pressed to find her admitting her deep appreciation for old school sci-fi.) Aside from reading, she also enjoys embarking on creative projects, studying languages, watching a wide variety of television shows (from Asian dramas to Breaking Bad), and blogging.

Ofure applied to SR out of necessity and curiosity; while the extrinsic values of gaining more internship experience within a desired field are important, she is most excited about working with a team to organize a literary magazine issue and the publishing process. With her internship at Superstition Review, she hopes to help develop and maintain an active social media presence and put her years of extensive social networking use to good work.

One of Ofure’s favorite poems is John Gillespie Magee, Jr’s “High Flight”:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

SR Pod/Vod Series: Poet Cortney Davis

Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature this podcast by Cortney Davis.

Cortney Davis is the author of five poetry collections, including Details of Flesh (Calyx Books) and Leopold’s Maneuvers (Univ. of Nebraska Press) winner of the Prairie Schooner Poetry Prize. Her non-fiction publications include I Knew a Woman: The Experience of the Female Body (Random House), winner of the Center for the Book Non-Fiction Award, and The Heart’s Truth: Essays on the Art of Nursing (Kent State Univ. Press), winner of an Independent Publisher’s Silver Medal. Recipient of an NEA Poetry Fellowship and three Connecticut Commission on the Arts Poetry Grants. Cortney is the poetry editor of the journal Alimentum: the Literature of Food.

You can read along with her poem in Issue 9 of Superstition Review.

To subscribe to our iTunes U channel, go to http://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/superstition-review-online/id552593273

Meet the Review Crew: Victoria Fouts

Victoria Fouts is a Social Networker at Superstition Review. She is currently a senior at Arizona State University who is majoring in English Literature. Victoria joined the Superstition Review team for the fall semester of 2012 in order to learn more about the world of publishing and literary magazines. She is very excited to expand her knowledge and become more familiar with the in’s and out’s of editing, publishing, and literature in the modern world. Victoria looks forward to becoming more aware of different writers and art styles, becoming more cultured and growing in her networking abilities through her internship at Superstition Review.

Originally, Victoria was born in Pasadena, Texas and raised in Scottsdale, Arizona after being adopted when she was 3 ½ years old with her little sister. Both girls were taken in by a loving family which had already adopted two other children, a son and a baby girl. Victoria showed a talent for reading at an early age and quickly fell in love with books. Her parents encouraged her to read anything she could get her hands on and turned her into a voracious reader. Growing up, her parents had to ground her by taking her books away rather than television privileges. Over the years she has expanded her collection of favorite authors, books, and styles of literature. Ranging from the hilarious works of David Sedaris to the dark gothic horrors of Edgar Allen Poe and (of course) Clive Barker, she enjoys trying every genre of literature at least once. During her time at ASU, Victoria has focused her English studies on writings produced in the Victorian Era, one of her favorite time periods in history.

No matter where she lives, Victoria always brings books from her “favorite collection” to line her bookshelves (a required piece of furniture in any home). Unfortunately, the collection has grown so large that she has had to leave some of these treasured novels at her childhood home due to lack of shelving space in her apartment! Given her wide variety of books, friends often come to her to borrow books and ask for reading suggestions.

After graduation, Victoria and her boyfriend plan to get married and quickly move to Oregon to escape the Arizona heat. Once there she wants to find a job in the publishing market and to become deeply involved in the literary scene of the northwest coast. If she ever has the time or energy, Victoria dreams of writing and publishing a book of her own.

Former SR Intern Brooke Stevenson Speaks Out about the “Real World”

I have an English degree, and I’m a proposal coordinator for an engineering company. How in the (real) world did that happen?

When I told people I was majoring in English, the response was usually, “Are you going to teach, or work at Starbucks?” I have neither the patience nor tact for teaching. I’d scream every time a student wrote about a dream or heaven forbid, a vampire. Maybe I just really hate vampires. Maybe I wanted to defy every person who ever said an English degree was only for future baristas of America.

I graduated college three years ago. I worked on the first Superstition Review issue with Trish and she directed my committee for my Barrett Honors College thesis. My premise? I don’t really know anything! That principle hasn’t really changed to this day. It sounds pessimistic at first, but it’s actually become a mantra for personal success.

I’m 25, and smack dab in the middle of an age group known for being brash. So, I feel that I can grow as a person by acknowledging and honing the few things I do know (in comparison to all the things there are to know in the world). Basically, I hope to avoid the pitfall of becoming another foolhardy, unemployed, 20-something of the Millennial generation.

I had five editorial internships in college and still didn’t have a “real world” lead when I graduated. I thought I wanted to go into publishing, but the job well was dry at the time. My internship mentor suggested marketing positions; sometimes their descriptions are similar to editorial work. This was some of the best advice I ever received, and I found several comparable options.

The one that stuck out to me was this engineering firm. I looked at their website and saw a company that designs roads, builds museums, encourages sustainable energy options, keeps water and shorelines clean. I wanted to be a part of this. I walked into the interview and said, “I don’t know anything about engineering. But, I do know words, and I know them well.” I proved it with an editing test, and got the job.

My title is “proposal coordinator.” I write, edit, and produce proposals detailing my company’s qualifications for completing a project. From designing wastewater treatment plants in California to expanding ports in Florida, I create books aiming to persuade clients that we are the right team for the job. I work with a project manager to develop the text and design an interesting, effective document. The engineers provide the technical know-how, and I provide the understanding of English and a creative eye. It’s the perfect symbiotic relationship for two people who know their respective topics. The projects range from a few thousand dollars to a few million, and help us intelligently plan for using/replenishing Earth’s resources well into the future.

I still freelance for one of my mentors, writing pieces for local magazines. It’s a nice creative outlet when the technical talk starts to take over and I need a break. I’ve approached the “real world” a lot like I approached college. Humility and embracing the big picture that there is always room to grow has served me unbelievably well, and I’m grateful for every day that I’m gainfully employed at my job. Plus, there aren’t any vampires.