The Other Side of the Desk: What I Learned as a Writer Editing a Lit Mag

Canadian literary magazine PRISM international aims to publish the best contemporary fiction, creative non-fiction, translation, drama, and poetry from around the world. While its pages have featured such luminaries as Margaret Atwood, Jorge Luis Borges, Raymond Carver, and Seamus Heaney, most of the work it publishes is unsolicited, and many writers whose first publication appeared in PRISM international have gone on to critical acclaim. PRISM’s Prose Editor Christopher Evans discusses what he’s learned about editing a literary magazine, from a writer’s POV.

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When I first started submitting my work to literary magazines, I had some pretty uninformed—and, in retrospect, fatalistic—ideas about what the slush pile process might look like. In my nightmare scenario, a team of editors would sit in a brick-lined room, around a wooden table of imposing size strewn with manuscripts and glasses of single malt. One of them would pluck my short story from the stack, glance over their glasses at the cover letter, and then toss it into a burning barrel, unread. They would all laugh and clink glasses as they warmed their manicured hands over the flames.

As a relatively new writer, it often felt like the fate of my burgeoning career rested in the hands of sadistic literary magazine editors like those described above. So it was a bit of a shock when I became an editor myself, for one of Canada’s oldest literary magazines. As a writer, it’s been an illuminating experience, and my fears about the process have been both assuaged and, to some degree, confirmed. Here are some of the things that have surprised me most about working on the other side of the desk:

Your work will be read and taken seriously.
Many, if not most, editors are writers, too, and will treat your work with the same respect they’d want theirs treated. The concern that my work would not be read, based on the strength of my cover letter, were entirely unfounded. There is no burning barrel, and it’s not actually a disadvantage if you haven’t been published before. In fact, it’s very exciting, and a great honour, to be the first publication credit of a stellar new voice. Lit mags are the entry point for many writers, and editors understand this and have likely been in the same situation themselves.

There may be reasons besides quality that work doesn’t get accepted.
I once simultaneously received two long, non-fiction essays about firefighting, from two unrelated writers. Both pieces were excellent and written in dramatically different styles, but both covered similar thematic territory. Unless I was committed to a firefighting-themed issue—which I wasn’t—only one piece could move forward. Ultimately, I went with the one that best complemented the work already chosen for the issue. There was nothing the writer of the rejected piece could or should have done differently, which is indeed unfair. There are other imprecise things, like tone, voice, or “fit,” that may result in your work not being selected, and all you can really do is try again with something else.

Editors have biases and limitations.
I strongly believe that PRISM’s strength lies in the diversity of its content. This means, as an editor, reading and publishing work from a wide range of perspectives and in many different styles, and often pushing myself to seek out work that extends past my own personal taste. But I still have my stylistic biases. If you send me an absurdist speculative piece that perfectly toes the line between funny and devastating—be still my beating heart. I also occasionally receive work that—for reasons of content or context—I am just not capable of editing. There are well-established literary traditions I know little about, and I sometimes have to rely on other readers to help me evaluate work that lies outside my cultural understanding. It can be a very humbling experience, but it’s also extremely important to know where my blind spots are, so I know what areas to work on.

The longer the work, the harder it is to place.
PRISM allows for prose submissions up to 6250 words—towards the upper end for length for many lit mags—and we have published pieces in excess of 8000 words. But this is rare. I like a long short story as much as anyone, but what I often see is a good 6000-word story that would be great at 4800 words or excellent at 3500 words. If you are going to write long, then the quality has to justify the length. There’s just so little physical space in the magazine, and for every long piece we take, it can mean not taking two or three shorter pieces, so it has to be worth the page count.

Half of the editorial job is administrative.
It turns out that there is no brick-lined room, and the imposing wooden table is actually a cluster of IKEA desks that we had to put together ourselves. For every hour spent poring over slush pile submissions or making careful editing notes on accepted work, there is an equivalent hour—or more—spent answering emails, shopping for stationery supplies, and applying for grants. You really have to be in love with the job, as many editors get paid very little for the time involved, and many, many more don’t get paid at all.

You have to make your work stand out.
The fear that was confirmed for me is just how much competition there is for space in literary magazines. Of the work that arrives in the slush pile, there is a sliver at the top of the spectrum that is incredible, clean and fresh, with almost no copyediting and nothing substantive needed. There’s a larger percentage at the other end—work that is riddled with errors and/or from writers who clearly have no idea what the magazine is about and haven’t read our most basic submission guidelines. This leaves a huge amount of work that falls into the middle, most of which is, at the very least, competent. Maybe the language is clever, but the theme overly familiar. Maybe the plot is inspired, but the characters stock. After reading so many pieces like these, I realized that my own early work often fell squarely into this category. If you want to raise work from the middle to the upper echelon, then the best thing you can do is read as widely as you can—so you can identify clichés and frequently used plots and stale characters—and then revise and revise and revise before you send the work out for publication. I guarantee you will be much happier with the result, and the likelihood of your work being accepted will increase.

Of course, editorial jobs are rare and certainly not for everyone. But, if you are a writer who wants a better idea of what happens behind the scenes or wants to get a clearer idea of how your own work stacks up, there may be other ways to get involved. If you have a favourite literary magazine, especially a local one, check their website or contact them to see if they accept editorial board readers, or need help with upcoming events, or have volunteer or intern positions available. As a writer, the experience is invaluable.

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PRISM accepts submissions year-round and runs four contests each year: Entries for its brand new Grouse Grind Lit Prize for (V)ery Short Forms close on Monday 15 May 2017.

Christopher Evans is the Prose Editor of PRISM international, and a fiction writer whose work has appeared in The New Quarterly, Joyland, Going Down Swinging, Isthmus, Grain, The Lifted Brow, and more. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisPDEvans.

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