Saturday, December 03, 2011

Variations on a Theme: Notes on Editorial Process

I've got some other writing-associated activities going on while I continue to follow and chronicle the #SciFund Challenge. For one, my guest-edited section of Star*Line (journal of the Science Fiction Poetry Association) is forthcoming.

Last December, Star*Line editor Marge Simon invited me to guest-edit half of the journal's 4th Qtr. issue for 2011. It would not be the first time I edited Star*Line -- I had done so from 1986-1988 -- but it would be the first time I edited according to a particular theme, which I was free to choose. It would also be the first time I edited to fill a finite space (i.e., without a backlog of poems to save for future use). That in itself introduced a completely different dynamic to my editorial process.

First, I want to again thank Marge, and to thank everyone who submitted. I received 226 poems from a total of 75 poets before the end of my reading period. From that richness, I gathered 26 poems to fit onto 20 pages.

I had to make some tough decisions. And, to some degree, they were different types of decisions because this was a one-shot. "Interplay" (I describe the theme below) thus became a voyage of discovery for me.

I offer these process notes in case insights into my editing process prove helpful. To be clear: I cannot speak for any editor other than myself. In the final analysis, everything boils down to individual taste and idiosyncracy, including mine. Especially if you are new to submitting and are reading this: Do not be discouraged by rejection. Keep trying. As many times as you may have heard that advice, the notes that follow will, I hope, give you concrete reasons to take that oft-repeated chestnut to heart.

1. Editorial Interplay

A submission gets accepted or rejected for all sorts of reasons, and issues of craft comprise only one portion of that. In hindsight, my list of issues to consider went like this:

1. Craft. How does the poem read? Is it well-structured and evocative? How well are the words used?

2. Adherence to the theme. This gets interesting, because the theme itself contains several levels. There's
(a) My vision of the theme when I wrote it;
(b) Interpretations of the theme by the poets who submitted;
(c) The dynamic of the two and how they interact; and
(d) The theme as carried by the poems not only in and of themselves, but in concert.

3. Tone. This relates to how a poem is evocative (is it funny, sad, clever, pensive, wondrous, etc.?), but it also relates to the dynamic movement within the section as a whole. When I performed my final cut, I looked not only at the poems individually, but at how they blended with each other.

4. Space. As you can see from my submissions call below, my preferred length was up to 75 lines. The longest poem I accepted came to 67 lines -- 74 if you count spaces between stanzas, plus lines for the title and the poet's name (all considerations for purposes of layout and space availability). In a sense, this exercise resembled packing for a long trip: too many floor-length coats in my suitcase would have meant leaving my pants behind.

5. Range. I've rejected poems that I liked. Especially if you are new to submitting, go back and re-read that sentence. Although frustrating to the poet (and also to this editor), this is ultimately good news. If this were not a one-shot, I'd have accepted those poems and set them aside for future use. My decisions on what to accept hinged in part on providing both variety and continuity.

6. Blend and Arc. More than anything, this demonstrates how the editing process is really a collaboration between editor and poets. "Blend" relates to both range and tone, while "Arc" relates to the dynamics of the section as a whole. This dimension didn't come into play until I began to actually assemble the section, determining poem order and seeing how the poems would fit on the pages. It caused me to re-evaluate some of my earlier selections, swapping one poem for another. It also provided some surprises, because a poem can read one way when considered in isolation, and another way when considered within the context of the surrounding work.

7. Pure, unadulterated subjectivity. Something might grab me; something might not. This element came into play particularly early on. But even this element can be overridden during later reads, especially with respect to Blend and Arc.

There are as many editorial processes as there are editors. Your results may differ.

2. Interplay Mechanics

My reading period extended from March 20 through May 31, 2011, with the following call for submissions:

"I'm interested in poems that explore the interplay of opposites -- not a 'point/counterpoint' type of dichotomy, but the ways in which contradictory elements influence and infuse each other. For example, not science versus religion, but the dance between the two. Not hero versus villain, but the meeting of flawed hero and noble villain. Subject matter can range across technology, philosophy, personality, nature, myth, borders, and beyond. I'm looking for interstices, common ground, shades of gray. All speculative genres, poetic forms, and mixtures thereof will be considered. I'll also look at simultaneous submissions (let me know if you're sending one) and previously published work (include publication history). Preferred length is up to 75 lines; poems longer than that will be a tougher sell."

I have what is now a ten-page printout of what I called my "process sheet." That table has four columns: poet's name, submission title (one line per poem), accepted or rejected, and comments. The 226 poems fall into 14 marked "Yes," 29 marked "Maybe," and 183 marked "No." Those had been the standings before I made my final cut.

I can point to a "No" that became a "Maybe" and then a "Yes." I can point to a "Yes" that became a "No." I can point to a "No" that became a "Maybe" and that then reverted back to being a "No." I can point to a pair of poems by the same person in which I personally preferred A over B, but where I chose B because of Blend and Arc. In other words, the impact of other people's poems also influenced my decisions.

That also explains how a "No" became a "Yes," but not entirely. I'd read the submissions at least half a dozen times. At least two poems grew on me, one of them enough, and in concert with the other factors above, to make that leap.

Every time a poem became a "Yes" or a "Maybe" I included its line count on the sheet. I transferred my info to an Excel spreadsheet, so that I could have a running tally of total lines, given the space I had to work with. (The spreadsheet also included word counts, for figuring out payment.) Dealing with a one-shot made me take a much longer and harder look than I otherwise would have if I'd had the luxury of setting poems aside for future use.

Almost all the submissions came via email; I printed those out. As I assigned and re-assigned categories, I placed the poems into piles. But it wasn't until I actually began ordering them that my choices solidified.

Here the Interplay section took on a life of its own. It developed an arc much like a story arc, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. (These correspond to what I call subsections.) And some surprising things happened. For example, I had two poems that I wanted to use, but at first glance I thought they might be too similar. Through most of my reads I felt I'd have to choose one over the other. Within the arc, however, they seemed more to play off and complement each other. The first poem introduced a change in tone while carrying forward a particular subsection. The second poem then served as a bridge to another subsection.

Another pair of poems fared differently. My first choice fit a subsection but would have added more weight to it than I wanted, while my second choice blended well with a different subsection. That led me to choose a poem over one that I would have accepted instead under different circumstances.

Some of the nicest surprises came from poems that worked especially well when placed one after the other, making them into companion pieces. That cross-poem interplay added layers of meaning for me, and in one case bumped a poem up to a "Yes."

In the final analysis, all the machinations above were geared to my sensibilities, including the ways in which I chose to be influenced one way or another. Here's the final order for the Interplay section:

1. Greg Beatty: The Physics of Age & Baseball
2. Geoff Landis: subsume
3. Robert Frazier: A Break During Temporal Distortion
4. Kurt MacPhearson: Europa's Stoic Stance
5. Sophia Rhei (trans. by Lawrence Schimel): The Golden Ring
6. Terrie Relf: Hypatia
7. Mitchell Hart: Cosmoritus
8. Elizabeth Barrette: Astronauts and Angels
9. Marcus Ewert: No one could have guessed…
10. William John Watkins: How Fallen Angels Spend Their Golden Years
11. Alison Stone: IV. The Emperor
12. Matthew Richards: Ravel: An Etymology
13. Holly Day: The Orchard
14. Charlotte Hussey: Tree (for HD)
15. Ken Poyner: Workman's Creed
16. Sandra Lindow: Identity
17. F.J. Bergmann: Multi-tasking
18. Gail Wickman: How Martha Saved Her Life & Marriage
19. Noel Sloboda: Shuffling Off
20. Robert Borski: Kitchen Carcharodon
21. Roy Bayfield: Talking to Sim Man
22. Karen Newman: An Absence of Superheroes
23. Alexandra Seidel: Puppet Minds
24. Matthew Richards: Lullaby for Ununoctium
25. Penelope Cottier: Heliocentric
26. Melissa Frederick: Self-Assembled Universe

(To my knowledge, the "HD" dedication in Charlotte Hussey's "Tree" does not refer to Holly Day, author of the preceding poem "The Orchard.")

Again, I'd like to thank Marge Simon for inviting me to edit, and to all the volunteers working behind the scenes to get Star*Line out there: Robert Frazier for layout, F.J. Bergmann for updating the webpage, Deborah Flores for paying contributors, and Deborah Kolodji for getting everything out in the mail.

The Star*Line page at the SFPA site offers the TOCs and Editor's Choice poems of past issues. Also, check out SFPA's e-zine Eye to the Telescope and our Halloween poetry reading page.

Elissa Malcohn's Deviations and Other Journeys
Promote Your Page Too
Vol. 1, Deviations: Covenant (2nd Ed.), Vol. 2, Deviations: Appetite, Vol. 3, Deviations: Destiny, Vol. 4, Deviations: Bloodlines, Vol. 5, Deviations: TelZodo, Vol. 6 and conclusion: Deviations: Second Covenant.
Free downloads at the Deviations website (click here for alternate link), Smashwords, and Manybooks.
Proud participant, Operation E-Book Drop (provides free e-books to personnel serving overseas. Logo from the imagination and graphic artistry of K.A. M'Lady & P.M. Dittman); Books For Soldiers (ships books and more to deployed military members of the U.S. armed forces); and Shadow Forest Authors (a fellowship of authors and supporters for charity, with a focus on literacy).
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.


Post a Comment

<< Home