MIRABILIS  USA
BREATH AND BONES
MIRABILIS ABROAD
THE KINGDOM OF LITTLE WOUNDS
MERMAID MOON,
March 2020
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© 2019 by Susann Cokal.  All rights reserved.

Demystify some of the process of sending your work to literary magazines--find out how some editors approach manuscript selection and the editing process.  We're very hands-on at Broad Street, and we mentor student editors closely--so many of them have gone on to professional jobs.  Thanks to the wonderful A. E. Bayne for producing Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, and to our fantastic contributors and editors over the years!

From Fredericksburg Literary & Art Review, issue 4.2, fall 2016, pages 142-149. In print and online.

 

Read an excerpt here, then click the button or picture above to see the interview online, with illustrations.  You can also buy a print copy of FLAR on their website.

 

Broad Street is a literary journal published through the Student Media Center of Virginia Commonwealth University under the direction of Professor Susann Cokal, a veteran writer and editor who has been working in the publishing world for many years.  Recently, we spoke with her about the importance of working with a good editor and the benefits that writers can gain from an editor’s feedback.  Broad Street is available as a print magazine with limited content online; the conversation started with a discussion of the benefits of each platform.

 

With both a print and online presence, do you focus on the two platforms separately, or is your online presence simply a reflection of what is in your print publication? 

That’s a good question, and it's one that a lot of magazines are addressing in the era of both booming e-sites and stubborn love of print. You'd probably get a different answer about online vs. print publication from every editor you asked.  Some have two completely different incarnations: there’s the print and then other features, or parallel ones, they publish online. The New Yorker has done that with the "Shouts and Murmurs" section, for example.  The pieces that get into the print version are the strongest, written by the "name" authors, and then there is the daily version that is published online and that might take a chance on a newer writer.  The Virginia Quarterly Review, on the other hand, studied its demographic and decided to put some of its best features on its website--as a way of drawing readers into both platforms.

We at Broad Street love the artifact of the print publication, the tactile quality of pages and the way art looks when you hold it in your hands in different lights.   But we also see the value and pleasure of surfing through great content and seeing where the e-waves take us. We are primarily a print organ, but we update our website and social media once or twice a week.  Most print magazines do better if they have an online presence to create excitement about an upcoming issue and to build on what they've run before.  

 

 

It is hard to get print into people’s hands.  I agree with that.  You have to have an online presence to spread the word about your publication in today’s world.  Plus, I think people find the ease of online reading to be a bonus, but they like to have the physical copy when they have more time to sit down and absorb what they are reading.  How do you choose the pieces you will publish online?  Which pieces will capture that online reader’s attention and draw interest to your publication in print? 

 

We use the website in a few different ways.  One lets us promote our contributors' bodies of work online--directing readers to other pieces by those writers and artists, running a "Truth Teller Spotlight" series of short interviews with our contributors in which we ask how they define truth and figure out how to present it in their work. We also put up popular content from past issues, often labeled "Weekend Reading."  Our "Share This Poem" feature turns a poem into a nicely laid out, often illustrated broadside that someone can print out at home.  

Occasionally we run "web extras," which are usually features that came in after the due date for the print issue but that work well with its promotion and that we really want to bring to the world; Marylen Grigas's recent series of poems illustrated by Riley McAlpine-Barthold are an example.  The poems are largely about cancer and loss, and some of them are humorous. We made the decision to publish them online earlier than in the print version so she and others could appreciate these poems together.   This is a way that the online element allows us to make sure an author has their moment, perhaps a moment that is significant in their personal lives.  

Another function of the website is to give student editors a chance to stretch and write on topics of their choice.  These are often among their first published articles and essays, so we give them a line on a c.v. and some exposure to being edited themselves. 

Just to be clear, there’s a very good online-only magazine at VCU, Blackbird.  We’re very conscious of not competing with them; they do things that we can't, and we do things that they can't.  We're glad there's room for everybody.

 

So you see the online presence as a way to market the print magazine.

 

        Partly. I’ve always said the best advertising for the magazine is the magazine itself, the object, because we’re very picky about the way it turns out. Part of our mission is to edit carefully; going through five or six rounds of revision with an author is not unheard of. It may be hard to get print into people’s hands right away--we have a distributor for that, and relationships with some independent bookstores around the country--but through the website we can give them access to some of our standout pieces and perhaps inspire them to order a copy or subscription online.

The website features are also, of course, examples of what we run in the magazine.  Anyone who is thinking of submitting can and should see what we are looking for from the pieces we publish online.  

       

There’s no way in which the internet presence does not help us.

 

Sometimes it seems you are using your online presence to bring more immediate topics to the fore.  

 

Yes, it’s perfect for that. Here's one way we used the website strategically:  After the bombings in Lebanon last year, we wanted to do something to recognize the event. Paris was getting a lot of attention--Lebanon happened almost simultaneously but didn't register as much in the public's awareness. We had scheduled Amira Pierce's memoir "Corniche," about Beirut in 1990, for our print issue; that week, we put it online in slightly different form to honor what was happening all over the world.  And Amira's piece is now in "Maps & Legends," in print, with a few changes and a companion painting by the wonderful Lee Strasburger.

Recently, we shared a few pieces on topics that became important in the 2016 election:  one, a look back at Mattel toys and marketing to boys and girls (I wrote that one myself); and a link suggesting that readers go to Slate.com to read Sonja Livingston's piece about Hillary Clinton's pantsuits and the image she projects.  We don't have an outright political agenda--we're a place for all readers to find something, ideally--but this was a hot topic in the months before the election ... and still is.

 

Switching gears a bit: How does Broad Street support the students at VCU? 

 

 It's really symbiotic.  We have a staff of graduate and undergraduate student editors who learn the trade from us, from submission to publication to marketing--and the students in turn really support Broad Street. Our funding so far has come primarily through Student Media, with some donations from private individuals. We've had terrific graduate students in positions of leadership--Chad Luibl, for example, helped us get off the ground when he was in the MFA-fiction program, and Matthew Phipps (another creative-writing MFA) took up the torch admirably.  Because of our interdisciplinary interests, we've also had people with us from the School of the Arts and the Business School.

We work under a close mentorship model. I have the literary-editorial experience, so I go over how to write letters, questions to ask while making a selection from the unsolicited files, and so on; I also train everyone in copyediting and proofreading (the most useful skill when you're starting out). During the editorial process, a student gets to work directly with an author--which is unusual for university publications on a national platform--and really develop a piece into its final form.  Every phase passes through me, and we meet one-on-one to discuss how to get a message across.  It's good training for a job in publishing (the kind I wish I'd had before I started out as an editorial assistant for a book publisher decades ago!).   The authors who stay with us through the process say they're grateful.  We all want each piece to be as good as it can possibly be.

There's also a chance for students to professionalize themselves by getting their own words into print, if they are part of our staff.  I mentioned the web features above; some of them have been standouts, and the students who wrote them got the same attention we give a "name" writer such as Thomas E. Kennedy or Deborah Jiang-Stein. See, for example, "Abby Is Tall and Blonde," by Abby Otte, a piece about being compared to Barbie dolls that she wrote while on our staff.  She and I went through rounds of revision and fact-checking before it went up (I'm something of a Barbie scholar, and if someone wants to write about Barbie on my watch, there will be scrutiny). If a student editor writes a feature, that person learns what the process is like from both perspectives, editor and author.  And they have something for the c.v. or just for bragging rights: “Look, I’ve been published and I have a permalink!”  

When it comes to print, we (like most magazines housed at universities) have made it a policy not to publish work by current students.  That's largely to avoid social awkwardness--nobody wants to have to reject a colleague s/he'll be seeing every week in a workshop.  But we have published some VCU alums, such as Lea Marshall, who's a poet, dance critic, and essayist.

We also assign interviews to staff members.  This is another great way for an apprentice editor/writer to get a publication credit and to meet interesting people in the world of arts and literature.  Chad Luibl started off with a bang by interviewing superstar Jeanette Winterson in our very first issue.  Matthew Phipps interviewed Tony-winning costume designer Paloma Young (one of my students from long, long ago at Berkeley!) for our "Hunt, Gather" issue, then cinematic-effects designer TyRuben Ellingson for "Maps & Legends."  My partner, Greg Weatherford--longtime journalist and newspaper and magazine editor--and I make sure the students are supported at every stage: helping to develop questions, edit down the material, and fact-check.  Jeanette Winterson so enjoyed chatting with Chad (they talked about their cats, among other topics) that she gave him an extra half hour before she had to head out to the airport.

We're finding the mentorship model pays off for us and for the student editors.  Chad is now a junior literary agent with powerhouse Janklow & Nesbit in New York, and Matthew is working in trade books at Penguin Young Readers.  Roland Coffey, who interned with us while earning his MA in art history, found a job with Yale University Press in art books right after graduation.  Jamal Stone, an undergrad who had a paid position as an editorial assistant, has held several jobs in publishing since he worked with us.  We're very proud of our team!

       

 

Have you found many pieces coming to your desk that don’t need editing, or is four or five rounds typical with any author?

 

       There have been a few that have gone to print almost as sent, and they’re mostly lyrical essays or poems.  Pretty much everything needs copyediting to fix typos and punctuation, at the very least.  

Many people believe you shouldn’t edit poems at all, but we disagree.  Sometimes there’s a word that feels wrong or a rhythm that feels off, and we’ll give that feedback.  Since I’m a prose writer, I do sometimes deputize people for input with the poetry.  Some of it is obviously great, but I will send selections to poets to get their opinions.  For our first issue, Robert Alter, the great translator of Hebrew poetry (including the Bible), gave us a collection of poems by Yehuda Amichai that he'd just translated.  The poems and Bob's introduction met the world basically as Bob sent them to us.  And the next year, the introduction to Amichai's collected poems was an expanded version of the essay Bob wrote for us.  He writes like an angel; you don't edit Robert Alter.

 

Yes, I think people get attached to their words, especially when writing poems.  The words become an extension of themselves.  The thought of chopping words from a poem you feel is finished becomes difficult when you’re in the poet’s seat.

 

 I understand the attachment to the words as they pour forth from us. That’s part of the culture. As I said, I’m a prose writer, but I’ve been told my style is a poetic and lyrical one, and (honestly) every word means as much to me as it means to a poet.  I just use a whole lot more of them in a 500-page novel ... 

When I’m edited, first of all, I’m truly grateful for insight and feedback. I've had brilliant editors who have saved me from looking rather stupid at times. There are some lines and sections I’ve been heartbroken to change, but the editors have been right about changes most of the time.  I know what it’s like to get the suggestion to rework a sentence, and to get kind of shirty about the change.  Then I wake up in the morning thinking, Dammit, she’s right! And I fix it.

 

On the down side, there have been times when we tried to work with a writer because we saw something in the piece, and the person just wasn’t able to go there with us or we hit a wall in the editing process.  For one thing, we can't be flexible about the truth in our mission. There isn’t really much to do after someone says she wants to present her memories as is, even those memories don't match up with (say) the historical record:  the facts have to be facts.  If a person's memories are different from what our research turns up--or the memories contradict each other within the essay itself--I suggest that maybe s/he could write about the intersection of memories, desires, and truth.  We might be interested in something that examined that nexus, but we won't publish inaccurate memories as if they're truth unvarnished.

It is hard once we’ve put the time into a piece to have to say it’s not going to work out.  This happened early on more often than it does now.  Now we are getting submissions that are more polished from the outset, and we've also resolved to invest less time in trying to "save" something we know has a spark but suspect isn't going to work out.  We wish those writers the best; there are a lot of magazines out there that don't have such rigorous process, and perhaps the work will do well elsewhere.

 

What advice do you find yourself giving most consistently to people who submit to your magazine?  

 

 We try to make very clear what we are looking for on our submissions page--but there are always people who think they will be the exception to our guidelines.  Our submissions page even includes a warning to read all the guidelines and not let the "submit" button make you trigger-happy.  The question is not so much length or the other superficial elements over which people obsess--it's knowing the nature of what we publish.

 

I'll reiterate here what we post in our guidelines:  We’re interested in substantive articles and essays. The best submission is still typically a prose piece, though we do publish poetry that tells a true story (and groups of poems that speak truth and add up to a narrative). The bulk of our magazine is nonfiction articles and essays.  We need more reportage.  We are less interested in what I call “ME-moir,” where someone is writing an account of what has happened to him or her but not reflecting on what it means in a wider context, whether it’s the context of the person’s life or in popular culture.  The ME-moir is rather like writing a diary, but we need to take a broad view of the street.  Which is not to say we don't publish memoir at all--we certainly do!--but it needs a bigger scope than the self.

 

When we started Broad Street, 95 percent of our submissions were solicited by people whom I and Greg Weatherford knew personally.  Even then, we went through rounds of editing with contributors.  Now I’d say the publication is split between solicited work and unsolicited, and our upcoming issues feature at least 75 percent material sent in through Submittable.  We’re more established, so we’re getting some strong  submissions from outside sources and people we don’t know.   We needed the big launch to get attention from those writers, though.

 

So, people should avoid the surface-level retelling of something they thought was interesting. 

 

Right. We’re not looking for “My mother cut my hair very short when I was five and when I went to school the kids made fun of me. I cried when they hurt my feelings and now I don't like my mother.  The end.”  I use that as an example because we’ve never received that submission--if we did consider that little autobiographical incident, we would be looking for some kind of analysis of or reflection on what long versus short hair means in our culture, or women’s hair in general, or relationships with mothers, competition for who is the prettiest, or maybe the initiation into womanhood.  These are questions we would be asking while reading.  

Even when we decline a piece, at least two-thirds of the time we offer some advice.  We do it partly to show the writer that we’ve talked about the work, partly so that our own work evaluating it doesn't waste its scent on the desert air, and mostly to help foster a community of writers (and visual artists) who understand how their work is being seen.  The note goes something like: "In our opinion, these are your strengths in this piece and here are some things you can work on."

Some people write back and thank us for the thoughtful letter, and others we never hear from again.  But we've ended up accepting at least five pieces by writers who either made changes and resubmitted, or who sent us something new with our feedback in mind.

 

Do you think others just move on, saying, “Oh well, I didn’t get into that magazine, so I’ll just keep going.” 

 

       Of course--and so they should.  That's the way to survive as a writer.  When we decline a piece, we often emphasize, "This is the opinion of one group of editors only; another board may well find this piece perfect is."  It's true--someone else might consider it perfect, so the writer should keep trying. I used to work for a large trade publisher  in the late ’80s and through the ’90s, so I learned how important it is to write honest letters.  Remember--if an editor signs a name and gives a submitter a personal email address, it's an invitation to start developing work together.  So a personal rejection is actually a good sign; it says you're on your way.  

Then again, there are pieces to which we find ourselves unable to frame a response, because we may have exhausted our arsenal of feedback.  There’s never a need to be mean, but sometimes people just miss the mark so much you know they’re simply going through the listings on websites like PW.org or Duotrope and saying, “Oh, this one takes nonfiction. I will submit my memory of that bad childhood haircut here now.”  That isn’t what we want or need, and it doesn't help the writer's career. 

In terms of the multiple rounds of intensive editing--if we’re really invested in something we’re happy to do that.  It feels great to see work blossom--and to see the student editors blossom in their correspondence with a contributor.

What do you find most challenging in your role as editorial director? 

 

Well, the editorial director is the face of the magazine. I not only do a lot of editorial and promotional work myself, I'm also there to teach--and to absorb any nastiness or stress, pick up when someone drops a ball, protect the editors-in-training from fraught situations.  

 Since we’re run through Student Media, the students are a big part of the team, and they get to make significant decisions about what we publish.  A recent associate editor, Matheson Cartwright, brought us a photo essay by Bradley Dicharry about hand-painted signage across the U.S.  It's a standout in our "Maps & Legends" issue, and Matheson did some writing to frame the essay. 

But ultimately, I have the continuity with the project, and I'm responsible for what contributors and students get from the experience. I'd be failing them if I didn't go over each step with a magnifying glass and show them just how careful it's necessary to be. So I'm picky.  I go over everything intently; I fact-check the fact-checking. We have suffered delays in getting an issue out because there was a problem with the way a design translated or pages were cut at a printer's.   

It might be more sane to let such things slide, but we want to put out something of the highest quality.  The magazine reflects on me, yes, and on VCU, and--perhaps most important--on the students who have worked on it, as it is often their first step toward professionalization.

The future of publishing depends on the Type-A's.  Pass it on.

 

What are some features you are looking forward to sharing with the public in the near future? 

 

This is almost like asking a mother to choose her favorite baby.  We get very invested in our writers and artists, maybe co-dependent.  We have some really great issues in the works:  "Small Things, Partial Cures," "Rivals & Players," and "Birth, School, Work, Death."  The first one is full, but we're still taking submissions for the others.  Around February you should be able to read Sara Talpos's essay comparing microbiology to reading Emily Dickinson's poems, and Rachel Moyle Beanland on the lynching of Howard Allen.  Plus some wonderful artworks and photo essays ... New writer Sarah Green sent us some micro-essays about bubbles ... Walter Cummins on having to commit a wife to hospital care ... It's going to be harrowing, joyful, weird, and illuminating!

Photojournalist Chad Hunt has been very generous with us.   Our first issue featured a photo essay by him about veterans of the Afghan War during and after deployment. Coming up, he’s done a series about Revolutionary War reenactors for "Rivals & Players."   Here's a guy who's been on the cover of Time and a host of other big, glossy cultural barometers (to mix a metaphor), and he actually offers us his work--wow!  We have a portfolio of wonderful watercolors by Danish artist Gunver Hasselbalch, who travels the world and paints what she sees; she never uses a camera, but she captures the life of a place.  We'll be showcasing her work in a number of ways soon.

 

In the past--and still--I've loved sending people to the interview with Paloma Young, who won a Tony for costume design.  She discusses using fabric as something the audience can read from the stage and how clues from the textures inform the play's story.  I assign her interview to my writing workshops now.  The interview is available online--please check it out!

 

Thanks so much for the interview and the feature, Amy!  I love the work you're doing in Fredericksburg, and we are so grateful to have you turning your eye to Broad Street.  Here's to keeping lit and art alive and well married--online and in print, in whatever form they take!

The website features are also, of course, 

examples of what we run in the magazine.  Anyone who is thinking of submitting can and should see what we are looking for from the pieces we publish online.  

We at Broad Street love the artifact of the print publication, the tactile quality of pages and the way art looks when you hold it in your hands in different lights.   But we also see the value and pleasure of surfing through great content and seeing where the e-waves take us. 

During the editorial process, a student gets to work directly with an author--which is unusual for university publications on a national platform--and really develop a piece into its final form.  Every phase passes through me, and we meet one-on-one to discuss how to get a message across.  It's good training for a job in publishing.

I know what it’s like to get the suggestion to rework a sentence, and to get kind of shirty about the change.  Then I wake up in the morning thinking, Dammit, she’s right! And I fix it.

We’re interested in substantive articles and essays. The best submission is still typically a prose piece, though we do publish poetry that tells a true story (and groups of poems that speak truth and add up to a narrative).

I'm picky.  I go over everything intently; I fact-check the fact-checking. We have suffered delays in getting an issue out because there was a problem with the way a design translated or pages were cut at a printer's.   

It might be more sane to let such things slide, but we want to put out something of the highest quality.  The magazine reflects on me, yes, and on VCU, and

--perhaps most important--on the students who have worked on it, as it is often their first step toward professionalization.

The future of publishing depends on the Type-A's.  Pass it on.

Susann

Cokal

 

Authoress

 

SINCE 1372