SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a story and why?
- That I can keep reading it. You would not believe how many stories we get that either start off boringly and I’m only reading them because they’re a submission, or they start off promisingly and lose their promise somewhere in the middle. If I can’t make it through, no reader is going to want to either. That said, I try to read everything at least twice and on different days to make sure I’m not just having a fit of short attention span. On the other hand, my first impression is usually correct, and if something is overwhelmingly creative, I’m immediately knocked out by it. On that note,
- Creativity. We at The Toucan tend to be attracted to overly creative, not to say bizarre pieces, whether it be by thought, word, deed or form. This is especially true with poetry. We don’t want to be a magazine that we wouldn’t read, and though this may sound shallow, we look for attention-grabbing poetry, which is of course full of attention-grabbing words like “phlange” or “gadget”.
- Of course, once you have our attention and interest diverted away from the birdseed, that song on the radio, or our ever-fascinating toenails, you have to have quality, and a story firing on all cylinders. It’s always sad to be grabbed by a story that has a great plot or engrossing character but gets snarled up in ponderous subplots or handcuffed with stilted dialogue. The last is a big problem, because you sit there for a half-hour scratching your head going “Did they mean to have their characters talk like that?” We do work with people if we see potential, but we can’t work with everyone.
SQF: What are the top three reasons a story is rejected, other than not fitting into your answers to question one and why?
L: To be honest and perhaps overly optimistic, we try to look for good in everything. Laura, my co-editrice, gets mad at me sometimes because I tend to see potential and she tends to see what’s actually there. These dueling perspectives are actually great checks and balances on each other, and it’s good to confirm that we’re still young and idealistic and the lit mag business has not yet turned us into incurable cynics. Anyway, these should need minimal explanation:
- If something truly disgusts us with no redeeming artistic or social value.
- If something’s trying to be funny but isn’t.
- If it makes us laugh in horror and isn’t a horror story.
SQF: What common mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a story?
L: Not to sound pedantic, but lack of proper spelling, grammar and punctuation does indicate a certain lack of caring and presence of mind in the writer. That said, we have accepted many works that had misspellings, etc., because it is our job to edit, and misspellings don’t necessarily mean a bad story. And this might sound strange, but some writers have this tendency to assume you’re interested. Or if you’re not, they have this way of jolting you into a story to make you interested. Let’s say it’s a story about an older man picking up a young innocent girl. They have dinner, they’re talking, blah blah blah—WAIT, they’re in his back seat and he has his pants off? What? Having been disengaged up until now, and having been jolted unpleasantly into a somewhat unpleasant scene, you are not on the writer’s side at this point, if you ever were in the first place.
SQF: Do you provide comments when you reject a story?
L: With my fingers, usually it’s safer not to. No one really wants to hear that they should go take up taxidermy instead of writing, even if their bio lists five previous publication credits. I kid—usually when we reject something there’re too many things wrong with it for us to suggest fixing, and we have no interest and energy to do so. Someone else may take it anyway or someone else may have better ideas for helping the writer—we’re not always Good Samaritans. That said, if a piece speaks to us and we can clearly identify what our problem with it is, we do ask the author if they would like to see some comments/edits. I would say this only happens with about 1/3 of pieces we reject. We don’t actually do an all-out edit until they respond, since if they never did, it would have wasted our limited time.
The only other time we might comment in a rejection is if one of us really liked a piece while the other loathed it, and then our correspondence editrice, (guess who) might write a note saying, “if one of us had our own literary magazine, you would be in it, but we don’t, so best of luck elsewhere, it should be published for sure”, perhaps going on to highlight some merit of the piece or inviting them to submit a different one since they are clearly talented. Other than that, we keep it short, sweet, and to the point—hopefully.
SQF: I read a comment by one editor who said she keeps a blacklist of authors who respond to a rejection in a less than professional manner. I'm sure you know what I mean. What do you want authors to know about the stories you reject and how authors should respond? Along this same idea, do you mind if authors reply with polite questions about the comments they receive?
L: I hope our rejection letter is as encouraging as possible while still clearly rejecting the writer, but I am not in the business of discouraging people out of writing. Our rejection letter reads “unfortunately, your piece isn’t quite right for us, but if at first you don’t succeed, try try again, whether here or somewhere else.” “Right” keeps it vague…it could have been the subject matter, it could have been that we have a pathological aversion to sonnets (we don’t), or it could have been because we prefer The Toucan not to publish terrible writing. And even if we shudder at the thought of ever receiving another email from your address, we do invite you to submit again.
Sometimes as you work with them, writers get incredibly defensive. You’ll note that a line could read less awkwardly, and they huff “I have sourced this with the personal estate of T.S Eliot,” and you really just want to say, “Well fine, good for you, but it’s still a bad line”. Or they offer you reasons why a story has absolutely no description whatsoever and while you admire their artistic insight, you want to yell, “But I want it, so there.” But you don’t. Instead you offer polite disagreement and remember someone needs to point out that the author has no clothes on.
We don’t expect people to respond to rejections unless there was a personal note or question asked within the body of it. We’d rather you didn’t, because that is the natural order of things, that you pick yourself up and go somewhere else, and don’t hang around hoping we’ll slip your dime-store ring on after all. Rejection isn’t personal—although try saying to a writer, it’s not you, it’s your work. We admit that work we really don’t care for does affect us personally, but it’s really not you. You just wrote something that doesn’t work or sent it to someone who doesn’t appreciate it. Better luck next time.
As for comments, if we do provide edits, we make sure we make clear that we expect questions and comments back from you on our comments. Editing at its best is a back and forth process and open discussion. IF we’re editing with you, we want to know if you think we’ve got something wrong; as long as you tell us why, and as long as you’re polite about it.
SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?
L: Two, actually.
How does having one or more fellow editors/trices change the editing process? Laura and I commiserated and figured out that we get along as co-editrices because we both can be rather bitchy. She’s the McCartney bitch and I’m the Lennon bitch. No, seriously, as I mentioned earlier, dueling perspectives and the willingness to give and take broaden any publication.
Also, this is a standard BS question in many teaching interviews, but maybe it has some relevance here—what is your philosophy of editing (for teaching interview, insert “teaching”)? I would say mine is, first, do no harm, and that I like you to fix your own mistakes. And the less wordy, the better.
For us in particular: yes, we prefer Editrice because it is quirky and bad-ass.
Oh, and also: one of us is single! :P
Thank you, Liz and Laura. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.
NEXT POST: 2/25--Six Questions for Carol Novack, Publisher, Mad Hatters' Review