Taking the Fifth with Daniel Libman

An interview series where writers lay it all out for Fifth Wednesday Journal

FWJ Editors Take the Fifth

Daniel Libman
Issues #1 & #12

cover_fall_07 cover_spring_13 I once got a personal rejection letter from a famous fiction editor, a handwritten comment on the bottom of my cover letter. It said, “Great story but no payoff.” I was stunned: was he asking me for a bribe? My writing friends were evenly split as to whether he wanted me to resubmit it with a new ending or with a hundred bucks. This was in the waning days of the unapproachable-editor era, and sadly I will never know the turn my career might have taken if only I had the courage to ask.

I was keenly aware of the writer’s desire to know the editor’s heart when I served my time as fiction editor for Vern Miller. For one and a half issues my approach to selecting fiction was pretty easy: I asked my friends to submit stories. Only after underestimating the number of pages to fill and overestimating my popularity did I gingerly wade into the slush pile, guarding my fragile heart by turning away just as I do when the animal shelter commercials with the adorable puppies come on television. I had to stop reading cover letters because I was getting too emotionally involved. I knew those writers. Heck, I would have been in the slush pile myself if Vern’s first choice for the job hadn’t turned him down and recommended me.

Thankfully, the era of the distant editor is over and Fifth Wednesday Journal has amassed a stable of super friendly, dare I say it, approachable editors as solicitous as they are earnest. And to further facilitate you in your quest to figure out what the editor wants, I went ahead and asked them for you. Enjoy.

Donna Seaman
Issue #10

cover-10To read as an editor is to read with two minds, or perhaps, both sides of the brain. One must read for pleasure, because you are looking for work that readers will be drawn into, transfixed and, ideally, transformed by. But you must also read with high, critical attention, testing every line as you go, asking yourself if the writing is of stellar quality, if it is striking in perspective, voice, thought, subject. As an editor putting together selections for a journal, you’re looking for strong and outstanding work and for a variety in approach and focus. You are comparing every aspect of each work with those of the other candidates, and as you narrow your choices down, you are also thinking about how each story will play against the others, what sort of juxtapositions will occur, what sort of dynamic. You start to discern unexpected patterns, and to detect harmony and dissonance. You read visually and aurally. You pay attention to mood. You want a range of reading experiences and ambiance. You seek stories that keep the reader wanting more. Most likely you are also looking for deeply inquisitive, daring stories that express something deep and resonant about existence, about human nature and its place in the intricate web of life.

When I read with my editorial eyes, I am, as always, a hungry reader, hoping to be astonished.

Alice Mattison
Issue #14

cover-14Because I’ve just finished putting together an issue, I can recall what I did — and I’m surprised. I started reading each story naively prepared to love it. I settled in as if it were by my favorite author — and then, of course, I was often disappointed. The writing was clichéd, wordy, or unclear. Or the characters were unbelievable — or each had only one characteristic. I tried to finish reading each story, but didn’t always want to.

But sometimes — sometimes — I wanted to keep reading. That’s what I looked for: the wish to keep going, to stay with characters who felt real, described in clear, unpretentious language. I wanted to find out what they did next. I would worry about whether this writer — whom I was starting to love — would come up with an ending. Something had to happen, and it had to move me or make me laugh or surprise me. And sometimes that happened! Good stories made this job a thrill.

J.C. Hallman
Issue #4

cover-4I don’t think I read any differently when I’ve read as an editor, though there is a difference to this kind of reading in the sense that you’re reading to decide what few pieces to publish from a limited pool of submissions, and so your critical faculty is probably more in play than it otherwise might be. Editing doesn’t change the way I write at all — but a general awareness of how the publishing world works definitely does. We’re all prisoners of the particular publishing climate we happen to live in. That means that some writers, as a result of their style or their background, are going to have an easier time finding audiences than others. In other words, the cream doesn’t necessarily rise to the surface. But it’s not all luck, either. The experience of editing does tell you something about how fickle your readers might be, but it’s just as big a mistake to change too much the way you write in light of that news as it is to completely ignore the fads and trends that have so much — too much — control over writers’ fates.

Edie Meidav
Issue #6

cover-6What draws me always is voice. We read to be close to someone else’s soul, and the more cleanly that soul announces itself, the better. Some work announces its aesthetic allegiances, waving so many flags — whether late twentieth-century dialogue-driven naturalistic realism, post-George Saunders imitation, playful new fabulism and ventriloquism, or idea-driven hyperreal hyperdrive — that one only sees a flurry of flags obscuring any possibility of soul. Chaucer said it best and earliest: we read to be entertained and instructed. Advice I’d give? Do not start with weather, uninteresting dialogue, top-heavy exposition: most of it will be stylistic baggage that doesn’t let your vehicle take off. A story has at its heart a kind of loss, if you read change as loss, and in this sense is always an elegy. And it probably doesn’t hurt to start to lift the curtain on your story later than you think. Gordon Lish apparently said something along the lines of: put your heart on the page and then the reader will be interested, because the struggle then becomes that of brute survival itself. Perhaps the simplest maxim I could glean from any editing I have done: have a story to tell and put yourself (yourself meaning a shimmering metaphor for whatever you truly care about) in that work, and in that path lies freedom.

Carolyn Alessio
Issue #8

cover-8In Sharon Solwitz’s story, “Alive,” a mother tries to figure out how to keep things “normal” as her young son is possibly dying of cancer, while her healthy son wonders why the family even bothers trying. In looking back over the stories I helped to choose for Fall 2011, I see a theme of different generations attempting to determine if their stories match up about their shared lives. When I was screening submissions, I looked for a wide range of skillful narrators trying to solve puzzles, and whose voices were confident but not smug. As long as the narrators were fully engaged in their quests, then it was easy to imagine them also appealing to the savvy readers of Fifth Wednesday Journal.

Christine Sneed
Issue #13

cover-13I’m more critical, I think it’s safe to say, reading as an editor than I generally am when reading for pleasure. Still, I think I’m looking for the same things — something that engages, entertains, and makes me think. A voice that seems authentic, a mind that’s big and curious, a way with language that is fresh and offers surprises. Editing made me appreciate again how hard it is to write well. And to do it page after page.

Something practical for writers submitting work: Include your cover letter as the first page of your story, essay, or poem document. Some of the online submission managers don’t allow editors ready access to the little box where writers cut and paste their cover letters before finalizing their submissions. Also, a necessity: proofread carefully and only turn in work that has been read by at least one other pair of eyes and has also been allowed to sit for a little while before you send it off.

Eileen Favorite
Issue #11

cover-11When you’re sending out stories, people often say that the first page is the most important. Editors will stop reading if you don’t grab their attention right away. That sacred cow was handily tipped during my stint as Guest Fiction Editor. Often propelled by a catchy first page, I was often disappointed that the rest of the story didn’t hold up to that cannonball kickoff. I often rooted for the story, and was sorry when it didn’t match its early promise. I actually accepted a story that did not launch very well, but with a few judicious edits, I saw how it paid off mightily. I always thought editors looked for reasons to dismiss more than reasons to like a work. This was not the case at all, as I did read every story to its finish.

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