Archives for category: Editing a Literary Magazine

The Problem with Submissions Systems

I love editing, but managing submissions has been the bane of my existence from the minute I started editing. There are submission management tools out there, but they are expensive or designed for big teams or do crazy things like telling your authors every time you change the label on their submission.* Paper Tape is a small magazine with a tiny editorial staff, but I was so frustrated with the available tools at one point that I taught myself enough HTML and CSS to build the front-end of a system myself in the hopes that my partner would take pity on me and build the backend. (He did.) But maintaining that monster was its own nightmare, so for the past year and a half or so I’ve been accepting email submission, which, with Gmail labels and extremely baroque submission guidelines, allowed me to keep things together just enough to avoid insanity. That is, if everyone who submitted to Paper Tape followed the guidelines. And we didn’t get too many submissions and the author didn’t touch any email subject lines or need edits or change their bio or pretty much ask for anything whatsoever.

Then in January we got a listing on Duotrope, and submissions exploded. I was ecstatic, but my carefully crafted system couldn’t handle the load. It was a miracle that we managed to keep it together, and I was determined that this would never happen again, so I created a form which would at least require the poetry spammers** to lie and check off a box saying they were sending me fiction.

The first submission with the new system came in, and it worked. I was ecstatic for the five minutes it took for the second submission to come in. Then I realized that I’d made a big mistake. Every submission that came from the form had the same subject line, which meant that Gmail decided they were all part of one conversation. There is no way to split conversations in stock Gmail.

Doom. Destruction. Fiery chaos. I hid under my desk for three days while the conversation grew and threatened sentience.

Then I thought, “This is stupid. Everyone hates the fact that you can’t separate conversations in Gmail. SOMEONE has to have solved this by now.”

So, I searched for a way to break up conversations in Gmail and discovered a Gmail extension by Streak.

Problem Solved

Streak is a company that creates software that allows you to do CRM in your inbox. I didn’t know what CRM was at the time, but if someone had tied me down and demanded that I guess, I would have said that because this is the Internet, “M” probably stood for marketing. I didn’t need to do marketing in my inbox, and I had no idea why anyone would want to. All I knew was that Streak would allow me to separate conversation threads, so I downloaded it, untangled the chaos, labeled everything in my inbox, and called it a day.

Then last week, I started to notice that Streak had made new buttons in my inbox. After some poking around I learned that Streak also allows you to delay sending e-mail and mute conversations for a few hours and archive conversations temporarily. It was like someone had read my e-mail wish list…or the wish list I would have written if I hadn’t been buried in submissions.

And that’s when I discovered the killer feature: Pipelines.

Pipelines, as far as I can tell, are like the fairy godmothers of email. It’s like they’ll take your inbox and turn it into whatever you want. You want a way to keep track of story drafts? Done. You want to plan a party and keep track of invitations and what everyone has agreed to bring? Done. You seek the grail? … … … Well, I’m sure there’s something for you in there, too.

For me, Pipelines transformed my inbox into the submission system I tried to build over a year ago. Instead of worrying about keeping one conversation per submission, I can create boxes for each submission that comes to us and file all of the related e-mails into that box. I can see exactly how many submissions are at each stage of the submissions process on one screen. I can make notes of things that authors want me to change, and I can even set it to poke me when I’ve decided that something (like a batch of edits) can wait until later.

Editors, you don’t need CRM. You need Streak.

So, why am I writing a post that pretty much sounds like an advertisement for Streak? Because it’s awesome. (That’s obvious.) And not because anyone is paying me. (That’s not so obvious.) It’s because of what I said up above about not knowing what CRM is.

If months ago, someone had told me that I needed a CRM solution, I would have Googled it and found really big and unwieldily systems like Salesforce. I would have felt like a very cheap, very poor fish in a very big pond and maybe struggled with submissions forever.

But in less than a week Streak has saved me so much time, I was able to offer to work with five authors that I would have otherwise had to turn down because I didn’t have enough time to edit their work. If all of them take me up on my offer, there are going to be five stories going out into the world that may have never found a publisher otherwise.

So, if you are an editor of a literary journal, and you found this post because someone told you that you need CRM, and you googled it thinking, “What the heck is CRM?”, forget about it. Unless you’re one of the Big Five and actually need an aircraft carrier to handle all your submissions, it doesn’t matter to you. Get Streak. Even if you have to change e-mail providers. Really. It’s that worth it.

*If you’ve ever gotten a rejection letter that just said something like “rejected” or “denied,” it’s probably because the magazine uses THAT system and has decided that one word rejection letters are good enough for them. 

**Poetry spam is a problem I never thought I’d have to deal with, but there have been times when dealing with poets who have access to databases of literary journals has taken up something like 80% of my time.

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Submissions are closed on Paper Tape‘s next issue “Hauntings,” and this is the best reading period we’ve ever had. And it isn’t because we got more submissions than ever before. No, I’m thrilled because we didn’t get a single bad story. Seriously. I’m not being precious. Every single story that landed in my inbox (spam aside) had something at its core that needed to be said, and that is extraordinary.

That’s not to say that everything will be accepted. Some stories had nothing to do with hauntings, really, and others just came at a bad time or covered territory that someone else covered better. Things like this can’t be helped, and I wish that every rejection happened for those reasons because the solution to the problem then would just be to send the stories out to more editors.

Unfortunately, though, many of the stories that won’t be appearing in “Hauntings” were rejected because they had craft problems, and, worse, I saw many of the same mistakes repeated over and over again.

So, I did what every good blogger does when there’s a problem: I made a list.

Verbs are action words, not descriptors. If you’re writing about a wedding, and you say that the bride lurched down the aisle, I’m going to immediately assume that she’s a zombie. If she isn’t a zombie, I’m going to be disappointed. Disappointment is a limited resource, and all of my disappointment is currently being used on dead Starks, so please don’t disappoint me with something as piddly as a verb. I know that the memo has gotten out that adverbs and adjectives are bad. The answer is not to make the verbs more colorful. (Which is why the only acceptable dialog verbs are “said” and “asked.”) Verbs are the invisible carriers of being. If you want to be more colorful, look to your nouns, or, better yet, your characters, settings, and plot.

If I can see it out my window, you probably don’t need to describe it to me. Just call it a sunflower and be done with it. There are exceptions to all of these rules, but the exceptions are especially important here. (Especially for poets who build their whole craft inside these exceptions, as anyone who has read Mark Doty knows.) Sometimes description is important. There is a chapter in Mr. Palomar by Italo Calvino in which waves are described in excruciating detail, but it works because the chapter is about seeing the ordinary through the eyes of an extraordinary character, not describing waves. Description is like a verb. It allows someone or something to do something, but instead of enabling characters and plot objects the way verbs do (like rocks falling on the heads of zombie brides lurching down the aisle), description helps the reader. It might help the reader to imagine a place they’ve never been before, and it might help the reader to see something common in a new way, and it might help the reader understand how the mind of a stranger works, but description should not exist for its own sake.

Unless it’s important that your character is fidgety, don’t describe all their gestures. It’s easy to point at extreme examples like the repeated lip biting in 50 Shades of Grey, but most problematic body-talk moments are isolated occurrences, the hand tucking hair behind a character’s ear. Most of the time, I think that the problem here is that the writer is trying to show with body language what a non-POV character is thinking, and the instinct that guides the decision is good. It implies that the writer knows that people know so much more than is actually said. The problem is that writing isn’t a visual medium. If you try to show with words the subtle movements and affectations of body language, the cute wave ends up reading like frantic flailing, which is a pretty bizarre way to say, “Hello.” In this case, it’s better to tell than to show.

Don’t summarize when the story needs a scene and visa versa. When someone tells you, “Show, don’t tell,” what they probably mean is that you’ve summarized when you should have scened. If you don’t know the difference between summaries and scenes, Purdue’s Online Writing Lab covers it well here . There are a few short stories sitting in my inbox that I hope will become excellent novels someday.

Avoid long strings of dialog. You know when a string of dialog is going on too long when you can’t bring yourself to write “said” one more time or when you squint at the text and it looks like a poem. Dropping “said” is one way to get around it, but it’s also a way to make the reader confused. It would be better to find a way to interrupt the dialog. (Veronica Roth does this particularly well in Divergent, if you’re looking for a model.) Just don’t break up dialog with body language.

Stories about important issues still need to be told well. One of the most difficult decisions I have to make as an editor is rejecting a story that is about something important and is badly told. The instinct to write stories instead of articles about Important Things ™ is good. Stories are like a candy coating. They can make the truth easier to swallow, but stories aren’t like medicine. When the candy coating tastes bad, no one is going to eat it. 

If a plot element is important enough that you need to explain it to me in an e-mail, make sure it shows up in the story. Maybe it’s just me, but I think this one is a no-brainer. If I say that something in your work is unclear, please don’t explain it to me. Revise your work. 

You may have noticed by now that many of the problems in this list happen when people take good advice and follow it at the wrong time or in the wrong way or not at all. So, before you follow anyone’s advice, make sure you know why that advice is important. For you. Today. With this story. Because when you die and the writing gods weigh your collected works against a feather, they aren’t going to care that you listened when Stephen King told you to kill your darlings, but they might care if any of us understood what you were trying to say. 

In December, one of Paper Tape‘s authors submitted us to Duotrope, and our listing was accepted. Duotrope is an online database of writers markets and invaluable resource, especially new writers who don’t yet know the major publishers of their genres. Most literary journals fail in their first year, so new publishers are listed as fledgling markets for the first six months they’re on Duotrope. Earlier this month we graduated. In addition to Paper Tape joining the more mature markets, and I had an opportunity to share what Paper Tape is and how we work in an editor interview.

When it’s done well, most of an editors’ work is invisible, so I was grateful for the opportunity to talk about it, especially with wonderful questions like these:

Q: How important do you feel it is for publishers to embrace modern technologies?

A: I think it’s important for publishers to be thoughtful about how they use technology. Personally, I am interested in the ways that the Internet and ubiquitous mobile devices change the way readers interact with literature and art, so Paper Tape makes an effort to be accessible to a person who might do most of their reading on a phone or tablet. Because this is our audience, we prefer short (“commute-length”) pieces. We publish one piece a week, and our website has a relatively minimalist design that works well with social media, RSS readers, and personal magazine readers. At another time in my life, I can imagine publishing work for people who prefer to spend an afternoon with a print quarterly, and I would approach technology much differently then. A good publisher thinks about their writers and their audience and does their best to connect them in a way that makes sense.

 

Some people call them portfolios. Some people call them personal sites. Other people call them author pages. No matter what you call them, the first thing I do when I accept a submission is look for one. I’m always looking for people to interview, and sometimes, I get lucky, like I did with David Licata, and discover that a person who has a talent for writing fiction also creates films. It’s like a two-for-one deal. I get to publish a short story and do an interview, as well.

One of the most baffling things about being an editor is getting submissions from writers who have dozens of publications but no portfolio. When I ask them why they don’t have a portfolio, they almost never say that they don’t have the tech savvy to create one. This is good since creating a portfolio requires no more tech skill than submitting to an online journal. Usually, they don’t think it’s important, or they just haven’t gotten around to it yet. This is tragic. A writer without a portfolio is a missing a valuable opportunity introduce themselves to their readers, showcase their work, and (with a little more effort) allow their readers to follow their writing career.

A good portfolio has three elements.

Bio. I’m a fan of elaborate bios (eg. Joelle BergerNeil Gaiman), but a bio can also be very simple. Half of Matt Galletta‘s bio page is the boilerplate third-person bio he sends to journals, but you still get an idea of who he is from his bio page.

Most portfolios have a separate page for a bio, but if you aren’t comfortable sharing that much, or the idea of having an entire page about yourself makes you feel a little narcissistic, you should at least put something short (2-3 sentences is fine) somewhere prominent, something that lets those of us who found your page by accident know that you’re a writer and not a circus horse. Unless you are a circus horse. In that case, never mind. (And why are you reading this?)

List of publications. This is the center of any good portfolio because most of the people who bother to look for a writer’s portfolio have read something they liked and are looking for more. Make it easy for people who like you to find your work. It’s a no brainer, yes? If your work is available online or can be bought from an online store, link to it. If something is only available in print, link to its listing in an online store or the magazine or press’s website.

E-mail address or contact page. The idea of strangers being able to find them online makes many people squicky, but if you are completely unreachable, you might be missing out on messages that you really want to receive.

Unlikely? Maybe not as much as you think. When I was twenty-ish, I exchanged e-mails with an editor who liked my work and found me through my blog. I was (regrettably) lightyears away from ready to publish, but I gained some valuable advice, and remembering that experience has gotten me through some pretty hard times. And gave me the motivation to get an MFA. And now the opportunity to send fan mail is one of the biggest reasons I’m an editor . (Thanks, Andy!)

An e-mail can change your life. It happens. It happened to me. I don’t care how much many hits you have or how well you know your readers or how much market research you’ve done. You have no idea who’s reading your work. Don’t get in the way of people who want to help you by being unreachable. If you don’t want to share your e-mail address, you should at least have a contact form.

These two things are bonus.

Blog. Now, some writers really enjoy the strategy of publishing, and they like to create these elaborate marketing campaigns for themselves. That’s great, if you’re into that sort of thing, but I think everyone should at least have a basic blog that is updated whenever new work is published, and here’s why:  Static pages are fine when readers are looking for work that’s available right now, but if you’re a living, working writer (or a dead writer with an enthusiastic estate) you’re probably going to publish more in the future. If you do publish more, and you only have a static page, how are your readers going to know when to check your page? A blog is kind of like author tracker for people who aren’t published by Harper Collins. But better because a blog allows your readers to be updated the way they want to be updated (by e-mail or a feed reader like Feedly or Flipboard) whenever you publish.

Hire Me. If you’re a writer who edits or teaches workshops on the side, and you’re looking for work, it can’t hurt to mention that you’re available. If you’re up to your ears in work, and don’t want to be bothered, skip it. But, if you’re open, who knows? It might give someone a bright idea.

And that’s the point, really.

A portfolio is like a message in a bottle.

You never know what you’re going to get. Or what someone else is going to get. Or who’s going to pick it up. Or pick you up.

Never mind.

Just. If you are publishing, for the love of editors everywhere, make a portfolio.

Recently, I mentioned that doing interviews is one of my favorite things about being a lit mag editor. Another of my favorite things is getting to know the writers whose work we publish in the small way that you do writing back and forth about how you’re going to present their work.

All kinds of stereotypes fly around about writers, but really writers are as diverse as everyone else. Some are curt and professional, sending me exactly the information I need and nothing more. Others are chatty, and we keep in touch long after I’ve sent their work out into the world.

The other day one of the Epiphanies writers asked me how I was doing and then said that he would know soon enough when he saw what I’d chosen to publish in Epiphanies. It was a passing comment made days ago, but I remembered it while I was putting together the publication schedule for Epiphanies and noticed that, not only were most of the things I accepted about an epiphany, but most of them were also about place. I had no idea that being in the middle of a move was influencing my decisions, but looking at the work we’re going to publish now it would be obvious to anyone.

As an editor, I like to think that I’m a professional. I have taste. I can recognize quality work. But when it really comes down to it, after you’ve gotten past the obvious stuff, I’m a reader first, and reading is about a different kind of taste entirely.

In Rebecca Brown’s essay “Extreme Reading ” she compares reading to eating. “You eat because you have to. It sustains you,” she says, “But once you get past the basics of hydration and calories, what you eat and how you eat are determined by your own peculiar, and in the most literal sense, taste, by that can satisfy your sweet tooth or your sour tooth, your savory or unsavory desires.”

Editing is desire work. When I accept a story or essay what I’m really saying is, “I want this.” There are patterns in what I desire. I like to laugh. I like to know what it’s like to visit places I’ve never been before. I like essays that are deeply personal and ask hard questions. I like stories with complicated antagonists. I like magic and ghost stories and beautiful language. And, yes, I like work that is well-constructed, but most of the time what I really mean when I say “good story” or “good essay” is that I can understand it and it doesn’t bore me.

But there are times, like when I was reading for Epiphanies, that I need something different, something particular that I can’t articulate except to say, “Yes. This is it. This is what I want.”

Before I was an editor, I thought that the advice to keep sending your work out until it was accepted was a cheap way of letting inexperienced writers down easy or passing the responsibility on to someone else. But now I think it’s the only way you can reasonably deal with the fact that editors are human. And particular. And subject to bizarre cravings.

And, sometimes, our choices have nothing to do with the quality of the writing at all.